Chapter 2

Education & the Development of Democracy

 

1. For most of human history, common people were exploited by elites and often discouraged or prohibited from going to school.  Once common working people began to read, write, and send their children to school, the whole structure of society began to change.  These newly educated people no longer wanted to be ordered about by established elites.  Eventually, common people began to rise up.  They debated traditional elites and demanded new democratic systems of government, a revolutionary idea which continues to powerfully shape the 21st century.  Increased knowledge not only fosters political responsibility and economic development, but it can also open up new possibilities, which can lead to momentous transformations in technology, society, and government.

2. In Europe during the early modern period (1500s - 1700s), the Catholic Church and established monarchs were concerned that the spread of literacy (and later public schooling) would undermine both religious and secular authority (Glenn, 2011; MacCulloch, 2003).  If people could read and write, as well as be able to critically analyze the religious, political, or economic views of their leaders, then these activities might very well lead to dissent and possibly to revolt.  Religious and political authorities were right to worry (MacCulloch, 2003; "How Luther went viral," 2011).  As late as 1832, the Catholic church warned against the corrosive influence of literacy, public schooling, and democracy.  In the papal encyclical On Liberalism and Religious Indifference, Pope Gregory XVI attacked modern education, which "corrupted" youth and led to "the perversion of morals," the "destruction of public order," and the "overturning of all legitimate power" (qtd. in Glenn, 2011, p. 138).

3. As more and more people began to read, write, and think for themselves, they also began to demand some say over how their society should be organized and who should lead it, and also by what terms.  This led to the development of "popular sovereignty," an idea that governments and political leaders should act in the general interests of the majority, the "people."  This idea was inspired by the democracy of the ancient Greeks and the republicanism of the ancient Romans, but its modern variation was largely invented by the English in the 17th century (Morgan, 1988), and later developed by the Americans who used the notion of popular sovereignty to rebel against the British (Wood, 1991, p. 243).  The idea of popular sovereignty eventually led to the idea of modern democracy and to several democratic political revolutions during the 17th and 18th centuries in England, the United States, France, and Haiti.  In a democracy, the common people did not just want to be represented by the government, but they also wanted to fully participate in the political system and rule themselves.

 

2.1       The Political Origins of the Newspaper

4. But how would the uneducated majority learn about their best interests and become responsible citizens?  How would the fractured and powerless people become mobilized into responsible voters who would debate issues and make their political will known?  Books were an important source of information, but they remained relatively expensive through the 19th century.  They were also harder to transport due to weight and harder to hide from snooping authorities due to their size.  Thus, one of the primary tools of political education, mobilization, and participation during the 17th to 18th centuries was the newspaper (Wood, 1991, pp. 60, 107).        

5. Newspapers were smaller than books and thus much cheaper to make, faster to produce, and easier to distribute and hide.  The broadside and the pamphlet were the earliest and cheapest types of early newspaper.  The broadside was a single large piece of paper printed front and back on heavy, quality paper (usually rag stock).  It included advertisements, engravings, literature, political opinions, and news.  The pamphlet consisted of a few sheets printed front and back and folded into a small book-like object.  This early form of printing often used engravings or woodcuts, which were produced by local artists or by printers themselves (King, 1991; "Portrait of the artist," 2011).  Later newspapers were produced by large machines (printing presses), and they took on what would become their standard form: large pieces of cheap paper printed in black and white, with text on the front and back, and folded into pages. 

6. While newspapers served an important political function, it is important not to forget that they were primarily business ventures supported by advertising, either directly selling the wares and services of the printer who made the paper, or by selling the services and products of local businesses.  Early forms of the newspaper were first used by printers to advertise the books and print services they were selling, sometimes including excerpts from the books they made.  Gradually, newspapers became mostly a medium to discuss current events and share opinions.  By the 18th century, newspapers had become a profitable business and an essential tool to inform the public about important issues and events.  But we must remember that any "news" printed in newspapers up through the 19th century was highly local and reflected the biased opinions of the printer, who usually wrote all the articles himself, or had his apprentice write them. 

7. Like ancient oral stories or religious texts, the popular press was a "social media" that brought people together through common cause and motivated people to act ("How Luther went viral," 2011).  Newspapers were usually bought, sold, read, and discussed in local meeting places, like pubs and coffee houses, establishments that often served a variety of functions.  A single pub offered a number of services: restaurant, bar, hotel, general store, post office, and later, a voting station ("Back to the coffee house," 2011). 

