Can ‘Pioneer Democracy’ Save Public Education?

Published November 1, 2006

Review of Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy David Mathews (Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation Press, 2006) 165 pages, softcover, ISBN 0923993169, $9.95 Available through

It’s almost guaranteed that a discussion about democracy and public education will be overflowing with rhetoric about how public schools have transformed millions of people–most steeped in ignorant, Old World ways–into democracy-loving, united Americans.

Thankfully, in Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy, former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare David Mathews largely avoids such myths as he examines ways to rejuvenate citizens’ connections to their schools.

Indeed, for most of the book he turns on its head the notion that public education forged people into good democrats. He contends instead that American democracy created public education, and that to save our public schools we must recapture democratic practices of old.

To visit the democracy Mathews believes produced the best public education, one must look to the American pioneers, who gathered in small communities and undertook collective work for the common good:

“After clearing land and putting up cabins, settlers turned to community building, which involved not only the construction of shops and streets, but also the creation of a way of life reflecting their highest values,” Mathews writes. “Schools were among the first institutions people established because they were a means of creating the kind of society they wanted.”

Usurping Power

So, what happened between the pioneer era and today? When did truly community-centered public education morph into the current detached, bureaucratic system Mathews says has severely strained “the ties between the public and the public schools”?

Reclaiming Public Education traces the start of the process to the mid-1800s, when district and state authorities began to take educational control away from individual communities.

The usurpation of authority became particularly acute around 1900, when progressive notions of scientific, “expert” public administration were dominant. Since then, power has become almost completely detached from local communities, with even the federal government setting substantial education policy.

To reestablish true public ownership of education, Mathews proposes a return to democratic control of schooling, much like that practiced on the American frontier. He wants communities, through concerned citizens hashing out collective solutions for common problems, to reassert control over their children’s education.

Transforming the System

Critical to this, Mathews declares, is that “citizens have to choose what they do; they can’t be conscripted into public work.” That makes sense: For people to truly feel they own something, they must willingly buy it.

But how can we transform our huge, bureaucratic system of public education into one run by the voluntary consent of all citizens?

Unfortunately, in answering this crucial question Mathews departs from the realism in much of the book and instead offers idealized notions about communal action:

“The power people truly own is generated when their experiences, insights, and talents are combined with the experiences, insights, and talents of others,” Mathews writes. “This relational power is an innate and renewable resource; citizens regenerate it when they use it to do public work because the work fosters new relationships. This self-reinforcing cycle continues and can expand, picking up energy like a benign hurricane.”

Working Together

Mathews’ optimism notwithstanding, history has shown repeatedly that this sort of snowballing communal action does not occur, whether in the failed New Harmony settlement of the 1820s or the Soviet Union of the twentieth century. People simply never make lasting progress through “public work.”

This does not mean individuals don’t work with one another all the time–they do. Their ultimate goal, however, is not usually to do what’s best for the “community” but for themselves. They constantly utilize each other’s skills, assets, and talents to produce things they couldn’t make on their own.

Thankfully, self-interest also promotes the “common good.” We are all made better off, for instance, by self-interest-driven advancements in agriculture, electronics, and automobiles.

The same could apply to education were it rooted in individual action instead of “public work.”

Missing the Point

This brings us to the central fault in Reclaiming Public Education. While Matthews asserts that collective educational work must be driven by the voluntary actions of individuals, he refuses to take the final leap and acknowledge that letting individuals make their own educational arrangements is the best way to promote true educational ownership.

Matthews overturns many myths, but he cannot resist the unfounded conviction that when it comes to education, public is always preferable to private.

“Only a citizenry that rules itself can restore the public schools to their rightful place as democratic institutions still needed to complete the great work of our revolution,” Mathews writes at the end of the book.

Sadly, he fails to learn the final lesson to which his work so clearly points.

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.