Monday, March 10, 2014

Schools As the Educator of Citizens

What is the function of a public school system?  Generally people would say that the function of a school is to teach children the practical skills they will need in order to maximize their opportunities in their work lives ... as one used to say, the three “R’s”: reading, riting, and rithmetic.

And while that remains a critically important function, one in which many schools, especially inner city schools, fail terribly, there is another equally important function on which the future of our democracy depends: preparing students to be good citizens.  

What does it mean to be a good citizen?  It means to be committed to the American social contract ... that with the benefits of citizenship comes a shared responsibility for the welfare of the nation and of our fellow citizens, each according to his means.  We meet that responsibility in many ways, one of which is paying taxes to support the government in its work to protect the public good and work towards ensuring equality of opportunity for all, as promised in the Declaration of Independence.  This is not a conservative or liberal statement, it is the essence of the American view of citizenship, democracy, and the role of government.

There have always been differences between Republicans and Democrats on how government should perform this role and how large a part government should take.  But there has never before in modern times been disagreement between the parties in the essence of the American social contract and the role of government.  The social contract is apolitical.  It has been supported by all administrations since President Teddy Roosevelt.

But that changed with the election of Ronald Reagan and the Republicans who have followed him, first by turning the government more into an enabler of the rich rather than a protector of the public good and most recently by an almost complete renunciation of the role of government in ensuring equal opportunity.  As Republicans have said, “If you fail, it’s your own fault.”  Period.

The issues of citizenship and the social contract do not, however, just apply to people with  means. The poor as well have responsibilities.  One responsibility that applies to both the poor and those with means is to obey the law, to not abuse or injure their fellow citizens.  Whether it's the poor drug-addict who steals, even from his family, to support his habit, or the investment banker who acts in conscious disregard of the impact of his actions on his fellow citizens to support his "money habit," both actions are equally unethical and contrary to the social contract.

Schools need to address the issue of citizenship, and obviously in an apolitical way.  Schools should teach courtesy, respect, ethics, and shared responsibility, while pointing out how conservatives and liberals have often disagreed on how these values should be implemented.

If we want the future of America to be strong, then the people, the body politic, and the economy of the United States must be strong.  And it will only remain strong if its citizens are committed to their country and their fellow citizens, and if we have, not just a thriving elite class, but a thriving middle class and a diminishing number of poor.