Democracy and Education

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education (Woolley & Gerhard, 1938).

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Education empowers the people who ultimately should be the ones who determine public policy. Democratic ideals can only be sustained if society learns to adapt to changes; whether they be political, social, technological, economical, or otherwise. Education equips society with the tools to adapt by knowing when and if the current government is being run efficiently and fairly. Moreover, a democracy is an ongoing process stimulated by the interaction and participation of citizens. Education lays the foundation for civic participation and ensures that a new generation of political players enter the stage. The role of education in democracy is instrumental; consequently education has been a spot light in political policy and legislation. Education itself has opened the doors for many minority groups, among them African Americans, women, and immigrants. Education is not always accessible equally but the correlation between those who do become educated are significantly benefited and can advocate towards educational reform. Education ensures that the common person can become an informed civic citizen and deny the powerful elite to force control ignorant spectators. Education lays the foundation for the future in democracy, it could teach individual thought or indoctrination. As such the role of the federal government in regards to education, the equal access of education, and the content of education, are all the key to the civic virtues needed to maintain a democratic republic run on the moral character and intellectual abilities of the citizens.

The role of public education in the civic participation is an issue that dates back to the early years of the United States. The power struggle between Federalists and Anti-federalists, set the standard for what branch of government should be in charge of providing certain public goods that were not explicitly written in the constitution. The founding fathers struggled to decide which institution, the national, state, or local government, should be in charge of public education.

Generally education has been left to individual state governments. However, in 2010 the introduction of Common Core K-12 national curriculum seemed to change the power from the state level to the federal government. Critics, among them politicians, teacher unions, and educators, argue that this is an unnecessary federal interference that replaces local districts and the best interest of students with more politics and more administrative bureaucracy. In the Publius Journal of Federalism, an analysis was done on the states’ response to such a national movement towards education. Despite numerous attempts by states to repeal the national curriculum, the financial incentive provided by the federal government was successful in converting forty-two states, the District of Columbia, and four territories to adopt these federal standards in their respective states (Goelzhauser, 2017). Republicans and Democrats alike dislike Common Core. Republicans argue that education policy should be determined at the state and local level; while democrats argue that any educational curricula should not be coerced into any state for adoption. Nevertheless, schools nationwide have already begun changing their curriculum and students have been taking standardized testing.

Regardless of whether or not the implementation of a national curricula is a violation of the federal government’s power over states in educational policy, the right to education is undeniable. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court declared that public education “”is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms”” (Brown v. Board of Education, 2015). The advancement of democracy depends largely in the equal treatment of all citizens, regardless of their racial or financial status. Even though education by itself cannot directly change the economic, political, or social structures of a country, education can contribute to democracy and democratic citizenship by offering equal opportunities to children of different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. According to a 2014 press release by the United States Department of Education all students regardless of race, color, national origin or zip code deserve a high-quality education that includes resources such as academic and extracurricular programs, strong teaching, technology and instructional materials, and safe school facilities (U.S. Department of Education, 2014). In reality, many students across the nation, especially non-white students, are denied the quality of education desired in a democratic country, like the United States.

Students with a history of racial discrimination are much more likely to attend schools with less resources than caucasian students. Schools in minority dominated neighborhoods often have inadequate classrooms, less access to technological resources, and less means of entry to higher education. This lack of opportunity after leaving high school is a major impediment towards an equal democratic playing field. The Office for Civil Rights, an organization that advocates for the resource equity in the nation’s schools, found that the negative experiences of minority students in high school is the main driving factor between the gap in income and education, victimization by violence, lower occupational status, and lack of participation in electoral politics (Lange, 2017). As such it is critical that education is prioritised as one of the nations indicators of democratization.

