Forward Thinking: What Is the Purpose of Public Education?

I’ts that time of the month again! Head on over to Camels with Hammers to see Dan’s roundup of the posts written in response to his prompt about our ethical responsibilities in the face of shocking public violence two weeks ago. You may also want to check out the online philosophy classes Dan is offering using google hangout—they sound like an awesome experience! And now let’s turn to our next Forward Thinking prompt.

Recently, I’ve been devoting some time to writing about homeschooling here on the blog. So, when I started thinking about what my next Forward Thinking prompt should be, I immediately thought about public education. In today’s atmosphere of school choice and concerns about the quality of public schools, I don’t think it hurts to step back and ask ourselves about the purpose of public education. There was a time, after all, before public education. It’s not some sort of unchanging thing we’ve just automatically always had. And so I give you this month’s prompt:

What is the purpose of public education?

I want to invite readers to discuss this question in the comment section and to invite bloggers to respond on their own blogs. At the end of two weeks I will post a round-up of links and excerpts to both blog posts elsewhere and especially insightful comments here. Bloggers should email their links to lovejoyfeminism (at) gmail (dot) com with “Forward Thinking” in the subject line if they want to be included in the round-up.

Happy thinking and discussing!


Forward Thinking: A Values Development Project is an invitation to both readers and fellow bloggers to participate in forming positive values and grappling with thorny questions. Click here to read the project introduction.

Forward Thinking: What Is Personhood?
Forward Thinking: How Would You Design Our Social Safety Net?
Forward Thinking: Personhood
Forward Thinking: The Purpose of Marriage
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.

  • smrnda

    If there is anything public schools can do, and I’m skeptical of the ability of home-schooling or private schooling to achieve this, is to teach kids how to function in a pluralistic society. In fact, I’d say that a lot of what inspires home-schooling or private schooling is to avoid that; kids get home-schooled so they don’t encounter people with different viewpoints, and private schooling is mostly just an attempt to keep kids separate from the kids of proles, or else ‘private schooling’ is a corporate affair meant to train new workers without really encouraging them to be politically aware.

    Overall, that’s what I see as special with public schooling. You’re forced to interact with people who aren’t like you and to get perspectives from people who are different. It’s training to be an informed citizen.

    • Alix

      I’d add to that that public schooling also gives – or should give – a solid baseline education available to all citizens. Both private school and homeschool have the problem that you need to be able to afford them – and with homeschool, you also have to be competent enough to teach them, though there are ways around that.

      Public schooling, in theory, lets everybody learn, regardless of socioeconomic class. That’s huge, since historically, limiting education was one more way to keep poorer people “in their place”.

    • Conuly

      If there is anything public schools can do, and I’m skeptical of the ability of home-schooling or private schooling to achieve this, is to teach kids how to function in a pluralistic society.

      You are assuming a diverse student body at public schools, which is definitely not always the case.

      • Alix

        True, but. Even if you’re just interacting with a bunch of people who fit precisely the same demographics as you, you’re still going to be exposed to a lot of different personalities and viewpoints. It’s not ideal, but it’s still a hell of a lot better than being shut in with just your family and a few preselected others all day.

      • Conuly

        Perhaps, but I’m not sure most homeschoolers really do opt to keep their kids shut inside with minimal outside contact. The ones I know cite more variability in whom their kids socialize with as a bonus! But then, NYC schools are awfully segregated.

        Those people inclined to isolate their kids would also be inclined to send their kids to isolated private schools, or to move to send their kid to a sufficiently segregated public school.

      • Alix

        The problem I see with homeschoolers’ socialization is that it is by and large much more preselected or prescreened than public schooling. I’m not saying that should necessarily be a deal-breaker, but it is a potential problem.

      • LyricalPolyphony

        Homeschooling is such a broad concept. When I was homeschooled, we were in all-state band, (with public school kids) city orchestra (with public school kids) and in the case of my younger sibs, took classes at the community college for the last year or two of highschool and did high school labs in a co-op setting. The physics teacher there is one of the top locally in her field, and was instrumental in steering my youngest sister into engineering as a career. We were out pretty much every day with some sort of extracurricular, and it wasn’t always with other homeschoolers. We encountered WAY more ethnic diversity in the (metropolitan) homeschool co-op than would have existed in our (white suburban) local public school. It’s all about how you do it. Yes,not every parent can or will do a decent job. Hence, my overwhelming support for homeschool regulations. :) But you really can’t say that public school is better, or that homeschooling gives you an inferior education, academically or socially. Sometimes those things are true; many times they are not.

