The Two Rivers of Public Education

Why our representative democracy relies on both individualism and community to be delivered through its public schools by DONALD DRAAYER

America is blessed with two river systems that feed and nourish the country by their periodic flooding. One mighty river is individualism (the entrepreneurial drive to advance and make a difference). The other river is community (wherein communal interests strengthen the whole community over the parts).

Monitoring and regulating these two watersheds is representative democracy.

These three strands protect and strengthen the American economic, social and political structure. They tie together the fundamentals at the core of our country.

When tax-supported public schools were first established in the mid-1800s, the avowed purpose was universal education. But education to what ends? The shorthand answer is this: Protect, strengthen and advance the three strands within the democratic chord in times of great change.

Now, 150 years later, in the first decade of the 21st century, many are asking whether public schools continue to benefit our nation’s needs and purposes. Here is my answer: “Yes, absolutely yes!”


Supporting Individualism
Public schools’ support for development of individualism, the I strand in American life, is accomplished in five significant ways: 


DIRECT INSTRUCTION OF BASIC SKILLS. The initial focus of the public school is on teaching the four R’s: reading, writing, arithmetic and relationships — the basic learning tools that open the student to communication and the world of knowledge.

Donald DraayerDon Draayer, long retired from the superintendency in Minnetonka, Minn., views public schooling as the optimum institution for promoting democracy.

A BROAD, IN-DEPTH CURRICULUM. How large must a school be to offer breadth and depth in curriculum to advance development of the I strand without incurring excessive per-pupil costs? The most commonly cited number for secondary schools is around 1,000 students. This number can be larger when two corollary conditions are present: (1) The student body is composed of highly motivated students whose personality, self-confidence and earlier learning track prepare them for success in a larger student body, and (2) alternative learning programs, charter schools and online courses are available for students who, for whatever reason, do not fit well within larger school settings.

QUALITY TEACHING. Quality teaching has three components: knowledge of subject matter; mastery of how individuals and groups of students best learn and the ability to apply that knowledge in a classroom; and exhibition of the intangible element of human relationship wherein a student senses the teacher really cares.

The first two components are matters of the mind and can be learned. The third element relates more to matters of the heart — interpersonal skills, generosity of spirit and enthusiasm for learning that enlists individual students to commit fully to the learning journey.

REPORTING OF ACHIEVEMENT. The I strand in the lives of students is reinforced by practices relating to grading, testing, positive recognition and promotion. Students quickly learn their individual efforts in all aspects of school performance are duly recorded and reported to parents, next year’s teachers, college registrars and future employers.

PUBLIC SCHOOL POLITICS. Students learn from their elders more often than we acknowledge. When public school issues such as board elections, referenda and boundary-line changes are discussed in the home or community, students listen, talk and formulate their own views.

In most cases, the adult discussion boils down to four questions: What can I afford to pay? How will my home or residence value be affected? How will the quality of education for my child and other children change? How will the local community, state and nation be improved or harmed?

The I strand feature in the first two questions is plain to see. The We strand surfaces in the third question and moves to the front and center in the fourth question. Like good stage theater, the I and We struggle with one another throughout the script. However, citizens write the end of the story, which is representative democracy in action.

Citizens show that they still believe the public schools serve and benefit the I strand of children’s education. The majority of parents choose the mainstream public school option for their children.

Significantly, more parents elect to move children in and out of various public school settings based on their judgment of what best serves the individual child at that time. Public school choice is an operational reality for growing numbers of parents.

Community Strand
The community strand represents the We in human development. When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they didn’t rush to shore to build their individual cabins. They first spent three days forming and writing the Mayflower Compact, which included primary ends for the colony as well as the means of representative governance.

One of those stated ends was to act in accord with the general good of the colony. This was rephrased later in the U.S. Constitution as the general welfare clause. The clear intent in these historical documents was to guarantee the general good of the citizenry would be one of the mainstays within American society.

Early proponents of public schools in the mid-1800s drew heavily upon the community’s We strand. At that time, immigrants were arriving by the boatloads. They brought sharp differences in language, race, color, religion, customs and systems of governance.

Assimilation of all residents into the fabric of American life and its political framework became a national priority. Public education was given the commission of uniting diverse peoples, beginning with the mix of all youth in public schools.

The melting pot imperatives of the 19th century are equally, if not more, apparent in the 21st century. Today, waves of new immigrants continue to bring significant cultural and religious differences into American life.

As has been true through the years, newcomers to America often congregate in neighborhoods; worship in their own temples, mosques, churches or synagogues; and shop in their own specialty stores, all of which delay their assimilation into the American culture.

Americans have become widely separated from one another by age, income strata, residence location and job specialization. Rural America has become less prosperous. Urban centers have become the home to more immigrants and to those falling on hard times. Outer-ring suburbs tend to draw people with higher incomes. Retirees are moving to age-restricted residences.

The workplace was the farm or small-town business where everyone had a common vocabulary and understood the work world of everyone else. Today, Americans have little understanding of the work lives of the people next door. Thus, in-depth, meaningful, interpersonal contacts among people who hold different beliefs, practice different customs or travel in different circles are more limited than they used to be. Broad civic engagement and the mutual trust that energizes and unites people within a democratic society are more difficult to achieve in the 21st century.