8. By the 18th century, newspapers became a primary medium of democratic discussion and political activity.  They were a "marketplace of ideas" (Schumuhl & Picard, 2005).  Newspapers served many important social functions: a public forum to post information, a site for competing political groups to share views and debate, a tool to mobilize political participation, and a focal point for discussion and debate during social gatherings (Schudson, 2008; Thorson, 2005). 

9. Accordingly, monarchs and the church began to fear the power of the popular press.  These established authorities often took steps to control, censor, and sometimes ban the production or distribution of certain newspapers or books.  In many places around the world, governments still to this day censor the press.  Sometimes they even jail journalists who write on forbidden topics. 

10. Political elites also learned how to use the popular press to mobilize their own supporters and wage verbal and ideological battles against their democratic opponents.  These reactionary attacks eventually led to the development of "interest" based politics (Clemens, 1997; Wood, 1991, p. 257), and newspapers played a central role in publicizing the causes of various religious and political groups ("How Luther went viral," 2011; Schudson & Tifft, 2005, p. 19).  To promote their cause, politicians and other political actors used the "competitive democratic" political arena of the popular press to win the support of voters who would, thereby, vote for a candidate (Wood, 1991, p. 257).  Once elected, these politicians would later try to create laws to promote the particular interest of the group that supported them, like subsidies for farmers, tax breaks for merchants, or political rights for women. 

11. While interest based politics was the only game in town, the established elites often used the press to promote their own traditional ruling class interests.  Elites would often claim to be disinterested, above the fray of fractious democratic politics, and focused on political unity.  Conversely, they claimed their democratic opponents were selfish, unruly, and bent on political conflict, sometimes even violence.  James Madison famously argued in the Federalist newspaper article No. 10 that the ruling elite should use the government as a "disinterested and dispassionate umpire" to settle the petty squabbles of the "different passions and interests" of the common people (as cited in Wood, 1991, p. 253). 

12. But not everyone was fooled by such clever ploys.  The 19th century Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen (2009/1882), in his famous play Enemy of the People, warned against the power of political elites to manipulate public opinion in the popular press.  Ibsen showed how the press can both inform voters about important issues and manipulate voters with the clever lies of politicians.  Politicians themselves were very aware of this fact.  In 1807, as president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson complained to a friend, "The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors" (as cited in Schudson & Tifft, 2005, p. 19).  From the very origins of modern democracy, political propaganda went hand in hand with the popular press.     

 

2.2       The Development of Public Schooling

13. While newspapers and books became available to a wide audience of general readers by the 18th century, formal schooling was still largely restricted to a small class of privileged elites.  Up until the 18th century, most households in Europe and America educated their children at home, and their instruction primarily consisted of learning to read the Bible (Glenn, 2011, p. 3; Howe, 2007, p. 449).  The Protestant reformer Martin Luther was one of the first educational reformers to argue that parents were not qualified to teach their children, thus, "public" school systems needed to be built.  Reformers further argued that the state needed to "compel the people to send their children to school" (qtd. in Glenn, 2011, p. 5).  Luther called for the "secularization of the organization, though not in any respect of the content, of schooling" (Glenn, 2011, p. 4).  By the early 19th century, Prussia became the first European state to create an organized, secular "public" school system (Glenn, 2011), which became the envy of the world.  The German system influenced American educational reformer Horace Mann, who helped create the first American public school system in Massachusetts (Cremin, 1980). 

14. By 1840s America had one of the highest literacy rates in the world.  But subordinated non-white minorities and the growing immigrant working class were often excluded from public schooling, and in the case of black slaves, prohibited from reading entirely.  According to the U.S. census, which first asked questions about literacy in 1840, about 91 percent of adult, white Americans were literate.  This rate was similar to Prussia’s (Northern Germany), the most literate country in Europe at the time, and much higher than England’s, which had a population that was only 59 percent literate (Glenn, 2011, p. 455).  In the New England states, the American literacy rate was 98 percent and above, while the state with the lowest white literacy rate was North Carolina, with 72 percent, still a high number of literate adults (p. 455).  

15. Prussia and the United States were the two nations with the highest literacy rates in the 19th century, and they also had the most developed systems of public schooling.  Americans had embraced the idea of state-funded public schools during the Revolution, but individual states did not begin to really support “common” primary schools open to the general public until the early 19th century.  Common schools were first established in the East and Midwest, with the southern states lagging behind because people were suspicious of centralized schooling and because of aristocratic contempt for educating the common masses (Cremin, 1980).  Only about 40 percent of southern white children attended schools (Howe, 2007, p. 452), and it was still largely illegal to teach black people to read until after the Civil War (Anderson, 1988).

