1. What is a Good Citizen?
The eeriness of the following claim is evidence of the extremity of our society’s failure.
The primary purpose of the public education system and the public corrections system is identical: to make good republican citizens.
I believe most Americans would agree that before an individual is released from school or prison, that individual is expected to be a good citizen. “Good” is vague, so I’ll specify. A good citizen isn’t just one who obeys the law. If law abiding was the key element of American citizenship, then some of our most revered historical figures would be horrible examples of citizenship. Look at Martin Luther King Junior, Alice Paul, Albert Parsons, and Harriet Tubman – American heroes who broke the law. The very birth of this nation state came about through the violent refusal to abide. It wasn’t disobedience alone that made these people great citizens, it was a devotion to the idea of a republic, to the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and to inquire, investigate, and act upon what they believed to be best for their fellow citizens regardless of what that might mean for their own well being. It was a pursuit of selfless fairness and equality driven by a critical inspection of oneself and society that made these individuals American heroes.
If schools and prisons do not attempt to develop and revive these qualities in our citizens, then these systems neglect their most important objectives and waste the time, money, lives, and potential of our citizens and our society. Fortunately, we live in a system in which he have a means to fix these flaws. Just as Luther fought racism, Paul fought sexism, Parsons fought classism, and Tubman fought slavery we too have a responsibility to continue the legacy of freedom and equality in the United States of America.
This can be done through educational and correctional reforms.
2. Schools – Republican Temples
Public schools must be the temples of democracy. Democracy is not merely a form of government, it is a way of life. Unlike other forms of government, citizens of a democratic republic must not only comply but participate. If the majority doesn’t vote, the majority doesn’t rule. Since participation is not mandatory in the United States, citizens must be compelled to participate in a manner similar to the way disciples of a religion are compelled to participate. This metaphor is twofold: schools should prepare citizens and schools should be an integral part of the lives of the local citizens, young and old.
Religious institutions use temples like churches and mosques to transmit social norms from one generation to the next. In some cases, this cultural reproduction may never surpass indoctrination, however, many temples are also the source of inquiry and investigation. Many schools attempt to indoctrinate as well. This is a corruption of the purpose of public education in a democratic society. If the truth is true then students can be led to it through honest inquiry and investigation. The only reason an educational institution, religious or secular, sees a need to prohibit blasphemy is if that institution is not seeking to enlighten, but to indoctrinate. Just as a republic requires participation, a republic requires free expression. The persecution of ideas leads to the persecution of people. That said, unlike people, not all ideas are equal. Ideas require a certain amount of evidence to validate their proliferation. If the population is educated correctly, the government will not need to ban certain ideas because the majority will recognize weak ideas for what they are and shame these ideas into insignificance (example: Flat-Earthers).
For the ideals of a republic (like freedom, equality, and democracy) to be successfully transmitted to the developing citizen, students cannot simply memorize facts. They must inquire, investigate, and make decisions. No republic is perfect, they must be refined. The fresh eyes of newer generations inherit the responsibility of reform. They need the guidance of their elders but they also need their elders to give them the opportunity to identify problems that may have gone unnoticed in previous generations and offer solutions that may have been impractical or even impossible in the past. Thus, teaching citizenship can not be indoctrination.
Math, science, and language courses should provide students with a fluency through which they can practice critical thinking in social studies courses. Teachers should be coaches and students investigators. Students in social studies courses shouldn’t be graded by whether or not they remember names or dates nor should they be tested on whether or not they can regurgitate facts – the availability of information on the internet has rendered this sort of memorization a waste of valuable time for public schools – rather students in social studies courses should be evaluated by their ability to investigate (to determine the reliability of sources, to synthesize the truth in opposing evidence and arguments, and to formulate and justify their own conclusions) and make a decision.
The story of the United States is one of an exceptionally limited republic becoming more and more fair, generation after generation, revolution after revolution. In the past, these revolutions manifested through violence (example, the Civil War) but also through peaceful protest and civil disobedience (example, the Civil Rights Movement). The Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s was facilitated by universities (as centers for inquiry and investigation) and by churches (as community centers). While universities and churches can and do perform both roles, the majority of Americans do not regularly attend either institution. Most Americans don’t go to church every week and most Americans don’t go to college (sources 1, 2, 3, 4) but almost all citizens have attended primary education and at least half of them will go on to attend secondary school (5). If public schools acted as community centers for inquiry, investigation, and decision making, then schools could not only be preparing students for good citizenship but public schools could operate as factories of informed and reasonable social progress, refining our republic.
