Likewise, in recent years, promoting democratic values in the school environment itself by respecting the voices of parents and teachers alike—a sort of "implicit curriculum"—has not been a priority. Indeed, many education reformers took their cue from the scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe, whose 1990 book, Politics, Markets and America’s Schools, argued that “direct democratic control” over public education appears to be “incompatible with effective schooling.” Reformers didn’t like the influence teachers’ unions exercised in democratic elections, so they advocated for market-driven reforms that would reduce the influence of elected officials such as non-unionized charter schools, as well as for state takeovers of urban districts.
But the costs of neglecting democratic values in education are now glaringly apparent on several levels.
Civics literacy levels are dismal. In a recent survey, more than two-thirds of Americans could not name all three branches of the federal government. Education Secretary John King said only a third of Americans could identify Joe Biden as the vice president or name a single Supreme Court justice. Far worse, declining proportions say that free elections are important in a democratic society.
When asked in the World Values Survey in 2011 whether democracy is a good or bad way to run a country, about 17 percent said bad or very bad, up from about 9 percent in the mid-1990s. Among those ages 16 to 24, about a quarter said democracy was bad or very bad, an increase from about 16 percent from a decade and a half earlier. Some 26 percent of millennials said it is “unimportant” that in a democracy people should “choose their leaders in free elections.” Among U.S. citizens of all ages, the proportion who said it would be “fairly good” or “very good” for the “army to rule,” has risen from one in 16 in 1995, to one in six today. Likewise, a June 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that a majority of Americans showed authoritarian (as opposed to autonomous) leanings. Moreover, fully 49 percent of Americans agreed that “because things have gotten so far off track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.”
And in 2016, the United States elected as president an individual whom the Brookings Institution Scholar Robert Kagan called “the most dangerous threat to U.S. democracy since the Civil War.”
Moving forward, schools need to put democracy back into education. Rigorous courses in history, literature, and civics would cultivate knowledge of democratic practices and a belief in democratic values. As a 2003 report out of the Albert Shanker Institute noted, the classes should tell America’s stories—warts and all—and include the ways in which groups have used democratic means to improve the country. The Institute suggests the curriculum should include an honest historical account of the brutal suppression of African Americans and other minorities, women, workers, and gays, but also the movements to abolish slavery, gain women’s suffrage, establish labor laws, and civil-rights legislation. “From these … accounts,” the Shanker Institute noted, “students will recognize the genius of democracy: When people are free to dissent, to criticize, to protest and publish, to join together in common cause, to hold their elected officials accountable, democracy’s magnificent capacity for self-correction is manifest.” In addition, children should be taught what it is like to live in nondemocratic countries in order to appreciate what they might otherwise take for granted.