of Miami Herald
Public education: An American idea - and ideal
By Hodding Carter III
Miami, FL - Herald
Published October 23 2002
The greatest single innovation of this democratic republic has been
the idea of the public school. The notion that the average citizen
could or should be educated was anathema to governments and the upper
classes around the world far less than 200 years ago. It became the
American idea - and the American ideal - at the nation's centennial.
By the end of the 19th Century, it was embedded in the warp and woof
of the Republic. Thus this passage from The Promised Land, written
in 1912 by Mary Antin, an immigrant: "Education was free. That subject
my father had written about repeatedly, as comprising his chief hope
for us children, the essence of American opportunity.
"(We had) the freedom of the schools of Boston. No application made, no questions
asked, no examinations, rulings, exclusions; no machinations, no fees. The doors
stood open for every one of us." Do you hear the ardor, the excitement, the wonder?
It was more than the greatest single idea of this republic; it was the bedrock
upon which democracy had to stand. If public education was initially the product
of the democratic system, it rapidly became democracy's essential nutrient. The
two were - and still are - Siamese twins. that was the second great idea. The
reality it created absorbed the new Americans by the millions and made them participating
citizens, no less than educated workers, in the economic colossus that was now
It was the idea that each person is of infinite worth. Each talent
should be nurtured. Each voice should be heard. For any of this to
matter, the right to a decent education had to be at the core of the
value system. Such great and noble ideas have provoked fierce opposition.
The enemies of public education come in many guises and their enmity
arises from many causes, but at the end, the objective is the same:
to starve the common schools and subsidize alternatives to them. In
another time in the South, my time, it was the very fact of nonwhite
faces in "white" schools that was sufficient excuse to reject public
education - which had been poorly funded for whites and funded at obscenely
low levels for blacks. The legislatures of most Southern states passed
laws allowing the closure of the schools if black children broke the
It is an old, sad story in this land, the story of race. So, too, the
story of the old immigrants turning up their noses and turning their
backs on the new immigrants - the English on the German, both on the
Irish, all three on the Italians, all of them on the Jews and other
Eastern Europeans and so on and so on. We are a forgetful people. But
public schools cannot forget and do not forget. They are the great
point of entry to the new world and the great hope of exit to a better
You could hardly tell it in the din of the public debate - one dominated
by ideologues and intellectuals who have abandoned public education
and by politicians who would not dream of keeping their kids in the
public schools - but the same 90 percent of all American kids are still
being educated in the public schools as 50 years ago. Making public
schools work remains the last, best hope for that 90 percent. I began
by stating that public education was this democracy's greatest achievement.
I said that the two are inextricably bound.
There is an addendum. Education ultimately is and must be about more
than the accumulation of knowledge. It is a community enterprise, grounded
in community and strengthening the community in the here and now. In
this community, its essence is the democratic endeavor itself. The
idea of democracy, of maintaining civic participation by fully functioning
citizens - that is an absolute responsibility of the public schools
system, if for no other reason than its own security. Only a healthy
democracy can and will cherish and support a healthy school system.
It is a responsibility that is not being met by the schools today.
We have to change it.
It is no less a duty for everyone who cares about this republic. Our
civic life - our democratic experiment - sicken before our eyes. The
schools alone cannot cure either. We got into our current mess together,
and together we have to clean it up.
Hodding Carter III, president and CEO of the John
S. and James L. Knight Foundation, recently gave
a speech at the Education Fund's Impact of Ideas
awards dinner to honor teachers in the Miami-Dade
County Public School system for their innovative
curriculum projects. These are excerpts of that speech.