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The Invaluable Role of the Public Schools in Maintaining a Free Pluralistic Society: Education for Citizenship Begins in Preschool

by Joy Dangora Erickson - July 18, 2017

This commentary responds to Burkholder’s commentary, Trump’s Educational Reforms Threaten to Destroy American Public Schools–Is That Such a Terrible Thing?, by arguing that there need be an emphasis on developing “reasonable” citizens from the very start of schooling. It also highlights several scholarly pieces depicting the conditions under which young children have organically participated in pluralistic, critical, and political dialogue.

In a recent TCR commentary, Burkholder (2017), remarked, Ironically, President Donald Trumps proposal to dramatically increase school choice threatens the very institution he is trying to reform: public schools (para. 1, emphasis in original). This statement immediately resonated with me as I fail to see the irony in his proposal. Although I cannot know with certainty what Trumps true intentions are regarding the sustainability of American public schools, I suspect based upon his actions and rhetoric that he intends to defund the system and privatize schooling as much as he is able. Although we may disagree about the Presidents intentions, I fully support Burkholders claim that While public schools have a solemn duty to prepare students to go to college and find jobs, our national obsession with this single objective is shortsighted and perilous to the health of our democracy (para. 13). Burkholder buttressed this position with numerous warnings posed by influential Americans including Thomas Jefferson and Catharine Beecher, which collectively suggest that adults are unable to fulfill the necessary duties of citizenship and prevent tyranny if they are not educated for such responsibilities during their youth.


As a means of further supporting the invaluable role of public education in maintaining our liberal democracy, I offer several key understandings stemming from the more contemporary work of philosophers Callan (1997) and Rawls (1993/2005). Callan underscored the importance of public schools in promoting Rawls conception of justice as reasonableness (1993/2005, p. 175). Both thinkers viewed reasonableness as an invaluable characteristic of members belonging to a free, pluralistic, and democratic society. Reasonableness is rooted in acceptance of Rawls burdens of judgment (p. 55). Rawls (1993/2005) maintained that within a contemporary pluralistic democracy, people can and will subscribe to values that conflict with our own while having a comparable amount of reasonableness. Conflicts arise according from the often discordant and irreconcilable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines (Rawls, 1993/2005, p. 47) of individuals as thinking beings. Such a position assumes that disagreement is a typical product of advanced human functioning and is not always motivated by self-serving interests, ignorance, or prejudices (Callan, 1997; Quong, 2013). As such, it is expected that reasonable thinkers within a liberal democracy need to frequently engage in fair cooperation (Rawls, 1993/2005, p. 52) where they carefully consider opposing views to arrive at compromises aimed at furthering their individual interests as well as the just treatment of others.

Callan further argued that the thoughtful consideration of alternate perspectives was unlikely to occur in the home and therefore must be practiced within common schools. He posited that it becomes increasingly more difficult to critically consider divergent views when the associations that dominate our lives during our formative years filter out the perspectives of those who are not like-minded or reduce them to mere imagined alternatives to our own" (Callan, 1997, p. 178). Put another way, within the home sphere, children are primarily exposed to and influenced by the worldview(s) of their immediate caretakers. With this in mind, the role of public schools in promoting reasonable democratic participation via exposing children to a range of alternate perspectives and encouraging them to respectfully debate relevant issues is invaluable. If this type of practice for future citizenship is not to occur in the common schools, where will it occur? Our democratic system relies upon this kind of rehearsal.


Upon accepting Callans (1997) appraisal that children are narrowly exposed to the values that dominate the home environment and that it becomes more difficult to sincerely consider differing perspectives with the passage of time, it is sensible to begin cultivating pluralistic, critical, and political dialogue in preschool and kindergarten. It is important to clarify that while I refer to the conversations that I aim to advance in early childhood classrooms as political, I attach a more conservative, or pre-political, meaning to this term specific to early childhood education. I am not suggesting that educators encourage young children to take up the political rhetoric or causes of adults. In fact I argue quite the opposite.

