Essay claiming that universal high-quality education is necessary for democracy.
This I Believe: Democracy Requires Education
Nearly a century ago, philosopher and educator John Dewey wrote that “a government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated.” Like Dewey, I believe that democracy requires universal, high-quality education. Who wants to be ruled by the ignorant crowd?
Democracy can only function well with an educated electorate. Good education for all protects the society from the rule of the mob. Good education for all protects the individual from manipulation and exploitation. Education can and should create what Dewey described as “a society of free individuals in which all, through their own work, contribute to the liberation and enrichment of the lives of others…” Good education enables the citizen to be both self-sufficient and involved—to contribute to the community rather than be a drain on its resources.
The United States is a democracy in which all citizens have the right to vote and to participate in the economic, political, social, and cultural life of the nation. Citizens may not vote until they are eighteen years old—voting age coincides with completion of mandatory public schooling. Therefore, it is our responsibility, as a nation and as a society, continually to strive to provide the highest quality education possible to all our children, regardless of ability, gender, race or ethnicity, language, geographical location, or socioeconomic status. We have an obligation to prepare all young people to be thoughtful, engaged, and responsible citizens.
But so far, the job we have been doing of educating our young people has been mediocre at best. There remain large discrepancies in resources and in achievement between white kids, and brown and black kids; between rich, middle-class, and poor kids; between rural, suburban, and inner-city kids.
Our system of public education must therefore focus more on developing critical thinking skills than on filling children’s minds with information. Dewey described quality education as developing students “towards more effective techniques, towards greater self-reliance, towards a more thoughtful and inquiring disposition, one more capable of persistent effort in meeting obstacles.” It is not as important to teach students facts as it is to teach them how to find the facts they need and what to do with them—that is, how to learn and how to think.
Better educated people are better able to make informed and independent decisions, without being swayed by social or economic pressures, preconceptions, propaganda, or prejudices. Well educated people can be more useful to their communities, and they are more able to be self-sufficient citizens, to take better care of themselves and others, to make better choices and develop healthier habits. Better educated people are better able to understand the consequences of their actions and the interconnectedness of all things, to predict the possible effects and side-effects of choices or policies, and to try to choose the best course. They are better equipped to reflect on the results of their actions, accept the consequences, and consider what changes might be made in future.
Education cannot guarantee to make people act better—some of the most evil and selfish people are extremely intelligent and well-educated. People will always make their own choices. But well educated people have better resources with which to make choices, and can better understand the ramifications of their choices on themselves, on others, and on the world. Education may or may not be able to make people happy; but certainly it can allow them to make themselves happy. It can make them self-reliant and independent, yet engaged and involved in their communities. I believe that education is not only indispensable to a functional democracy—it is the only thing that can ultimately and permanently make the world a better place.