The people of the United States have voted to replace Donald Trump with Joe Biden. It is the first step in repairing the massive rifts in our democratic society. This moment feels good to those disgusted by the anger, vitriol, corruption and authoritarianism spewed from the White House over the past four years. And the alternative would have been a devastating blow to American democracy and common decency.
But, this change alone fixes nothing. We must immediately ask, “What’s next?”
The same forces that led to the election of Donald Trump in the first place, the same influences that elevated Betsy DeVos to be the secretary of education, the same structural inequities, the same corruption in our civic institutions, the same codified oppression, the same ability for those in power to consolidate and wield it by pitting one disadvantaged group against another—all of these undemocratic systems remain.
As Americans, we will use this moment to demand the dismantling of those systems, or we will suffer the fate of so many failed empires that have come before us. Those in power will protect it at all costs. They will not be taking the next few months off. We cannot either.
The fractures in our society can be traced directly to shortcomings in the most American of our institutions—public education. Our public education system is the foundation on which our democratic society is built.
We Learn Democratic Values In School
Public schools are where we develop the democratic values upon which our society relies. It’s where our children learn to interact with each other with empathy and compassion. It’s where they learn about themselves, their identities, and how their individual passions and talents intersect with the society that is educating them. It’s where they learn to make decisions and to have the humility to admit when those decisions are wrong. And to learn from those mistakes.
Or, they don’t.
Our schools have too long been hyper-focused on developing workers for our economy at the expense of the competencies and skills listed above. This is not to say that college and career readiness is not essential. It is and should be a part of what we do in public schools. But, career training and content acquisition in isolation are not ‘education.’
‘Education’ is much broader. For our country’s future, it must encompass the holistic development of our children and foster values that strengthen our democratic society. True education includes the development of critical thinking, inquiry, and emotional intelligence. It allows those being educated to explore how to apply those skills and how they can be used to improve their communities. Teachers are so important because they are exceptional at doing precisely this—if they are trained and allowed to do so.
So, What’s Next?
Our focus as we answer this question must be on public education. Soon, President-Elect Biden will choose the next Secretary of Education. Congress will need to decide how to support states (which provide the vast majority of funding to public schools) during the economic crisis in which we find ourselves. Voter suppression continues to skew our national and state elections while also limiting who selects our school board members and local officials who directly craft the policies that most impact our children.
We, the American public, must decide if we will be satisfied with merely celebrating the removal of an autocrat or demand a change to the oligarchical system that allowed him to rise to power in the first place.
History tells us that we will get exactly the amount of democracy that we demand.
Now is the time to organize around the idea that systems of inequity and oppression must be broken and fixed. Now is the time to ‘flip the system.’ Now is the time to demand those impacted by decisions are responsible for making them. Now is the time to ensure those who make laws and policies are accountable to the communities affected by those decisions.
The protests and record voter participation of the past year show us that civic engagement is at an all-time high. We cannot waste this moment in history. Let’s now come together to build a more inclusive, more peaceful, more just, and more democratic society.