Can Schools Save Democracy?

From newsletter.

From my hermetically-sealed bedroom, where I quarantined all last week after a COVID scare, I watched a horde of radical Trump supporters storm our Capital. A guy with a furry Viking hat and no shirt stood at the podium where Nancy Pelosi and other legislative leaders make laws and help run our government. At times, the scene was almost comical, because some of those folks looked like extras from a Wes Anderson film. But mostly, the scene was deeply upsetting. 

Before my husband found a place on Wall Street, he was a humble historian. His specialty was the inter-war years in Germany, writing his dissertation on Erich Ludendorff. So, when he looked at events unfolding on TV, all he saw was Nazi parallels. “Symbolism? Check! Performance art? Check! Law and Order themes? Check! Radical conservatives who aren’t controlled by traditional conservatives? Check! Chaos Agents? Check!”

I look at those delusional people, some of whom look like they’ve led some rough lives, and I think about schools. What could schools have done to prevent those attacks? Some of my friends believe that schools could be doing a better job teaching kids about civics and media literacy, so people can learn to separate online conspiracy stories from reality and can value rules of law. I’m not sure how to effectively teach those lessons, when the vast majority of high school graduates aren’t reading on grade level. 

What we had last week was a perfect storm. An unhinged president, who was able to directly talk to the people without a filter or an editor. Twitter is a bully pulpit on steroids. A public that is weary from a year of a pandemic. A growing economic gulf between those who have a quality education and those who don’t. Pandering from Republican leaders who were too cowardly to put a check on the president. The erosion of trust in the media and the fragmentation of information-gathering. Those are a whole lot of problems, and schools can’t fix all that. 

Perhaps schools could relieve some the anger and the resentment by educating everyone equally; quality of schools should not be based on one’s zip code. Maybe people would be less interested in supporting dangerous demagogues if they felt like the system protected them. Maybe if high school graduates had a solid reading and math foundation they would have better post-high school options and be more content. Content people are less likely to undermine our political system. 

Four years ago our country elected a president that was massively unfit for office. His election should have triggered some mass reflection and real changes, but that never happened. Every day that he remained in office, Americans were exposed to mob-style politics, gaslighting, unprofessionalism. With a new scandal in the news every day, we’ve become numb to crass behavior, law-breaking, and just out-and-out insanity. The abnormal is now normal.

We have about ten days left of the Trump presidency. After that, I hope we can recalibrate our standards for political behavior and regain trust in political institutions and mainstream media. Without those standards, we are lost. These standards must begin with a basic education for all citizens.

15 thoughts on “Can Schools Save Democracy?

  1. No, education can’t fix democracy. Content people are less likely to try to overthrow democracies, but I don’t have a lot of confidence that better reading and math skills would make the Trump/QAnon fans who invaded the House more content.

    The narrative that those individuals are “left behinds” who would be more believing of facts and more tolerant and less susceptible to the influence of demogogues of things were just better for them seems mistaken from the profiles I’ve seen. Former congressional representatives, current members of state houses, decorated air force veterans, lawyers, physicians, policeman? The physician from my neck of the woods is a UW med school grad (I think her reading and math skills are probably fine) and she seems to be part of the QAnon cult.

    It’s a dangerous narrative in my opinion, that the violence of these right wing extremist groups can be addressed by treating them better.

    In high school, when I was taking German, I very foolishly wanted to write the same narrative about the interwar years of Germany. With faulty, superficial knowledge, I thought I’d come up with a clever hypothesis that Nazism was caused by the treaty that ended WWI. My teacher gently persuaded me to stick with the assigned project (an essay on a novella by Mann) by suggesting that I might not have the vocabulary to research and write on the historical topic (which was an understatement, but she was very gentle. She did it without calling me a naive, foolish, over-confident teenager planning becoming a nazi apologist without understanding anything). I don’t think the project would have turned me into a nazi sympathizer, but I’m glad I don’t have that essay on my record or conscience.


  2. I see no reason to believe that equalizing education spending would change educational outcomes. New York City public schools all receive equal and quite generous per capita funding, but they show significant educational disparities, and large numbers of people, including both Laura and me, work hard to avoid sending their children there.


  3. Maybe somebody should go to Parler and tweet out what Hitler did to the Brownshirt leaders after he was secure in power and didn’t need them.