 

2.3       Institutions of Higher Education

16. As a bastion of privileged elites, most institutions of higher education, up until the middle of the 19th century, were intensely local, highly religious, and discriminatory.  In the United States by 1848 there were 113 small, liberal arts colleges, mostly founded by various Protestant denominations, especially Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists.  Only 16 colleges were state-funded public institutions (Howe, 2007, pp. 459, 462).  These institutions of higher education enrolled a small population of wealthy, white, young, Protestant men (Cremin, 1980, p. 400-09; Thelin, 2004, p. 107), although four colleges did enroll women before mid-century (Howe, 2007, pp. 460-61).  Educated elites lived mostly in New England, so higher education developed from this geographical base.  Most American colleges were located in the East and Mid-West until the late 19th century, and the Northeastern establishment remained the center of the American intellectual world until at least the mid twentieth century. 

17. Northeastern colleges were formative in the socialization of wealthy American gentry.  This liberally educated gentry class actively excluded many groups from full participation in the social, political, economic, and educational opportunities that America had to offer (Dawley, 1991).  By the late 19th century, a social and political transformation was taking place in Europe and the United States, as democratic pressure began to open up schools and the labor market to more Americans.  Slowly, very slowly, more middle-class and lower-class people were able to gain upward social mobility, political representation, and economic stability (mostly because of various radical social movements and protests).  Because of this increased opportunity, more American young adults gained access to elementary schools, high schools and also to higher education.  

18. Public colleges, which later developed into research universities, did not spread widely across the U.S. until the second Morrill Land Act of 1890, which institutionalized steady state funds for higher education.  By the late 19th century, practically oriented and publicly open state systems of public higher education began to emerge in places like Wisconsin and California, and similarly oriented private universities also emerged, such as the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University.  These new institutions were academically modeled on the modern Prussian research university.  Gradually they became more democratically oriented, as they broadened their student base to include a larger swath of ambitious white, middle class Americans, especially white Protestant women.  These institutions also began to develop, according to the educational leaders of the time, a new national-oriented Americanism, rationalized professional standards, depoliticized civil service training, and a Protestant infused mission focused on efficiently engineering social problems in the name of the public good (Thelin, 2004; Veysey, 1965).

 

2.4       Opening Up: Democracy & Education

19. It would take over a century for the “progressive” social and political movements to open American society and its systems of primary, secondary, and post-secondary education to a majority of citizens (Dawley, 1991; Foner, 1998; Jilson, 2004).   Only five percent of the 19- to 22-year-old population was enrolled in an institution of higher education in 1910.  A more diverse array of white, middle class, Protestant men were the first to break into exclusive American colleges after the Civil War (excluding the few Roman Catholic colleges that exclusively served Catholic men, a largely Irish population).  White, middle class Protestant women took advantage of co-educational public institutions, and by 1880, women constituted about one-third of all American college students (Howe, 2007, p. 464). 

20. By the turn of the 20th century, other white ethnic/religious groups, like reformist Protestant sects, Jews, and Catholics, were allowed greater access to mainstream institutions of higher education, but there were often implicit, if not explicit, discriminatory quotas that limited particular ethnic and religious groups to a certain percentage of the total student population.  Only belatedly, in the second half of the 20th century, did the most disadvantaged Americans (non-white ethnic and racialized minorities, the working class and poor, and the physically and learning disabled) gain full political rights and access to some form of higher education (Foner, 1998; Jilson, 2004; Thelin, 2004).   

21. While education has been central to the development of democracy across the world, access to education has been restricted in most countries due to various forms of discrimination that lasted until the late 20th century.  Now that education has become more and more important in our globalized world, many people have argued that access to public primary and secondary schools and universities should be universal in order to give everyone a fair chance at success, especially in democratic countries; otherwise, education becomes just another means of discrimination by the rich and powerful.  But the idea of social and political equality for all people is still a new idea, as most democracies (including the U.S.) have actually excluded (and continue to exclude) many groups of people from full participation in society and the political system.  In the 21st century, the spread of literacy will have to be combined with the spread of social and political democracy in a process economist Amartya Sen (1999) has called "development as freedom."

