To the Editor:
The two idiomatic phrases that speak of “putting the cart before the horse” and “engines driving (various) wheels” quite aptly describe the dependency of a democratic form of government on an educated citizenry.
If for a moment you imagine a well-functioning democracy as a beautiful, finely crafted cart or perfect set of wheels, and a well-educated electorate as the horse that’s needed to pull the cart (or the engine necessary to turn the wheels), you’ll get the idea. That’s why I’m constantly baffled by the fact that so many Americans fail to see that the education/government connection is as necessary to democracy as water is to a cup of coffee or tea. As the lyrics to an old son say, “You can’t have one without the other.”
One would have to be unconscious (or dead) not to recognize there’s something terribly amiss with various aspects of life here in America—including the area of public school education. (According to some sources, the U.S. now ranks lower than a vast number of industrialized nations, with as many as 28 nations outdoing us in primary and secondary education.
There’s practically universal agreement that a democratic form of government is superior because citizens have a powerful voice: the ballot. However, if voters are ill-informed and cast their ballots simply because “it’s the right thing to do” (or some other frivolous reason) their vote becomes meaningless. It’s more or less analogous to an untrained and ill-informed driver behind the wheel of a car: A motor vehicle is a marvelous machine, but when operated by someone uneducated as to its proper use, it becomes a very dangerous—even lethal—piece of equipment. Similarly, in a democratic nation, that “ballot-bullet” in the hands of an uneducated and ill-informed voter can do more harm than good.
So, how does the public-educated system fit into the picture and how might attention to and how might attention to and improvement of that system help to get us out of the present quagmire?
I submit that if a democratic nation is to flourish, indeed survive, it needs a sound public education system to serve as its underpinning: Public schools need to turn out graduates who will make up a well-informed and inquisitive electorate, an electorate having the ability to sort the wheat from the chaff by means of discernment: by rejection of name-calling candidates with a stubborn, pig-headed attachment to an outmoded ideology or political party; by rejection of candidates having an overriding concern for their re-election or self-aggrandizement, and by rejection of verbiage spouted by so-called political “pundits” who line their pockets via their media tirades. (Needless to say, in imparting those discernment skills, there should be a total absence of instilling in students a partisan political preference.)
Unfortunately, there seems to be a tendency for Americans to rely on “quick-fixes”: car not running properly? Get it tended to, or get a new one—immediately—even without the necessary cash to do so. If the marriage isn’t going that well, get a divorce. Yes, we’re an impatient lot, expecting instant solutions to long-festering problems. As a result, all we seem able to come up with are convenient, albeit destructive “quick-fixes” such as that all-too-convenient device, cut backs on public school funding.
On the up-beat side, there are a few signs that some awakening has happened: former President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” programs serve as evidence to this. And although those programs are in some ways controversial they are, at least, first steps.
Another sign of an awakening is the long-overdue apparent concern for the negative aspect of guaranteed tenure for poor teachers. (Though I was a union member for most of my highly successful teaching career and benefited in various ways as a result, I always harbored a few doubts as to the wisdom of guaranteed tenure—a doubt that turned out to be valid when I became a district-wide administrator and had to deal with a significant number of inadequate, tenured teachers I’d inherited.)
Granted, identifying poor teachers (other than through the use of standardized tests I subject areas lending themselves to that practice) is not an easy thing to do, but with sufficient input by proven teacher-peers, astute administrators and alumni, I believe it can be done.
What, then, is the single-most important quality for a voter pulling levers or marking ballots on Election Day to possess? As I see it, it’s the willingness to look at all sides of an issue by viewing, reading and listening to opinions and facts from legitimate sources; then—and only then—will he or she be equipped to make intelligent choices.
Put briefly, what we need are informed, inquisitive voters, for voters are, after all, the actual horses and engines turning the wheels of a democracy: A high-quality public school education helps prepare youngsters for that role.
Albert H. Vervaet