In the past, I have argued that our educational establishment – and the public at large – have lost sight of why we have schools. It seems strange to ask the question, but only because we all take the answer for granted.
In truth, the “why” of public education is rarely discussed - or even considered. In three years of graduate study at UVA’s Curry School, I don’t recall one serious investigation of why Americans devote so many resources – trillions of dollars; years of political wrangling; the careers of millions of smart, dedicated, underpaid professionals – to this enterprise we call public education.
I’m pretty sure we talked about why Americans decided to get into the business of public education, but that was in a class on the History of Education. Earlier generations of Americans established schools for some pretty solid reasons. If we think about it at all, most of us assume that those reasons still exist.
We’re just not too clear what they were.
Our politicians aren’t much help. Time and time again, you’ll hear them declare, “I believe in our public schools.”
Public education has become an article of our civic faith – but, like many articles of faith, it doesn’t bear up so well under scrutiny.
It’s easier to believe – or pretend to believe – than to doubt. So we all say we believe.
But this lack of a clear public purpose creates a kind of policy vacuum, and into that vacuum, much mischief has spread. Since it’s hard to enunciate a public purpose for the schools, a lot of private interests have crept in – and we will play the devil getting them out again.
Probably the most pernicious private interests are those of parents.
Motivated by their understandable love for their children, most parents think our schools exist to cooperate with them.
This shows up in all sorts of silly ways – such as the eternal controversy over closing schools for inclement weather. A lot of parents want to schools to function as a free babysitting service – which is hardly their function.
But parental entitlement also shows up in more important contexts. Some parents want the schools to teach the curriculum they prefer. Others insist that their children be selected for the gifted program. Or offer advanced artistic training.
Many demand that teachers motivate kids who arrive at school without the slightest parental example of intellectual curiosity.
All of which is understandable in our narcissistic society. But that doesn’t make it right.
If our schools existed to the interests or preferences of parents, then why must the rest of us – those with no children, or whose children have graduated, or whose children are not yet of school age, or whose choice is to home-school or to educate their children privately – pay taxes to support them?
For that matter, why are non-parents allowed to vote for members of the school board?
Logically, our schools exist for some greater purpose than to serve parents.
But, for all the unions say, they don’t exist to provide jobs for teachers. Nor do they exist to provide opportunities for the self-aggrandizement of superintendents.
Not do schools exist to prepare students for jobs in the private sector – something which, in better days, the private sector understood.
Indeed, though it’s a tougher case to make, our schools don’t even exist for the sake of the students themselves.
Schools – public, tax-supported, schools – exist for the benefit of the nation. They exist, above every other purpose, to produce thoughtful, informed, self-sufficient, contributing citizens for a future America many of us won’t live to see.
In seven words: Public schools exist to produce good citizens.
It’s that simple.
There’s a lot more our schools can do – and it’s great if they can do those things without sacrificing their primary objective.
But our schools do not exist to provide an educational smorgasbord for parents and their children. They exist to teach the things everyone needs in order to function as the citizens of a republic.
Every citizen should be able to read, speak, and write well – in English. If possible, every citizen should acquire a similar fluency in at least one other language. But anything less that fluency is a waste of resources.
Every citizen should be able to perform, comfortably, the functions of arithmetic and basic algebra; think logically, which is the function of geometry; keep basic books and understand the elements of statistics.
Many modern jobs require an understanding of calculus, and I see no harm in its inclusion – though I’ve somehow survived without it all these years.
Every citizen should understand how scientists think, have a basic grasp of the state of scientific knowledge to date, and understand that scientific knowledge changes as research progresses.
Finally, every citizen should understand the history of this country and the civilizations from which it grew; its government; and the philosophy upon which it was founded.
But that’s a topic for another essay.