Some kids have been back to school for a few weeks now, some haven’t. I can’t help but worry for those at home, for what they are missing. I worry for us as well. If education were the sum total of information transferred from one source or person to another, then online instruction might be moderately productive and successful. But education is far more than that, and the health of the nation depends on it in its fullest, truest sense.
Public education offers an apprenticeship in liberty. It is the laboratory which cultivates democratic impulses and produces the self-governing citizen.
Children and young adults may learn information online, perhaps even some knowledge, but are less likely to achieve understanding without a learning community. And in our current state, that is, a nation reeling from its civil, racial, economic, gender and class divisions, understanding is a vital commodity.
For a democratic society to truly thrive, its people ought to be largely in agreement on what constitutes a good life. Our current lack of agreement is one of America’s hidden problems. Early thinkers like Aristotle believed that a good life is both definable and identifiable. For him, it was “a whole life well-lived”, a life of intellectual and moral excellence. With such an understanding, one could say, “this person is living well; that one, not so much.” Today, however, we have privatized conceptions of a good life. We have come to believe that we alone are the best judges of what constitutes a good life.
It’s very difficult, perhaps impossible, for a democratic society to thrive without a shared vision of how we ought to live. Without commonly held virtues, the civic fabric with which democracy is woven unravels. A thriving democratic society demands not only good people, individual virtue, but collective, civic virtue.
Public schools have been America’s training ground in civic virtue since the founding of the Boston Latin School in 1635. Later, as a fully-fledged “system”, it became the common thread in the lives of millions responsible for our unsurpassed national achievements in the 20th Century. I often wonder if there would have been a “greatest generation” capable of surviving the Depression and defeating the Axis Powers if not for public schools and their unseen curriculum, education in civic nationalism.
The education of the democratic person needs to take place among other children and needs the presence of a skilled, caring teacher of demonstrable character. For democracy’s sake, the ideal setting would be among children of different economic, racial, ethnic, religious, and social classes, among children with different intellectual, physical, social and emotional abilities. Playing with, speaking with, learning from, overcoming disagreements with, helping, and competing with others train children for life in a democracy. It is the collateral good, the inadvertent curriculum which online learners don’t get a chance to experience. Children are pointed in the direction of a good life by reading about heroes, both historical and fictional, but they become good citizens by living successfully among others. The democratic classroom constitutes nothing less than the birth of civic virtue, an absolutely necessary component to a good society.
As much as I believe the previous paragraphs, I’m glad I’m not responsible for deciding if kids go to school in-person or remotely. The other half of the equation, of course, is health and safety. There is no winning formula for deciding between personal and civic health. My wish is that this pandemic experience, including the eye-opening experience parents have had trying to replicate at home the skills of a professional teacher, will bring into clearer focus the need to invest far more interest and resources in public schools than we ever have. Without better schools in every community, wealthy or poor, we may not be able to overcome the divisions which are tearing at our national fabric.