Public education is worth saving in America

If you give a professor ten minutes, he will think he has fifty. We are used to classes and not debates. There are many good reasons to oppose school vouchers; as a philosopher defending the proposition that public education is worth saving, I prepared an epistemological argument. It involved the connection between public education and the very idea of an American citizen, focusing on public space and a new kind of critical multiculturalism. When the timekeeper announced that I had one minute left, I realized that I had only set up the argument, and never given it. I am grateful to the Record for giving me a thousand words to sketch out the argument that was in my notes and head.

In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ratified Jefferson’s old dream, declaring that education “is the very foundation of good citizenship.” What good citizenship means, however, is still changing, and that transformation of American citizenship can be mapped on to changing conceptions of truth by American philosophers. Beginning with the liberal conception of pluralism we inherited from John Stuart Mill, we can trace a path through William James and John Dewey to the contemporary philosopher Amelie Rorty. The trajectory is from truth being discovered, to truth being made, to truth being negotiated.

For much of our history, public schools have been the site where people of diverse origins have been brought together to assimilate. What assimilation comes to, of course, has been the product of a stormy history. In various drafts of public education bills, Jefferson wrote of “free white children.”

That isn’t something we can just change by a word processor with a search function, replacing every occurrence with “person.” The changes are epistemological as well as social and nominal. Neither a “melting pot” nor a “tossed salad” captures the new diversity of America.

The melting pot fails to recognize the value of differences; the tossed salad fails to acknowledge the transforming possibilities of confrontation. The new diversity requires a companion philosophy to understand it. (An uncritical relativism is not a contender. It gives up the point before it begins, substituting mere politeness for genuine respect. Genuine respect requires the possibility that we admit that both others and ourselves can be wrong.) We can take up the philosophical story with the great liberal, John Stuart Mill, who emphasized the epistemological value of plurality and diversity.

We can seek truth individually, under the Cartesian model, or we can seek it in a community. Mill argues that the successful pursuit of truth essentially requires different perspectives and a diverse, free community. Mill’s model is still a limited form of pluralism. There is no possibility of these diverse views being in ultimate, as opposed to temporary and psychological conflict. Mill rules this out in “A System of Logic,” where he argues that there has to be only one ultimate standard, one “umpire” to decide between competing principles.

The American pragmatists inherited Mill’s pluralism, but William James rejected Mill’s ultimate umpire and the view that we discover the truth; rather, James argued in Pragmatism, invention is often the proper mode, and “the world stands really malleable, waiting to receive its final touches at our hands. Man engenders truth upon it.”

John Dewey clearly saw the relationship between these epistemological insights, public schools, and the American character. The attack on so-called “hyphenated Americans” began with this century, accompanied by the all too familiar jingoism and know-nothingism. Dewey counterattacked in a 1916 speech before the National Educational Association: “Such terms as Irish-American or Hebrew-American or German-American are false terms, because they seem to assume something which is already in existence called America.” Such terms assume, Dewey is arguing, the older epistemological view that harmonizes with the old-fashioned assimilationism. Dewey continued: “The point is to see that the hyphen connects instead of separates. And this means at least that our public schools shall teach each factor to respect every other, and shall take pains to enlighten us all as to the great past contribution of every strain in our composite make-up.” (There is a helpful discussion of this in Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam’s “Education for Democracy”, in Hilary Putnam’s Words and Life.”)

The contemporary philosopher Amelie Rorty adds an important twist. Discussing the goals of both truth and education, she writes that in many cases, “the best balance among these various ends is not predetermined, is not there, waiting for us to discover. It can only emerge as a result of dark and heavy negotiation.” Truth, she has emphasized in her recent work, is not a result of smoothing over differences, of reconciling opposites (as it was to both Mill and James), but of negotiating differences, and recognizing that not everything is reconcilable.

Such dark and heavy negotiation requires, both literally and symbolically, a public space. Where could that be? Robert Frost famously defined home as “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” (Notice how this dark image also serves as prescient commentary on the vacuous treacle of “family values”.) In these days of bowling alone, fragmentation, and segregation, public school is the chief American public institution where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Negotiating our differences is painful, and a real, critical pluralism and multiculturalism is not a rainbow, not a quilt, not a cafeteria selection of ethnic foods. It is all too easy to escape to our own sanctuaries, where we do not have to face the truths about ourselves and others, where we still consider all others as “them” or “those people” to set aside, and not be consulted or confronted. Giving up truly public, open schools for the fragmentation of vouchers is giving up the regulative idea that being an American citizen requires negotiating a community. It is giving up the very idea of an American citizen and sacrificing truth under the guise of comfort, convenience, and choice.

Philosophy Professor Steve Gerrard spoke for the proposition in the debate “Is Public Education Worth Saving?”