Becoming Good American Schools: The Struggle for Civic Virtue in Education Reform

By Jeannie Oakes; Karen Hunter Quartz et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter Six
Becoming Participatory

Thomas Jefferson posed the ideal of a democracy in which every citizen participates in public affairs, not just at the ballot box but every day. Jefferson (and more recently Martin Luther King, Jr.) wanted ordinary citizens to engage actively in public affairs. Their participation must entail more than climbing onto a bandwagon or following a charismatic leader. Clearly, King's twentieth-century conception of grassroots activism for reformed social policy was far more inclusive than Jefferson's eighteenth-century view of citizens making dispassionate judgments about their leaders. But both sought a public sphere in which free and enlightened people—who may differ in their backgrounds, resources, and interest—work together to solve public problems, advance the common good, and shape the direction of the democracy.

As it is to the public goods of well-educated citizens, inclusive institutions, and caring communities, however, American's commitment to participatory democracy is ambivalent. King's popular legacy, constructed as much by social elites as by the people King sought to empower, obscures the pivotal connections he drew between power and participation. King sought to mitigate unrestrained marketplace participation,

We are indebted to Jennifer Gong for her significant contributions to earlier versions of this chapter.

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