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Public Education a Cornerstone of American Democracy

America’s noble experiment–universal education for all citizens–is a cornerstone of our democracy.

The idea of a system of universal education is as old as our republic. No lesser lights than Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Noah Webster promoted a system of universal education that would extend through adolescence.

Jefferson believed that such an approach to education was essential to the preservation of the republic. He advocated a three-tiered approach–elementary school, high school, colleges–with each tier teaching those things which would help people learn to think for themselves and appropriate the benefits of freedom. This system should be publicly funded and accountable.

Despite Jefferson’s efforts to establish this universal system of public education that was consistent throughout the states, the proposal was implemented only piecemeal. For the first 50 years of the republic, education remained largely available only to those who could pay for it.

The next big push came from Horace Mann , who in 1837 began a life-long crusade for public schools. He envisioned the public schools as a way to equalize opportunity for all citizens.

Mann advocated for “common” schools where children of different social classes learned together. The children of immigrants and the children of merchants would study together, learning not only reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic, but civics and social skills. By necessity, the parents of immigrants and of merchants would rub shoulders, opening the door for a more peaceful society.

It would take 81 years before the vision of Jefferson and Mann would be enacted at the federal and state levels. But by 1918 every state had laws making elementary education, taking place in “common” schools, funded and administered by the government.

In 1904, Margaret Haley, speaking to the general meeting of the National Education Association, contrasted two ideals of public education: the industrial, which upheld the supremacy of commercialism versus the democratic, which valued people over the mechanics of the economy.

She promoted a vision of public education where subjects taught would result in “the training of citizens to think and to express thought in free and intelligent action.”

For most of our history, Baptists have been ardent supporters of the goals and aims of Jefferson’s universal education for all citizens and Mann’s vision of the common school. That is not surprising, because our vision of the church and the Christian community is inherently democratic. We have known that truth can best be discerned when the community, in all its diversity, speaks to one another.

Beyond that, we have maintained that a “free church in a free society” is the best environment for persons to respond freely to the gospel. As ardently as we have championed freedom of conscience and local church autonomy, we have defended the democratic ideal by both pen and sword.

However, in recent years Baptist voices have arisen calling for the destruction of the “common” school and an end to the vision of educating persons to function in a democratic, diverse republic. One could legitimately question whether these Baptist voices believe in a “free church in a free state” or whether they believe in a controlled church in a controlled state.

These voices reject the vision of education as a means to helping “citizens to think and to express thought in free and intelligent action.” They favor a vision of education similar to what Haley called the industrial ideal, in which the mechanics of a particular religious/political vision hold supremacy. They prefer an educational approach that not only teaches people what to think, but how to act. And they want their particular vision of thought and action to form the content.

At its best, the danger this vision presents is the balkanizing of education and society. Rather than the diverse elements of a community having to come together to develop a common vision for educating all their children, each interest group forms its own schools (all publicly funded by the way). Children are educated in a variety of fairly closed environments.

The issue of how to deal with different cultures, socio-economic groups, ideologies, etc. is pushed to a later time in life outside of some structured, reflective environment. Given our penchant for hanging with our own, one can see why Jefferson, Mann and others were not content to leave that part of our education to chance. Where elitism, in any form, takes root, democracy and freedom suffer.

At its worst, the danger this vision presents is the co-opting of the public school’s democratic vision with community accountability by a theocratic vision with sectarian accountability.

As Baptists with roots solidly in the soil of freedom, we need to reaffirm our support for public education. This is not just a political issue it is a moral and spiritual issue. If we are not careful, we will see this “noble experiment” destroyed.

Jim Holladay is pastor of Lyndon Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.