Social mobility is key for a democratic society, and education is the only guarantee to have access to equal opportunities and respect. However, the U.S. has under enrollment of low-income students in four year institutions. In fact most 75% of students entering ‘top’ colleges and universities are from from the highest socioeconomic class. The selection of qualified youth is far greater than the number admitted and enrolled meaning that theoretically America’s top colleges could enroll more moderate- and low-income students without lowering their selection standards (Havemen, 2006). In the long run this impedes the ability of citizens to contribute and influence the govervening of the nation. This inequity in the provision of education also plays a large role in the amount of financial resources available to people, since a higher degree is often associated with a higher salary. Moreover, money goes a long way in politics; often influencing interest groups and playing a key role in the outcome of elections. In the long run this unequal balance of access to financial resources, destroys the ideals of democracy and the basic principle of inclusion. Equal access to education can change this unbalance by promoting socio-economic mobility and closing the gap between the lower class, the middle class and the top 10%, who own 77% of all the country’s wealth (Goelzhauser & Rose, 2017). Education can accomplish this by increasing the potential of citizens and their ability to perform in a well paying job.

Education keeps a country financially stable and innovative. With technology making many jobs obsolete, it is more important than ever to provide the public with an education that will prepare the young for the jobs of the future. The U.S. reaps the benefit of education as qualified individuals are employed, start paying taxes, and stimulate the economy. Without an educated public the U.S. would need to outsource jobs. A set of learnt skills is invaluable to USA’s wealth of human capital. This is reflected in the abundance of judges, legislators, Senators, and all other governmental positions that require a college education. Knowledge, another source of human capital, also ensures that people can make better decisions. When politicians talk about national issues concerning the country, an educated citizen is more likely to vote than one who isn’t. Even if both the uneducated and educated where to vote at the same rate, those with an education will have a higher chance of reaping the benefits of their vote as they understand the issues being discussed. Moreover, education ensures that a new generation of American citizens know and understand the principles of how to participate in democracy. In the process of education, political ideologies are developed, whether those be democratic or otherwise, is in the hands of educational practices nationally.

Every government is elected from the citizens themselves. However, citizens must be educated to enjoy the freedoms and liberties of a democratic republic. Knowledgeable citizens have the ability to comprehend legislation and keep the three branches of government accountable. Public education prevents corruption and abuse by the government. Public education can also double as civic education. The understanding of one’s civic role allows everyone to look after their constitutional rights. A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that education increases citizens’ attention to public affairs and it has positive social externalities (Milligan, Moretti, & Oreopoulos, 2003). In other words, the civic engagement of one person may actually benefit a whole community. The proper civic skills allow people to exercise the First Amendment and communicate their grievances against the government to politicians. The same study also found that a higher educational attainment in a community resulted in less violent forms of protest. In addition, more education means that citizens can follow a political debate and when a new legislation is being proposed they have the resources to find out whether it is truly in their best interest or not. All in all, public education lays the foundation for civic education and increases political participation.

Voting, arguably one of the most important civic duties of any citizen, has been found to be directly correlated to a person’s educational attainment. Generally voter turnout is higher among college graduates than those with only a high school diploma. This is due to the fact that education leads to an interest in political action and sparks the natural instinct to analyze (Lange, 2007). A bigger problem is the low rates of voter registration among the pool of voter eligible citizens. Data supplied by the U.S. Bureau suggest that those with a post-secondary education are two times more likely to vote (Milligan, Moretti, & Oreopoulos, 2003). However, increasing voting without increasing education would result in uninformed voting that could have negative consequences in the election outcomes. As such, education is important not only increase civic participation in the ballots, but to ensure that the citizens’ votes reflect informed decisions.

To promote a more effective and democratic system in the United States, people should strive to become active an educated citizens. Active Citizenship describes citizens who are knowledgeable on issues concerning their local, state, or even national community. They are regular voters and are educated enough to understand their constitutional rights and how to protect them. Political ideologies and participation often reflect family political involvement; consequently, taking the initiative to become civically active citizens starts at home. Conversations concerning social and political issues should not be shunned; instead they should be discussed in an open and encouraging environment for students to discuss and ask questions. To inspire active citizenship the nation also needs to increase civic education through general education. At a young age, citizens should start community engagement in schools. Education equips anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender, with the skills and resources to be politically active. Without it social, racial, and financial equality is near impossible. Anyone can participate in a democracy, but their influence only reflects their effort.

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