The politics of public education

Published 10:11 pm Wednesday, September 17, 2014

By Clay Scott

Progressives in the field of education believe there is no politically neutral position in education. I actually agree completely.

No, I have not gone soft; I just happen to know enough history to recognize this is not a progressive idea at all. Politics has always been central to education. The progressive tendency to view life through a political lens reminds me of the excited student who comes to tell me about this great band he’s discovered. “Mr. Scott, have you ever heard of Led Zeppelin?”

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Long before Karl Marx, John Dewey and others, there were a couple of Greek gentleman named Plato and Aristotle, who viewed much of life through a political lens. The English word politic comes from Greek roots. In fact, many attribute the current English form to Aristotle, based on his book of the same name — often rendered “affairs of the city.”

The absence of politically neutral ground in education is not a matter of partisanship. If this were merely a Democrat vs. Republican issue, then there would be all kinds of “middle ground.”

Politics is about power, the “who” and the “how” of collective decision making. Even yielding one’s political voice to another is still a use of that voice. Imagine a political power graph. On the far right is anarchy, where every man is a king unto himself and each person is free to do as he or she wishes without regard for anyone else. On the far left are tyranny and the central authority, which dictate all the activities of their subjects.

As we study, we not only pick up facts and figures, we also develop a framework for understanding the world around us. New information can only be meaningful when it connects to that framework. Thus the way we are educated affects the way that we will make individual and shared decisions, including political decisions.

When we choose to yield our political voices, we move to the left. When we reclaim our political voices, which is much more difficult to do, we move to the right. This is why a republic such as ours relies so heavily on educated citizens. We believe in “People’s Law,” that spot right in the middle, the balancing point.

The story goes that as Benjamin Franklin emerged from Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked him, “Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin replied, “A republic, madam — if you can keep it.” Franklin knew that keeping that balance of “People’s Law” is difficult, and it only happens with conscious effort. The political education of our children needs to be such that we can “keep it.”

Clay Scott, a resident of Franklin, teaches Spanish at King’s Fork High School. He holds a degree in Spanish from Brigham Young University, an MBA from Ashford University and is a doctoral candidate at George Washington University. Email him at