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"Communities Fix Schools"

An Interview with David Mathews

by Charlotte J. Robertson


  "Communities fix schools," David Mathews said, "Not politicians."  Addressing the Stockton Five Arts Club in January of 2000 on the occasion of their 75th anniversary, he added, "In modern times citizens are likely to abandon involvement in schools once their own children are grown...and to feel little or no responsibility for their continued improvement." The Bay Minette Public Library's Alabama Athenaeum was co-sponsor for the event and as Director of Library Services, I attended.  The more he talked, the more he grabbed my attention.

Mathews pointed to the fact that virtually all early public schools in Alabama were conceived, built and overseen by private citizens and organizations, including the first public school in Alabama built near Boat Yard Lake in Tensaw in Baldwin County 200 years ago. Drawing from his research on historical Alabama, Mathews commented on the connection between early schools and the communities that built them.

In the book Why Public Schools? Whose Public Schools?, Mathews explores the necessary link between communities and their schools, shedding light on the need for cooperation to resolve today's crisis in education. Examining history of 19th-century Mobile, Baldwin, Washington, Clarke, Monroe and Choctaw counties in Alabama, Mathews examines how communities once acted together to create schools for all citizens.

"There are no easy answers," said David Mathews, a Grove Hill native who serve in the Ford Administration as Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare,. "Trying to make the schools yours is absolutely essential. Not trying, giving up, is a guarantee of failure."

He did his undergraduate work at The University of Alabama where he took an A. B. Degree in history and classical Greek in 1958. He received a master's degree in education from the university in 1959 and took his doctoral degree in the history of American education from Columbia University in 1965.  He is the recipient of 16 honorary degrees. 

At the age of 33 in 1969, Mathews became the youngest president in the University of Alabama's history. Mathews applied his doctoral degree in the history of education as he took the university's leadership in an era of never-before-seen campus unrest. During his first year as president, more than 100 students had been arrested - most of them because of clashes with local police - and a campus building had been burned. In speeches during the following year, Mathews attracted national attention as he spoke out emphatically for educational reform.  During the mid-1970s, he took a leave of absence from the University of Alabama to serve 17 months as Secretary of HEW under President Gerald Ford.

Mathews moved on from the University of Alabama in 1980, and in 1981 was named president of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, a public policy research institute  ("think tank") based in Dayton, Ohio. With his passion for reform and his interest in history, he had found his niche, and he continues to serve as its president as he authors books and articles on the subjects of education reform and public policy.  Among his works are the titles Is There a Public for Public Schools? and Politics for People - Finding a Responsible Public Voice.   

In chatting at the tea following his talk in Bay Minette -- where he had spent some time as a child, residing in a home two blocks from our library -- Dr. Mathews asked for my help in researching the Pierce brothers' blab school (located in my native North Baldwin County) which is thought to be the oldest school in the state.  I sent him what little information I could find in the library and put copies of his texts on the library shelves.   I had no further dealings with him until I was involved in writing a NEH grant to be run through the Baldwin County High School.  The purpose of the $10,000 grant was to archive local history, and when asked, Dr. Mathews was more than happy to write a letter of support for the grant application. 

Another year passed and I received a request from the Kettering Foundation for the Alabama Athenaeum to join the University of South Alabama - Baldwin Campus, the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce, and  Over the Transom Bookstore in sponsoring a discussion on April 4, 2003, about the relationship between public schools and their communities.   With the high regard I hold for Dr. Mathews and his ideas, I was more than happy to be of service.  A number of thinking people-- including newly-appointed Superintendent of Schools, Faron Hollinger -- turned out on a Friday night for an informative lecture followed by a lively discussion.  Afterwards, the sponsors were guests of the Foundation and Dr. and Mrs. (Mary Chapman) Mathews for dinner at a Fairhope restaurant, and I was fortunate enough to sit at Dr. Mathew's right hand where I learned even more from our dinner conversation.

Dr. Mathews is a board member of the Academy for Education Development, the National Civic League, Miles College and the Southern Institute on Children and Families. He is a member of The Southern Academy of Letters, Arts and Sciences and a foundation board member of the Alabama Department of Archives and History.  He is also chairman of the Council on Public Policy Education, a trustee of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, and serves on the executive committee of Public Agenda. In addition to his books on education and political theory, Dr. Mathews has also written extensively on such subjects as southern history, public policy, and international problem solving.  
University of Alabama President Dr. Robert E. Witt (center) with David and Mary Mathews at Opening Doors 40th Anniversary.

What is the most relevant thing you learned about education during your tenure as the president of the University of Alabama?

