In a seminar discussion at Goddard College last summer, the idea of the role of education in a democracy came up as a topic. Specifically, the verses idea between the public and private sector began a lively discussion among the progressive educators and facilitator in the room. The question was raised, does the public education system symbolize a democratic ideal in U.S. society? I fiercely defended this idea, noting that all individuals could attend a public school, participate in the “learning” and extra-curricular activities and that, yes, in fact, while it was not perfect, it did represent a democratic ideal. I also defended the idea that in order to change the system for the better we must work within it.
I no longer believe that the role of education in a democracy is represented by the public system in the U.S. The system did not radically change over the last eight months, but I, as a learner did. Nor now, do I believe that the private system best represents education in a democracy either. The private system still dependent on the elite of society in order to function and carry out its democratic, progressive educational ideals. However, I now believe that learning and education play polar opposite roles in a democracy and that in order for them to represent the ideal of democracy they must be co-dependent, which calls for a shift in an intellectual paradigm.
The public system is a factory, which cares not for the true learning ability and growth of each individual, but rather for the graduation rates, G.P.A. averages and S.A.T. statistics. Like the cow in line for the slaughter, it moves through each gate, with its future result already entacted. The private system rewards the idea that the privileged are still the only ones capable or have the means to gain a true democratic, progressive education as a democracy, which undermines the essential element and definition of a democracy itself.
As a society, the mind-set must change about where the lines of democracy and learning/education intersect. About every ten years, it is published that individuals are fiercely defensive of the public schooling they received or their children are receiving, but are ever more critical of education on a national level. Democracy cannot exists without a personal critical lens, and neither can our ideas of learning and education in that democracy.
The co-existence between learning and education in a democracy must happen through the remembering that a democracy is an equally collective existence of individuals group together to have an equal say in matters of the group and that learning should work very similar if it is to exist within that democracy. When education became a matter of capitalistic production rather than a value of personal and communal growth, that is when learning began to separate itself from education and when education began separating itself from a democracy.
So what role should education play in a democracy? For this to even be a possibility, for this change to exist, education must first remember its association with learning as its leading factor for its existence, and second, once learning is once again inserted to the educational system, then the modes of capitalistic production in public education and the elitist entitlements in the private system can begin to blur and fade into the background, and what can be left is education in a democracy.