Suzanna Sherry

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The University of Chicago Law Review

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Republicanism, Citizenship, Lack of education




The United States Supreme Court has long recognized what none of us can doubt: education is vital to citizenship in a democratic republic. Moreover, because the Court has left open the question whether there might be a constitutional right to a minimally adequate education,3 scholarly commentary has speculated for at least the last decade on possible constitutional bases for such a right. No one, however, has much explored the possible content of a right to education. In particular, there has been little examination of the concrete relationship between education and citizenship. What are the appropriate contours of an education for citizenship? Of course, asking such a question raises even more difficult questions about citizenship itself. There is no dearth of literature on the rights of citizens, but it seems disingenuous (and maybe circular) to argue that one needs an education to exercise the rights of citizenship. After all, despite some claims that illiteracy is inevitably disenfranchising, one can vote-as well as earn a living, own property, raise a family, and do whatever else might be suggested as a right of citizenship-without an education. Millions do. The core of the claim that education is necessary to citizenship must instead be that education is necessary to the thoughtful or responsible exercise of citizenship rights. But focusing on how a right is exercised changes the nature of the argument. Citizens are no longer simply rights-bearing individuals. They are, rather, rights-bearing individuals with responsibilities. If what is important is not that one has a right to vote but that one is able to (and does) use it wisely, we have moved our vision of citizenship from rights alone to rights and duties, or rights and responsibilities. We have, in a word, added virtue to the mix. Once we introduce virtue into our concept of citizenship, we can draw on another vast body of literature: that of the neo-republican revival. But if the literature on rights suffers from an inattention to virtue, the most telling weakness of the neo-republican revival is its neglect of rights. Scholars in both camps have begun to recognize the complementary nature of their theories, and there is now a growing group of legal academics trying to reconcile rights and republicanism. Such attempts at reconciliation cannot succeed without greater attention to an element of historical republicanism that tends to be neglected by the revivalists: individual responsibility. Our preoccupation with rights, even when diluted by a neo-republican focus on deliberation and community, leaves us bereft of any substantive notion of the responsibilities of citizenship. And it is the responsibilities of citizenship that implicate education and provide a bridge between selfish, rights-bearing individuals and their deliberative republican community. To put it another way, one can reconcile rights and republicanism only by suggesting that a republican citizen needs an education that will enable her to exercise both the rights and the responsibilities of citizenship. What I will here call an education for republican citizenship, however, is very different from the right to an education for its own sake or for the benefit of the individual. Moreover, the idea of responsibility changes the nature of the education itself: an education is no longer something merely provided by the government and consumed by the individual. It is, rather, an ongoing lesson in responsible citizenship that requires participation and dedication on the part of present and future citizens. In this Article, I hope to weave all these strands together into a concrete examination of the substantive legal implications of an education for republican citizenship. In Part I, I will survey the current state of the literature on rights and republicanism and elaborate the concept of responsibility. In Part II, I will sketch the substantive outlines of an education for republican citizenship based on the ideas explored in Part I. Finally, in Part HI, I will turn to Supreme Court cases on constitutional questions arising in the context of elementary and secondary schools, analyzing them in light of the proposed education for republican citizenship.

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