I learned a great deal about college education — a lot of it from my students. The 1970s was a decade of student movements, which came in a variety of forms. Some gave institutions of higher education extraordinary opportunities to help students form habits of inquiry that could serve them a lifetime. These occurred when youthful idealism was joined with personal and collective responsibility. The students who became active citizens both on and off campus greatly enriched what they took from the classroom.

I admired the faculty and staff at the University, who developed an environment where students could come face-to-face with the major issues before America. The campus needed to be a place where people could reason together, a place to bring together the state with the nation, black with white, poverty with affluence, the powerless with the powerful, agrarianism with technology, idealism with practice, and rhetoric with action. I hoped that these exchanges would elevate activism on campus to confront the larger economic, social, and educational challenges of the country. That would enable students to become full-fledged citizens. Today, I am impressed by what those students, now long after their college days, are contributing to their communities and the country.

How can young people best be prepared to take their places as contributing citizens in their communities?

A strong sense of what citizens can do based on working together on common problems helps develop a strong sense of what citizens are obligated to do. Unfortunately, research shows that many students these days are turned off by the negative tenor of what appears to be a grossly adversarial political system, with little regard for fair play. Most young people say they are offended by extreme positions, whether coming from on or off campus. That is one of the reasons they shy away from the political system. This attitude probably has something to do with their disinclination to vote. This isn’t to say that students don’t care about the issues confronting the country — poverty, injustice, threats to the environment. The good news is that they care a great deal. The bad news is that they don’t think the political system can solve the problems that worry them.

In order for young people to take their place in the life of their communities, all of our educational institutions need to look more closely at the kind of civic education their students receive. Volunteering for service projects is great, but young people say they do it for personal satisfaction; studies show that it hasn’t changed attitudes about participating in political life. When researchers in one study asked students what skills they thought they would need to make a difference in politics, they said that they must have opportunities to learn how to understand complex issues, how to hold frank but civil discussions on controversial topics, and how to make decisions with others.

I am encouraged to see some of that skill-building going on at campuses such as Purdue, where students have held deliberative forums on how to curb campus drinking. Decisions that have been made in these forums seem to have something to do with a significant reduction in alcohol-related problems. Other institutions have used this type of forum to address a variety of campus and national issues, including the University of Georgia, Wake Forest, and Miami of Ohio.

What was most relevant during your term as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Ford?

The relationship between citizens and the government was dramatically affected by the circumstances surrounding President Nixon’s resignation in 1974. The reaction to Watergate set the context for the Ford administration. Years later, journalists still write about the tremendous drop in public confidence that followed. Although Gerald Ford didn’t move from the vice presidency to the presidency with an electoral mandate, he came to office with a public mandate — to restore confidence. At the rededication of the Ford Museum in April 1997, he characterized his time in office as a “season of doubt” and his task as one of “giving government back to the people.” I shared the president’s concern, and returning government to the public was a consistent theme in our work at HEW.

My colleagues (many of whom also came to HEW from Alabama) and I drew on our prior experiences in the University of Alabama’s outreach initiatives when we thought about ‘the public.” We had in mind the citizenry as a whole and not just an amalgam of interest groups. And we saw our job primarily as representing this public to HEW. We wanted to hear from people who weren’t necessarily familiar with the technical details of policies but whose common sense might help the government anticipate and minimize the sometimes counterproductive consequences of its programs.

Restructuring public participation in rule making seemed the logical place to begin giving the government back. We worked with the HEW staff to make the process for formulating regulations more consistent with democratic principles. That meant giving citizens more notice about proposed rules. So we asked agencies to alert the public by disclosing their intention to issue regulations early on, before positions on policy had solidified. Furthermore, the official Notices of Intent to regulate listed all the options being considered in drafting regulations. Citizens could not only comment on these options but also offer their own recommendations.

A specific case might help explain why regulation reform was so controversial in Washington. Congress would often pass legislation with very broad language, and HEW had to use records of hearings and debates to determine what the lawmakers intended before writing regulations. In one instance I recall, a major section was added to a bill in a closed committee session; consequently, there was nothing the department could use to determine intent. So HEW had to hold its own public hearings. When the draft regulations were completed, I sent them to Congress to ask if they were consistent with the legislation. This particular regulation had to do with assuring that people with disabilities would have full access to educational facilities, a measure that I fully supported. But I didn’t want people who objected to the regulations to go to Congress or the courts and claim that HEW had misinterpreted the law, as often happened.

One of the most sacred principles in democracy requires that laws be enacted only after full and open deliberations. I thought that principle also applied to regulations because they have the force of law even though they come from the bureaucracy and not the legislature.

In your opinion, why have so many people lost faith in government?

