08/28/2007 06:48 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Education, Democracy, and Debate

A funny thing happened last week in Reno...there was a party (a candidates' forum, actually), and (almost) nobody came. The University of Nevada, Reno and the Brookings Institute hosted a forum on national education policy for the Democratic candidates "designed to focus the presidential debate on substantive issues rather than horse-race politics." Actually, they initially invited the four front-runners, but after only Bill Richardson accepted, the organizers invited Joe Biden, and he also came. The two candidates agreed that education is the single most important issue of this campaign: that more money needs to be spent on teacher pay, that No Child Left Behind needs to be drastically overhauled, and that math and science instruction must be improved. What I took away from this, coupled with what has been said so far during the seemingly endless campaigning on educational reform, is that, as a nation, we're missing the point. We keep talking about how to improve the system we've got, but we're losing the opportunity to talk about what's wrong with the assumptions we've built this system on.

Before I expand on this, I should point out that I wasn't at the forum, either. My information on it comes from local coverage, especially our local paper. While the forum was taking place I was meeting with some of the very people Richardson and Biden were talking about - our nation's (or, at least, Nevada's) future educators. Our College of Education was holding the orientation session for students interning in public schools this semester, and I was there to present the information about the seminar I will be teaching for them during that time. After I finished, I had a meeting with some new members of UNR's competitive speech and debate team, which I coach. To the casual observer it's probably not immediately obvious why someone whose academic field is education would find coaching debaters so compelling, but that is (at last!) my point. I coach debate because it allows me to engage in what I see as a genuinely educative process, mentoring students as they learn.

That successful debaters are knowledgeable in many of the ways politicians and educational policy-makers stand is crucial. They can discuss current events, important historical figures and events, as well as many recent developments in science and technology. Yet it's not their test scores on this abstract factual data that helps them win; it's their ability to analyze this information. In his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian educator Paolo Freire referred to traditional educational practices as "banking education" where "the more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness that would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world." Long before Freire's time, America's own educational philosopher, John Dewey, put the issue this way: "If one conceives that a social order different in quality and direction from the present is desirable and that schools should strive to educate with social change in view by producing individuals not complacent about what already exists, and equipped with desires and abilities to assist in transforming it, quite a different method and content is indicated for educational science" (from "Progressive Education and the Science of Education," 1928). In ways that I think both Freire and Dewey would applaud, the debaters I coach have moved far beyond simply storing up factual information; they're actively applying and challenging it, as well as existing societal assumptions.

Debaters are a real challenge to any educator who likes an orderly classroom. As students debaters are, to put it mildly, high-maintenance and a real pain in the you-know-what. On at least two occasions last year, members of my squad responded to essay questions posed by their instructors by first critiquing the embedded normative assumptions of the question as posed, before proceeding to answer it. One of the instructors involved was me, and I just laughed - after all, this is what I help them learn to do. My colleague, however, was not amused. Not all university professors are interested in hearing that their discourse is hetero-normative and grounded in a colonial perspective. Have I mentioned that debaters (and I include myself among that number) are obnoxious? In some ways, of course, these classroom stunts mark a sort of "growing pains," a phase that the students are moving through as they learn to mobilize new ideas and techniques. But the effects of this training seem to stay with the student long after he or she has left the campus.

So what would our educational system be like if it were filled with students who constantly questioned and argued, who insatiably sought out new information so that they could use it to out-think and out-maneuver others? What if we made a concerted effort to eliminate "banking education" from our system? It's a frightening thought in many ways, and it would turn the business of teacher education on its head. Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and all the other candidates at both ends of the political spectrum don't seem to be considering anything this fundamental. But there might be an opportunity to create more truly critical thinkers, and fewer citizens who unquestioningly accept authoritative pronouncements from their elected officials. In other words, an opportunity for our educational system to directly bolster the health of our democracy.