What is Education For?

Our nation is preoccupied with the issue of improving our schools. Claims of falling standards and achievement abound (these claims are dubious if one actually examines the data. Richard Rothstein’s book The Way We Were is an excellent refutation to that claim). Even if one accepts that the educational quality of our schools is lacking (which I accept, even if not the claim that it is declining), an important point is often left out of this issue: What are we educating for?

There appear to be two main goals that drive current educational reforms. Implicit in current reforms is that higher test scores equal better educated citizens. I come to this conclusion since it is only such test scores that are used to rate states, districts, and schools, and even nations as to their educational success. And at that, it is often only test scores in Language Arts and Mathematics that are examined. By relying exclusively on standardized test scores, it is implicitly saying that those are the only important goals. We see the effect of this when other subjects receive little or no attention, as is true in many elementary schools. Subjects such as arts, music, and even social studies and science are often ignored in elementary schools. This is especially true of schools serving the poor and students of color. It has gotten to the point that some schools are doing away with recess, and even being built without play areas (while we regularly read about the obesity epidemic sweeping our country)! It is not only the subjects that are taught, but how they are taught that this goal affects. The ability to think deeply, critically and creatively, to put the knowledge to use, is often ignored, as those skills are not directly tested, and teaching to such abilities is seen as taking away time that could be used to prepare students for the tests. Again, this is especially true for those not from the dominant culture, or those who are poor—those who are more likely to fail the tests.

The second goal is the rhetoric we hear from government, corporate, private think-tanks and media sources. These groups almost exclusively connect educational attainment to the national economy and to personal economic gain. However, even if we agreed with those aims, the claims as to the cause-effect relationship between education and the economy are somewhat questionable. The claim that increased schooling in a developed country improves the economy is not an excepted theory among educational economists. In fact, it is likely to be the reverse. Schooling responds to needs in the economy, and not the the other way around. When the computer industry boomed, lots of students went into the computer sciences. When the bust years came, they didn’t, and those that had often found themselves unemployed. Training more highly qualified engineers will not help them compete with engineers in India who will work for $7,500 a year, at a time when even highly technical jobs can be outsourced.

Will more schooling at least help one individually? There is strong evidence that years of schooling and degree attainment is highly correlated to income. There is some evidence that at least part of that correlation is not causal—that is, it may be that those who come form higher socioeconomic backgrounds are likely to have both more schooling and higher incomes, and it is their background that is the cause. However, even if we accept the premise that it is causal, at least to some degree, it is not clear that it is the content or quality of schooling that matters. Schooling may simply be a sorting mechanism for employers to screen applicants. This is the meritocracy argument. The best will rise to the station in life that they deserve. It is not clear if the actual knowledge and skills learned in school directly relate to the knowledge and skills needed in the workplace. Ask your doctor how much of medical school was useful? Or a lawyer about law school. Or a teacher about their education courses. Most will tell you that very little was useful, and the real skills were learned on the job. More schooling may be needed in our economy due to the fact that as more people graduate from high school, employers need to up the ante, and require a B.A. to differentiate candidates and reduce the pool. As more people have B.A’s, the same employers start asking for at least an M.A. to apply.

There is considerable debate whether schools do this sorting fairly. There is considerable evidence that again, students of color and the poor suffer discrimination in this system. Even if they don’t, should it be the job of a public institution to sort children for the sake of private employers? Is it the right of the government to force all citizens to take part in this sorting mechanism? Does it serve a compelling public (rather than private) purpose? None come easily to my mind.

Let us now examine the purpose of schooling as giving students the knowledge and skills for employment. Even if schools did do this, should it even be the job of public schools to train workers for private industry? What gives the government the right to compel 13 years of attendance in school during such a precious period in one’s life, if it is solely to meet the needs of the private sector? Why shouldn’t this be an individual choice, paid for either by the families who valued such training or the companies who wanted such workers?

Having read up until now you might think I am questioning the usefulness of public school. You would be wrong. I am questioning the current implied and stated goals. If we look back historically, the arguments for public schooling were made in large part based on two other goals. Going back to Thomas Jefferson, many argued that a democracy required an educated populace that could weigh evidence and make informed decisions. As Dewey said, if we are all the ruling class (which is the assumption of a true democracy) then we all need an education worthy of the ruling class. Anything less would be anti-democratic. Another argument was that in a country made up of people from so many different cultures and backgrounds, we needed a place where they would all become citizens of the United States and learn to accept each other’s differences. As an advocate for democracy, it is these latter goals that I find more convincing.

Such goals imply a different kind of learning and teaching than is common in many public schools. It requires focusing not on the rote learning of basic skills and the memorization of historical and scientific facts, but rather the ability to use those skills and facts to weigh evidence, come to conclusions, better understand one’s world, and even to take action, action that both fulfills one individually but also helps the nation or world improve upon our democratic ideals. We don’t know exactly what knowledge and skills will be needed either for the economy of the future nor to solve the problems that our society will face. We do know it will take the ability to work with others, find the necessary information, and to think both critically and creatively. It will also require tackling consciously and overtly issues of difference; of being able to take on different perspectives, understand other points of view, and to have empathy for those different than oneself. This type of education needs to go beyond the idea that we all should respect each other despite our difference, but to understanding the roots, causes and costs of prejudice and discrimination. It needs to get at not just the past wrongs that have been overcome, but the ongoing problems in our society and the world at large.

It is the goal of educating our youth for their place in a pluralistic democratic society that, for me, is a compelling reason to have a public school system for all of our children.

If you would like to join me in working toward these goals, you might inform yourself about, and join, one or more of the educational reform organizations featured on my Education Links page.

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