  4. I, too, don’t think that education – especially civics education is the answer (I sure turned off when ‘boring’ political responsibility was taught in class – it was the robust political arguments around the dining table which sparked my interest).

    There’s been tons of research which seems to show that educational outcomes are generally predicated on family circumstances – regardless of how much money is invested in the schooling system. Families which value education, and invest in it (either time or money), have kids who do better educationally; those who are disengaged, don’t. [Yes, of course, there are exceptions, but they are outliers].
    Here in NZ we have had demographic-based funding of schools for at least 30 years (and probably longer) – meaning that more money is spent on educational support (smaller class sizes, reading support, family engagement, etc) in poorer communities. It’s made no difference in educational outcomes – those kids still do worse in every metric.

    It seems to me, that these protestors are coming from a demographic which feels dis-enfranchised by the current political, and especially, economic climate. People with good, stable jobs, with sufficient incomes to enable them to feed their families, and see reasonable job prospects for their kids, don’t have any incentive to riot.
    Their radical leadership see the opportunities provided by this groundswell of popular opinion – and race to place themselves at the head of the parade. They have zero incentive to find solutions, their power is all based on increasing dissent. [I don’t have a lot of time for politicians in general, but these ones – whether right or left – earn my deepest contempt]

    And when a school-leaver (one who’s never going to go to college) sees that the only jobs available are minimum wage, zero-hours contracts – with no prospects of improvement – they don’t feel motivated to even try. Companies no longer offer internal training programmes for staff, promote from within, and encourage and support their workforce to become more skilled. All that costs money, and for a long time they’ve been able to hire the skills from outside, rather than pay for them to be developed internally. And, of course, hire immigrants who’ll take low wage, poor-prospect jobs to provide a springboard for their kids to succeed.

    True anecdote: a hairdressing firm in a small town in NZ was unable to hire a qualified hairdresser/beautician – and tried to get an immigrant on the ‘essential skills’ category to fill the role (filling an essential role fast-tracks the immigration process in NZ).
    No one seemed to have asked the obvious question – why not hire a school-leaver and train them…. And, if none of the school-leavers wanted the job, perhaps they needed to look at the wages they were prepared to offer an apprentice…. [I can accept that it’s difficult to attract professionals (even professional hairdressers) to small towns, but people who are already there, are more likely to stay]

    This profound, and growing, divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is what needs to be addressed. This is just as true for us in NZ, as it is for the US and the UK. It seems as though the rich are getting richer, and the poor getting poorer.

    But, this is where I, as a non-politician, bow out. I don’t know what the answer is to this…. But as a society we need one.


  5. “People with good, stable jobs, with sufficient incomes to enable them to feed their families, and see reasonable job prospects for their kids, don’t have any incentive to riot.”

    But…that’s not exactly true? Lots of these people have been identified as having jobs, including lawyers. I mean I wish that were true because then social supports and education would help. But it appears this is more about the loss of power than the gaining of it.


    1. Jenn said: “Lots of these people have been identified as having jobs, including lawyers. ”

      I think you missed my point about leaders taking advantage of the popular groundswell. The leaders themselves don’t have to be suffering from economic disadvantage (though one shouldn’t underestimate the discontent caused by *relative* poverty). The leaders – the people appearing in the press – are simply seeing a political advantage for themselves in being at the forefront of a ‘popular movement’.

      There aren’t many politicians, or movement spokespeople – of any stripe – who come, themselves, from a hardscrabble background.

      There’s a lovely (but rather cynical) Lois McMaster Bujold quote about most political leadership being people seeing a parade and nipping over to place themselves at the head of it.


    2. The people in the Capitol mob were lawyers, doctors, policemen, CEOs, business owners, . . . , not just their leaders. And, their primary motivation for participating in the mob seems to be a belief that the election was illegitimate, a belief in conspiracy theories, and a blind trust of Trump. I do really think it is sidetracking ourselves to try to address specific grievances in this context.

      There was a peaceful protest at our state capitol today, where there have regularly been clashes including two shootings and an attempt at invading the Governor’s residence on the same day as the Capitol invasion.

      The statehouse republican party leader asked the protesters to come in their “sunday best”, not tactical gear and asked them to not carry guns (even though they are allowed to). I do think peaceful protest (though they should wear masks) is a very American value and I am glad the group was able to produce a peaceful event.

