Public Schools as Public Freedom

By Thomas J. Fiala

I was just reading a review of Francis Fukuyama’s new book Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy” published in 2014. The review appeared in the October 2014 issue of The Atlantic and was written by Michael Ignatieff, the Edward R. Murrow Professor of the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Recall it was Fukuyama who became famous in 1989 when he wrote an essay entitled “The End of History.” Ignatieff’s insightful and well written review of Fukuyama’s new book in the Atlantic is the reason I have already ordered my copy. More specifically, however, what did I find interesting in this review that made me “shell out the cash” for this book?

Ignatieff tells us that while Fukuyama believed that “history as we knew it had ended with the victory of liberal-democratic capitalism over Communism … Fukuyama wondered … whether citizens in the newly hegemonic West would lose spiritual and moral purpose now that the all-defining conflict with Communism was over.”

But what Ignatieff then says is what really made me think about capitalism and a free market approach to governance, and in particular how all this related to the current assault on America’s institution of democratic public schools. Again, quoting Ignatieff, “Capitalism did win in 1989– no credible alternative has emerged – but capitalism did not lead to liberal democracy.” (Interestingly enough 1989 was the first year of the governor’s conference on education that many would argue really opened the gates (no pun intended) for free market education reform initiatives.) Now here is where Ignatieff starts to pique my interest a little bit more! He states, “Market systems turned out to be politically promiscuous: they could share a bed with any number of political regimes, from Nordic democracies to Singaporean meritocracies. In Xi Jinping’s China or Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Western liberal democracy now faces a competitor Fukuyama did not anticipate: states that are capitalistic in economics, authoritarian in politics, and nationalist in ideology.” Now here is what really caught my attention and something I’ll have to think a great deal about as I read Fukuyama’s new book!!! Quoting Ignatieff again, “These new authoritarians are conducting an epoch-making historical experiment as to whether regimes that allow private freedoms can endure when they deny their citizens public freedoms.”

Now maybe I am way off when I say this – although I don’t think so – but to me America’s locally controlled public schools are an example of one of those public freedoms. Consider, for example, the last thought in The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free market Became Public Education Policy:Public schools are not government schools, nor are they corporate free market schools. Public schools belong to the public. Public schools are citizen schools, and it is now up to citizens to re-claim what is theirs!

Now supposedly Fukuyama still believes, according to Ignatieff that “history still has a democratic destiny … and the prospects for democracy globally remain good.” But now Ignatieff really gets me thinking about education reform in the United States and how we are going to help – or not be able to help – students living in poverty. He explains that “this assessment depends greatly on the global rise of the middle class.” As Harvard theorist Barrington Moore Jr. proclaimed, “No bourgeois, no democracy.”

I along with many who are reading this blog would agree with this statement. And if this is the case, then America is really in trouble considering that America’s middle class has been shrinking at an alarming rate since Reagan became elected president and Democratic presidents after Reagan often acted more like Republicans particularly when it came to adhering to free market ideas regarding education reform. It seems, particularly when it comes to the creation of education policy, this is an example of governmental and corporate mutualism. This way of governing is but an illusion of liberal democracy in action, and instead reflects a free market political authoritarianism that seeks to take decision-making, in the case of public schools, away from democratically elected school boards. I would argue that America’s public schools are an example of citizens’ public freedom. And when the federal government became allied with free market education reformers in a for-profit education government and corporate mutualistic love-fest, many citizens who understand the importance of public schools in America’s pluralistic democracy became irate! As Ignatieff explains, “… people become insulted when authoritarian systems of rule treat them as disobedient children.” Fukuyama observes that “there is a crisis of representation” leaving millions of Americans convinced that their politicians no longer speak for them.

When it comes to the current state of education reform in the United States, and the corporate free market assault on America’s democratic institution of public schools with the support of central government authoritarianism, clearly it is time for America’s citizenry to reclaim what is theirs – their locally controlled democratic public schools!

Ya know” – come to think of it – I am also going to read Michael Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics.” I think that both of these books seem like a wise purchase for all American citizens to further understand what is going on in America!