Forward Thinking: The Purpose of Public Education

Forward Thinking is a values development project created in collaboration with Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers. Dan is introducing our next prompt today (head on over to see it!), but in this post I will pull together some of the responses to this month’s prompt: “What is the purpose of public education?” In addition to reading these bloggers’ responses, if this topic interests you make sure to head over to the original post and read the discussion in the comments.

First we have some thoughts from The Ex-Preacher’s Kid:

I recently finished a book that has altered my perception about the purpose of education. E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to knowbrought up some very interesting points, even if the book was published nearly three decades ago.

. . .

The purpose of public education should not be merely to crank out individuals with good test scores. Hirsch provides ample evidence and a persuasive argument that schools should provide students with a shared knowledge because life is a collection of interaction with other people, not just a series of individual achievements.

To the extent that there are themes common to these responses, the idea that the purpose of public education goes far, far beyond good test scores is definitely one of them. Eudaimonaic Laughter formulates a list of six purposes, going on to describe each in depth:

To talk about the purpose of public education is to imply that public education has only one purpose – and that is to oversimplify matters drastically.  Major purposes of public education include in no particular order:

  • Teaching basic skills
  • Allowing people to reach their potential
  • Social Mobility and Cohesion
  • Relieving pressure on parents
  • Base Economics
  • Prevention of Child Abuse

Becoming Android echoes a number of these purposes, including helping people reach their potential, giving a helping hand to parents, and promoting a positive economic foundation, breaking things down into the interests of the child, the parent, and society:

If you don’t have an adequate education you will not be able to find a job, or at least not one that’s interesting and has any chance of going anywhere; so if you want to do interesting things at work, and have enough money to do interesting things with your free time, some kind of education is essential.

. . .

It is in a parent’s interest to educate their child; a parent should want the best for their child, and the best cannot be had without an education. If you want your children to decide what they want to do in life, and to achieve their potential, then spending some time teaching them what life has to offer, and developing their skills and knowledge, is fairly vital.

. . .

If you have any belief in equality of opportunity, a good, free, compulsory school system is the foundation stone of equality.

Becoming Android points to the importance of helping people achieve and promoting equality of opportunity, but also points directly to the economic goals behind public education—preparing people to find jobs. Lana of Wide Open Ground, though, finds this focus concerning:

I so often hear parents tell their kids, “you need to get an education” followed by “so you can grow up and get a job.” I find that ridiculous; we should teach kids to learn for the sake of learning.

. . .

We need to ask, “what should be the purpose of public education?”

From an economic standpoint, education is about preparing people for a job market. Its part of self-survival, but it’s also for the good of the people. People need jobs. Yet I do believe that public schools should first and foremost be about personal development and intellectual growth. It should be about a love of learning, and stimulating the brain through high arts. It should be about social growth, and  extracurricular activities, including sports. And it should teach students to think (something America is lacking in).

. . .

In the end, I see the purpose of education as three-fold. First, echoing Arnold, it’s about the development of the human soul. Second, it’s about equalizing the rich and poor. And finally, it’s about creating a society of human beings able to think and build a healthy government.

Like Lana, Rachel Marcy of Ripening Reason emphasizes that public education should serve as an equalizer to help promote equality:

The social contract can’t function without a baseline of education. An educated society is a just and productive society. Public education, in theory, provides equal access for everyone. Of course, public education in the United States is actually very unequal. The quality of school districts vary substantially, mostly because wealthy districts have better-funded schools. However, I don’t look at the problems with our public schools and think the concept of public education has failed; I think the proper response is to reinvest and make the system better.

Public education has a twofold purpose: for the individual, it provides the foundation for a productive life; for society, it produces informed citizens. I want to live in a society where everyone has access to a good education, and can benefit from it, regardless of socioeconomic status. I want this because I think education is a human right, but also because I want to live in a republic with an educated populace, for the safeguard of order and liberty.

Editor B of Celebration of Gaia also appears to agree with Lana’s perspective, emphasizing the importance of teaching people to learn rather than just teaching them what to know. Once again, we see the idea that public education is about more than just test scores:

No one is born with the knowledge or wisdom needed for full participation in life on earth. Education is a process by which humans acquire learning and develop as individuals as well as members of a community.

