Public Schools, Private Schools, Home Schools, and Democracy

Tem42 has challenged me about being a bit vague on specifics in my writeup on public schools. I am guilty. But my main point was "a modest preparation for democracy."1

I have no doubt that Tem42 and her2 acquaintances who have been home schooled are no more undemocratic than other populations, but my concern is for the spread of home schooling, and private schooling throughout the country, whether the United States, or my own Canada.

I am also confident that Tem42 is well-educated and sensitive. It is not with the academic program of home and private schools that my concern lies. I am not sure that it is an academic program that imparts the instinct for democracy.

On the contrary, the more specific, and detailed the preparation for democracy is, the more specific models that are prescribed, the more specific models that are proscribed, the less it has to with democracy, in my opinion.

It has always seemed to me that democracy was less a program than a process, and an imperfect one at that, a work in progress--a practice. In one sense, it is liberal. In one sense it has to do with a sort of marketplace. In one sense it has to do with the commons. But none of these is exhaustive, nor even truely exact.

I relate an experience to convey my concerns.

When I attended the University of Toronto, I lived for a time in the Campus Co-operative Residences Inc. Residents owned and controlled it.

One year, I received the job of assigning rooms to those who wanted to live there. I had steeped myself in Co-op philosophy and was determined to live up to the tradition. What a controversy! I felt then, as I do now, that the object of living together there, was to learn how to live together. This requires that instead of having homogenous houses, the houses should be heterogeneous: Out of all those applying in any year to live there, each house should as closely as possible be representative of that mix.

I did not last long on this job; the feeling there was each house should be racially pure--there is no other way to say it. I was told the "Indians", East and West, wanted to live together, so they were sent down to the worst kept up3, and most distant house.

This is what the majority wanted, I was told, so it must be democratic. Maybe, but when were we going to learn how to live together. Now I know how wimpy that sounds, but isn’t that the goal of democracy?

Living in the vertical mosaic that is Canada, I know this is easy for me to think of, than those who live in the melting pot. And I am the first to admit that Canada is not perfect.

My point is that home schools are often composed primarily of families, and maybe neighbours from the same demographic groups. Their whole reason is to allow parents to provide a thorough program of study, to make up for the perceived lacks in the public schools, especially in the areas of science, mathematics, religion, and morals.

Private schools also draw from particular groups, mostly defined by money. And they serve to inculcate specific class consciousness. One of the most exemplary of these, in Canada, is Upper Canada College, for the children of rich businesspeople. In Ottawa there is the Lysee Claudel.

It is not so much what we learn, or where we live, even though that is not, of course, unimportant, but how, and with whom, we go about doing it. Living, and learning, without exposure to any but our own class, race, gender, is no preparation for democracy.

I admit to not being totally innocent in this regard. When I lived in San Francisco I went to a private school--Lick-Wilmerding High School. In my defense, I say that “Lick” was not selected by money, but by competitive examination. There was some diversity of race and class.

Surfing the internet, I came across an idea that pretty much sums up my concerns. It is “the twilight of common dreams.”4 If a people, or a country is to hold together, there must be a sharing of some common purpose, of some dreams. Today, we are so dispirited that the only things exciting us are lower taxes, more cops, more control of those different from us. We can no longer put ouselves in another’s shoes. We can no longer empathize.

We are so afraid we can envision nothing other than what is seen on television, not realizing it is all a commerical vision, provided by an entity that wants our money, and for us to shut up.

1. One of many inspired observations of Neil Postman.

2. Tem42 is not too unhappy with this, so I'll leave it.

3. I know; I lived there for an year. I still think that if a majority of the students who lived there were caucasian, then it would have been better kept up--or sold.

4. This is a phrase of Todd Gitlin, professor of Culture and Commjnications at New York University.