      A anti covid mitigation measure group was planning an “occupy the Capitol” protest which was going to include crowding the entrance at the Capitol and entering when they could. The leader of that group cancelled the protest after the DC Capitol invasion.


    3. Jenn said, “But…that’s not exactly true? Lots of these people have been identified as having jobs, including lawyers. I mean I wish that were true because then social supports and education would help. But it appears this is more about the loss of power than the gaining of it.”

      Yeah. And QAnon.


  6. This is going to be unpopular, but the violent Capitol invasion is a pretty natural consequence of 5 months of George Floyd protests this summer and early fall. What did we hear and see then?

    –If a crowd is big enough, it can do whatever it wants and politicians will jump in front and support it.
    –“A riot is the language of the unheard.” So, if you’re rioting, it must be because you’ve been wronged in some way. (I think we need to revisit whether “A riot is the language of the unheard” was such a great slogan, because (at least as used in much of 2020), it suggested that anybody who is behaving badly must have some sort of just complaint. Ergo, the worse they are behaving, the more wronged they must be and the more just their cause must be.)
    –Back in August, NPR literally did a puff interview with the author of a book glorifying rioting and looting.

    –Looking back a bit further (2016), Vox published a piece entitled, “Riots are destructive, dangerous, and scary — but can lead to serious social reforms.”

    –There has also been a lot of minimizing this year of the effect of rioting that involved repeated violent attacks against the federal courthouse in Portland, harassment of both ordinary people and politicians (like Rand Paul being swarmed leaving the Rose Garden), various attacks against police stations (including burning down a Minneapolis precinct), a number of murders or deaths caused by rioting (like the guy accidentally burned alive in Minneapolis), plus a national surge in shootings and murders. Supposedly, the cause was just, so no amount of violence could be wrong, and demonstrations could be called “mostly peaceful” even if neighborhoods were literally burning.

    Eventually, the US got into a cycle in 2020 where arguably justified police shootings (or even just rumored police shootings) triggered rioting. 2020 featured an enormous amount of left-wing associated violence, accompanied by alternating cover-ups (“mostly peaceful”), excuses and even celebration.

    And then one fine day, the other shoe drops and there’s a violent far-right riot and suddenly left of center realize that (at least when the other side is doing it), political violence is bad. Welcome to the party, pal.

    How about we have a common standard that we apply to everybody, regardless of political orientation? Some suggestions:

    –Law-breaking is bad.
    –Obstruction of elected officials carrying out their duties is bad.
    –Illegally blocking streets is bad.
    –Looting, rioting, arson and other destruction of property are bad–both public and private property.
    –Mobbing, physical intimidation and physical violence are bad.

    I’d also like to note that there were also a lot of excuses made for BLM violence in 2020, with the argument being that lawful methods and previous reforms done through official channels had failed. Well, that argument works for everybody, left and right, and it’s essentially an argument for resorting to violence whenever you don’t get your way, no matter how tiny a minority you represent or how ridiculous your political aims are.


  7. Here’s a tangentially related point to Laura’s original post:

    I don’t think we’ve come to grips with how many drop-outs are going to be created by the 2020-2021 school year.

    A lot of high schoolers (and perhaps middle schoolers) are having their educational process interrupted to such a degree that they will not feel up to going back to the traditional classroom and may not want to go back. Legally, kids may leave school at 16 in many states, and even more restrictive states have provision for kids to leave earlier with parental permission or passing a high school equivalency test.

    A lot of high schoolers are going to be leaving school and starting to fend for themselves with at best a GED. And offering them tutoring time (i.e. more school and more opportunities to feel stupid) isn’t necessarily going to be a winner.

    A lot of proposals for supplemental tutoring or supplemental schooling don’t come to grips with the probability that a lot of teenagers whose education has been interrupted are not going to be willing to go back to high school and may also struggle in and drop out of community college. The motivation/willingness issue has not really been addressed.

    Much as it pains me to say this, I think it might be a good use of money to provide something like a $200 a month stipend for high schoolers whose schooling has been significantly interrupted–as long as they are attending school. Even just a year of that might greatly raise the graduation rate for those kids.


    1. But how would the 200 stipend work? For any student whose HS was physically closed? For students who are performing poorly? I agree there will be a significant lasting effect of the interruptions in education and that we will need creative solutions.


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