The Arts of Liberty: Absent from School Today

by Leslie Blair
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XII, Number 1, May 2000, Putting the Public back into Public Schools

Dr. Benjamin R. Barber, professor of political science at Rutgers University and founder of the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy, is also an impassioned speaker and writer about the issues of politics, culture, and education. He is the author of numerous books, including a collection of essays, A Passion for Democracy, and his most recent, a study of civil society called, A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong. Barber was the keynote speaker at SEDL’s Calling the Roll for Better Schools conference, held last fall in Dallas, Texas. Barber’s thought-provoking observations reminded participants of the reasons they went into public service and why their work in public education is so important.

Our nation, our democracy, and our public interest depend on the education of every child in the country, Professor Benjamin Barber maintains. Although he admitted many of the points he makes are truisms, Barber told the audience at the keynote address, "I want to say them because I’m disturbed that so many Americans, like the people in this room, so many citizens, so many legislators, have to spend so much of their time making such an obvious point to their neighbors and to their fellow citizens–that this nation, this democracy, this citizenry, depends for its future on our children and on their education. It’s not just the special interest of parents, it’s not the special interest of kids going to school, it’s the public interest of this nation that we have an educated youth."

A lot of what study circles are about for me is simply the art of listening, giving people the opportunity to listen. Affording politicians the chance to actually listen to citizens and citizens the chance to listen to politicians and fellow citizens.

This is a concept that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams well understood, according to Barber, although their eighteenth-century frame of reference included only white men. "They understood that every young man had to be educated. Not just for their own good, not just to make a career, not just to hold a better job, not just build a new country, but to make democracy work.

"It was understood in the nineteenth century, in the common school, the public school movement. It was understood into the beginning of the twentieth century. Sometime in this century, we somehow got the idea that schooling was nothing other than job preparation and vocationalism."

Barber observed that our country’s low pay for educators, our reluctance to spend more money on education than we do on prisons, and our often materialistic mentality help demonstrate to children where our values lie. "The children are onto this game," said Barber. "They know that if we really valued schooling, we’d pay teachers what we pay lawyers . . . if we valued citizenship, we would give national service and civic education more than pilot status . . . if we valued children we wouldn’t let them be abused, manipulated, impoverished, or killed by gang-war crossfire."

One way to turn our focus to education and children is to become involved in community discussions like the study circles in which Arkansas and Oklahoma communities participated during the Calling the Roll project. Barber sees the project as a tool for building a common ground. "What I love about that is the effort to use the language of democracy, the language of civility to find ways to reconcile the conflicts that divide us and to find the common ground on which we can build common schools, public schools, public education."

He challenged the teachers, lawmakers, and community leaders at the conference to "hold up a mirror . . . to look in it . . . I think sometimes people that are doing the work of liberty, the work of democracy, the work of public education, don’t realize just what they’re doing and how well they’re doing it. . . . I want you to look in the mirror and see what you are doing because I think what you are doing is practicing the arts of liberty." Barber proposed that the arts of liberty should be taught in our schools, universities, and colleges–that we should teach what the arts of liberty are and how they can be integrated into daily lives.

Barber went on to describe some of the arts of liberty that we should incorporate into our curriculum.

The first art of liberty is the connection between rights and responsibility. Although most of us think of a piece of paper when we think of the Bill of Rights, Barber notes that these rights are rooted in civic competence and responsibility –without citizens taking action, without democracy at work, the rights are useless. As an example, Barber relates the story of a student he had in the 1970s who had found a bill of rights that the student thought was much better than ours in the United States. It included the right of assembly, the right of free speech, the right not to have people quartered, the right to health care from cradle to coffin, the right to a job, and so on. It was the bill of rights for the Soviet Union. Barber explained, "Now the point is that it was worthless. It was just a piece of paper because there was no citizenship, no democracy. It was meaningless."

