Yesterday was primary runoff election day in Texas and that got me thinking about politics. One often repeated argument for schooling is that it teaches students to become “active participants in democratic life.” If so, given the state of our democracy, could anyone be blamed for saying that schooling is an abject failure?

Right now the United States is mired in a pandemic that has killed over 135,000 people in the United States (573,000 worldwide) in large part because of a mix of inaction, incompetence, malfeasance, and political cowardice by politicians and bureaucrats from the federal to the local levels. Their actions and inaction have likely deepened and will greatly prolong the pandemic-induced economic depression that has already cost over 40 million Americans their jobs, with over 5 million of them also losing their health insurance. And over the past couple of months, cities across the country have been rocked by protests over the continued killings of people (disproportionately Black people) by the police.

But the current crises are not the first signs of the failure of schools to prepare students to be good citizens. American democracy (and hence, American schooling) has never produced more than a smattering of politicians who fought for the wellbeing of everyone in society. Instead, it reliably produces politicians who fight on behalf of the people and organizations with the most power. We have long been saddled with an economic system that has extracted wealth from the majority of the people and funneled it to a tiny percentage at the top. While government continues to pare back social services and shrink public spaces, they continue to use tax dollars to subsidize industry, wage war, and fund a larger police presence. And government institutions (e.g., policing) continue to prey on the people with the least by serving them the most.

So about schools creating good citizens—it is obviously not happening. In the most innocent framing, schooling is structured in a manner that discourages dissent or progress. Outside of some private democratic schools, students don’t get to practice democracy, much less freedom. Students are not permitted to make the decisions that are relevant to their lives. Students do not have the freedom to right the wrongs they see, especially if the one doing the wrong is the school leadership itself. How can students become good citizens as adults if they are denied the opportunity to influence and change their communities during childhood?

A more critical framing of schooling recognizes it as a tool of oppression perpetuating power and privilege. Schooling makes clear to students what success looks like: study hard, excel on tests, get into a top ranked college, get a degree, work a high paying job, and have kids who do the same. But most importantly, act right. Students are told that they must compete with and outperform their peers for a shot at winning the game. But what the students are not told is that the game is rigged. That almost every system, including schooling, is structured so that those with the most have a head start over those with less. And that those with the least are actively harmed by the systems in a way that amplifies disparities. What good is patting oneself on the back for “uplifting” the poor kids or the Black kids through education if we are simultaneously placing hurdles between those kids and the rich white kids? While the most well-intentioned teachers are trying to decolonize the classroom, the kids are still stuck in the classroom.

One of the worst things about schooling is how it conditions young people to forfeit their opportunities to create a better world. It tells them that winning through competition with others is the path to getting to the top, which is the ultimate goal. And to be at the top means there are a lot of people below. Also, one can only win if they do so according to the systems that are in place. For example, one cannot be a valedictorian by opting out of schooling.

Schooling does not tell students that they cannot make the world a better place, they just lead those students to believing that the avenues for doing so are through the systems that create more losers than winners. If they want to do good it is best to be successful. Perhaps they can get a job at McKinsey, or work for Teach for America, or maybe run for office. But at the very least, no matter where they fall in terms of success according to schooling and profession, as a good citizen they will vote. Because if everyone voted then at least the political systems would serve the people, which would then force other systems to serve the people, right?

Sadly, no. While elections do have consequences, they are also a great way to blame the people for not getting the world they deserve. When the people complain about how the system serves those with the most power, the people are often told they didn’t get enough people to the polls. Maybe more schooling will do the trick?

I don’t mean to be too negative on schools. Schools alone are not the problem. And if an ideal form of schooling existed and was a threat to the status quo, if it was advancing equity and justice, it would be ripped apart and reconstituted into what we see today. But such schooling would not be creating good citizens in the way that we are told the current institution of schooling is or should. Such schooling would give power to the students. The students would have autonomy over their own lives. They would be able to co-create the culture and operations of those schools. They would be able to organize with other students and go into the world and shape their communities. They would know that they can do more than just vote. Those are the type of citizens that I want to surround myself with.

Imagine that. Let’s create that.