    • MrPopularSentiment

      There’s a bit to unpack there, and we have to look at ideal/potential and compare it to reality. Nurtureshock had a bit about how children in more ethnically/racially/culturally diverse schools actually show LESS tolerance on the whole, because there’s a lot more to knowing how to live in a pluralistic society than simply being in close proximity to people of different backgrounds.

      I live in an area with a lot of schools, and I just have to go outside any weekday after 3pm to see how this plays out. Kids are all segregated along racial lines, and it’s quite rare to see kids of different races interacting – even though I live in an incredibly multicultural area.

      So the idea that public schools are succeeding in this, or that being “forced to interact with people who aren’t like you” is likely to result in a positive/understanding view of multiculturalism is plainly false.

      As to the idea that this kind of exposure is difficult to achieve in a homeschool environment, that’s plainly wrong. My son is only 2 years old, so obviously we’re not homeschooling. But he is at home with me, and he is exposed on a daily basis to positive interactions with people of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Most of our neighbours (some of whom have kids who are close to his age or, at least, are willing to tolerate a toddler following them around) are persons of colour, and many are Muslim. We also go to the library, go to museums, and otherwise participate in our local community. He has several friends he plays with on a regular basis who do not share his racial background and whose families do not share my husband’s and my religious beliefs.

      I fully agree with you that many people who choose to homeschool or private school are doing so as a withdrawal from the world, but that’s nowhere close to being ipso facto. In fact, if anything, one of the reasons why homeschooling is so appealing to me is that I could continue to provide explicit and positive interactions with diverse people and prevent the self-segregation that goes on in the public schools.

      • smrnda

        Could you link to that Nurtureshork? article? Also, I’m not likely to take one article you’ve pulled out and then decide, on the basis of one article alone, that diverse schools don’t better enable people to live in a pluralistic society. Do white kids who go to all white schools do better? I’d like to read the article rather than just accept a summary.

        Keep in mind that I included socio-economic status as a type of diversity public schools might provide. I find that even among people I know whose kids have ‘diverse’ groups of friends and acquaintances, nearly all are from at least middle class households.

        My bias here might be that I spent most of my early childhood living outside of the US, and then attended a high school that was only 7% white (my family is white/slavic/Jewish). I came from a well-to-do, highly educated family, and most the kids I went to school with were poor, often on public aid. It cured me of believing a lot of the nonsense that privileged people tend to believe.

      • Conuly

        It is an excerpt from their book.

        Also, I’m not likely to take one article you’ve pulled out and then decide, on the basis of one article alone, that diverse schools don’t better enable people to live in a pluralistic society.

        But you’ll take one anecdote from your life and decide that?

      • smrnda

        I’m also taking other accounts and evidence that I’ve read which seem to indicate that children who grow up schooled in monocultural environments don’t tend to have much awareness about issues affecting other demographics.

      • Kristen White

        That research mainly deals with fairly young children, and it debunks the idea that if you put diverse kids together and parents try to act “colorblind,” kids will become more tolerant. They notice differences between races, many of them see that their parents are primarily friends with people of their race, but the adults don’t talk about it, and so the kids internalize the idea that race is both significant and taboo. I don’t think it should be generalized to say that multicultural schools are no better than single-race schools, just that mixed schools aren’t a guarantee, and I also don’t think it would apply as well to mixed socioeconomic class schools.

        In your case, you were old enough when you switched schools to have a more mature understanding of race and class, but I think it’s also a credit to you that you applied what you saw and didn’t become arrogant or build up a belief in your own superiority.

      • MrPopularSentiment

        Precisely (and thank you for the summary!). My point is not that single-race schools are better (yikes!), but rather that it takes deliberate instruction to break those barriers – which schools may or may not provide. Simply throwing a diverse group of kids in a room together won’t magically turn them into accepting liberals – nor even most of them.

        Exposure is not the panacea that some commenters seem to believe it is.

        (And, I would argue, a homeschooling parent who wants to teach their child about economic/race/ethnic/cultural differences can do so fairly easily without the structure of a public school to provide the exposure.)

      • MrPopularSentiment

        That’s completely reasonable. It’s a book, not an article:

        Your local library may have a copy, and it has a whole bunch of references for further research.

        “Keep in mind that I included socio-economic status as a type of diversity public schools might provide. I find that even among people I know whose kids have ‘diverse’ groups of friends and acquaintances, nearly all are from at least middle class households.”

        Exactly. Kids stratify in public schools. The really poor kids hang out with the really poor kids, the middle class kids with the middle class kids.

        Your history is not at all typical. Schools in middle class neighbourhoods will be overwhelmingly middle class, and schools in poor neighbourhoods will be overwhelmingly middle class. You were forced to “integrate” because you were a minority. You may well have done that anyway had the school been more evenly distributed or if you had been in the majority position, but it’s not nearly as likely.

