The Mission of Public Education


"Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge.
Without learning, men are incapable of knowing their rights,
and where learning is confined to a few people, liberty can be neither equal nor universal."

Benjamin Rush 


Assessing the success or failure of our schools with any reasonable degree of validity is complicated by the fact that there is confusion and disagreement regarding the mission of public education in America.  Although philosophical matters pertaining to education are rarely discussed, there are fundamental differences of opinion regarding the basic goal of our public schools. 

In the early years of the republic, Thomas Jefferson and others who lobbied for the establishment of public schools, argued that educated citizens were an essential component of effective government in a democratic state.  The primary justification for educating all children at public expense was that education would make it more likely that voters would elevate the most worthy candidates to office.  Jefferson’s plan also called for additional education at public expense for the most talented students, thus grooming them for positions in government.  The nation, as a whole, would experience the benefits of good government. 

In addition to preparing students for informed participation in civic affairs, Horace Mann and other early supporters of public education saw our schools as a place to combat immoral behavior.  As our nation continued to grow, through westward expansion and immigration, this idea evolved into the belief that schools should provide a means of civilizing and homogenizing the burgeoning population of the United States.  Public schools were to function as a “melting pot,” assimilating the children of Native Americans, African-Americans, and recent immigrants, into the mainstream of our society, by inculcating the values and beliefs of the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant majority. 

Frustration with the gap between the ideals stated in the Declaration of Independence and the reality experienced by many groups and individuals led some reformers at the turn of the nineteenth century to attempt to turn public schools into crucibles of genuine democracy.  Revisiting the idea that the primary mission of public education should be preparing students for their role as citizens, Margaret Haley, Ella Flagg Young, and others argued that our schools should function as democratic communities.  They promoted the idea of democratically governed schools as the most effective means of promoting and protecting democracy within the broader society.  They believed that genuine democracy in our schools required the active involvement of both teachers and students in decision-making, as well as a great deal of freedom for self-direction on the part of students. 

The Industrial Revolution was the catalyst for the most powerful transformation of our schools.  Support for public education, the number of children enrolled, and the number of years of schooling each child received, all began to grow steadily as the idea that our schools should be preparing children for their roles as workers in an industrial society began to take hold.  The development of intelligence tests and other types of standardized testing gave rise to an “improved” version of preparing students for their roles in the workplace, providing an apparently scientific means for schools to perform a sorting function.  Tests were used to determine what classes students should take to prepare them for their appropriate positions within the economy. 

Another level of tracking and sorting was added as American colleges and universities pushed for, and won, the right to act as gatekeepers to the professions.  As our institutions of higher education standardized and certified the requirements for entry into a growing number of professions, backed by state laws requiring such certification, they also managed, quite successfully, to dictate standardized curricular models for secondary schools. 

Today, more than two hundred years after the founding of our nation, arguments regarding the missions and goals of public education continue.  Competing views of the mission of our schools tend to co-exist.  Our system of public education has attempted, with widely varying degrees of success, to fill all of the roles described above.  Over time, however, vocational goals have slowly, but surely, claimed the dominant role in public education.  “Tech Prep,” “Career Pathways” and “School-to-work” programs, as well as other reforms promoting vocational skills, are being implemented in more and more schools and school districts. 

Within education the term “tracking” refers to the practice of sorting students into different courses of study based on their academic abilities.  Brighter students are enrolled in a “college prep” curriculum that includes more of the elements of a traditional liberal arts education.  Students with limited abilities are tracked into classes focused on the development of job-related skills.  Tracking has come to be viewed as discriminatory, and the term itself has fallen out of favor. In reality, the practice is alive and well.  The difference is that more and more students are being tracked, and are tracking themselves, into “vocational” classes.  Wood shop, metal shop, and homemaking have been replaced by programs that have a more direct connection to the job market of today.  Computer programming, appliance repair, auto mechanics, and other career-oriented classes are very popular. Even students who are preparing for and attending college are focused on vocational goals. An ever-increasing number of community college programs have a career focus.  The primary goal of most students attending four-year colleges is acquiring the certification necessary to enter a “profession.” For all intents and purposes, our colleges and universities have been converted into “vocational” schools. 

At both the high school and college levels, some elements of a liberal arts education remain in place, but the primary focus of most students is on preparation for the job market.  Although a few lone voices cry out in the wilderness, very few students, parents, educators, or politicians seem to question the dominant view that the primary purpose of public education is to prepare our children for the workplace.  The original justification for educating all children at public expense has been relegated to the back burner.  There is very little discussion about the importance of developing the skills necessary for informed citizenship.  Our schools and the school day are structured and designed to simulate the workplace and help students develop the habits that they need as workers in an industrial society: arriving, eating, and being dismissed by bells, working diligently at assigned tasks (no matter how boring or irrelevant those tasks might seem), and following orders. 

