Why do we educate?
When we launched a formal public education system in the mid-1900s, it was done with a clear purpose in mind: to create a workforce with the skills required to work in the exploding industrial economy. It was an economic investment in the country’s future – we had a largely agrarian workforce that needed to be retooled to fulfill the needs of the nation’s factories for prepared workers. If we had not made that investment, our growth would have been crippled.
Shortly thereafter, we expanded the purpose of public education. Thanks to our economic success, we began to attract large numbers of immigrants, and we needed to turn these people into Americans. Public education’s job was to create a public, a group with a shared understanding of the country’s origins, ideals, and operating principles.
Up through these two stages, we had a clear and compelling purpose for public education, and our efforts – curriculum, structure, and the like – were all aligned with our desired outcomes. Since that time, however, I believe we’ve largely forgotten (or at least become unfaithful to) those original purposes, and that we’ve failed to update our defined purposes, if indeed they need updating.
There are no shortage of reports showing that our K-12 education system, and the requirements of both the workforce and higher education (which is just an extra step towards entering the workforce), are badly misaligned. Not only are we failing to teach children to our stated standards, but the standards that we have by and large don’t link to the next step in children’s lives. If public education is a workforce preparedness system, it is a badly broken one.
And how are we doing at creating an American public with our public education system? How many understand the basic operating principles of our system of government? How many understand and share our founding beliefs? How many can explain the advantages of the American system over alternate systems? I’m not suggesting a propagandist approach – we have erred as a country in the past, and we should acknowledge and discuss those. But our principles are noble, and they should be understood and shared by the public – a public forged within our nation’s schools.
But let’s come back to the original question: why should we educate?
I submit that there are now three societal needs that public education should be retooled to address. The need for a prepared workforce remains, and we must take a fresh look at our efforts here in order to meet the new standards for the term “prepared.” We also need to return to our roots of taking a mass and preparing a public. While we no longer have the influx of immigrants that we once had, there continues to be a need to provide our youth with a shared understanding of what it means to be an American.
And the third, and new, grand purpose would be consumer preparedness.
Over the past one hundred years, due in part to the success of the industrial revolution and the changes it brought, we have moved from being a society rooted in the family structure to one that is significantly fragmented. As a result, the skills and knowledge required to be self-sufficient are not being passed down through family channels as they used to be, and we have either lost those skills (from tying ties to being involved in the community) or replaced them with consumer alternatives (eating out or microwaving instant meals versus cooking at home).
As a country, we need self-sufficient and capable citizens, and if the traditional mode of transmission has been fractured, we should find an alternate path for conveying the knowledge and skills that people need to live independently.
Is there any doubt that doing more to encourage cooking and healthy eating skills would reduce obesity? Is there any doubt that improving financial literacy would improve our low savings rates, high debt levels, and rates of bankruptcies? Is there any doubt that introducing media literacy would help people make more intentional choices about consumption, including consumption of media and consumption of goods and services?
I may or may not be right about any of these purposes – these are just the thoughts of one person, and it will take the collective voices of many to identify our country’s needs, and to determine which needs are appropriately filled by a public system of education. But it’s certainly a conversation that needs to be had – we cannot move forward successfully based on assumptions frozen in place more than a century ago.