      • smrnda

        I would agree that whether you integrate or not depends a lot on numbers – if your own group % is really low, you’ll socialize outside of it more than if you have a higher %. I’m suspecting my life would have turned out very differently if my parents had say, lived about 10 miles north of where they did as then, the demographics, both ethnically and income-wise, would have been totally different.

        I also agree that you can’t just throw different people together and think all will turn out well without providing some level of instruction in cultural sensitivity and awareness.

        You *can* get this with home-schooling, but it depends a lot on where you’re at. Living in the States, residential segregation is still going strong in many parts of this country which makes it hard to have any sort of connection to people outside of your own group.

      • MrPopularSentiment

        Yes, and residential segregation affects school district distribution as well. When I’m at home with my son, we have the time to go to more diverse neighbourhoods (or travel!), which he couldn’t do if he were in a classroom.

        Anyways, I’m not saying that homeschooling is better, merely that public school is not the automatic cure for these sorts of issues (and that homeschooling doesn’t make these issues insurmountable – or even more difficult – for parents who WANT to help their kids get a grasp of them).

  • Highlander

    A society’s only resources are its people and the natural resources on the land those people occupy. Public Education is a method for a society to increase the value of those resources. A literate person is more productive than a someone with no education. A person with an advanced degree is more likely to contribute highly to a society than someone with just a high school diploma. Education allows for research into better ways of harvesting and using natural resources, which in turn increases the value of those natural resources to the society.

    Really any entitlement program can be looked at in this way. Health care helps keep people (resources) productive and valuable for longer. Welfare allows people who must by circumstance focus only on survival have a little room for working on improving themselves and thereby become more productive and valuable. Pension programs ensure that the people who have contributed to society all through their lives are able to live even after their productivity ends, providing additional motivation to participate in society, and freeing families from the need to spend their resources on supporting their aged or infirm members.

    Public Education also provides a mostly uniform shared experience among attendees and a way for a society to bring its newest members into the cultural fold.

  • Rosa

    The basic purpose of public education in a republic is to produce productive, reasoned, engaged citizens – the kids we raise today will be voting citizens in a few short years.

    More, I’d say the purpose of education is to ensure every child a place in our community – not only as a subset of their family, or their neighborhood, or their religious body, but as an individual person. I want to live in the kind of society where we all help each other reach our fullest potentials and education is one of the ways we do that.

  • WordSpinner

    I think public schools are the only way to support any semblance of equality, because they offer education to every child no matter who their parents are or how much money they have. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out like that always–schools with a high proportion of poor students tend to be worse–but not having public schools would make things even worse.

    • Alix

      Another thing: public education (done properly) teaches people literacy. Being able to read and write in a society that hinges so much on the written word is massively important, and it is not something that is at all intuitive – the simple fact that many societies never develop writing demonstrates that.

      Literacy provides a gateway, not only into business and government, but into further education. If you can read, you have a much better chance of being able to make up gaps in your education yourself than you would otherwise.

    • Jayn

      Agreed. Especially today when the amount of ‘basic’ education expected to be able to function well in society is quite varied–frankly, I think it’s asking too much to require parents to try and prepare their kids with a good education on their own. Obviously some are willing and do succeed, but between socio-economic factors that affect ability to homeschool, and parental background which affects their own ability to not only teach, but be up to date on info and KNOW they’re up to date on info, since it’s probably been 20-30 years since they studied those subject themselves, it seems unreasonable to expect all parents to be able to do so. Not to mention resources like science labs, sports and (hopefully) music equipment and computers, and a teacher who is adept enough to teach how to use them. I know homeschoolers can find ways to access those things, but public school (should) already have them and at no extra cost.

    • wow

      Yes, I absolutely LOVED being teased and ridiculed in public school because I didn’t wear name brand clothing. My favorite part was when I told the school principal I was being relentlessly bullied and he told me I brought it upon myself for dressing weird and that I needed to “work it out on my own.”

      • Sally

        Schools are supposedly taking bullying more seriously now. It is sad that this is how the principal responded to you when you reached out for help. I hope we can at least say this was a decade or two ago (?).

        BTW, I don’t think thecurrent efforts (“campaigns”) to stop bullying are effective, but I do think there are some behind the scenes things that are happening now that are somewhat effective. Taking a student seriously and “hearing” them is certainly one of those things that should be going on in today’s anti-bullying atmosphere.

