Politics and Education: How can MLA Help Us Today?


Written by MLARI Research Director, Karen E. Linkletter

“American education rejects alike the traditionally European concept of the ‘educated individual’ and the ‘trained robot’ of modern totalitarianism. To both it opposes the demand that the school has to educate responsible self-governing citizens who, in Lincoln’s words, ‘do not want to be masters because they do not want to be slaves.’” - “The American Genius is Political”

American society is polarized about almost everything. Unfortunately, politics comes into play in virtually every discussion. Public health measures to combat the rising death tolls of COVID-19 are politicized. Climate change is a political issue rather than one based on scientific evidence. Matters of education – whether it is the policies of the local school district, the question of charter schools, or the curriculum taught in public universities – have become so volatile that public meetings on educational issues result in screaming matches and outright physical assault. Can MLA help us out of this situation, where Americans no longer listen to each other? Where does CiAM fit in this larger discussion of the role of education in American society, and how that role fits in terms of preparing students from all cultures for being “responsible self-governing citizens” for a global society?

In 1953, Peter Drucker published an article in Perspectives magazine titled “The American Genius is Political.” At that time, Drucker was on his way to securing his position as the seminal thinker on the practice of management and knowledge work (The Practice of Management was published in 1954). But most of what Drucker had written was about society (The End of Economic Man – 1939; The Future of Industrial Man – 1942; The Concept of the Corporation-1946; The New Society – 1950). In those books, Drucker was working out his philosophy of a functioning society of institutions. As he began to analyze his adopted home country of America (Drucker became a naturalized American citizen in 1943), he not only looked at corporations, but also the other institutions of American society. One of these was the educational system.

Drucker’s larger point in “The American Genius is Political” is to argue that the glue that holds together American society is “a common political creed.” Essentially, Drucker aims to show how peculiar (he uses this word repeatedly in the essay) the American viewpoint is compared to that of Europeans. Drucker analyzes the ways in which the values embodied in the Constitution influence all aspects of American life. In his paragraph on education in this essay, Drucker contrasts the American view of education with that of the Europeans (whether totalitarian, democratic, socialist, liberal, or conservative). Drucker’s point is that America’s political values inform education as well (this essay comes after his book, Concept of the Corporation, where Drucker explored how federalism influenced General Motors). He states that Americans want education to create “responsible self-governing citizens”, and then paraphrases (although he employs quotation marks) Abraham Lincoln. The actual quote is: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy” (undated fragment, believed to be written around August 1858). In this piece of a manuscript, Lincoln defines democracy in terms of not just political theory, but in terms of human relations; democracy cannot tolerate a social structure that allows slavery to occur. Drucker turns Lincoln’s words around to describe the American educational system. Americans believe in the equality of social relations, and demand that their educational system reflect this, according to Drucker. This desire for equality results in the “insistence of Americans that education, on all levels, be equally accessible to all, if not, indeed, obligatory on all.” Drucker claims that it is a “naïve but general belief” that the better one’s education, the better a citizen one becomes.

What is Drucker trying to tell us here? As part of his larger argument, his point is that American education reflects the nation’s values embodied idealistically in our founding documents (in this case, equality). Americans don’t understand how unique this view of education has been historically. As Drucker notes, traditionally, Europeans viewed education not as a vehicle for everyone to become citizens, but for the elite few to become “educated individuals.” Europeans have long commented on America’s obsession with equality (notably Alexis de Tocqueville argued that democracy could thwart individual expression and independent thought). Drucker also comments on another model of education, the rigid, unthinking model of the “trained robot” in autocratic or totalitarian countries, where curriculum is dictated by the central government. American education notoriously resists any federal attempts to guide curriculum. For example, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act aimed to provide all children with a fair and equal opportunity to education. However, implementation of the law was highly problematic, and the controversial 100 percent proficiency mandate was never achieved. American schools are controlled at the local level; as a result,

Drucker says, education “is bound to be the subject of violent political dispute whenever this country examines the premises on which its society and government rest, as, for instance, during the early days of the New Deal and again today.”

Drucker wrote this in 1953, but the words certainly ring true today. Education is the realm of “violent political dispute”, and it is indeed because we are wrestling with the “premises on which [American] society and government rest.” Local school board officials face the wrath of parents protesting policies aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19; anti-mask protestors invoke public health measures as assaults on their “freedom.” “Critical Race Theory” has become a rallying cry for those concerned about how the history of race and racism is taught in American classrooms; most who use this term don’t understand what Critical Race Theory actually is, or that teachers have been teaching the history of race and racism for decades. The Trump administration’s 1776 Commission Report called for a return to more “patriotic education” in American schools. Unfortunately, many of the examples of “patriotic education” include misrepresenting factual evidence (such as misquoting Frederick Douglass’s “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” to portray him as celebrating rather than critiquing the nation). Debate is healthy, but “violent political dispute” is not, especially when it is not grounded in evidence.

Why are we at such odds over what education represents, and how we should go about providing it? Because, as Drucker states in his essay, education is about citizenship in this country, and it is driven by people’s views of what holds our society together. When we say we value freedom and equality, what does that mean? Does being patriotic mean that we can’t acknowledge the ways in which America has failed (and continues to fail) to live up to its values? How can educational institutions, free of centralized control, develop innovative curriculum that produces critical thinkers who can solve problems and be discerning about sources of information? How can our educational system, while grounded in a “common political creed,” produce people who are ready to be part of a functioning global society?

These, of course, are the questions raised by the philosophy behind Management as a Liberal Art. How can organizations allow people to grow and develop while still serving the needs of their stakeholders (making a profit, creating a customer, being socially responsible, etc.)? How do we teach curriculum ethically and responsibly? As a student, what are my responsibilities to think critically, be discerning about my sources of information and data, and reason through a problem with care? If education is a reflection of larger society (and Drucker was right – it is), then we need to have some agreement as to what our values are and what we believe to be important. However, while Drucker was more concerned with the American political “genius”, we will have to think through how our values and “common political creed” work in a global society of functioning institutions. But this is certainly true: in order for us to be part of a society of functioning institutions (especially a global one), we need Management as Liberal Art, with its emphasis on critical thinking, values, and responsibility, to help us find some common ground in this country. It may be our only hope to overcome the shouting.

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