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Practically Idealistic blog
The title for this blog originated with use of the term “practical idealist” in this 1996 opinion piece, which asked: “To what kind of work should a practical idealist aspire?” A century and a half earlier, Emerson, in his 1841 essay Circles, wrote: “There are degrees in idealism.  We learn first to play with it academically. . . .  Then we see in the heyday of youth and poetry that it may be true, that it is true in gleams and fragments.  Then, its countenance waxes stern and grand, and we see that it must be true.  It now shows itself ethical and practical.”  John Dewey and Mahatma Gandhi embraced practical idealism in the 20th century, as did UN Secretary General U Thant.  Al Gore invoked it in a 1998 speech. In the context of this blog, the term is meant to convey idealism tempered but not overwhelmed by realism: a search for the ideal on a path guided by common sense.
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Friday, September 30, 2016

History, Education, Voting, Citizenship

The New York Times has an op-ed by Harvard professor Alexander Keyssarauthor of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States.

Another historian, Alan Taylor of UVA, wrote in The American Scholar on “The Virtue of an Educated Voter,” arguing “The Founders believed that a well-informed electorate preserves our fragile democracy and benefits American society as a whole.”  Alan Taylor’s essay is sufficiently timely and important that I quote from it extensively below and encourage readers to consider the entire essay at The American Scholar.   Characterizing attitudes of the late 18th and early 19thcenturies, Taylor says:

“Poorly educated voters might also elect reckless demagogues who would appeal to class resentments and promote the violent redistribution of wealth.  In such a nightmare scenario, a military despot—an American Caesar—ultimately would seize power and restore order at the expense of free government…. Though a blessing for common people, a republic seemed dangerously fragile.  Republican political theory of the day held that empires and monarchies could thrive without an educated populace.  Indeed, kings and nobles could better dominate and dazzle the ignorant and credulous.  But republics depended on a broad electorate of common men, who, to keep their new rights, had to protect them with attentive care. These citizens, theorists insisted, needed to cultivate a special character known as ‘virtue’: the precious capacity to transcend their diverse self-interests by favoring the common good of the political community.  If everyone merely pursued his private interest, a republic would succumb to the perverse synergy of demagogues and tyrants. To override the selfishness assumed to be innately human, people had to be taught the value of virtue.  Thomas Jefferson noted, ‘I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession, unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree…. Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other…. kings, priests, and nobles … will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.’”

Taylor continues, “Visionary leaders insisted that preserving a republic required improving the common people by an increased investment in education. But a republic depended on common voters who lacked schooling and often balked at paying for it, preferring to spend their money on consumer goods…. In 1812, New York became the first state outside New England to adopt a comprehensive system for educating all children in grammar schools. Such public systems gradually spread throughout the middle-Atlantic and midwestern states during the 1820s and 1830s but not in the South, which had none until after the Civil War. The conviction that freedom required education flourished only where slavery had been disavowed. Northerners paid for the expansion of educational opportunity with their tax dollars because they anticipated economic benefits.  The growth of colleges and universities followed, accelerating over the generations, particularly in the North…. The 20th century brought the greatest leap forward, from four percent of young adults in 1900 to nearly 50 percent by 1980…. The growth reflected an economic transformation as most Americans moved away from agriculture into industry, government bureaucracies, or commercial services.... Until the 1970s, voters supported increased investment in education as a political priority.  In the process of that expansion, education gradually became redefined as an economic good, rather than a political one. The proponents of higher education promised economic growth, not political virtue, as the prime goal. It became quaint at best to raise an alarm about demagogues and aristocrats as the dangerous consequence of an ignorant electorate.  Many students valued economic and social mobility over the responsibilities of civic leadership.  And only a political fool would seek virtue in an electorate bombarded by advertising that urged Americans to keep score of winners and losers by the consumer goods that they could buy and display…. The shift to an economic justification for education has led to its redefinition as a private, individual benefit instead of a public good. In the wake of the Second World War, the GI Bill funded students on a vast scale, allowing them to pursue any major, including those that did not lead immediately to a particular job, enabling them to exercise a choice denied to current students by the financial exigencies of high costs and mounting debts.”