      • Noelle

        Been there done the can’t afford new clothes so I’m wearing too small hand-me-down things along with the ugliest pair o’ glasses because that’s what Medicaid would cover. Was teased. Never occurred to me to even tell an adult. School assemblies in my day were on saying no to drugs and not going home with strangers. No one even mentioned that kids were supposed to be nice to each other and that you should tell an adult. Though the one assembly on not trying to get on a moving train stuck with me. (Wow. Do not do that.)

        My kids, on the other hand, started school out with tons of messages on not hurting people physically or emotionally, and to tell an adult if you witness such goings on or have it done to you. Times are changing. They need to keep changing.

        The thing with a public school is that it belongs to the community, and recognizing problems like this and working to expose and fix them is one of the goals.

      • wow

        No, a public school is a network not a community. A basic sociology class will tell you that. If the public schools were a community by definition, then they might not be a bad place to send our children.

      • Kristen White

        Your definition of community is overly specific. Even sociology textbooks disagree on what a community is, whether it’s about location or purpose or common characteristics. You can make an argument about how you don’t think schools really foster a sense of unity or commonality without playing semantic games.

      • Noelle

        I pay property taxes that go toward running the small town’s schools. We call the other things in our town that we come together to support public or community items. We have a public library, public parks, etc. I have 2 school aged children who attend those schools. Parents sign a contract at the beginning of every school year agreeing to be involved and supportive of their children’s education. My son has autism and has multiple teachers, therapists, a social worker and a personal aide who work directly with him, send a daily journal back and forth, have monthly meetings with us, and call us in addition when needed. My neurotypical daughter has a wonderful 1st grade teacher, who keeps in touch year round with e-mail, in addition to regular updates on what they’re doing in the classroom. Parent-teacher conference has the place packed. Parents are encouraged to be involved with more than just their own child’s education, by participating with the PTA and volunteering with the multiple school-wide events throughout the year. Members of the community volunteer at the school. Maybe nobody bothered to tell them it was a network and they needed to update their LinkedIn profiles first.

        If that’s a network, then it’s a great one. Everyone should get themselves a network. You get sunny handcrafted Mother’s Day projects and several concerned professionals brainstorming how to help your troubled child on a regular basis. Sign me up.

        (I took a sociology class for fun in college about 16 years ago. I was disappointed by it’s lack of scientific process. I do have to say the professor was quite good and forthcoming about what we can learn from sociologic studies. I am afraid we did not cover definitions of network vs community though. But then it was Sociology and the Family, not 101. I would’ve sold my book back, so too late to look it up there.)

      • WordSpinner

        I… I have no idea what you mean by that response. Bullying happens, therefore public schools are not an equalizer?

        I didn’t say, and I didn’t mean, that public schools should be the only option, just that I think that the need to be a strong default.

        Not to mention that bullying and abuse can happen at home and at private schools too, with even less of a chance for anyone to do something about it.

  • Thalestris

    Good question! I’ve been thinking about this, too, prompted by your homeschooling posts and also the fact that funding public schools is always controversial in my state, and we’re having another flare-up of said controversy right now.

    Let’s see … I agree with everything the other commenters said, about public school teaching children how to live in a pluralistic society, about it providing acculturation, about teaching them to be citizens, and about giving them the skills they need to be independent, productive adults.

    What I might add, though I think some of the other comments hint at it, is that it lets people find their talents and interests. It exposes you to all sorts of subjects, ideally taught by people who are very knowledgeable in those subjects and also very passionate about them, and you can choose which of them you want to delve deeper into, or build a career around, etc. I’m just not sure that *one person* can provide this kind of breadth, even if they do have source materials to draw on.

    Another thing I’d add is that it gives children a place where they can start to be independent of their parents. They have to learn to navigate different social environments, form social and working relationships, and otherwise figure out how to be a person in a society. I don’t think most people could do this as well if their mom were always hovering in the background.

    • MrPopularSentiment

      The acculturation argument makes me very uncomfortable. As a Canadian with several First Nations friends, there’s a whole lot of argument to be made that that’s not a good thing.

      • Thalestris

        Yes, you’re right. It’s true in the USA, too, that there’s a long history of government-run schools for Native children that existed solely to break those children’s ties with their families and cultures. That’s a horrible and genocidal practice, and one I would absolutely *not* want a school to engage in, but I also see how the idea of “acculturation” encompasses it.

      • MrPopularSentiment

        I’m sounding like a broken record since I keep harping on the same thing, lol, but yes, exactly. Using schools to teach pro-social attitudes (rights and responsibilities of citizenship, caring for your neighbourhood, respect for others, etc) is great! I do think that this kind of social studies should be part of a child’s education. We also have a graduation requirement here that public high schoolers must do a certain amount of community service, and I see that as a positive too.