Conventional wisdom says that the majority of Americans are basically apathetic about government. One popular textbook insists that “the American masses do not lead, they follow.” A 1991 study of how people feel about politics — and why they feel as they do — showed that a great many Americans are not apathetic at all; they are angry. The study went beneath the surface of the usual complaints about government and politicians to uncover strong feelings of powerlessness and exclusion, coupled with an untapped sense of civic duty. The people who participated in the study had a clear sense of their civic responsibilities. They cared so deeply that their frustration ran to cynicism — a cynicism they worried would infect their children. These Americans felt they had been displaced by a professional political class of powerful lobbyists, incumbent politicians, slick campaign managers, and an elite media. They saw the system as one in which votes no longer made any difference because money ruled.

Interestingly, loss of faith in government may also be linked to people’s loss of faith in one another and a feeling that citizens can’t really do anything. So reforming politics may not be enough; citizens may have to re-form the public sector. “We the People” are more than a group of individuals with grievances or a collection of special interests. And we are more than voters. First and foremost, “We” are political actors joined in the thousands of civic enterprises that make our communities work and the country livable.

Some Americans are trying to strengthen public life in their communities by emphasizing what is surely central to self-government — the habit of making choices together to deal with our most serious problems. A public can’t act together on these problems until people have decided, together, how to act. And a community can’t be viable unless people take responsibility for their choices, which shape their future, even when they choose not to choose. To introduce the habits of “choice work,” many civic and educational organizations use National Issues Forums (NIF) issue books designed for old-fashioned town meetings. For more information, check out the National Issues Forums Institute Web site at

How has public apathy affected the increase of governmental power?

Governmental power seems to increase when citizen power decreases. But the power we have as citizens isn’t the same kind of power the government has. Government power comes from money, legal authority, and control over institutions. That sort of power flows one way — from those who have to those who don’t. It is “power over.”

There are also other kinds of political power: the power of a good idea, the power of the commitments we make to one another, the power that comes from people joining forces to act collectively, and the power of networks that link different people and varied resources into broad-based civic associations. This is “power with,” not “over.” If you look at how high-achieving communities get things done, you will find examples of this civic power at work.

Perhaps the only true power is the power people create themselves. Power that is given by someone to “empower” others is probably not real power. One of the things I have learned about government power is that it often isn’t effective unless it is reinforced by civic power. Consider what neighborhood watches have done to supplement the work of police forces. We need a government that not only knows how to work for people, but also knows how to work with them.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing public education today?

Despite evidence that parents like their local schools, many Americans are convinced that the public school system is failing in its most basic responsibility — to provide a good education for all. That perception has prompted reforms, including more standardized tests and vouchers — reforms that some believe are crucial to saving the schools and others worry will undermine them.

Even more worrisome in the long term, many schools may be losing their ties to a citizenry willing to consider a common education as a common responsibility. A few years ago, Kettering Foundation research found a number of people who don’t equivocate in saying that the public schools are not their schools. For example, some without children enrolled argue that schools are the parents’ responsibility. Some parents, on the other hand, see the schools as tax-paid utilities, somewhat like the companies that provide gas and electricity. As consumers, their job is to watch educators the way they would watch a cashier counting change. Their children sometimes develop the same attitude and think they should help their parents “keep the teachers in line.”

If public schools mean little other than schools paid for by tax revenue, they may mean far less in the future than they have in the past. People pay taxes but don’t think they own the schools. That doesn’t mean they don’t care; it often means they don’t think they can do anything to act on their concerns. “Control” is too strong a word for what they are looking for — it is more the collective ability to contribute to and influence schooling. Absent that influence, people are less inclined to think they are accountable for what happens in the educational system (“It’s the teachers’ or the parents’ job”), or they may withdraw in frustration from schools that don’t appear to give “outsiders” (sometimes including parents) a meaningful role.

Fortunately, a number of efforts have been organized recently to restore public ownership of public education. But these efforts have to begin within communities, not just schools. Only a citizenry capable of deciding and acting together can take on the responsibility of ownership. We won’t be able to have the public schools we want until we have the public we need.

What was the relationship between the early public schools and the community? What is it now?

In my research on the history of public education, I found citizens who spurred other citizens to build, finance, staff, and operate our earliest schools. Communities needed schools for their survival, and their schools needed them. Nearly everyone in them was a stakeholder, and the schools had what amounted to a “charter” from their communities, which led to broad support.

I don’t mean to imply that we once had a golden age of education. Despite the pioneers’ best efforts, the results didn’t meet their expectations. For example, although not that different from other frontier states, nearly half of Alabama’s white children weren’t in classes. Worse, illiteracy among slaves was estimated at 95 percent, even though free blacks had literacy rates equal to or slightly higher than whites.