22. Democracy can be a complicated notion to understand because this word is often used in two different ways.  Democracy can be used to describe an actual form of government that certain nations practice.  Democracy can also be used to express an ideal form of government that may or may not have ever been practiced by an existing nation.  Both the idea and the practice of democracy are very, very old, about 2,500 years (Dahl, 2000).  The first democratic nation that scholars have documented was ancient Greece, which formed around 500 B.C.E.  Another ancient democracy was republican Rome, a colony of Greece, formed several hundred years later.  The word democracy comes from the Greek word demokratia, which combines the words demos (people) with kratos (to rule).  Thus, democracy meant ruling or governing by the people.  The word republican comes from the Latin word respublicus, which combines the words res (thing or affair) and publicus (public or the people).  Thus, republican meant “the thing that belonged to the people” (p. 13). 

23. But these early democracies never extended citizenship to all the people who lived within the nation.  In both Greek and Roman societies, there were different classes of people, and not everyone was considered worthy of freedom or participating in government.  Both societies held slaves, who were considered non-persons. Women, children, and foreigners were also considered non-persons.  Without the full rights of citizenship, these groups were not free and they could not participate in government.  Rome also distinguished between rich and poor.  The small, ruling class of rich people were called patricians, and the majority of poor people were called plebeians.  It took a long time for plebeians to gain full citizenship in ancient Rome, and even once they did, very few were able to realize and practice full political rights, such as participating in government (Dahl, 2000). 

24. There have been a few other historical examples of democratic governments after ancient Greece and Rome, but the most influential example would become The United States of America.  But like its predecessors, America was also divided by various classes and types of people, and not everyone could be a full citizen with political rights and the responsibility to participate in government.  When the nation was founded after the Revolutionary War, in the late 1780s, citizenship was restricted to white males, but not all white males, because most states had property requirements for a white man to gain full legal rights and be able to vote and participate in government.  Women, children, and non-white people, like Blacks and Native Americans, were not allowed to be citizens. 

25. Political scientist Robert A.  Dahl (2000) has argued that democracies need to have inclusive citizenship, freedom, and equality in voting and participation in government if these types of governments are to be truly called a democracy.  Using Dahl's definition, The United States of America did not really become a democracy until 1965 when the Civil Rights Act, for the first time in the country’s history, enabled almost every person in America to have full legal rights (pp. 38, 85; Foner, 1998; Jilson, 2004).  However, to this day some groups of American citizens, like homosexuals or Native Americans, still do not have full political and social rights.

26. The ideal form of democracy was expressed by Thomas Jefferson in The Declaration of Independence, where he stated that a democracy was a form of government made by free people to protect their freedom, lives, and property.  The free people living under a democratic government were expected to participate in that government by making their ideas and needs known, and to make sure that the government did not do anything to endanger their rights.  If the government was not working well or if it started to infringe on the people’s rights, then citizens had the ability to change the government or make a new one that would work better.  At the heart of any ideal democracy are two fundamental principles: political equality and an educated citizenry.  First, political equality means that every member of the society, all the people, should have full rights and should be able to freely and equally participate in the government and society at large.  And further, for people to be able to build a fair democratic government, they need to be educated so that they can make good political decisions. 

27. However, education for democracy means more than just memorizing facts and learning an occupation.  Education for democracy means something more personal.  It means learning how to understand one’s self and the world one lives in, to grow as a human being, to be able to communicate with fellow citizens, and to have the thinking and social skills necessary to participate in society and government.  Both democracy and education, according to the philosopher John Dewey (1916/1966), were ways of living (pp. 6, 89, 99).  The purpose of living an educated and democratic way of life was to realize one’s full humanity and to change the world for the better (Dahl, 2000, p. 8-9; Gutmann, 1987).

 

2.5       Democracy as a Way of Life

28. The nation called The United States of America has developed over several centuries and is still in flux today. The American people have almost all been immigrants coming to North America, both freely and as slaves, from diverse parts of the globe.  Here they have mingled together, often violently, not only with themselves, but also with the native inhabitants.  From the start, notions of an “American” nation and an “American” people were contested ideological battlegrounds by which diverse participants verbally, symbolically, and physically fought over the defining contours of a nation.  The idea of America remains to this day an unsettled and contested ideological terrain – the contours of which remain divisive and ever changing.  As the historian David Waldstreicher (1997) pointed out, the history of our country "shows us that America's common political culture consists of a series of contests for power and domination, contests over the meaning [of America]...and who counted as truly 'American'" (p. 352). 

