Finding Value in Schoolhouses as Public Things
A Reply to Johann Neem
In his recent piece, “Why Do Schoolhouses Matter?” Johann Neem makes a compelling case for the claim that it is not because Americans have traditionally valued public education that state and local governments in the United States have taken on the hefty financial and logistical burden of providing both physical space and highly qualified personnel required to maintain public schools, but rather the other way around. Namely, like citizens of democracies more generally, Americans value things because they have invested time, energy, and most importantly (perhaps) money in them. The piece echoes and expands upon the conclusion of his recently released book, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America, and in particular draws on a central thesis from Bonnie Honig’s insightful and damning statement of the slow death of democratic culture in contemporary America, Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair. Neem shows that in the case of public education in public school buildings, overseen public teachers and schoolmasters, it was very much the case that activists and legislators first built the “public things” and then later and unevenly, engaged in and largely won the battle in the marketplace of ideas. If we find ourselves exercised by the level of disdain for public education in the era of a DeVos led Department of Education — and Neem provides good reasons as to why we should — then the fight to join is the one for the public things themselves, and not the meta-conversation about values and theories of democratic culture.
I am fully persuaded by Neem’s diagnosis of the current crisis in American public education, and hope we all take his lesson to heart. In this reply, I hope to augment and perhaps slightly shift the prognosis that his (and Honig’s) focus logically entails: that if we want to save our schools, the only way is by fighting the fight to keep the “public things” (in this case the school buildings and the people who staff them) public. For sure, that’s right. But I think there is another essential piece that this way of framing misses. Public education, and its value, are not reducible to the spaces we commitment to found, fund, manage and oversee together. It is very much impossible without this, but it is not circumscribed by this; at least not in a nation of immigrants. For, in such a nation — as Arendt stressed nearly 65 years ago in a piece that reflects on another era’s — the inherent public interest in education derives not only from the bivalent relation between the material investment (of time, energy, money) in public education and the normative value citizens ascribe to it. Beyond that nexus, there is also the fact that without public education there is no possibility of immigrants “becoming American,” and without such Americanization our social fabric as citizens of one country, holding myriad cultural, linguistic, and national identities as part of our heritage simply cannot hold.
This, Arendt argues, is so for two reasons. First, there is the perhaps obvious fact that “the enormously difficult melting together of the most diverse ethnic groups — never fully successful but continuously succeeding beyond expectation — can only be accomplished through the schooling, education, and Americanization of the immigrants’ children. Since for most of these children English is not their mother tongue but has to be learned in school, schools must obviously assume functions which in a nation-state would be performed as a matter of course in the home.” But beyond this facile aspect of integration, there is a deeper political-psychological ground of the uniquely felt importance of public education in the United States, which Arendt attributes to the fact that “immigrants are a guarantee to the country that it represents the new order. The meaning of this new order, this founding of a new world against the old, was and is the doing away with poverty and oppression. But at the same time its magnificence consists in the fact that, from the beginning, this new order did not shut itself off from the outside world — as has elsewhere been the custom in the founding of utopias — in order to confront it with a perfect model, nor was its purpose to enforce imperial claims or to be preached as an evangel to others.”
Arendt, as noted above, published “The Crisis in Education” 63 years ago. Given that fact, it seems likely that even in the best case, public education in a democratic society is the sort of public thing to appear to be in fragile condition. A prognosis that gains credence from Arendt’s suggestion — which I believe to be correct — that a vibrant democracy’s distrust of authority of all kinds makes it almost certain that the contestation of both the ends of education and its means will continue indefinitely. This far, I agree with her. I disagree, however, with just about everything else in her argument about childhood and adulthood and work and play in the particular normative position she takes in addressing the role of authority in education and in the (then-and-now, but with differences) current crisis in education. What Arendt had and has right is that the open question of who has authority to determine both the content and the purpose of public education is both a substantial cause and a consequential result of the ongoing crisis. It is reasonable, to the extent Arendt is right about the unique importance of public education in an immigrant nation, to expect this only to hold more completely for a democratic society that is — for the most part — an open society both with respect to itself and its own citizens and with respect to the outside world.
Responding to Neem’s reflection on the sad state (and stature) of public education in America today, then, and keeping an eye on his concretization of Honig’s (Arendtian, among other things) insistence on both the vital importance and the current diminution of public things, I suggest that, yes, we hold fast to the lesson that under conditions of democratic sovereignty the values we hold follow from the material investment of time, energy, and money that generates the very things we (physically) hold in common. But, in concert with this, I believe we need also not to forget Arendt’s two insights, shared in the context of a different but very much alike crisis in American public education that spanned the peak years of the Cold War era.
We must remember that whatever value Americans might find in public education, they won’t practically fulfill their commitments to it absent two concurrent commitments. First, a belief in “our” project as an immigrant nation that seeks to undo the injustices of the old world in the new world. Second, a commitment to public struggle to find consensus about what could possibly be a legitimate authority, both in our classrooms and in our shared spaces more generally. I couldn’t agree more about the tall order we face in light of the ideology behind the DeVos Department of Education. I just believe that we cannot even come to terms with that challenge without coordinated action in the Departments (of Homeland Security, of Justice) and extra-governmental authorities where our status as an immigrant nation and a site of ever-contested authority are adjudicated.