William Butler Yeats said that education is “not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” The pail symbolizes a pervasive view of education, which Yeats challenged, the notion that learners are empty vessels to be filled up with content matter. Fire symbolizes a transformative process whereby the learner is inspired to understand why learning is important, motivated and empowered to become a self-directed learner.

Yeats was mostly right, though perhaps he overstated his case. Education can legitimately claim both symbols. We still need the pail; there is a time for learning content, even for rote memorization. But the fire is clearly superior. Once the fire is ignited, the learner may well be able to fill her own pail.

Once again, if this topic interests you make sure to head over to the original post and read the discussion in the comment. I think the general consensus here is that public education should be about teaching content, teaching children how to learn, providing an equalizer that enables people to fulfill their potential, fulfilling the nation’s economic needs, and creating a common society bound by shared knowledge and shared experiences. Perhaps another interesting question for the future would be, if you could completely redesign the public education system, and had unlimited funds with which to do so, how would you redesign it?

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Button

    I so often hear parents tell their kids, “you need to get an education” followed by “so you can grow up and get a job.” I find that ridiculous; we should teach kids to learn for the sake of learning.

    It’s interesting to see the generational differences here. It’s been my experience from talking with my fellow Millennials – excepting the few at the very head of the generation who were already safely employed by the time of the recession – that many of us consider this idea that education should be for the sake of learning, not the sake of employment, the single worst attitude our parents’ generation tried to instill in us.

    With college costs being what they are and the economy being what it is, even those of us with marketable degrees have had a hard time. The people who took out student loans to study what they wanted to learn, and didn’t luck into loving a marketable field, are understandably bitter that, when we were too young to know better, the older generations presented us their fantasy of learning for learning’s sake as truth.

    I intend to be a genetic dead end so I’m not going to head over to the other discussion. Just wanted to vent a little bit, because “learning for learning’s sake” has become a wincing point for a generation.

    • Kate Monster

      I think, ideally, it has to be both. I remember talking to a student who had chosen a major based on what was likely to earn the most money as a career. No passion, no fire–it was all about the bottom line. That struck me as incredibly sad. At the same time, when you graduate with a degree in, say, ceramics theory, you’re going to have a tougher time than someone with an MBA or a Communications degree.

      But I think for education to work best, it has to combine the practical side of things with the learning-for-the-sake-of-learning side. I wouldn’t trade my artsy, non-real world degree for anything–I loved my undergraduate experience and I think it was important to my development as a person. At the same time, I’m glad I got work experience and some practical development in my field as well. It has to be both–if all you get out of university is practical practical practical, you’ll end up burnt out and angry. If all you get is the unemployable thing you love, you’ll end up broke (which kinda leads to burnt out and angry). It’s all about the balance.

    • Kristofer Rhodes

      Universities began by valuing learning for the sake of learning rather than for the sake of employment. (Bit of an oversimplification, since the priesthood, academia and the medical field–the original university majors–are definitely types of employment, but what I’m discussing involves what happened as the university evolved, and anyway “employment” today is a very different animal from going into one of those three fields way back then.) And over time, employers looking for good employees discovered that people who had gone through this generalized humanistic education were good employees _independently_ of their field-specific knowledge. And so it came to be that people associated a degree with employability, for good reasons. A degree meant you had a broad base of knowledge, and more importantly, the mental tools necessary for thinking carefully about this knowledge. You had the kind of creativity, analytical skills and ability to articulate that made you good at pretty much anything.

      But once people started associating college degrees with employability, of course colleges, interested in attracting funding, started doing the seemingly sensible thing–tailoring their degree programs to the job market.

      This seemed sensible, but it was a mistake. It led to the situation we find ourselves in today. College graduates aren’t employable. This is not just because there are too many of them, but because they didn’t spend college learning for the sake of learning. They learned job skills instead. But the job skills could have been learned on the job. The broader cognitive capacities that come from learning for the sake of learning–those should have been developed in college. But colleges don’t do it anymore.

      Your parents were right. You should learn for the sake of learning. But your parents generations (and generations past) failed you, by accidentally cooperating to create a system in which there was no viable place for you to learn for the sake of learning. Everything came to be about the job market, and this ironically caused education to be worthless to the job market.

      Being a little hyperbolically apocalyptic in my language here but I’m afraid this is where we’re headed in the very near future.

