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But there was something else—another claim on us. The current phrase for it is social justice. I’d rather use the word democracy, because it conveys the idea of equality and the need for a common life among citizens. No institution has more power to form human beings according to this idea than the public school. That was the original purpose of the “common schools” established by Horace Mann in the mid-19th century: to instill in children the knowledge and morality necessary for the success of republican government, while “embracing children of all religious, social, and ethnic backgrounds.”
The claim of democracy doesn’t negate meritocracy, but they’re in tension. One values equality and openness, the other achievement and security. Neither can answer every need. To lose sight of either makes life poorer. The essential task is to bring meritocracy and democracy into a relation where they can coexist and even flourish.