In line with the conservative, yet revolutionary, thinking of Arendt & Kohn (1954/2006), I am suggesting that children be encouraged to debate the issues that emerge from their direct experiences, in their authentic voices, and with adult support as needed. Specifically, books, film, poetry, song, and school happenings provide ample opportunities for students to express and debate their diverse opinions and understandings. Furthermore, in addition to modeling how to go about engaging in respectfully representative dialogue and ensuring all voices are heard, educators can encourage children to seek out additional child perspectives from outside the school. By maintaining relationships with out-of-district, out-of-state, and even international pen pals, students are exposed to a multitude of diverse thinking from where they are better able to articulate and situate their own views.

From time to time, students will propose an issue heavily anchored in the adult political sphere. I recently experienced this first hand in a kindergarten classroom where several learners expressed concern over the possibility of people they knew being deported. In instances like this, it may be beneficial to offer students developmentally appropriate facts and encourage them to collectively consider the issues. Intervention should occur when it is needed to ensure that conversation is respectful, students are emotionally secure, and all voices that desire to be heard are heard. In my exchanges with primary educators across New England, it seems that conversations like this one are becoming more frequent occurrence in early childhood classrooms. Additional discussion centering on how best to support students and teachers in these highly political situations is warranted.


Studies of children as young as preschool age have demonstrated their creativity and commitment to discussing and communally solving problems that impact community members. For example, in Vasquezs (2004) ethnographic study, she demonstrated how a preschool class recognized their exclusion from the schools French café (a restaurant put on by older children in the school to provide a space for practicing the French language) and worked together to better understand and rectify perceived injustices. Upon collectively considering the issue, students independently decided to survey children in other classes to gain a more complete sense of how others viewed the situation. In the end, students were able to have the policy changed so that future preschool children could participate in the café. Vasquezs account testifies to young students interest in and capabilities for considering multiple perspectives, engaging in critical dialogue, and bringing about change.

University professor Patrick Shannons work is evidence of a second example of young children constructing social theory (2015, p. 176). In facilitating a camp for struggling kindergarten readers, Shannon observed students go from discussing nature to political ecology and, then, to taking stands on the topic (p. 176). In creating a museum exhibit specific to the Amazon rainforest, students engaged in an organic discussion of habitat destruction by means of logging. Some learners advocated for the perspectives of birds while another student lobbied for loggers requiring food and wanting to cut down trees for money. Shannon (2015) maintained that these children learned to critically consider differing perspectives as a means of constructing social theory by watch[ing] and listen[in]g to adults do and talk these practices (2015, p. 176). Shannons account serves as yet another example of young childrens ability to engage in organic, pluralistic, and critical discussion.


Like Burkholder (2017), I maintain that it is essential we keep up the fight for public schools . . . to safeguard our democratic way of life and liberate young minds (para. 17). Additionally, I have underscored the importance of sowing the seeds of citizenship in early childhood settings. Young children are likely to eagerly embrace opportunities to express their feelings and consider the feelings of others on issues that directly impact them. For the sake of the individual and democratic society as a whole, it is imperative that we begin teaching our children early how to go about living well together.


Arendt, H. & Kohn, J. (1954/2006). Between past and future. New York, NY: Penguin Classics.

Burkholder, Z. (2017, May 17). Trumps educational reforms threaten to destroy American public schoolsIs that such a terrible thing? Teachers College Record. Retrieved from http://www.tcrecord.org/content.asp?contentid=21972

Callan, E. (1997). Creating citizens: Political education and liberal democracy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Quong, J. (2013, May 20). Public reason. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/public-reason/

Rawls, J. (1993/2005). Political liberalism. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Shannon, P. (2015). Developing critical consciousness: Children and teachers reading wide awake. In K. Winograd (Ed.) Critical literacies and young learners: Connecting classroom practice to the Common Core (pp. 175189). New York, NY: Routledge.

Vasquez, V. M. (2004). Negotiating critical literacies with young children. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 18, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22097, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 10:47:16 AM

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