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The Path to ‘An Excess of Democracy’

Education in Massachusetts from the Old Deluder to the MCAS

Ibegan this series of columns by sharing three questions I would pose to each entering class of teacher candidates: Why do we have school, what should happen at school and who should decide those questions. When I reviewed reader responses to the questions, it was obvious that those are still questions without clear answers.

It’s not surprising considering that each one of us is a unique learner, even those of us growing up in the same household. Consider a classroom full of children, each of whom comes from their own mix of parents/guardians, culture, values and beliefs, economic realities, race, gender, politics, religion, individual learning strengths and challenges, and their own internal makeup. It is impossible to imagine any one educational program that will be most effective and engaging for all of them. The reality of our diversity is both a strength and an immense challenge for public education and has been throughout our history.

The earliest education in Massachusetts was focused on helping children to learn to read the Bible. The Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647 required towns of 50 or more families to hire and maintain a teacher, helping children to read the Bible so they could resist temptation from the “old deluder.”

Since that time, education has gone through many changes. Horace Mann, the first secretary of education in Massachusetts, developed a system of universal education, open to all (white) children regardless of whether their families could pay. Mann hoped that a universal education with a common curriculum would enhance democracy, minimize class resentment and make it less likely that the poor would attack the rich.

Near the beginning of the 20th century, a group of 10 men — presidents of colleges and principals of high schools — made recommendations for our educational system that is still in place today. Elementary school should be grades K-8, high school 9-12. There should be separate courses for each subject (English, math, science, etc.) with an emphasis on academics, meaning arts, physical education and vocational training was not encouraged. Each class should last the same number of minutes. Those decisions reflected their values and beliefs, from their perspectives as white men who headed educational institutions around 1900.

In the early 1900s, with the rise of factories and the influx of immigrants coming to work in them, the schools expanded to become social service agencies. They helped the new arrivals learn how to survive in this new (to them) environment, learn how to work on assembly lines and learn how to become American citizens. In the mid-1960s and early ‘70s, while the country was in the midst of several movements to expand equity and social justice, schools were focusing more on meeting the needs of each student, on social and emotional health, and on respect for the wide range of cultures and histories that students were bringing into their classrooms. Approaches to teaching changed to place the children at the center of the classroom experience.

Teachers were still teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, but they were also paying attention to building a cooperative and collaborative learning community. There was also more of an emphasis on connecting what happened in school to the outside world, and both teachers and students became more active in the movements for justice going on outside of school.

Not everyone was pleased by this. Many of those in power noticed and were highly critical of the role the schools were playing in encouraging and supporting activism, including members of the Trilateral Commission, a private organization that represented political and economic interests from North America, Europe and Asia.

The organization issued a report in 1975 titled “The Crisis of Democracy.” The report said that “The effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.” The report says the problems of governance in the U.S. “stem from an excess of democracy ” and thus calls for actions “to restore the prestige and authority of central government institutions.”

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Samuel Huntington, one of the authors of the report, said “Truman had been able to govern the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers,” but activism made this much more difficult by the mid-1960s. The population was much less governable because they were less willing to be submissive. Huntington noted that “previously passive or unorganized groups in the population” that “became organized and mobilized in new ways to achieve what they considered to be their appropriate share of the action and of the rewards” were a threat to the smooth functioning of our democracy, which depended on “some measure of apathy and noninvolvement.” Huntington faulted the schools for not pacifying those groups.

What followed was the “back to basics” movement.

Teachers and the public schools were targeted, blamed for many of the problems the country was facing, and a concerted effort was made to undermine the public’s trust in public education. Educators were told what to teach and students were told what to learn.

There was no longer interest in placing students at the center of the classroom experience; they were there to meet the requirements of the state, and the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002 codified this switch. The only thing that now mattered was passing a high stakes test — in the case of Massachusetts, the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System). This is where we remain today.

James Baldwin, in his talk to teachers in 1963, laid out the contradiction.

“The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine society, the society in which he is being educated.

The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions. ... But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.”

That’s it, in a nutshell.

People who think for themselves, who can see through the smoke screens that politicians and governments and media outlets and history textbooks produce, to see the “men behind the curtain,” are much more difficult to control. They are more likely to challenge the injustice that serves those in power at the expense of those most distant from power. We may want it for our own children, but the thought of everyone’s children thinking for themselves and acting in their own interests, and in the interests of communities that are not ours, seems to be perceived as a danger, a threat. It might produce “an excess of democracy.”

Which brings us to the question facing us today.

What education do we want for our children, for their futures and for ours? What education can we offer our children that will best prepare them to meet the challenges of our present and future?

It’s not a simple question and there is no one simple answer. I’ll explore some examples of approaches to education that might help us think more deeply about this question in my next column.

Doug Selwyn taught at K-12 public schools from 1985 until 2000 and then at university as a professor of education until he retired in 2017.

He is the chair of the Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution education task force. You can reach him at dougselwyn12@