Richard Arum and Joan Malczewski
As educators, our concerns start with our students. Our higher education work is embedded deeply in communities heavily populated by immigrants and with diverse groups of students including aspiring teachers who plan to dedicate their lives to serving youth in high–need, urban public schools. In these settings, large numbers of our students have experienced the election and its aftermath as a deep and ongoing trauma. At a basic human level, we have a responsibility to support our students at this difficult time. This includes communicating clearly that we continue to value diverse opinions in the classroom and on campus. It also means recognizing the reality of the threats being made toward the communities in which our students are members as well as signaling our deepest resolve to stand with them in solidarity in the face of acts of bigotry, intolerance or oppression.
Beyond this support for our students, it is important to reflect on broader lessons that we can learn from the past election cycle. Politics are not a simple product of any single factor and we will leave it to others to discuss how our political situation emerged from the interaction of race, class, gender, and contemporary structural factors. As scholars who have focused their careers on understanding schooling and society, we find it useful to highlight how current politics are potentially related to the state of our education system.
From its earliest inception in the U.S., the education system was established and developed as an institutional vehicle to promote democratic citizenship, regardless of one’s formal citizenship status. In the past several decades, however, policy makers and other stakeholders have lost sight of this core function of schooling. Instead, our education system has drifted from its historic focus on producing citizens to a narrower focus on standardized testing of English and math competency, credentials for labor market competitiveness, and—in higher education— catering to student needs as consumers.
Fostering Democratic Citizenship
We fear that our schools have failed to promote democratic citizenship in multiple ways. Our public schools have not developed in students a sufficient understanding of our country’s history and government and the ability to question and critically evaluate their surroundings. Most schools have not adequately promoted higher orders skills, such as critical thinking and complex reasoning, which are core competencies necessary to navigate fragmented information flows in contemporary media and to sort through political rhetoric, claims, and facts. Students increasingly complete schooling with only rudimentary understandings of our government and their rights. Schools should foster the development of political identity in students that helps them to understand their role in relation to the state. Finally, too many of our students attend segregated schools and have little contact with students who are different. When recent college graduates are surveyed more than a third report that they read a newspaper in print or online monthly or never, and most lack the skills to assess critically what they do read. Surveys of Americans indicate a profound ignorance of both our system of government and the rights afforded to individuals.
We worry that our schools have failed to produce a democratic citizenry that could have done more to assess the flow of information in this election. We worry that too many citizens were unable and unwilling to object to the racist and misogynistic rhetoric of the election. While we are critical of our education system’s shortcomings, we also believe that education is an important civic institution that is best positioned to foster democracy and the rights of individuals in our community. We need to think carefully and deliberately about education policy in the wake of recent events and consider the role education can play in moving us beyond the difficult challenges we face as a democratic society following this election.
Richard Arum is a sociologist, who has written extensively on education. Joan Malczewski is an historian and author of Building a New Educational State: Foundations, Schools and the American South (University of Chicago Press; 2016)