According to Alan Taylor, “It now sounds fuzzy and naïve to speak of any other benefits of higher education, such as knowledge for its own sake, increased happiness, an enhanced appreciation of art, or a deeper understanding of human nature and society.  Along the way, we also have shunted into the background the collective, social rewards of education: the ways in which we all, including those who do not attend college, benefit from better writers and thinkers, technological advances, expanded markets, and lower crime rates.  Above all, we need to return to Jefferson’s emphasis on rational inquiry built on evidence—or risk the republic’s fate on politicians who appeal to our emotions and prejudices…. We have come to think and speak of education as primarily economic (rather than political) and individual (rather than social) in its rewards. As a consequence, growing numbers of voters care only for the education of their own children. These conceptual and rhetorical shifts lead legislators to wonder why taxpayers should pay for the education of others—particularly those of poorer means, different culture, or darker color. If only the individual, rather than society as a whole, benefits from education, let the student bear the cost of it: so runs the new reasoning.  During every recession, state governments make budget cuts, and public colleges and universities become the tempting, soft targets. That temptation grows when states feel pinched by rising costs for Medicaid and prisons (places stuffed with the poorly educated). By reducing public support for colleges and universities, legislators and governors induce them to increase the tuition and fees that students pay. A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that since the 2008 recession, states have reduced spending on public higher education by 17 percent per student. During the same period, tuition has risen by 33 percent…. As a country, we are in retreat from the … dream of equal educational opportunity for all.  And the future social costs will be high.  Proportionally fewer Americans will benefit from higher education, inequality will increase, and free government will become a stage set for opportunists to pander to the prejudices and fears of the poorly educated.  Although the current definition of education is relentlessly economic, the source of the crisis is political. Just as in Jefferson’s day, most legislators and governors believe that voters prefer tax cuts to investments in public education. Too few leaders make the case for higher education as a public good from which everyone benefits.  But broader access to a quality education pays off in collective ways: economic growth, scientific innovation, informed voters and leaders, a richer and more diverse culture, and lower crime rates—each of which benefits us all. Few Americans know the political case for education advanced by the founders.  Modern politicians often make a great show of their supposed devotion to those who founded the nation, but then push for the privatization of education as just another consumer product best measured in dollars and paid for by individuals. This reverses the priorities of the founders.”

Taylor concludes, “We need to revive the founders’ definition of education as a public good and an essential pillar of free government. We should also recover their concept of virtue, classically defined, as a core public value worth teaching. That, in turn, would enable more voters to detect demagogues seeking power through bluster and bombast and pandering to the self-interest of members of the electorate. At the end of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman in Philadelphia is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin what sort of government the delegates had created for the people. He supposedly replied, 'A republic, madam, if you can keep it.'”


Alan Taylor happens to be among the historians whose early reviews of a forthcoming (February 2017) book, Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War, appear here

As mentioned in an August 2016 (August 20) post, the author of the Self-Evident Truths book is my father, Richard D. Brown — who (citing Alexander Keyssar's The Right to Vote) recently wrote a brief article on "Suffrage and Citizenship."

Concluding that article, Brown writes: "Erecting barriers to the franchise does not reflect the long history of voting in the United States, and has instead been connected to efforts to shape the character of the electorate.  Initially propertied people feared that their property-less neighbors would re-distribute wealth.  Then there was a fear that women and non-whites would corrupt the integrity of the electorate.  Later that concern shifted to foreigners.  Whether or not we believe there is such a thing as 'the integrity of the electorate,' we need to recognize that from the beginning the foundation of voting rights was taxation: the belief that those who are taxed should have a voice in the disposition of their property.  How far we choose to honor that ideal has been more a matter of practical politics than a matter of principle."

10:37 pm edt 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Literacy News, September 29 Forum

The New Haven Independent has news on the Literacy Coalition’s board of directors, among other developments in local reading, technology access, and volunteering efforts.

Previewed in the article is a September 29 event, part of a Literacy Forum series, on: “Language, Bilingualism, and Literacy – in School and Beyond.”  More information on the panelists speaking at this free event is at LiteracyEveryday and that site’s blog.  

RSVP: info@literacyeveryday.org

9:43 am edt 

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