The United States government has a frustrating habit of enlarging its bureaucratic apparatuses rather than consolidating them. So when the Trump administration recently proposed merging the Departments of Labor and Education because, in the words of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, “artificial barriers between education and workforce programs have existed for far too long,” it seemed like cause for celebration. However, there’s a vital reason that the Department of Education is distinct from the Department of Labor: its chief purpose—as opposed to facilitating a robust workforce—is nothing less than the conservation of democracy.
In book six of Plato’s The Republic, Socrates argues convincingly against the viability of democracy. Just as it would be imprudent to entrust the decision of who should be the captain of a ship to a crew that doesn’t necessarily know which qualities are needed, Socrates contends that it would be foolish to entrust choosing a society’s leader to its citizenry. He also argues that the inherently polarizing nature of democratic discourse makes electing people based on careful consideration difficult, if not impossible.
In a passage evocative of recent political rallies and campus debates, Socrates describes how, when his countrymen discuss politics, they “praise some things…and blame other things, equally exaggerating both, shouting and clapping their hands, and the echo of the rocks and the place in which they are assembled redoubles the sound of the praise or blame.”
Socrates then challenges his companions to imagine a man trying to evaluate the merits of a particular policy or candidate in such an echo chamber. He asks, “Will any private training enable him to stand firm against the overwhelming flood of popular opinion?” His companions readily agree that such resolve would be unlikely and it’s easy to see why. Nowadays, just as hyperbole and uproar once filled the Athenian forum, so, too, are American voters polarized, with aid from social media. In this light, it hardly seems wise to allow the public to elect their leaders.
However, with a bit of good policymaking, our electorate can, at the very least, become competent. Plato’s most famous pupil, Aristotle, advises policymakers in book eight of his Politics that “the citizen should be molded to suit the form of government under which he lives.” He means that, in order for a system of government to function, it needs people who can function within it. In practice, this requires that culture and policy ideally be oriented towards the functioning of society. With regard to policy, especially in a democracy, Aristotle writes, “the legislator should direct his attention above all to the education of youth; for the neglect of education does harm to the constitution,” because a constitution, even an excellent one, that can be altered by a citizenry that neither understands it nor the consequences of changing it is quickly ruined.
For a capitalist country where a basic education in the liberal arts isn’t necessarily going to be provided by market forces, heeding Aristotle means making sure the state steps in. And that’s exactly what the Founding Fathers, encouraged by Thomas Jefferson, did.
In his Sixth Annual Presidential Message to Congress, Jefferson writes:
Education is here placed among the articles of public care, not that it would be proposed to take its ordinary branches out of the hands of private enterprise, which manages so much better all the concerns to which it is equal; but a public institution can alone supply those sciences which, though rarely called for, are yet necessary to…the improvement of the country, and some of them to its preservation.
Essentially, Jefferson argues that, despite its inefficiency relative to private enterprise, the government has a responsibility, justified in part by the precarious nature of American democracy, to erect and invest in institutions tasked with the education of the public.
The Department of Education is the most substantial government institution charged with the stewardship of this obligation. Certainly, its noble purpose doesn’t make it untouchable. Student loan forgiveness programs that effectively subsidize graduates working for the government, record levels of spending, and stagnating educational outcomes are just a few of the things that need to be addressed. And to its credit, the Trump administration is working vigorously with Congress on those and other matters within the department.
However, to merge the Department of Education with the Department of Labor and redirect its purpose toward DeVos’s beloved “workforce programs,” which explicitly aim at making students good workers rather than good citizens, would be to steer it away from its imperative mission. That would threaten the very foundations of our democracy.
Michael Shindler is an advocate with Young Voices and research fellow at the Consumer Choice Center. His work has appeared in publications including The American Conservative, The American Spectator, and National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelShindler.