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Teachers Network in the News
Article courtesy of Miami Herald

Democracy's Bedrock
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 their home.

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 color line.

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 life.

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.


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