Professing Education
June,2003.Vol 2.No.1 P.9-P.11

American Education: Educative or Miseducative?

Peter Carbone

Duke University

Democratic educational theory has long been characterized by a number of bedrock assumptions. One of them holds that popular government, by encouraging citizens to take an active part in the discharge of a public function (even if only to exercise the right to vote), stimulates the intellect and is conducive as well to the development of character. In short, as John Stuart Mill maintained, popular government, in addition to its inherent political merits, contributes meaningfully to the education of the electorate.1

Another key assumption underlying democratic educational theory attests that a free press is a necessary condition for a viable and robust democracy. At the very outset of the American experiment in self-government, for example, Thomas Jefferson stated that "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive these papers and be capable of reading them."2 That last sentence is important for it forges a clearly discernible link between the liberal views of Jefferson and John Dewey. Like Jefferson, for instance, Dewey was convinced that the burden of dissemination would have to be borne by the daily press as well as the publishers of scholarly books and articles in order to raise the level of informed public opinion. In response to the oft-repeated claim that the masses lacked the intellectual capacity to understand the intricacies of social inquiry, Dewey argued that this objection would be rendered moot provided that relevant information were provided in a sufficiently creative manner.3 In other words, then, sophisticated social inquiry might have to be left to the "experts," but the ability to discern and judge the consequences of such investigation lies within the reach of most individuals, provided that they are properly tutored.

Yet another, and perhaps the most telling of the assumptions undergirding democratic theory speak directly to the relationship between education and freedom. Jefferson set the tone with his famous dictum that "if a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."4

Horace Mann, too, as Cremin observed, "understood well the relationship between freedom, self-government, and universal education." Like Jefferson, Mann (the driving force behind the establishment of the American common school) believed that freedom could rest secure only as free men had the knowledge to make intelligent decisions.5

Thus both Jefferson and Mann contributed significantly to our understanding of the relationship between democracy and education, but it fell to John Dewey to fully map the common ground between the two in a number of his writings, including Democracy and Education (1916) and Experience and Education (1938).

Central to Dewey's philosophy of education is the goal of institutionalizing intelligence in the schools as he felt it had already been institutionalized in the study of nature. Dewey thought that if the attitudes and methods of inquiry employed in the sciences were made an integral part of the educational process, reason and intelligence would emerge as the ultimate guide to both individual behavior and social policy.

In the political arena, institutionalized intelligence implies democracy for Dewey, since democracy allows (or at least should allow) for the same free and open exchange of ideas, the same testing and evaluation of hypotheses pertaining to public policy that scientists enjoy in their own domain. Thus science, democracy, and education are interrelated in Dewey's thought, and intelligence is the common denominator underlying all three concepts.

Now the obvious question at this point, especially in view of the fact that a democratic society requires the consent of an informed electorate, is to what extent have the views of Jefferson, Mann and Dewey found acceptance in American political and educational thought. Alas, the signs are not particularly encouraging, given the degree to which significant numbers of people are still swayed by negative political campaigning, intolerant of those who hold unconventional views, and eager to suppress freedom of expression in a variety of contexts (including the university, of all places).

Many such tendencies are of course exacerbated in times of national crisis. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that since 9/11 neither the "loyal opposition" democrats nor the "watchdog fourth estate" have demonstrated any real interest in challenging the majority party on major foreign-policy issues. The democrats, with few exceptions have come across as G.O.P. light, and the media in large part have given the President a pass despite the fact that his unilateralism has alienated many of this country's staunchest allies. A few cases in point, in that connection, would include the administration's withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Treaty; its rejection of both the Kyoto agreement on global warming and participation in the International Criminal Court; the decision to summarily dismiss the views of the U.N. Security Council regarding the invasion of Iraq; and finally the unveiling of the doctrine of pre-emptive military strikes against "rogue" states. The latter, in particular, represents a stunning departure from traditional American ideals, yet it has elicited remarkably little public debate of a probing nature. Moreover, the flimsy justifications for the war on Iraq _ the alleged ties of Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden and the existence of hidden weapons of mass destruction _ have yet to be substantiated and now appear to have been highly questionable claims made by those bent on selling the merits of the war to an unsuspecting public. Yet the media have all too often disseminated the administration's self-serving rhetoric as though it were the incontrovertible truth. In short, then, it would seem that neither the media nor the democratic process itself are contributing much to the ideal of an enlightened citizenry.

Well, then, what about our schools? Can we say that they have been any more successful in contributing to the civic edification of the populace? Have our schools instilled in students the abilities, skills, and dispositions that are prerequisites for critical thinking? Apparently not. Not if we accept Richard Paul's distinction between weak and strong-sense critical thinkers. For Paul, the former tend to question only those beliefs and assumptions that they have been encouraged early on to reject.6 On the other hand, "strong-sense critical thinkers realize the necessity of putting their own assumptions and ideas to the test of the strongest objections that can be leveled against them."7

The problem is that strong-sense critical thinkers are a rare breed because the schools tend not to foster that kind of critical reflection, But the schools are simply reflecting the views of the general public. Most people, after all, do not share the view that schools should question the conventional wisdom. On the contrary, they expect the school to reinforce the values they are attempting to instill in children at home. As A.C. MacIntyre has observed in this connection, "the values of rational critical inquiry stand in the sharpest contrast to the prevailing social values."8 Hence the critical thinker, as Passmore has observed, is an intellectual disturber of the peace, 9 one who insists on raising questions about matters that others consider settled once and for all.

Thus a vicious circle presents itself. Each generation of students emerges from formal education with little or no appreciation for critical thinking and hence no burning desire to see it cultivated in the next generation. At the same time politicians have little incentive to "level" with the people, since they realize that political candor can be an elective liability. Hence they often prefer to demonize their opponents and tell their constituencies what they want to hear (as opposed to what they need to hear). And finally, how realistic is it to expect the media to hold the feet of politicians to the fire in an increasingly neo-conservative one-party system?

So long as there is no mandate from the general public to foster critical thinking in the strong sense, neither education, the press, nor participation in the political process can be expected to perform the educative functions traditionally assigned to them, and the discouraging reality at this juncture is that no such mandate is visible in the foreseeable future. And of course none of this augurs well for a society that aspires to freedom and openness. For as Paul notes, "an open society requires open minds."10


1. John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, ed. CV Shields (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1958), 16-25.

2. Letter to M. Adamantios, October 31, 1823.

3. John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (New York: Henry Holt, 1927), 183.

4. Letter to Col. Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816.

5. The Republic and the School, ed. Lawrence A. Cremin (New York: Columbia Teachers College Press, 1957) 7.

6. Richard Paul, Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive In a Rapidly Changing World (Rohnert Park, Cal: Sonoma St. Univ., 1990), 132.

7. Ibid., 568.

8. A.C. MacIntyre, "Against Utilitarianism" in Aims in Education, ed. T.H. Hollins (New York: Humanities Press, 1964), 21.

9. John Passmore, "On Teaching to be Critical," in The Concept of Education, ed. R.S. Peters (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), 195.

10. Paul, Critical Thinking, 105.