If the school is a temple, then there shouldn’t be a permanent end to its role in changing the citizen’s life after the twelfth grade. According to the National Education Association, “Parent, family, and community involvement in education correlates with higher academic performance and school improvement” (6). The goal of the school is to foster citizenship. It’s aim is not only to improve the lives of its students but also the community’s. Parents shouldn’t just meet with teachers to discuss their children’s progress, they should also come to the school to advance themselves. The school can operate as a safe place for inquiry, investigation, and decision making for students and graduates. Education, like religion and citizenship, isn’t an act that can be completed, it is a continuing process and it is arduous. Unfortunately, members of some communities have more opportunities and resources to be involved than others.
The quality of a temple depends not only on the effort of the patrons but also on their means. If the federal government can institute programs like the National School Lunch Program for students, then could it not create initiatives to serve the poor based out of the school? When temples serve the poor, they often do so with a message. So too could schools. On Saturdays, schools could act as soup kitchens but with Socratic seminars or they could host dinners with documentaries and discussions. Schools from different socioeconomic communities could collaborate. Communities can meet each other on the football field Friday night, then host educational barbecues Saturday night. Teachers wouldn’t have to take on any more responsibility than any other member of the community. As fellow graduates of this system, the adults will already be accustomed to inquiry, investigation, and decision making. Public schools should facilitate the discourse inherent in a diverse republic and encourage higher involvement between the community and their school because no other institution has the capability or the potential to bring all members of the community together to unite under the common goal of refining the republic.
3. Giving Reason to Penitentiaries
Some may disagree that the primary purpose of a prison is to create good citizens, suggesting maybe that punishment or the protection of the community from convicted individuals is the primary objective. Yet, if prisons could rehabilitate citizens so that communities no longer feel the need to be protected from convicted individuals, then this would benefit both the convict and the community. Whether or not you agree with my reasoning, it is hard to deny that our justice system fails to effectively achieve any of these objectives I have mentioned (failing to reform citizens, punish convicts, and protect the community).
In 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that over 3/4s of state prisoners released were rearrested within five years. This does not suggest that the current system is effectively protecting the community. As for rehabilitating convicted individuals to be released as good citizens, at least ten states permanently prohibit individuals convicted of felonies from voting, essentially stripping them of citizenship suggesting that the justice system itself admits that released convicts are not prepared to be citizens ever again. Of the three objectives mentioned in the first paragraph, it seems only punishment can be argued to be effectively administered through the justice system which then begs the question, aside from revenge, what purpose does punishment serve society if it doesn’t succeed in preventing the punished act from being repeated? Is punishment even successful if it doesn’t dissuade individuals from repeating the punished behavior?
In non-republican societies, where citizens are expected to abide and nothing more, this sort of dungeon-esque prison system is practical. But in a republic, where citizens are expected to participate and where the society itself must be continually reformed, dungeons serve no purpose aside from temporarily or permanently exiling deviants in hopes that they either learn to assimilate . But considering the recidivism rate, not only would it be cheaper but it would more effective to deport or execute the individuals we send to prison. It would be no more inhumane than to condemn people to prison in the first place. It might even reduce future suffering for both the convicted and the community. I am not actually suggesting this policy, I’m merely attempting to point out how inhumane and inefficient the current corrections system is.
We must reassess the purpose of prison. Incarceration only temporarily punishes individuals and temporarily protects society. To extend this temporary solution to crime we can not only address the wound the crime has inflicted upon society but to also address what led the individual to commit the crime. The dialogue that would ensue must include the convicted individual. To exile the individual through disfranchisement or unemployment suggests in and of itself that we as a society recognize our corrections system does not produce rehabilitated citizens but rather citizens ready at any minute to blow and recidivate.
If prisons operated as schools and schools operated as republican temples, then not only might convicted individuals be released back into society as better citizens but society might also be more willing to accept them and have state funded, community centers (the schools) through which they can help those reformed citizens integrate back into society.
If schools operated as republican temples instead of college prep nurseries, then many students who find multiple choice oriented education to be irrelevant to their lives – as any non-college education pursuing student should – might find more use in their public education and less reason to skip class and neglect assignments. Blue collar workers need just as much experience manipulating a democratic republic as white collar workers, why neglect that potential incentive for intellectual growth? The current system has designed public education to be a waste of time for the majority of students who do not pursue and do not need college education. The current education system allows only for only two main roles: the academic achiever and the deviant criminal. Why? Why not capitalize on the potential of every student and future citizen?
The heroes of civil disobedience have shown us that prisons have just as much potential to act as facilities of reform as do temples and schools. Rather than wasting time, money, lives, and potential, we as a society have the capability to reevaluate and revise our systems and their objectives so that the members of future generations are born with not only more freedom and equality but also with more opportunities no matter who or where they are born and what mistakes they might make or what misfortunes might befall them as they adapt and survive in the many diverse societies and environments that make up the United States of America.