Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and The Future of America
by benjamin r. barber
ballantine books, 370 pages, $20

“In the spring of 1988,” writes Benjamin Barber, a professor of political science at Rutgers, “[University] President Edward Bloustein gave a commencement address in the form of a meditation on the sad state into which America’s large universities had fallen”the pathologies of community and the classroom that had created a sense of crisis in the nation at large . . . . He proposed a mandatory program of citizen education and community service as a graduation requirement for all students.” And it was Barber whom Bloustein asked to chair the committee charged with developing the program. 

The Rutgers initiative in civic education, though not fully implemented by the time of the writing of Barber’s new book (he describes it as “currently being reviewed by duly constituted faculty bodies,” which could postpone its realization well into the next millennium), consists of a combination of worthwhile academic and community service elements. The book itself, however, is at once troubling and disappointing.

It is disappointing in that, raising the most fundamental issues about the nature and direction of American society, it proposes only an almost comically modest remedy. Even if we take at face value Barber’s claim that the principles developed by his committee at Rutgers are “remarkable in how they fold notions of community, democracy, and citizenship into pedagogy in an attempt to redress the pathologies of modern education,” we might ask whether any college program should be expected to heal what he considers “our radical individualism that ties us to grasping, naked selves.” Is it really true, as he claims, that “what happens today in a third-grade classroom or a college seminar determines whether tomorrow the great American community flourishes or fails”? As a teacher of future teachers, I would be flattered to believe that he is right. But if I did so, I’m afraid I would be falling into the perennial delusion of those who would reshape society and human nature itself through schooling.

The troubling part is that, in the name of an eloquently expressed communitarian vision for a free society, Barber is quick to propose that the minds and hearts of the young be made a target of public policy rather than being sheltered within the sphere of freedom that the First Amendment to our Constitution seeks to protect. Like the Jacobins of the French Revolution or the Bolsheviks in the 1920s, Barber proposes to use compulsory schooling to remake human nature. Characteristic of the nature of his argument is the ringing statement: “There is only one road to democracy: education. And, in a democracy, there is only one essential task for the educator: teaching liberty.”

It sounds wonderfulthere is certainly an association between rising levels of education and the demands for broader participation in political decision-makingbut it would be easy to cite examples of nations with world-class levels of education whose citizens have sat still for authoritarian or totalitarian political systems with little significant protest, and others with low education levels where civic participation is high. Similarly, we can hope that educators would help the young to develop both the qualities of character and the skills and knowledge that contribute to the maintenance of a free society, but how reduce the great complexity of this assignment to something called “teaching liberty”?

Barber does not appear to recognize that a primary reason for the fact that teachers in our public elementary and secondary schools do not generally do an effective job in preparing their students for responsible citizenship in a free society is that they work within an educational system that does not itself value freedom. As a recent international comparative study published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development points out, public schools in the United States enjoy less autonomy in decision-making than do those in comparable nations. My own research indicates that American public policy provides less support for parental choice of schools than does that in Germany, France, Sweden, or other nations of Europe.

Not that An Aristocracy of Everyone lacks eloquence on the nature of freedom and of community. For example:

People feel free concretely not simply when they have choices, but when their choices feel meaningful; not when there is chaos and disorder in which anything is possible, but when what is possible is a set of life choices ordered by ethical or religious values they have chosen for themselves; not when they are left alone, but when they participate in free communities that permit them to define common lives autonomously and establish common identities freely. There is more freedom in choosing to embrace one’s religion of birth than in being told by the state you can believe in anything you please.

The reader of such a passage might expect its author to argue further that freedom will best be learned in schools that have been chosen by parents, teachers, and even pupils, schools that (if they so choose) are “ordered by ethical or religious values” and in which those who have made a commitment so ordered to one another are free to establish a common and distinctive identity. He might even argue that schools with a clearly profiled identity will not only nurture the habits of freedom but are likely to be more effective in teaching academic subjects as well (something pointed out in a recent Rand study and by research in the Netherlands and elsewhere).

But in building his case for “teaching liberty,” alas, Barber is not prepared to go so far as to call for educational freedom for parents, children, and teachers. This failure presumably follows from his conviction that “diversity and difference” must be kept firmly in the private sphere but “prudently barred from the public sphere” in order to protect “a universal personhood for all citizens.” The federal government should mandate that all Americans perform national service, not only to educate the young for democracy but also to “restore to our educational institutions a sense of mission they have long lacked.”

Not that by this I mean to suggest that Barber’s proposals are in the least bit totalitarian; indeed, after his highly pessimistic reading of the current condition of our culture and society, they may strike the reader as anticlimactic. Moreover, we might fault Barber for his lack of trust in the good sense of the American people. An author who can write, “In a society where nobody reads, except when required to, the battle for culture of any kind may already be lost,” has not been riding on the subway much. More important, the continuing vigor of community life and voluntary associations in the United States is curiously ignored by a political scientist with communitarian learnings.

Summing up, then, although it may in some sense be true, as Barber asserts, that “community is the beginning and the end of education-its indispensable condition, its ultimate object,” the effective educative communities are families, schools, colleges, churches, and other associations that frequently are shaped by a conviction of truth that comes from beyond the community itself and even from beyond the nation. Children learn the virtues that sustain a free society in such real communities, while adults deepen their own commitment as they work and sacrifice and dream to sustain them.

Revival of a sense of community in America (to the extent that it has been lost) must surely start from a renewed respect on the part of political scientists and other policy gurus for the real communities with which most Americans identify and through which they give meaning to their lives and seek to transmit what they have found of lasting importance to their children. The growing bureaucratization of public schooling over the past hundred years undermines the voluntary linkage among adults with a shared concern for a particular group of children through which such educative communities are created and sustained. Accepting the present structures of American schooling as an expression of the society as a whole, represented by government, Barber is not able to show how effective educational communities can be given space to do their essential work.

Charles L. Glenn is Professor of Administration, Training, and Policy Studies at the Boston University School of Education.