Barber noted that "we have been nominally democratic for so long that we presume it is our natural condition." Instead, democracy is something which requires us to put forth an effort. He illustrates his point by telling of a survey of Rutgers students about five years ago. The students were asked to name the most precious democratic right they had. Almost 75 percent said it was the right to a trial by a jury of peers. However, when they were asked if they thought there should be mandatory jury service, 80 percent of them responded no.

"The system can’t work that way," maintains Barber. "You can’t have trial by jury unless you’re willing to do it. So that connection, reconnecting, recouping rights and responsibility is a powerful thing, particularly for young people."

The second art of liberty is understanding that our differences are valued and should be incorporated into institutions of American life, especially the public school. Barber explains, "Los Angeles has 160 languages spoken there in the schools, 160. Now that’s a formidable pedagogical challenge, but a terrific tribute to California and America that we are assimilated from 160 different backgrounds. We’re trying to make them Americans in a way that allows them still to have their [cultural] identities, but have a civic faith in a fair and democratic society in which they share power. That’s the challenge."

The practice of this art of liberty has enabled generations of immigrants to move to the United States and become active citizens–to live and work alongside immigrants from other countries. This is the art of liberty that has allowed our country to become diverse. Diversity is our strength, observed Barber; the power of difference makes us a stronger nation. We have been able to draw upon our diversity throughout our history, which is why "we look as a society more like the globe than any other country."

The third art of liberty is the meaning of community and the understanding that we are each a part of a community. This is a difficult concept, according to Barber, especially when people afraid of diversity are trying to build walls between suburbs and cities, rich and poor, white and nonwhite, men and women. "We’re on a large ship here in America," explained Barber, "and if there’s a hole in one end, if steerage gets flooded, first class goes down . . . the inner city goes under, the main part of the city goes under, the first ring suburbs go down, the second ring suburbs go down, and so on."

Using Columbine as an example, he spoke of Denver residents who tried to get away from inner-city problems, from hate, "but there’s no way to get away from it." Working together as a community, instead of building walls, finding common ground is essential in the arts of liberty. And, Barber pointed out, conflict is the essence of democracy. "Don’t be afraid of conflict, don’t be afraid of argument, don’t be afraid of tough argument," he advised. "The acknowledgment of conflict, the willingness to live with conflict and still find common ground, is again one of the great arts of liberty."

The most difficult art of liberty, however, is not resolving conflict and finding common ground, but rather the seemingly simple act of listening. "We run away from listening," Barber observed, "but the art of listening is the key little art . . . how else will we hear each other, how else will we find common ground?

"A lot of what study circles are about for me is simply the art of listening, giving people the opportunity to listen. Affording politicians the chance to actually listen to citizens and citizens the chance to listen to politicians and fellow citizens.

"We need a democracy in which we spend time listening to one another and not just reversing words we’ve said over and over again . . . the opinions we’ve had over and over again. How otherwise would we ever change our opinions?"

The final art of liberty that Barber discussed is understanding that democracy is not about vertical conversations.

"It’s not about citizens listening to leaders or leaders talking to citizens; it’s not about editors writing for citizens. It’s about citizens talking to citizens and leaders talking to leaders. That’s the great strength of democracy, when we talk to each other.

"One of the problems I have with our democracy here in America is that I think we have a lot of good space to talk to our leaders and for our leaders to talk back. I think there’s a lot of good conversation between political leaders and editorial leads and the American people. What we don’t have is talking among ourselves, talking to each other. This presidential election provides us a chance to talk to one another. Why can’t we send the candidates away for a while and we’ll talk about it: What do you think of these guys? Do you have a candidate you really like?

"Talking laterally–horizontal conversations are the essence of democracy–[is] a good way to learn."

When we talk with others face to face, when we truly listen to what others have to say about a contentious issue, then we can have "a very different kind of discussion, a more human kind of discussion."

And that perhaps is what democracy is all about.

Leslie Blair is a SEDL communications associate and editor of SEDLetter.

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