I will preface these remarks by establishing that I have no answers. There are greater minds sitting here with me far more suited to that task. Instead, I want to describe the challenges and stakes that American schools face. First, the challenges.
For most of human history, cultural, religious, and racial divisions pushed humanity to violent conflict, war, slavery, genocide, you name it. Where it existed, harsh order was imposed — often unjustly. America, as an exceptional political project, believed that diverse peoples can coexist and become one.
But as an exceptional political project, that’s an exceptionally difficult goal. In Federalist 10, James Madison talks about how factionalism is built into human nature. There’s nothing that inherently binds the interests of a farmer, banker, or any other occupation. But we must build a system and develop an American culture that can manage these tensions between individuals.
Our schools are the greatest microcosm of that tension, where all competing forces meet together. On the weekends, we can all partition off to our own restaurants, music venues, churches, and homes. Adults spend their days with coworkers and friends that they select. But our schools bring us all together.
I was an English as a second language teacher for four years. I had recent immigrants from Somalia, Ethiopia, Mexico, and elsewhere together in one room sharing hallways with American students of every culture and class. For many towns, the school is the central community center, where everyone goes on Friday nights to watch football or volleyball games.
Somehow, in these glorious, confusing, awkward, and at times outright stinky buildings, we as a society have decided to bring our children together. And here, we as a diverse nation need to decide how we will raise our children and what they will be taught. That is the challenge.
Now, the stakes. They are quite possibly higher than in any other policy area. At the most basic level, whether or not students achieve basic literacy and numeracy sets up the next generation for success or failure. Will each child acquire the basic intellectual capacity that they need to live a successful, productive, and fulfilling life?
But there’s a more communitarian understanding to schools. It is where students develop a worldview and understanding of what their country means or doesn’t. Thomas Jefferson said that a well-functioning democracy depended upon an effective educational system.
A famous teaching book is called “Teaching as a Subversive Activity.” No. Teaching ought to be a stabilizing activity. Schools build our common culture, give us our common language, a common understanding of our history and what it means to be an American. Education is the structure upon which our society depends. The stabilizing force.
William Butler Yeats looked at his society and wrote that when “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” It certainly feels at times like American society is falling apart. But that doesn’t worry me too much. Societies must constantly rebuild and maintain themselves. However, if our education system fails, the center will not hold.
To summarize, we must build an education system in a pluralistic society beset with political tensions, cultural differences, and so much pushing us apart. And the stakes suggest that the continuation of our society quite literally depends upon our success.
Christian Scripture ends with all tribes, nations, and tongues singing together before the throne of God with palm branches in their hands. And one needn’t be a Christian to appreciate this message. That’s the goal, a unity of the human race amid existing differences.
America has faced challenges of world-historic proportions before and prevailed. We can and will again.
And this begins with our schools, uniting around our common values: equality of man, the need for ideological diversity, political contention and compromise over political coercion, meritocracy, industriousness, integrity, objectivity, and individual liberty. These are the foundations upon which America was built and the foundation upon which we must rebuild in every generation.
This article is adapted from a speech given before a panel discussion with the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism.