Education and Democracy

Everyone in this country is entitled to an education through high school, but that is not true in many parts of the world. We like to think there is opportunity for all, but today our public education system fails many students, handicapping their future. Academic achievement is well below that of many developed and developing countries according to the Program for International Student Assessment. Government programs to incentivize better performance include No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which use student scores on standardized tests to evaluate teachers and school systems. These programs typically result in “teaching to the test,” which ultimately reduces the quality of education by limiting the scope of teaching.

Our government was established as a representative democracy, which can serve all its members only if all participate. To sustain a truly democratic society, quality and equality of education are important. To our capitalist society, job training may seem most important, but maintaining a democracy requires a comprehensive education for all. A representative democracy requires informed citizens who must evaluate social, political, and economic issues, proposed solutions, and their potential impact. They need to convey their concerns to their elected representatives and monitor their responsiveness. To perform these functions effectively, so that both society and individuals benefit, citizens require a basic education in the humanities.

Lack of proper education allows a well-educated elite to influence social, political, and economic institutions to favor their interests over those of the less educated. In Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson discuss how a government controlled by an elite segment of the population can produce extractive, repressive institutions that ultimately lead to failed nations. They conclude that successful democracies require inclusive, progressive institutions that benefit all members of society.

We are at risk of allowing a well-educated elite to gain control. Intensive lobbying and campaign funding by large corporations and well-funded individuals have caused government to become more partisan and radicalized in recent years. As a result our economic recovery is favoring the wealthy, increasing income disparity, and dismantling the social safety net. If we do not provide a comprehensive education for all, do we risk becoming a failed democracy?

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