  • SamG

    I am guilty of telling my 17 y/o twins that college is important. We don’t promise them that it will solve everything or guarantee a job or happiness. As a matter of fact, we’ve told them that with the way the world is, they may not have as nice a life as adults that they’ve enjoyed as kids. But, we hope college improves their odds and gives them more options.

  • Defending Liberty

    Public education should not be the focus. First define what educatin “should” be then look to define how it should be delivered. For my child, the objective is for him to be able to teach himself anything by the time he is 13. That won’t happen in public education as it exists today. Public schooling should be more appropriately called assembly line education. The classic great thinkers learned how to think through apprentice relationships. That is why we (humans) have not had a great thinker in about a century. Oddly enough…that is coincidental with the explosion of public education. One size fits all is fine for a lowest common denominator approach, but if your goals are higher than that then the investment is large. Public education forces children to think inside the box.

    • Kate Monster

      Do you really think there have been no great thinkers since 1913? No great scientists or authors or artists or inventors?

      I agree that public education in the US isn’t ideal the way it is right now–in big part because of a lack of adequate funding and an overemphasis on standardized testing– but I don’t think it’s neutered human capability to the degree that you seem to.

      • Defending Liberty

        Please point out a great thinker in the last 100 years or so. Came through the public school system. Someone who really broke new ground that was not conceived of previously. Newton, Da Vinci, Faraday, etc…

        Funny enough, Einstein was quoted as saying the spirit of learning and creative thought was lost in strict rote learning at his German school. Obviously, not fan.

      • Anima
      • Feminerd

        As for business people, I’m pretty sure Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg came through the US public school system.

        Marie Curie went to public school, at least for some of her schooling. Nicola Tesla was public schooled. I’m sure there are tons of other people, but it takes time to find them.

        It’s really not fair to point to people born before the mid-19th century, as there were no public school systems. Newton, Da Vinci, and Faraday couldn’t possibly have been products of public schools because they didn’t exist yet.

      • Defending Liberty

        Are you kidding? Gates? Zuckerberg?

      • Feminerd

        Like it or not, both Microsoft and Facebook have changed the modern world quite a lot. Is their influence likely to be permanent? Only time will tell. But in terms of modern, public-schooled people who’ve made a big impact on society through their education/brains, yeah, those two are up there.

      • NeaDods

        Are you seriously pretending that medicine hasn’t substantially changed since 1913? That one scientific field alone blows away your facetious comment, (hint: when was penicillin discovered?) Also, no doctor would be cleared for organ transplant, laser surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, etc, etc, with a homeschool medical degree.

      • Defending Liberty

        The premise was not to identify incrementalist.

      • plch

        Stephen J. Gould? James Watson? are they good enough?

      • Niemand

        Barabara McClintock, Lise Meitner, Joyce Bell, Saul Paulmutter, Jan Oort, Vera Rubin, Steven J Gould, Nicolas Lydon, Rosalind Franklin…all people who have substantially increased the knowledge humanity possesses in their respective fields. Must admit I don’t know where all of them got their training. Also, limited myself to the sciences. When one looks at humanities and art, there are many other people to add to the list.

        But by all means, feel free to live as a person born in the late 19th century would, if that pleases you and you find the advances in society since that time trivial.

      • Niemand

        In fact, I’d argue that we have the opposite problem from the one you’re suggesting: We have so many amazing thinkers who have done so much paradigm changing work that it’s hard to pick out one and call him or her the NEWTON of the age.

        Or perhaps you consider the internet, cancer curing chemotherapy*, the discovery of dark matter and dark energy, quantum mechanics, everything that we know about DNA, electronics, basic infectious disease care, cardiac catheterization and aborting heart attacks after they started, insulin for diabetes, and other advances too numerous to mention to be trivial advances. As I said, feel free to live without them. Or not. The average man only lived 50 years in 1913.

        *Not every cancer is curable, but some are, even when they have spread throughout the body (metastasized). This was literally unheard of in 1913.

    • smrnda

      We haven’t had a great thinker in a CENTURY? Seriously? Alan Turing? John von Neumann? The last hundred years has seen a far bigger explosion of useful knowledge than almost all of history before. We went from barely functioning airplanes in WWI to space travel in the last 100 years. Look at computers, or the improvements in agriculture.

      For some brilliant people who attended public schools, John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, John Backus, Robert Tarjan? These are, of course, just names in my field that I can pick from memory.

