The Purpose of Schooling

Why are you here?  I often ask the freshmen in my American Government & Citizenship class this on their first day.  What is the purpose of schooling?  Is it so you can get good grades, get into a good college, get a good job and then buy a lot of stuff?  This last question is a joke of course…the sad thing is that often many don’t get the joke.

In the March 2011, issue of Educational Leadership, David Ferrero writes about the purposes of schooling.  “Historically, democratic societies have recognized three broad purposes of schooling: personal, economic, and civic.  At the personal level, schools have helped students discover and cultivate individual interests, talents, and tastes; form good habits; and develop an understanding of what it means to lead a good life.  Schools have prepared students to contribute productively to the economy by preparing them to pursue a vocation or further study leading toward some profession.  And schools have achieved civic goals by equipping students with the knowledge and skills necessary to be good citizens.  Together these three imperatives have constituted a holistic understanding of persons as having private, productive, and civic selves.”[1]

I like this description because it’s clear and to the point about why public schooling is essential in a republic.  However, it makes me wonder if those engaged in the current debate surrounding education reform share the same ideas?  Do the current critics of public education hold each of these ‘three purposes’ in equal light, or is there more attention and value placed upon the economic purpose?

With the rise of our nation’s corporate culture I’m fearful that schools are increasingly being examined solely through a lens of economic worth and that message is jeopardizing our cultural heritage.

Thomas Jefferson wrote extensively about the goals of education.  He cited a direct correlation between literacy, citizenship and successful self-government.  With literacy came knowledge and discernment and with these came the means of safeguarding self-government and independence.  Jefferson hypothesized that literacy and self-government work hand in hand and was a key component to self-preservation.  The basis for Jefferson’s beliefs on the merits of literacy was derived from his own personal experiences related to reading in the pursuit of knowledge.  Reading paved the way for self-discipline, self-governance, and self-efficacy.  Jefferson viewed the link between literacy and successful citizenship as unambiguous and direct.  He saw literacy as a liberating and transforming force – the equalizer for the masses and the essential mechanism necessary for human liberation.[2]

Jefferson’s ideas about schooling appear to have greater concern for the personal and civic purposes.  His writings do acknowledge the economic purposes of schooling but, on the whole it’s clear that he placed greater emphasis on a student’s personal growth and civic responsibility because he understood that If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”[3]

What has happened to us?  It feels like the purposes of public education have been compromised and we’re all to blame.

In 2009, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) published a study which aimed to keep our focus on democratic principles and the health of our republic going forward.  Michael Hartoonian and Donald Bragdaw, in response to the NCSS survey wrote, “Almost everything being done in ‘education’ today works at cross purposes to the development of the educated citizen.  The citizen, as opposed to the subject, must understand the cultural heritage, be able to argue with civility and reason, conceivably communicate in several languages, and debate, influence, evaluate, and implement policies that bring all of us closer to the values delineated in the Declaration of Independence.  Above all, education in a democratic republic creates loving critics of our communities and nation.  All institutions must help educate, but in this republic the roles and responsibilities must be clear.  Families bring children into nature, communities bring children into culture and in democratic societies, schools bring students to love and critically evaluate their culture and civic responsibility.  This ability is fundamental because citizens must know what of their cultural heritage to keep, what to discard when no longer functioning, and what to create anew as life and situations demand.   From the survey data it seems that none of these tasks are being presently being adequately performed in our schools.  On the contrary, we seem to be moving away from our democratic responsibility – unable to comprehend that democracy is not encoded in our national DNA.   With each new generation, it must be recreated in the minds of citizens through educational processes and ongoing experiences afforded by such efforts.  Indeed, that’s what makes us citizens.  So much depends on the cultivation of attitudes, and the accretion of general knowledge toward achieving the civic process in a democracy.  The task of schools is to bring into being a worthy occupant of the “Office of Citizen.”  It is a cooperative effort by family and schools, but the latter must provide children with the will, the knowledge and the tools by which they may perform that supreme task.”[4]

This has been an interesting year in education – the films, Waiting for Superman, and Race to Nowhere, have sparked a national discourse.  The recent events in Wisconsin, although politically (not economically) motivated, have stirred tremendous emotion and debate about teachers and what is expected of the profession.   There are many problems in our schools today; but as a public school teacher for the past twenty-three years I can also say there are many good aspects too.  There are ‘bad apples’ within the teaching profession but there are many, many phenomenally talented teachers too.  All of this matters.  But all solutions must begin with an understanding of the true purposes of education in our republic.  I’m fearful that some reform advocates focus solely on the economic purposes of schooling and I shudder to think of the kind of citizens that may produce.

Hartoonian and Bragdaw brilliantly conclude, [that] “…educators care for the intellectual life of students. They are committed to construct a place where students will understand the joy, as well as the hard work, needed to be a scholar and democratic citizen.  Citizenship is not automatically conferred, but earned through the contributions that one makes to the well-being of family, school, firm, and society as a whole.  It is the interaction of the on-going life, and its need for knowledge that makes for a citizen who cares about the society in which he/her finds his/her life and destiny.  We must stop and examine what we are now imposing upon our society in the form of an inadequate consideration of our national heritage.”[5]

[1] Ferrero, The Humanities; Why Such a Hard Sell? Educational Leadership, Vol. 68 No. 6, March 2011, p.22-26

[2] Gilreath, Thomas Jefferson and the Education of a Citizen. Library of Congress, Washington, 1999, as analyzed by Sparagana, New Foundations, 2002

[3] as cited in Padover, 1939, p. 89.

[4] Bragdaw & Hartoonian, The Neglect of Heritage, 2009.

[5] Ibid.

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  1. Excellent. This is exactly what students also need to know. They need to know this is why we teach. When they know this, they know that we care about them as individuals, and as citizens.

  2. Mark Ritchie

    Great post – thank you for this wisdom! Mark Ritchie

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