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Schools and democracy

Germany was one of the best-educated countries in the world when it became prey to Hitler in the 1930s. How can a nation's schools be made bulwarks of democracy beyond the education that has been no proof against tyranny in the past? Not long ago the Monitor brought together some extremely encouraging and instructive examples in a special section on how democracy is taught in the United States (April 30). But the challenge reaches to all the democracies - and to the structure of schooling as well as its content.

In Britain, for example, a current political question is whether education can truly reflect and enhance democracy so long as money determines the ability to make educational choices. One argument is that the class system is artificially perpetuated when entrance to elite independent schools depends on paying fees. A suggested alternative is that the present diversity of schools be maintained but all under state funding.

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In the United States, the matter of private vs. public education has a reverse twist, with doubts being cast on the public schools in a rush to private schools that are often far from elite. There is no proposal to make all schools state schools.In the case of parochial schools, this would go counter to the Constitution's ban on establishment of religion.

But there is an administration effort to circumvent the ban by giving federal tax credits to parents of children in private schools, most of which are parochial. (Last month a federal appeals court ruled in favor of a Minnesota law permitting deductions for private school tuition from income subject to state taxes.)

It is argued that the credits would bolster the freedom to choose between private and public schools. But they would come nowhere near doing so in the sense of the British proposal to open all schools to the public. And they would threaten the constitutional underpinnings of democracy and the public schools on which the majority will still rely.

The question is basic - what kind of school system best fosters democracy by exemplifying it? It is to decide such questions wisely that the electorate needs to be a fully enlightened one.

Note that democratic education must remember the ideal that any child may grow into leadership; each one should be prepared as well as any other. As one of the American authorities cited in our special section pointed out, the teaching of democracy cannot be satisfied by a ''citizenship'' class, letting the teachers of other subjects excuse themselves from sharing the challenge. And , as another suggests, schools should be sure they are strengthening democratic political skills and not fearing them or inculcating political docility.

Long ago, as a teacher in South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi learned that to be effective he had to behave in accordance with what he was teaching - or convey the wrong lesson. The Monitor found that a group of student leaders credited their achievement to such activities as participating in student government. But they also cited the influence of parents and of a special teacher. A visit to the classroom of a special teacher shows how the most basic constitutional principles - and ways of acting on them - can be brought even to a first-grade classroom.

Whether the classrooms are public or private the teaching of democracy can flourish - with the backing of parents determined that in spirit, precept, and example their schools reflect that very democracy on which continued freedom depends.

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