How Language Arts Teachers Will Save Democracy

Democracy literally means rule by the people. Yet in practice, democracy means that the important decisions within a society are made through public discussions, often among elected representatives. To play a productive role in political discussions, you need a set of skills that do not come naturally, which is why they have traditionally been taught in school. Unfortunately, our public schools in the United States are failing to teach these skills. Many people want to blame the students, the parents, or the teachers for this failure. Yet as I explain in Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free, the public schools have been set up for failure, by policies made at a high level.

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Education for Some, But Not for All

We want one class of persons to have a liberal education and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.

—Woodrow Wilson, from an address to the New York City High School Teachers Association
Jan. 9th, 1909

The above quotation, from an Ivy League University president who went on to become the Governor of New Jersey and then the President of the United States, is simply shocking. Read it carefully and think about what it means. Whom did he mean by “we”? What kind of person would want “one class of persons” to have a liberal education and find it necessary for “a very much larger class” to “forgo the privileges” (i.e., be deprived of) of a liberal education? Why would it be necessary for “a very much larger class” to forgo the kind of education that is appropriate for free people, as opposed to slaves? Did the “we” to whom Wilson referred include the people whose children were “by necessity” being deprived? In this context, do you find it surprising that Wilson wasn’t particularly nice to African-Americans?

Here’s an open letter to President Wilson that W.E.B. Dubois published in The Crisis, which was the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Photo by Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives