Our democratic republic is at risk, and I think our public schools are partially responsible. Its elaborate sorting system has turned out too many adults who resent rather than value our nation and our struggle to create a more perfect union.
While many of these adults voted for Donald Trump in 2016, I believe that many more did not bother to vote at all….and may in fact not even be registered to vote.
This is not new. If “Not Voting” were looked upon as a choice (candidate), it would have won the popular vote in every Presidential election since at least 1916. Only three times in the 15 Presidential elections since 1960 have more than 60% of the voting age population gone to the polls. The turnout in what we like to believe is the world’s greatest democracy generally hovers around 53-54%. It has dipped below 50% three times since 1916, most recently in 1996, when only 49.1% of the voting age population bothered to vote.
Who are these non-voters? Should we scorn them for their indifference? Don’t they understand how many of their fellow Americans have died protecting their freedom and their right to vote? Surely we can agree that not voting is deplorable behavior?
Not so fast. I have come to believe that most non-voters are behaving rationally. They do not feel that they have a stake in our government, so why should they vote? They were schooled to see themselves as insignificant, and so, as adults, they keep their heads down, stay uninvolved, and do their best to make ends meet.
I hold public schools at least partly responsible for our consistently low voter turnout, because public education is an efficient sorting machine that is undemocratic to its core. Schools sort young children in two basic groups: A minority is designated as ‘winners’ who are placed on a track leading to elite colleges, prominence and financial success. While the rest aren’t labeled ‘losers’ per se, they are largely left to struggle on their own. That experience leaves many angry, frustrated and resentful, not to mention largely unprepared for life in a complex, rapidly changing society. Why would they become active participants in the political process, an effort led by the now grown up ‘winners’ from their school days? (It would take a candidate who understood their resentment to arouse them….which happened in 2016.)
Although formal tracking has fallen out of favor, schools have subtle ways of designating winners and losers, often based as much on parental education and income, race, and class as innate ability. By third or fourth grade most kids know, deep down, whether the system sees them as ‘winners’ bound for college or ‘losers’ headed somewhere else.
Ironically, A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report that warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity,” made matters worse. In response, America put its eggs in the basket of student achievement–-as measured by student test scores. Believing we were raising academic standards by asking more of students, we were in fact narrowing our expectations—those test scores again. This practice went into high gear with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. “Regurgitation education” became the order of the day. This approach rewards parroting back answers, while devaluing intellectual curiosity, cooperative learning, projects, field trips, the arts, physical education, and citizenship. (And the state of Tennessee just affirmed this approach for its current students!)
This fundamentally anti-intellectual approach has failed to produce results. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have largely remained flat and in some instances have gone down. What’s more, students aren’t even retaining what we are demanding they regurgitate. For example, a survey reveals that one-third of Americans cannot name any of the three branches of our government, and half do not know the number of US Senators.
Reducing kids to test scores has produced generations of graduates whose teachers and curriculum did not help them develop the habit of asking questions, digging deep, or discovering and following their passion. Because of how they were treated in school, many Americans have not grown into curious, socially conscious adults. This is not the fault of their teachers, because decisions about how schools operate are not made in classrooms. It was school boards, politicians, policy makers and the general public that created schools that value obedience over just about everything else.
But the end result is millions of graduates who were rewarded with diplomas but have never participated in the give-and-take of ordinary citizenship—like voting. Did they graduate from school prepared for life in a democracy, or are they likely to follow blindly the siren song of authoritarians? Can they weigh claims and counterclaims and make decisions based on facts and their family’s best interests, or will they give their support to those who play on their emotions?
During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump welcomed support from those he called ‘the poorly educated,’ but that’s the incorrect term. These men and women are not ‘poorly educated,’ ‘undereducated,’ or ‘uneducated.’ They have been miseducated, an important distinction. Schools have treated them as objects, as empty vessels to pour information into so it can be regurgitated back on tests.
The sorting process used in schools has another result: it produces elitists (in both political parties) who feel superior to the largely invisible ‘losers’ from their school days. Arguably, those chickens came home to roost in the 2016 Presidential election. Candidate Clinton called her opponent’s supporters ‘A Bucket of Deplorables,’ and that gaffe probably cost her the election. But in all likelihood she was speaking her personal truth, because, after all, her school had identified her as a ‘winner,‘ one of the elite. It’s perfectly understandable that she would not identify with the people who had been energized by Donald Trump. Most pundits, reporters, pollsters and politicians fell into the same trap.
Sorting is inevitable, because students try out for teams and plays, apply to colleges, and eventually seek employment, but let’s postpone sorting for as long as possible. A new approach to schooling must ask a different question about each young child. Let’s stop asking, “How intelligent are you?” Let’s ask instead, “How are you intelligent?” That may strike some as a steep hill to climb, but it’s essentially the question that caring parents, teachers, and other adults ask about individual children. They phrase it differently, asking, “What is Susan interested in?” “What gets George excited?” “What motivates Juan?” or “What does Sharese care about?” Every child has interests, and those can be tapped and nurtured in schools designed to provide opportunities for children to succeed as they pursue paths of their own choosing. Giving children agency over their education—with appropriate guidance and supervision—will produce graduates better equipped to cope with today’s changing world. And a larger supply of informed voters!
The challenge for the 2020 Democratic nominee is reach beyond the traditional party constituency and embrace those who have been neglected by schools and other institutions. They need to believe that America belongs to them.
And going forward, our democracy must create more public schools that respect and nurture our children. If we don’t change our schools, we will elect a succession of Donald Trumps, and that will be the end of the American experiment.