The recent debate in Alpine School District over the language of the board's mission statement — "Enculturating the Young into a Social and Political Democracy" — is just more evidence that local political sentiment has become unmoored from reason. If we expect our youths to learn critical thinking, we're going to have to model it in our public discourse at school board meetings, especially when impressionable kids in Boy Scout uniforms are present to watch democracy — yes, democracy — in action.
It is very hard to believe that any of Alpine's concerned parents actually think that a conservative school district in the most conservative state in the union is a secret vanguard for socialist (or communist) ideology. Equally absurd and McCarthyesque is the assumption that Brigham Young University's David O. McKay School of Education, the source of the mission statement, is confederate with Alpine School District in the socialist indoctrination of our youths. No one can possibly believe this.
Since there is no evidence of socialist teachings in the curriculum, parents had to get their McCarthy moment from the phrase "social democracy" and its mysterious meaning.
We should applaud the fact that people want to debate political semantics. Frankly, we need to do that more. In this case, however, the parents — in imitation of the common research practices of their kids — went to Wikipedia to find out what it means and then boasted on camera for having done so.
While it is true that the phrase "social democracy" can refer to a 19th-century political ideology that initially called for a gradual evolution from capitalism to democratic socialism, that is certainly not what the district had in mind.
Nor is it what John Goodlad, the original author of the quote, had in mind. A celebrated scholar and advocate of public schooling, Goodlad defined "social democracy" in "In Praise of Education" quite noncontroversially as "the living together of people endeavoring to follow democratic principles." As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, political democracies cannot function fully without healthy social democracies — those varied relations among equals trying to learn how to make life a little better for all.
Goodlad's work also helps us with that pesky word "enculturating," which a few of Alpine's concerned parents latched onto with righteous McCarthyist indignation.
In 1984, in a massive research study of public schools funded by Ronald Reagan's Department of Education, Goodlad discovered that stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, administrators, etc.) overwhelmingly want our schools to do more than teach academics: We want them to reinforce valued principles of democratic culture like tolerance, mutual respect, freedom, engagement and critical thinking.
This teaching goal is enshrined in the Utah State Constitution under Title 53A. To argue, as one concerned parent did at the meeting, that "culture" is something our youths should get exclusively at home is to reveal an impoverished notion of public schooling at odds with a long-standing American consensus.
If the discourse at the Alpine School District meetings last March is any indication of what's yet to come this election year, then maybe the concerned parents are right: Maybe we shouldn't enculturate our youths into that kind of political and social democracy. On the other hand, maybe such extremism, however well-intentioned, will stir up some common sense in those who usually sit on the sidelines. We can only hope.
Brian Jackson is an assistant professor of English and associate coordinator of university writing at Brigham Young University.