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Increasing Legitimacy and Supporting Democracy through Public Schools

In the midst of shifting identities, values, and approaches to schooling, publics should not react passively, uncritically allowing changes to unfold in our schools. Rather, we should actively work to reshape and redefine identities and values, to reaffirm some key elements of democracy and revise others to reflect shifts in the culture that are aligned with justice and democracy. My call for citizen responsibility includes reestablishing legitimacy to ensure that public schools reflect our values and those of liberal democracy. This renders schools not only more politically valid, but also provides better pathways for accountability because the criteria used to assess schools would arise from the discussions and values of democratic publics. Fulfilling our responsibilities in this way actually improves accountability because it ensures that the goals and benchmarks we hold for our schools accurately reflect the will of the people.

One way of establishing the legitimacy of schools is gathering citizens together as publics to engage in deliberations about their goals for schools and their alignment with justice. Barber adds,

Politics in the participatory mode does not choose between or merely ratify values whose legitimacy is a matter of prior record. It makes preferences and opinions earn legitimacy by forcing them to run the gauntlet of public deliberation and public judgment. They emerge not simply legitimized but transformed by the processes to which they have been subjected.23

Such deliberations not only revise and clarify our values, and potentially our related identities, but also provide an opportunity for us to give our consent to their instantiation in public institutions. Correspondingly, when deliberations take shape as public statements about citizens’ goals and demands to which schools must respond, the conditions for accountability are also improved, for we have a clear picture as to what and who in the schools are being held accountable.

In order to reground the legitimacy of our schools, balance calls for accountability, and improve educational quality, we need to shore up public support—a process, I argue here, that is best achieved through fulfilling citizen role responsibilities. Notably, Knight Abowitz recently made a call for citizen response to public schools, a call that admirably reestablishes the public at the heart of improved public education. But whereas she tries to sustain and improve the legitimacy of public schools by commendably creating “publics for public schools," I am supplementing her call by suggesting that publics and the citizens that constitute them actually have an obligation to actively support public schools by virtue of their role responsibilities as citizens. While her publics form via groups of citizens who come together around the shared concern of public education, the role responsibilities I depict here expand to include all citizens and suggest that they should be acting by virtue of their role as citizens, rather than out of happenstance or a shared interest in public education. I aim to provide a stronger justification for why and how citizens should form publics for public schools, including the need to establish and maintain the legitimacy of public schools as institutions of democracy.

Significantly, some of the groundwork can be done in schools themselves. Political legitimacy is something that, interestingly, can be used to assess political institutions like schools, and can be facilitated through those schools. Again, Strike: “First, [schools] must shape citizens to accept appropriate criteria of legitimacy for public institutions. Second, they must create the basis of political community and political solidarity by developing the feelings and attachments towards others and the skills and capacities that render public institutions stable and functional"24 While remaining careful to avoid coercion or indoctrination, within schools we can help emerging citizens learn to understand and employ criteria for determining the legitimacy of institutions and giving them their consent. This may include developing children’s reasonableness.25 It may entail exposing students to historical and contemporary democratic societies and elements of their pasts that shed light on key democratic values and practices to help children appreciate their role in the United States and in our local communities today. And we can develop shared identities and legitimate political power that arise from “a hope for a reasonable consensus” around democratic values that help sustain democracy.26

Schools also have a role to play in cultivating the framework of justice used to assess legitimacy. More than just giving the consent of the governed when assigning legitimacy, we are giving our consent regarding the treatment, rights, and well-being of others. To give such consent involves knowledge and skills about difference, respect, and fairness that are imparted in public schools where children interact closely with those similar to and different from themselves. This means more than just understanding the legal rights of others; it also means developing a sense of the proper treatment of others by the law and a sense of concern for other citizens.

Cultivation of this knowledge, a focus on reason, and an awareness of justice may condition children’s ability to fully and freely give their consent. Teaching and prioritizing fair treatment of others and approaches to democratic living give them a privileged role in the minds of children, preventing children from more subjectively and freely deciding upon their own values, criteria, or process for assessment. Harry Brighouse is perhaps the most noted scholar who warns against an education that increases the likelihood of conditioning children’s consent. Instead, he calls for autonomy-facilitating education, which enables children to develop and express autonomous preferences as they select or craft the good life for themselves. It does not steer children toward particular understandings of good democratic living, which might taint their ability to freely and fully consent to the democracy in place around them.

I side here, however, with Callan and others who conclude that upholding such an approach is not irreconcilable with giving legitimating consent.27 Schools can be places where we experience difference and togetherness, coming to appreciate norms guiding each so that we learn to work and live together well. Such experiences, and the knowledge and habits that result from them, may help us better detect when changes in our political institutions or ways of life have veered away from democracy or justice and when they are worthy of our support. So while they may condition how we give our consent, preventing us from doing so in a fully objective way, schools also provide us with helpful lived experiences and historical knowledge that hone our understanding of good democracy and our ability to perceive it in future situations, thereby improving our ability to give consent or express dissent when warranted.

Concerns with legitimacy, publicness, and responsibility collectively lead to a certain vision of citizen preparation introduces a cyclical process that supports and maintains democracy. This cycle creates citizens who learn about and try out democracy as kids, practice it throughout their development in schools, and are committed to supporting the public schools that foster it as adults. I recognize here that I may be advocating just what Brighouse warns against insofar as instead of focusing on autonomy-facilitating education that is necessary for legitimacy to be fully achieved, I am, to an extent, emphasizing “the state’s survival rather than its legitimacy"28 In his words,

Something is puzzling about the idea that liberal states may regulate the educational curriculum by mandating a civic education aimed at inculcating the values on which liberalism is based and behaviors which sustain it.

If the state helps form the political loyalties of future citizens by inculcating belief in its own legitimacy, it will be unsurprising when citizens consent to the social institutions they inhabit, but it will be difficult to be confident that their consent is freely given, or would have been freely given.29

He would likely see me as overstepping the minimum of autonomy-facilitating education, which, he argues, should only be supplemented by some basic histories of institutions, knowledge of alternative ideologies, and understanding of deep differences in beliefs because these enable children to critically examine the very values of democracy they are being taught.30 Indeed, in some ways I am endorsing this maneuver in that I am saying people should be educated to act in certain ways to responsibly support democracy via public schools, rather than saying people should act as they wish so that they freely give consent to the schools as political institutions. Calling for citizen responsibilities might mean that a particular type of citizenship education is warranted that goes beyond the three supplements that Brighouse allows. Such citizenship education might condition the citizen’s ability to freely give consent by privileging or urging specific civic responsibilities and criteria for legitimacy, but these might bring some worthwhile stability to democracy and our life within it, in contrast to the potential of indefinite questioning brought by Brighouse’s more thoroughgoing autonomy-facilitating education.

Within that citizenship education, however, I also wish to impart the skills of critical scrutiny that Brighouse desires, for they are essential not only to giving one’s consent and legitimating the state, but also to revising our collective ways of life and our citizen responsibilities when conditions warrant. Those critical thinking skills provide some of the impetus needed to provoke and adapt to fruitful changes, even while balancing them with continuity and stability—a condition that I will show in chapter eight is central to a Deweyan notion of habits that I use to ground citizenship education. Such criticality enables us to better reflect upon, question, and challenge our state’s institutions, laws, and practices. I recognize that citizenship education should not be overly indoctrinating or so comprehensive that it precludes an authentic sense of consent and legitimacy. I turn to articulating an improved vision of citizenship education in the next chapter, one where we develop citizens through and for democracy and our public schools. But first, let me say a few words about the sphere of citizen action and legitimization.

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