29. Professor of education James A.  Banks (2008) has argued that a major problem facing modern, multicultural nations is “how to recognize and legitimize difference and yet construct an overarching national identity that incorporates the voices, experiences, and hopes of the diverse groups that compose it” (p. 133).  One solution to this problem has been offered by English professor Gerald Graff (1992).  He argued, educators should show students that “culture itself is a debate” and, thereby, “teach the conflicts,” which define American culture both past and present: “Acknowledging that culture is a debate rather than a monologue does not prevent us from energetically fighting for the truth of our own convictions.  On the contrary, when truth is disputed, we can seek it only by entering the debate” (pp. 8, 12, 15). 

30. The historical record makes it very clear that America has rarely been either a democracy or an equal society, and if America is ever to become a fully functioning democracy, then more and more Americans need to learn how to participate effectively in their culture and political processes.  Many Americans have challenged the elitist, antidemocratic, and exclusive pronouncements of political and social leaders since the birth of this nation.  And yet courageous and inspiring individuals have not always been able to change their world in the ways that they would have liked.  American democracy is an unfinished project that still requires knowledgeable, committed, and courageous individuals who will work on furthering the ideals of equality, freedom, and justice for all people – not just a privileged few. 

31. But the political knowledge and engagement of Americans has been stagnant, if not decreasing, over the past 50 years.  According to one report, recent college graduates have about the same political knowledge as the high school graduates of the 1940s.  The opportunity to teach college students how to be knowledgeable and engaged citizens has been “wasted” for the past half century (Colby, et. al., 2008, pp. 45, 51).  Because many young people don’t care about their public responsibilities as democratic citizens, economic inequality and social injustice in America have been steadily growing over the last quarter century (Mishel, Bernstein & Allegretto, 2007).  One of the great challenges of democracy is to create an educated and informed citizenry willing to stand up and work for democratic values.  Most of the students I have tried to educate over the last fifteen years have not known the meaning of democracy, let alone try to practice or promote it. 

32. Politics is a defining feature of all of our lives (Smith, 2011).  It is important for all Americans to learn how to enter and contribute to public debates, whether they are for scholarly purposes or for social and political discussions with friends, family, or strangers.  There are many political institutions in which we take part: learning in a school, listening to a public lecture, reading a book, going to a political event, or participating in a social organization.  Each one of these activities is political and each enables people to argue over what is good and what is right.  Philosopher Kenneth Burke (1941/1973) called the myriad political debates of all societies the “unending conversation” of history (pp. 110-111).  Burke’s unending conversation was a metaphor for the pursuit of human knowledge and the peaceful practice of citizenship (Beach, 2012).  This conversation is composed of all the people who actively try to understand their world and its problems, so that they can debate the best solutions for a better world:

 

Imagine that you enter a parlor.  You come late.  When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about.  In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before.  You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.  Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you…the discussion is interminable.  The hour grows late, you must depart.  And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (pp. 110-111)  

 

It is important for every human being to gain knowledge about his or her life and times in order to participate in public debates and help contribute to the betterment of society, not only locally, but also nationally and globally. 

33. One of the goals of education in diverse democratic countries should be to enable new generations to participate in this conversation.  In the 21st century, everyone should be able to read, write, and think in order to enter into the conversation of history, debate fellow citizens, and enact a true democracy (Gutmann, 1987; Smith, 2011).  The historian David Waldstreicher (1997) reminds us that "The 'nation' is never just an idea or a thing; it is also a story, an encompassing narrative or set of competing narratives...[that] suggest not only identification but [also] a script or course of action" (p. 142).  Democracy is based on the premise that all citizens should have a say in defining and debating the identity of a nation.  But citizens need to be knowledgeable, critical thinkers in order to effectively and responsibly exercise their political rights. 

34. The concept of a vast, unending conversation is an appropriate metaphor for the future of 21st century literacy in a globalized, multi-cultural world.  We can imagine the many global debates going on right now as an orderly, yet “heated” discussion conducted by engaged human beings.  Hopefully, they are using logical, evidence-based arguments to debate each other over the best way to live peacefully, promote prosperity, and solve our common problems.  The 21st century world needs more educated and politically engaged people to take part in these diverse conversations.  But to fully take part in such important debates, you will need not only traditional skills, like reading, writing, and arguing, but also new skills, like critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and open debating methods.  And where does one learn these new and necessary skills?  They are taught in institutions of higher education.

 

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