To live in a democracy is to be free: not subordinate to tyrants, puppet rulers, or autocrats. Democracy is national self-sovereignty. A democracy is a nation that leads itself; a people of collective self-determination. Unlike a vessel state or an occupied territory, a free, democratic state is self-directing.
Definitively, then, no democracy is stronger than its ability to govern itself. A state that can not govern itself democratically will all too quickly be usurped by other forces, either internal or external. Therefore, the principle challenge for every generation of free citizens is to equip the subsequent generation to meet the responsibilities and tasks of self-sovereignty.
There are two essential ingredients for a stable democracy: a stock of leaders who are competent enough to lead and an electorate competent enough to elect them. This equation is elementary: if a free, self-governing nation is going to make smart, rational, educated decisions, it must be comprised of an adequate number of smart, rational, and educated citizens.
Ergo, no democracy is stronger than its investment in education.
An ethos of education that principally prepares students to ‘get a job’ assumes — and propagates the notion — that the central activity of citizenship is economic. Producing people-shaped cogs for bureaucratic/corporate machines fails to account that in a self-governing state, the economy itself is only as robust and sustainable as the worst decisions made by elected administrators. ‘Preparing students for the workforce’ must be a secondary footnote to ‘Preparing students be active decision makers in the matters of a sovereign nation-state.’
Yes, it is tempting to ignore all this talk of sovereignty as a nostalgic echo of bygone republics. These days, many of us are convinced that big banks, wall street, and corporate lobby interests run the show in government. We don’t feel like we are leading ourselves at all, and it becomes increasingly tempting to surrender this whole mess to someone who claims that they will fix the system for us. Never is democracy at more acute risk than when are tempted to relinquish our right to govern ourselves to a self-described savior figure, regardless of the side of political spectrum from which they hail. But such a time prompts the question, ‘How did we get here? Where are the leaders?’
Education can never become a peripheral activity or sidebar priority in a democratic state. On the contrary, education must be a central, self-imposed mandate of a self-governing nation. This is necessarily the fixed obsession of a people who successfully perpetuate their liberty from one generation to another. A state that is self-aware of its sovereignty (and the least bit cognizant of history) is a state that is acutely aware of how fragile democracy is. Today’s infrastructure investments and military defense spending are all a waste if they are only to be handed over to another generation who neither understands, appreciates, nor is competent to utilize them.
The purpose of education is to equip students to become full and responsible participants in society: to gain the values, knowledge, and critical thinking skills necessary be an active participant in a self-governing nation. Rote literacy skills and labor force preparation are critical, yes, but only scratch the surface of what education truly means for the inter-generational lineage of a self-directing people. Education is not just another budget item in a long list of public expenses, but the manifest evidence of one generation’s commitment to their society and culture beyond their lifetimes. As a democracy, sooner or later, we must realize that everything else is secondary to fostering the knowledge, creativity, and capacity of our young people.
By ‘investing in education’ I do not mean blindly forking tax dollars into existing schools and curriculum, as if the way forward is necessarily the way of the past. I do not mean uncritically feeding the inertia of the status quo for its own sake. No, I simply mean that no democracy is more stable than its resolve to bolster the knowledge and intellect of its young people. Democratic vibrancy compels a state to never stop searching for ways to more effectively invest its future leaders and constituents, lest intelligence becomes the purview of a fixed elite or ruling class.
Consider the implications for democracy if education becomes emblematic of socioeconomic status. Consider the implications if ‘access to knowledge’ equates or correlates to elitism and privilege. Consider the social and political disintegration that follows, if higher education becomes increasingly ‘unachievable’ to the majority of a population. Education, if not equally distributed, is democratic self-destruction: a self-reinforcing cycle of class division. A democracy that turns ‘learning’ into a status symbol has sealed its fate. In the long run, a democracy survives only insomuch as it achieves educational equity. After all, if the majority rules, a democracy is only as intelligent as the intelligence of its majority.
In a democracy, education is about more than battling ‘corporate amnesia’ at the national scale or passing on cultural identity and values to our children (although it is still about these things none the less). When a nation governs itself, education principally exists to give everyone the capacity to participate in the life of the state, culture, and society. When education fails this aim — when knowledge becomes decipherable class and status — it is only a matter of time before ignorance leads us all.
If we want to increase our capacity to govern ourselves competently, we must strengthen our investment in young people. If we want our children to be free, we must show them what it looks like to be active leaders and participants in a state where the people are sovereign. If we fail them at this, we fail to give them their freedom.