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The Great School Wars that the educational historian and educational policy analyst Diane Ravitch wrote about in 1974 have returned with a vengeance.

Older battles—over tracking, community control, public funding for religious schools, multicultural education and even busing—once thought laid to rest, have resurfaced, while a host of new flashpoints, over critical race theory, “school choice,” charter schools, publicly funded tuition vouchers, equity, standardized testing, teacher accountability, transgender students’ rights and sex education, have exploded.

Even a glance at the news headlines reveals the depth and intensity of the deep cultural divides surrounding K-12 education. Here are a few examples:

  • “Public schools grooming kids with critical race theory, ‘sexual chaos,’ and ‘racial confusion’”
  • “2 bills to limit sexual content, gender identity discussions in Pennsylvania schools pass Senate Education Committee”
  • “School Boards Are Becoming the Fiercest Battlefront for the Culture Wars”

San Francisco has become a touchstone in this educational Kulturkampf, whether the issue involves the names of public schools, the display of an allegedly racially insensitive mural by a 1930s Communist, the use of the word “chief” as part of administrative titles, or the district’s math curriculum, which professors from Berkeley, Harvard, Stanford and UCLA claim will leave students, especially those from lower-income backgrounds, less prepared for postsecondary STEM education.

I recently spoke with a reporter who had been asked by her editor to write about the relationship between education and democracy. This is, of course, a fraught, extraordinarily complicated topic.

There’s the Dewey-esque notion of education as the bedrock of democracy: as the instrument for producing informed, reflective, independently minded citizens, rather than passive, compliant drones.

John Dewey’s civic-minded vision has, of course, inspired generations of educators, who aspire to transform their classrooms into models of democracy in action, cultivating students who can think critically, question established beliefs, undertake independent, in-depth research and engage in various forms of active learning.

Then there’s how education actually functions in today’s democracy:

  • Where state legislatures intrude into classrooms, dictating topics to be covered or prohibited from discussion and identifying interpretive frameworks, like critical race theory, that are out of bounds.
  • Where elected local school boards meddle in the curriculum and instructional content, pedagogy, grading standards and retention and promotion policies, and institute evaluation and accountability systems that undermine teacher autonomy.
  • Where activist parents demand utter transparency about what’s taught to their children, refuse to allow their offspring to take certain tests and assert a right to exclude their children from lessons or readings they consider inappropriate.

As I spoke with the reporter, I thought quite a bit about what it means for the educational system itself to be democratic.

  • Does this mean that the curriculum should be controlled by:
  1. a state board of education
  2. the state Legislature
  3. an elected local school board
  4. the parents whose children attend a particular school
  • Does a democratic system of education
  1. consist of public schools divided rigidly along neighborhood or district lines
  2. consist of a diversity of forms of schooling—private, parochial, charter, education pods and homeschooling—each with its own curriculum and pedagogical approach
  • Is it possible to have both democratic control of K-12 schools and academic freedom for teachers?
  • Is a democratic system of education compatible with ability groupings and other forms of tracking?
  • Should a democratic system of education have highly selective or specialized or vocational public high schools, each with its own curriculum—or should all public high schools offer essentially the same opportunities? Also, if there are selective high schools, what should be the criteria or mechanisms for selection? Since neighborhoods tend to be stratified along lines of class, ethnicity and race, are neighborhood schools democratic?
  • In a democratic society should students be able to attend a school across district lines—or will this erode the quality of many existing schools?
  • Are magnet schools a democratic solution to educational inequality or do such schools contribute to inequality?
  • Should parents be able to see teachers’ lesson plans?

I think it’s fair to say that the history of primary and secondary education in the United States is, in fact, a series of ongoing controversies over education and democracy. Although the areas of contention have shifted over time, what’s at stake is nothing less than these questions:

  • How can we ensure that marginalized groups—from 19th-century Catholic immigrants or their early 20th-century Jewish counterparts to today’s English language learners or children with disabilities or those who are gender nonconforming—encounter a safe, supportive, healthy school environment that will maximize their opportunities for learning?
  • Who has a right to decide what’s taught in schools, whether the subject is evolution, Ebonics or critical race theory?
  • Should American society embrace Horace Mann’s conception of a common school in an effort to ensure that all students begin starting line, or should the educational system maximize choice, options and diverse alternatives?

Those of us who teach at colleges should not assume that we are largely invulnerable to the kinds of cultural conflicts raging across the K-12 landscape. Nor should those who teach in California or New York be sanguine that the kinds of controversies raging in Texas and Florida over tenure or guns on campus have nothing to do with their states.

Faculty even in the bluest of blue states need to recognize that institutional autonomy is ebbing and that their legislatures are becoming much more intrusive in matters of admissions, curricular requirements, credit transfer, remedial education and institutional spending priorities.

Also, one-shot infusions of funds into public colleges and universities should not blind faculty to a host of worrisome long-term trends, for example in demographics and student preparation and interests, that will inevitably disrupt higher education.

Democracy is not simply a matter of free elections and voting rights. It’s about empowerment. It’s about conflicting interest groups and lobbies, each asserting their own values and priorities.

Today, more and more campus stakeholders believe that they should have a greater voice in institutional functioning. The most striking examples can be found in growth of graduate student unions and the emergence of the first undergraduate unions, It has come as a shock to many faculty members to discover that in campus decision making, theirs is only one voice among many, and not necessarily the loudest or more influential.

Democracy is messy and doesn’t necessarily produce the optimal outcomes. Academic politics is especially acrimonious, not because (in words usually attributed to Henry Kissinger) the stakes are so low, but because the battles are never simply contests over power or struggles for dominance or assertions of self-interest. These contests are ultimately about values, vision, mission and institutional priorities with a larger goal of consensus building.

At their best, colleges and universities and their departments function according to a distinctive form of shared governance, which combines the best of two distinctive conceptions of democracy: deliberative democracy and participatory democracy. In consequence, the political process and representation within that process are as important as the resulting decisions.

If campus politics isn’t ultimately about mission and a broad sense of the collective good, then the academy really is nothing more than yet another corporate entity in today’s callous, unfeeling bureaucratic society.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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