The thesis of the book, “Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy,” written by David Matthews, is succinctly summarized in the book’s title. Matthews writes, “We must have the public we need before we matthewscan have the schools we want.” To improve education, the book argues, there must be a more engaged, more informed, more active public: to improve education we must improve our democracy.

Matthews has an impressive resume; he was in charge of HEW during the Ford administration; he served as president of The University of Alabama. Now, Matthews serves as president of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation located here in Dayton.

In a transcript posted on Public Agenda, Matthews says, “The Kettering Foundation’s work is not about the argument that education is essential to democracy. That’s already been made. This book is about the reverse argument: that democracy is essential to education.” Matthews emphasizes that he is talking about education in a broad sense.  He says, “As opposed to being about the school, which is an institution, it is about education, meaning a process by which a society transmits its skills and values to the next generation through a host of institutions and social conventions, one of which is the schools.”

The Kettering Foundation was founded by Charles F. Kettering in 1927, “to sponsor and carry out scientific research for the benefit of humanity.” Over time, according to its web-site, the emphasis of the foundation evolved and, “Since the early 1990s, the foundation has worked on strategies to strengthen democracy. The primary question addressed by its research today is ‘What does it take to make democracy work as it should?’”

The foundation has offices on a 20 acre campus in Kettering, evidently within a few miles of where I live, so I want to visit the foundation’s offices. I want to browse, if allowed, the literature that the foundation produces. The foundation has a big interest in “deliberative forums,” and works in cooperation with another 501C(3), The National Issues Forum, and evidently produces literature used in these forums.

I think it is great that one of Dayton’s most creative and most successful citizens has bequeathed an organization whose purpose is to study democracy. The web-site says,

Kettering believed in sticking with big problems and taking them on in all their complexity, not breaking them into pieces. One needed, he was fond of saying, to “learn how to fail intelligently” – to develop and test new ideas and then to learn from what happened. Few important questions, he believed, were simple. One had to get at “the problem behind the problem.” During Kettering’s lifetime, the foundation’s work focused on projects he found interesting: basic scientific research on photosynthesis and cancer, as well as grants to promote scientific education and work-study programs at colleges and universities.

In keeping with Kettering’s insight — that one should identify and solve the problem behind the problem — in the 1970’s the foundation ceased using its income to make grants and instead focused its financial resources on conducting its own research. The web-site says,

As that work evolved, researchers at the foundation began to believe that lasting solutions to the world’s problems were increasingly social and political in nature rather than technical and scientific. Moving away from its tradition of basic scientific research, the foundation began to focus on basic political research – striving to understand how citizens and political systems can work together.

Eventually this work evolved to focus on democracy itself.

The idea that making democracy work is the problem behind the problem is an idea that rings true to me. I developed this idea in a post entitled, Our Democracy Must Be Revived — If We Hope To Achieve The Dreams of Our Wisest and Best. Matthews and the Kettering Foundation seem to assert the principle, that I agree with, that says, if our democracy was working as it should, the public good would be advanced in ways that are only hinted at now. How to make democracy work is the problem behind the problem.

David Esrati recently wrote a post in which he asked this interesting question: “Why would people want to live in LA and fight traffic, live in NYC and pay crazy rent for a closet to live in, when they could be in Dayton?” I wrote an extended response to Esrati’s question that resonates with Matthews’ insight that “democracy is essential to education.” Not only is democracy essential to education, but, I believe, democracy is essential to the fulfillment of all other aspects of our community’s potential as well. My judgment is that the answer to Esrati’s question must be anchored in our faith in democracy. It must be based on the principle that if democracy was working in the Dayton region as it should be working, people eventually would be powerfully attracted to our community.

In my response to Esrati, I wrote, “Dayton needs to ask itself what it should be doing, as a system, to inspire and empower its citizens to attain new levels of personal motivation, entrepreneurship, leadership and creativity.” What Dayton needs to do, if it is to move in the direction of becoming known as a ‘City of Opportunity,’ is to vitalize its democracy.

Because of the bequest of one of its most notable citizens and most successful problem solvers, Charles F. Kettering, Dayton is fortunate to be home to a foundation whose mission is to answer the question, “What does it take to make democracy work as it should?” The foundation has identified the key question because the problem behind the problems facing our community is the dysfunction of our democracy. For Dayton to answer this key question in such a way that it becomes a city and region known for its vibrant democracy is no small goal. For the sake of the future of our city and region, however, it is a question that we must focus our energies on answering.

I intend on making a future post discussing some of the ideas in Matthews’ book.

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