While the contention that higher levels of formal education are necessary to meet the requirements of the modern workplace is reasonable up to a point, there is a continuing demand for unskilled and semi-skilled labor.  Our factories may have more and more robots scattered in among the workers and typewriters may have been replaced by desktop computers, but there is still a need within our economy for workers with limited skills, but good habits, workers who will be in their assigned place on time and who will follow orders without question, workers who are not stifled to the point of ineffectiveness by jobs that are repetitive and boring.  Although there is always room for improvement, our economy seems to be doing reasonably well.  There may be some structural unemployment as a result of the rapid pace of technological change, however, a bit of skepticism seems to be in order when employers bemoan the lack of qualified workers and then lay off workers with college degrees and/or years of experience in the process of “downsizing” to improve profitability. 

Our system of public education is doing a fairly effective job of cranking out dull, uncritical individuals who will quietly accept their role as cogs in the machinery of our economy.  A sufficient number of reasonably talented individuals are developing the skills and acquiring the knowledge needed to service the machines that are taking over the workplace.  And a fortunate few are surviving their journey through our educational system with their curiosity intact.  The work of this elite group continues to fuel the expansion of the frontiers of human knowledge.  Much of that knowledge is applied to the marketplace.  There are winners and losers, of course, but our overall level of material wealth is impressive. If the essential purpose of public education is to prepare our children for their role as workers, neither the low test scores of many students, nor the elements of coercion and control that dominate our present system of public education, need trouble us too greatly. 

On the other hand, if we are attempting to prepare students for the role of citizens in a democracy, we should be greatly concerned about our present approach to education.  Effective citizenship requires the acquisition of a broad base of knowledge and the development of the critical thinking skills necessary to make informed decisions.  We are in grave danger of seeing the electoral process in our country turned into a political version of “The Jerry Springer Show.”  The ability to listen to, or read, opinions that are contrary to our own, with an eye toward understanding the perspectives of others, has always been rare.  Today, open- minded individuals, capable of considering a range of viewpoints before formulating an opinion on public issues, are rapidly becoming an endangered species. 

Developing the skills necessary for informed participation in civic affairs is a lengthy and difficult process.  Students must be given frequent opportunities to read and discuss opposing viewpoints related to a variety of contemporary issues.  Furthermore, they need opportunities to engage in authentic decision-making.  Students are almost never involved in the decision-making process within a school, even when those decisions impact their own schooling experience.  Our schools are administered in a bureaucratic, top-down manner, with students on the bottom level of the pyramid.  It is difficult to acquire the skills necessary for informed participation in civic affairs within a dictatorial environment.  They are much more likely to be fully developed in an environment that encourages freedom of thought and allows students to be meaningfully involved in the government of their schools. 

When considering the purpose of public education, we must also weigh the public good, as opposed to the private good, of various missions.  Our nation as a whole should benefit from schools that are funded with tax revenues, particularly considering the fact that a sizeable percentage of those revenues are generated from levies on people who have no children enrolled in school.  On an individual basis, the financial benefits of staying in school and getting good grades are beyond dispute.  There is a strong correlation between income and level of education.  Money, in and of itself, is a powerful incentive to develop job-related skills.  Students whose educational focus is on enhancing their marketable skills, and the businesses and industries that will profit from their labors, should pay for the cost of classes that are directly related to preparation for the job market.  There is also some benefit to our nation as a whole, in having each individual acquire the skills needed to succeed in the workplace.  As the percentage of the population properly prepared for gainful employment increases, crime and violence decrease and productivity increases.  Still, taxing all members of our society so that some individuals can get better-paying jobs, is an approach that could be questioned and challenged. 

As a nation, we will derive a much greater benefit from doing a better job of preparing our children for their role as citizens.  If more voters are capable of informed participation, we are more likely to elect public officials who will rule wisely.  We will all enjoy the benefits of better government.  Taxing everybody, including individuals with no children enrolled in public schools, is therefore, much more justifiable, if effective citizenship is the primary mission of public education.  Furthermore, the critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills acquired as part of a liberal arts education in a democratic school environment also prepare students for any type of job training.  (This is important in a society where workers may change jobs and careers a number of times during a lifetime.)  An education focused almost exclusively on preparation for the job market, does not include the skills and knowledge needed for effective citizenship. 

The character of our society is greatly affected by the attitude toward learning of the populace.  A narrow focus on vocational goals has blinded students (as well as parents, educators, and legislators) to the value of being well-educated in a broad sense of the term.  Although we claim to value education, the truth of the matter is that we have come to view education as nothing more than a ticket to a good paying job.  Although most of the adult members of our society have the skills needed to engage in life-long learning, the inclination to do so is extremely rare.  Very few of us survive our journey through the present educational system with our love of learning intact. If we are to be a well-educated society, citizens of all ages must not only be capable of self-directed learning, they must also be motivated to pursue learning opportunities without being compelled to do so.  The primary mission of our schools should be to develop an educated and informed citizenry capable of, and interested in, active participation in civic affairs.