July 9, 2019

“Looking back, I see that public school teachers are not just educators but civic soldiers on the frontlines of democracy. They told me I was smart and could be anything – an overreaching statement in a country that has proven to be a plutocracy rather than a meritocracy but one that I believed. Armed with the education and encouragement they had given me, I boldly set my eyes on college, graduate school and the sort of vocation no one from my family had ever known: to get paid for my ideas and creativity rather than for backbreaking or unfulfilling labor.”
Sarah Smarsh author, 2018

“The general objects of this law are to provide an education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of everyone, and directed to their freedom and happiness….For this purpose the reading in the first stage, where they will receive their whole education, is proposed, as has been said, to be chiefly historical. History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views. In every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate, and improve. Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe their minds must be improved to a certain degree.”
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1787

I took a break last week from blogging to reflect a little bit about my goals for the blog. I do not fool myself to believe that what I share with you in the blog is earth-shattering or life-changing. Rather, this blog is an attempt to build an audience of education leaders that are interested in what an average practitioner grapples with, thinks about and ponders as it relates to education. With that in mind…

I learn a lot from the people and organizations that I follow on Twitter (to see who I follow, go to @tombutler10 on Twitter). Author Sarah Smarsh (whose book Heartland is a must-read for rural educators) is active on Twitter and she offers a perspective on rural matters that move beyond the stereotypical “rural lens”. I also am interested in and fascinated by the philosophical underpinnings of the founding of our country. Having a basic understanding of why the United States declared independence is a necessary piece for a healthy democracy. Even if there are conflicting stories as to the “real” reason behind our nation’s founding, the discussion undergirding the differences lead to a healthy democracy.

I believe that public education is meant to be an integral part of what keeps our American society continually improving. I do not believe that public education accomplished this by simply training students for a “job”…I expect more from educators and the schools in which they work. I accept that a small part of public education is to transfer skills to students so they can get a job…but only a small part. The larger purpose of public education is to educate students to think, talk and act openly and grapple with the meaning of what it means to be an American. Public school educators must connect with this other purpose in order to maintain our democracy. A myopic focus on “career” and “training” is simply bad for our society.

If you read Jefferson’s entire Notes on the State of Virginia and his vision for public education, there are specific aspects that vision which are difficult to accept (for example, only the “best and brightest” are allowed to go on to college). However, his thoughts that an educated populace is a necessary requirement for a healthy democracy rings true now more than ever before. Jefferson states, “…it [education] will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.”(My brackets) In today’s world of real “Fake news” and fake “Fake news” the imperative stands to start a discussion with public educators to move beyond the limiting focus of “career and college readiness”. Sarah Smarsh is eloquent in her statement that educators “civic soldiers on the frontline of democracy”. I like that…public educators are that important to the health of our democracy! Let’s not shy away from the responsibility.

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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