Educative or Miseducative?
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
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
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
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
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,
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.