While circumstances are quite different today, experiences from the formative years of public education speak to many of the issues we worry about now. Take local control, now called “home rule.” In the beginning, control was almost exclusively local; most schools had their own trustees, usually at least three. Significantly, the combined membership of all of these local boards resulted in a much larger percentage of citizens being directly connected to public education than is the case these days.

We need to restore the broad mandate for public education that attracts broad support. Parents aren’t the only ones who have a stake in the schools. Our economy depends on them. Our communities’ future depends on them. Perpetuating values of industry, honesty, self-reliance, and social responsibility in a new generation depends on them.

What is the primary mission of the Kettering Foundation?

The Kettering Foundation is a nonpartisan research organization that grew out of the American tradition of invention. It was created by tinkerers and problem solvers, people of bold imagination and bolder spirits; the bigger the problems, the better the founders liked them.

Today, our research is centered around a simple but difficult question: “What does it take to make democracy work as it should?” We follow the inventor’s disciplined approach to understanding the problems that confront our democracy and keep our research focused on things citizens can use, not simply to improve on what is, but to create fundamental change where it is needed.

For example, one of the most serious challenges facing us comes from a group of especially wicked problems that just won’t go away, problems like the use of illegal drugs and the increase of violent crime among young people. They fly beneath the radar screens of governments and institutions. Their persistence suggests that something is missing in the way we are approaching them. While Americans haven’t abandoned government programs, they are more and more convinced that these programs can’t solve wicked problems, that only people can — citizens joined with other citizens in cooperative action. Kettering Foundation research serves those citizens.

To learn more about the foundation, see its Web site at

Do grassroots politics really have a chance to make changes?

I get this question quite often. It usually means, “what can citizens like me do?” I like what Margaret Mead, a distinguished American scholar, said on the subject: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

A few people sitting around a kitchen table have accomplished more than might be expected. For instance, they gave us our first public schools — and many of our first libraries. Small groups become powerful by joining forces with other groups. Think of the way coral reefs grow from the bonds forged by millions of tiny creatures. Little, independent civic initiatives accumulate and eventually produce the larger defenses that society uses against major threats to public life, such as violence, exploitation, and corruption.

The influence of small community groups isn’t confined within town limits. Even without any formal organization, networks of civic activists have affected entire states and even the country as a whole. Nineteenth-century Alabama demonstrates how this happened. Community after community built schools, largely with their own resources. These investments influenced the legislature, but the influence didn’t come from the kind of special interest pressure we see today. It came from communities molding the political sentiment of the state. Maybe there is a lesson for us today in that history; we may be underestimating what the collaborative effort of communities could do to improve education.

What would you say is the most lasting contribution you have made to this country through your work?

No one can really answer that question. Only future generations will know if what any of us does today contributes to solving the problems they face. I would like to think that democracy or self-rule will still be important in the future and that our successors will find it useful to look at how our generation managed the legacies of liberty, justice, and self-government we inherited. I would also like to think that we will have added something to those legacies.

I hope that I can do for my grandchildren what my parents and grandparents did for me. The stories they passed down have had everything to do with how I understand democracy, citizenship, education, community, and family. I have often repeated one of these stories; it is my favorite. David Chapman Mathews, my grandfather, was superintendent of education in Clarke County, Alabama, in the 1920s. Public education was suffering from a lack of state funding, and that resulted in great disparities in access to schooling. Some communities had enough money to offer nine months of instruction (though parents had to pay $5 to $10 to supplement county funds). But in the rural areas where people were poorer, schools were open for only five months. The difference promoted class distinctions, even though children attending schools with terms of different lengths were often relatives. My grandfather explained that “one brother might live in Grove Hill and own a store. His children would get to go to school for nine months. His brother might live across the creek on a farm, and his children would get only five months of schooling.” This offended my grandfather’s sense of fairness: “Coming from the country or rural area, naturally, my sympathies were with the country child. I despised the disparity; it was un-American, undemocratic, and not Christian to have such a distinction.”

On becoming superintendent, he recalled, “I swore a mighty oath that I was going to change the system. I was going to give that country child the same length of school that the law promised.” With an outpouring of public support, he succeeded. The state revenue did not increase, but citizens taxed themselves. To me, that story demonstrates what people can do through collective effort. I want to keep alive the things that story holds valuable — a faith in citizens, a commitment to education, and a love of place.

Why Public Schools? Whose Public Schools:
What Early Communities Have to Tell Us
by David Mathews
NewSouth Books, 2003
Hardcover, $17.95  ( pages)
ISBN: 1588381102

      Southern Scribe Review


Sites of Interest

Kettering Foundation

Opening Doors: 40th Anniversary of African American Students being admitted to the University of Alabama

National Issues Forums Institute


© 2003, Charlotte J. Robertson, All Rights Reserved