      It is true we haven’t had a Newton in a long time, but Newton was such a huge figure because less was known in his time, and fewer people were educated. These days, it’s almost impossible for anyone to be a Newton (or even an Einstein) just since there’s far more people qualified to do original research.

      I’d also like to point out that if you’re bashing the lack of a true modern genius and disparaging contemporary education, you should probably use complete sentences instead of fragments.

      • Eamon Knight

        I can think of some pretty damn smart people who’ve thought some amazing things, across many fields, in the last century, and human knowledge has grown exponentially in that time (meaning: I find the premise more than a bit dubious). But I suspect it will be another generation or so before we (i.e. our descendents) are in a position to judge who the truly great, world-changing, thinkers of the 20th Century were.

        There’s all sorts of room for criticism of public schooling — especially w.r.t. implementation — but ahistorical appeals to a Golden Age ain’t in it. But then nyms like “Defending Liberty” set off certain alarm bells that way….

      • smrnda

        I should have asked for a list of all the home-schooled kids of the 20th century who grew up to be ground-shaking geniuses, but I thought it would just sound too mean :-)

      • Kate Monster

        And that wasn’t even his/her assertion. Defending Liberty (insert eyeroll here) says that there have been no great thinkers in a century. None. Not publicly educated, or privately educated, or homeschooled, or raised by wolves. None. Zero. Zip. Nada. All great thought is in the past, apparently, no matter what it’s source.

        (And I would also be interested in seeing that list, smrnda)

      • Kate Monster

        Oh, bugger. I added an unnecessary apostrophe.

      • Kate Monster

        Yeah; I was so taken aback by the comment, then I looked at the nym and thought, “Oh. NOW it makes sense.”

        Then I regretted asking him/her to defend the statement.

        It’s not just within science that we find great thinkers. Musicians. Artists. Actors. Writers. DIrectors. Scientists. Philosophers. Chefs. Politicians (yes, even them, sometimes). Frank Lloyd Wright. Stephen Sondheim. Tennessee Williams. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Bob Fosse. Natalia Marakova. Salvador Dali. Walt Disney (sure, he had his issues, but look at what he created!). Martin Luther King Jr. Edith Head. Virginia Woolf. And many, many more… (I feel a bit like an infomercial for a Best [Category] Songs! CD typing that, but it’s true.)

        There are so many, many, many people across the globe who have made such an impact, have had such power of work.

        How on EARTH can someone think there have been no great thinkers in a century unless they’re arguing from a place of dishonesty?

      • Defending Liberty

        Each of you missed the premise of the question. The objective was to point out public school educated people who broke new ground that was not conceived before. Not incrementalism as it looks like all the people listed have become famous. Many listed truly dilluted the esteem “great thinker”

      • tsara

        Can you be a bit more specific in your criteria? (Objective terms, not subjective, if possible.)

        You probably don’t mean to, but you’re giving me the impression that you’re just going to reject any names given.

        But I’m also confused. This is partly because I’m skeptical about the exceptionalism of the people you listed and partly because of some of the people you’ve rejected. (Also because of cognitive science/philosophy thingies, but if you can make your criteria objective and specific, that’s not important.) I mean, Newton over Max Planck? What?

        At any rate, I offer Douglas Hofstadter.

      • TurelieTelcontar

        I think you are missing a point there: There are much less people who broke new ground that was not conceived of before, not because of public school, but because after a certain time there was nothing that was so radical. It’s like arguing that public schools are at fault for no one finding a new continent in the last hundred years.

        And also, quantum physics was very groundbreaking.
        Once you have some scientific laws, the amount of unconceivable things to discover is almost nonexistent, because the existing laws tell you what is conceivable. And you get to the point that something is either unconceivable – and directly refuted by existing scientific laws, therefor pretty near impossible. Or it isn’t inconceivable, because we can conceive everything not directly refuted by existing scientific laws.

      • Sgaile-beairt

        hint,t he ‘shoulders of GIANTS” line is OLD…none of your newtons thought they were ground breakers either….

  • Ahab

    I love these responses. Things such as human flourishing, equality, and social mobility are all important products of good education. I would also add that good public education helps us become informed citizens. With a good education, we are more likely to understand complex political and social issues, demand accountability of our leaders, and participate meaningfully in how our country and communities are run. If we’re ignorant or misinformed, we’re vulnerable to apathy, demagogues, etc.