A Nation Fractured by Education

Atticus Finch made a cameo appearance in President Barack Obama’s Farewell Address. Citing the need for a culture of greater compassion, Obama implored Americans to follow the advice of the fictional lawyer from Maycomb, Alabama: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

In issuing his call for empathy, Obama relied on a shared understanding. While the quotation makes sense on its own, Obama could take for granted that the name “Atticus Finch” meant something to people. He could assume that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird remains a cornerstone of English curricula throughout much of the United States. In a moment of intense political division, Obama could count on this familiarity imparted through the schools. Benedict Anderson famously observed that nations are “imagined communities,” held together by people imagining their communion with complete strangers. Education is a core part of that communion.

Debates about public schooling are never just about a single institution. The rhetoric of education embodies our values, dreams, and myths as a culture. It undergirds our collective life. It also embodies our divisions, and to a large extent dictates how those divisions will evolve in the generations to come.

In the Trump Era, understanding education policy requires a recognition that educational talk has political consequences. More than that, because common education unites us, public schools are an answer to the political milieu that gave us Donald Trump. This is true not just because of the ideas they teach, but because they teach those ideas in common to all Americans.

Education and Community

It is difficult to understate the important role that common educational experiences play in enabling Americans to imagine themselves as part of the same community. Before the Civil War, educational opportunities were disparate across the country. Many policymakers recognized differences in education as a source of the conflict. In the words of Joseph Rainey, the first African American congressman, common school education could have created “a better understanding and more fraternal feeling between the North and the South,” preventing the “obstinate, hostile spirit” of war.

Compare this to the situation today. Even as partisan polarization reaches historic levels, schooling still provides a crucial source of connection. A high school student growing up in New Jersey can move to Nevada and maintain certain basic expectations about her new school district. Even Americans who are private schooled or homeschooled cannot wade far into the broader culture without encountering the familiar elements of public schooling: arriving on the “first day,” riding the yellow school bus, stopping at the locker between classes, sitting in rows of desks, attending prom. And, although Americans’ shared “cultural literacy” is a perennial source of concern, certain parts of the curriculum still have wide currency. Atticus Finch is among them.

The educational familiarity Obama relied upon is now threatened. While all Americans attend some form of primary and secondary education, the experience of postsecondary education is not widely shared and the cracks in the American polity have formed directly along these lines. The amount of formal education a person received played a significant role in determining how they cast their votes. As statistical guru Nate Silver put it, “the education gap is carving up the electorate and toppling political coalitions that had been in place for many years.” More troublingly, this trend does not show signs of abating. Brookings Institution writer Michael Hansen anticipates increasing partisan polarization over education policy as the Democrats and Republicans recognize education as a core predictor of their constituencies.

What Abraham Lincoln once called our “bonds of affection” have, yet again, been strained by passions borne of dissimilar cultural experiences. The shape of our fellow citizens’ lives has become unintelligible to many of us. The decisions made about education in the next decade will have significant consequences for the social cohesion of our society in the next century.

The Mission of the Citizen Critics Education Desk

This educational schism poses a significant challenge for the future of American democracy. In the foreseeable future, education will continue to serve as a major flashpoint in clashes over America’s civic destiny. The collisions of individual, local, state, and federal prerogatives will become more aggressive. Efforts to privatize schooling, dismantle teachers’ unions, and impose accountability schemes will accelerate, as will efforts by unions and communities to resist these modes of reform.

In all of this arguing, the very meaning of “education” will be subject to negotiation. The words policymakers choose will matter. Those words will ultimately shape how, and whether, Americans imagine themselves as part of a national community.

Now more than ever, the rhetoric of education policy needs to be carefully critiqued. The frustrating jargon of reformers needs translating. Corrosive patterns of blame need to be broken. Contradictory arguments need to be disentangled. Political motives need to be exposed.

Toward these ends, the Citizen Critics Education Policy Desk aims to provide accessible criticism of educational argument. Our definition of “education policy” is an expansive one. Our writing will analyze the public statements of political leaders, local fights over resources, voices of labor and community resistance, the text of legislation, and the broader cultural context of educational arguments. Through our writing, we hope to provide our fellow citizens with the tools to make sense of the tumultuous education debates raging around them.

More than this, we hope to awaken citizens to the crucial place education plays in fights over our collective destiny. We hope to reinvigorate the democratic spirit that has made education a fixture of local politics for generations. Ultimately, we aspire to understand the educational divides in American life and, in time, rebuild American civic life.

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