This is where public education continues to play an essential role. Public schools in their best form enroll students from the broad span of community life and help them learn how to bridge differences in language, race, cultural traditions, income level, religion and country of origin.

Public schools, better than any alternative education system, support the community’s We strand in our body politic — the general welfare of all. More precisely, public schools help students, when they are most malleable, gain an understanding of basic humanity and civility that bind the human race together. Public school students carry these understandings and attitudes consciously and unconsciously into and through their adult lives.

Democracy Strand
Public schools also serve the purposes of representative government, the third of the three foundational strands within a democratic republic. Any type of educational system can teach about representative democracy, but book learning alone has one severe limitation: It often introduces the idea in the mind without developing a personal attachment to it. Locally based, tax-supported public school education does both!

Public schools provide the context in which representative democracy is not only taught but also caught through personal experience.

Representative democracy becomes alive and real to American citizens through the election of public school board members from a slate of locally known candidates who are neighbors and friends. Public schools hold public hearings for citizens on issues such as taxes, referenda and boundary-line changes. Students observe these adult proceedings and absorb the lessons. As youth mature, they move naturally and comfortably into the framework of representative democracy.

Furthermore, public schools encourage ongoing, personal communication between the home and school about the learning progress of individual children and children at large. The flow of information includes issues and challenges for the school system as a whole. Such openness, interaction and flow of information provide vitality within representative democracy.

The public school system in America begs the question: Who’s the boss? Every state constitution gives ultimate power for public schools to the state legislature. But who elects legislators? In truth, public schools constitute a network of partners who are beholden to one another in a circular order with no one really on top or bottom.

Founders of our republic instituted representative democracy for this very reason: They were fearful of power, concentrated authority and most everything that might keep the common man from distinguishing himself during his own lifetime. They set term limits for most elected officials, which put citizens at large in charge of the nation’s destiny and made sure every two, four, or six years elected officials would again be accountable to the electorate.

When public schools were formed, meritocracy — not aristocracy or wealth or power or social class or income or happenstance of birth — was intentionally built into the system. In effect, public schools were charged to give full support to broad-based, representative government, which is the third important strand in the democratic chord.

Although public education does not provide exclusive exposure to representative democracy, it does provide for the best hands-on knowledge about and face-to-face, local experience with representative democracy for this reason: parental self-interest. Love for their own children prompts close attention to and participation in local public school education, which also engages other family members, friends and neighbors who are part of the child’s caring community.

Interplay of Strands
The individualism strand contributes to the prosperity and material rewards that many individual Americans enjoy today. The community strand in American life has reached high points beyond which earlier generations could only dream.

In a simplified sense, the I strand earns the money, a portion of which is collected as taxes, and the We strand spends the tax money on what is believed to be the common good. These two strands need one another and shield each other from destructive tendencies.

In the extreme, the I of individualism can lead to anarchy wherein cooperation for the common good is lost through too much self-interest by individuals who band together for purely selfish reasons.

In such cases, the political, economic and social system can break down, and fear, hunger and despair can grip the minds and hearts of citizens. What arises is the temptation to turn power over to a single leader who promises freedom from want and need but destroys liberty, who promises peace and safety but usually resorts to war and destruction and who promises generalized good but invariably falls into the trap of ego-inflated, personal self-interest.

In the extreme, the We of community can lead to excessive entitlements, the costs for which can exceed what income and taxes the individual can sustain. Two dangers accompany this downward journey. The first is financial bankruptcy, which occurs when money borrowed exceeds what can be paid back, when public confidence is lost, and when international trade and banking are suspended.

The second is attitudinal bankruptcy — a gradual attitudinal transformation away from self-initiative and hard work to that which concludes that the government owes me and will take care of my needs. The most common companion political structure in this situation is socialism, which historically has led to economic stagnation.

What mediates these two underlying strands in our republic — the I and the We — is representative democracy with its checks and balances, term limits and the power of one vote per American citizen. This allows voters to gauge the temper and needs of the time and to move their elected and appointed leaders in the direction of the individualism strand or the community strand, as warranted by the judgments of the citizenry at the voting booth.

Public education is uniquely positioned to prepare the present and future generations of youth for this ongoing deliberation and conflict resolution.

Stabilizing Democracy
Public schools encourage the development of individual abilities, interests and knowledge. They prepare students to dream, think, plan and act, thereby feeding the human instinct to achieve and make a difference in this world. They also reveal the dangers of elitism, hubris, excess and greed, which can destroy community.

Public schools reveal and teach the importance of community in the lives of individuals. The lives of children from different backgrounds are woven into a greater community life where people may not always display great love but will listen and show respect. Public schools highlight how selflessness, generosity, forgiveness and service weigh heavily in the quality of human life and teach that excesses can harm individual rights and needs, overspend the nation’s budget on entitlements, erode the entrepreneurial spirit of individuals and literally destroy the benefits of community in the process.

In closing, three strands — individualism, community, and representative democracy — constitute key strengths underlying our democratic society. No institution other than the public school is a better match to serve and strengthen these three strands within the democratic chord. In so doing, the public school also serves as a relatively quiet but powerful stabilizing influence in our nation, generation after generation.

Don Draayer, the 1990 National Superintendent of the Year, serves on the school board of Intermediate School District 287 in Plymouth, Minn. E-mail: dondraayer@comcast.net