        But when we talk about the purpose of public schools being to “socialize” children and to prevent a sort of idealogical “ghettoisation,” we need to be very careful about what we’re saying, and where the boundaries are.

        Issues surrounding homeschooling and the intersection between the rights of parents as stewards of their children and the rights of children as individuals are complex and far-reaching. It’s important that we think through these issues fully, and not try to reduce them to a single, seemingly easily fixable issue.

      • Mel

        Education should be more open to all cultures. I have the privilege of working at a school with primarily Hispanic – mostly Mexican immigrants and 1st generation – and African American students. My job is to teach them science not destroy their culture. We’ve learned a lot from each other. That’s education.

    • MrPopularSentiment

      “I’m just not sure that *one person* can provide this kind of breadth, even if they do have source materials to draw on.”

      I disagree. Most of my personal interests were never taught in school (or, at least, not taught well). I got my exposure by practically living in my local public library. And that’s what I do with my son – we go to the library at least once a week, and I encourage him to try out books on subjects that are outside his known interests (which, at the moment, are “trucks” and “more trucks,” lol).

      Again, this is a question of potential versus reality, and worst case versus best case. Some parents are, I am absolutely certain, going to restrict their children to the topics/subjects that interest them (that may be religion, though I could also see, for example, an engineer overemphasising STEM subjects at the expense of humanities, or something similar). And, yes, that’s a danger. I would argue that it’s also a danger in schools where arts and humanities are consistently getting axed in favour of “the three Rs” and “practical job applications.” That’s not even touching on the issues around teaching the test rather than allowing children to dwell a little longer when a particular topic strikes their fancy.

      Same with the idea of “mom always hovering in the background” on social things. Some homeschooling moms do this, I am sure, but plenty don’t. Many homeschooling families (if not most) understand that their children need to develop socially, and they give them opportunities to do so.

      Ultimately, I think that the differences between the quality of homeschooling and public schooling are not as different as idealized categories as the differences between two actual homeschooling families or two actual public schools.

      • Thalestris

        Those are all also all good points. And you’re right to point out that not all public schools are as good as the one I went to, on which I am basing my idea of what public school is.

        I was actually doubly lucky, in that the series of public schools I went to included not just a lot of really good teachers offering a wide range of advanced subjects, but that earlier in my childhood when I needed it, I was going to a school that had really good special education. I am autistic, and my school district had close ties with an autism organization my family participated in, so my teachers always knew how to deal with me even before I showed up in their classes.

        From what I read about what most other autistic kids, or kids with any sort of cognitive or behavioral disability, experience in public school, I would absolutely not second-guess a parent of such a kid who is considering homeschool. There are a lot of really bad practices out there!

        Anyway, I do know that homeschooling is sometimes better than public school; I guess I took the theoretical nature of this post as an invitation to deal in ideal scenarios. But you are right to point out that most public schools aren’t ideal.

      • Mel

        That sounds like how I grew up. I was a very bright kid who wasn’t much challenged in school. My parents worked with the school to get me some more advanced curriculum, but also gave me a library card and the freedom to read whatever I wanted. Honestly, by the time I was in 3rd grade, I was happy being allowed to read the classroom encyclopedia when I finished my normal class work. I got to study whatever was interesting to me without the annoyance of doing worksheets or having to report out what I was learning. I offer similar things to my high school students – they can complete an additional science course with me, study a skill online, get advanced training from another teacher or read.

        We plan to do the same thing for our children. Since my husband and I are nerds, we think our kids would do best being around other kids to learn how to interact with different personalities and beliefs.

    • Conuly

      What I might add, though I think some of the other comments hint at it, is that it lets people find their talents and interests. It exposes you to all sorts of subjects, ideally taught by people who are very knowledgeable in those subjects and also very passionate about them, and you can choose which of them you want to delve deeper into, or build a career around, etc. I’m just not sure that *one person* can provide this kind of breadth, even if they do have source materials to draw on.

      You must have gone to a better public school than I did.

      • Thalestris

        I did go to some very good ones, yes.

  • Amtep

    The purpose of public education is to suppress a child’s natural curiosity; to discourage critical thinking in favor of rote learning; to provide a social hierarchy where noncomformity is violently put down; and to lock up the children for most of the day so that their parents can get some work done.

    That was my experience of it, at least.

    • Alix

      I was wondering when this would come up.

      I’d actually draw a distinction between the purpose (intent) of public schooling and the execution. The execution is often lacking, as you hyperbolically point out, but a failure of execution doesn’t mean that poor execution was the intent.

      There is one reason I would always flat-out oppose any attempt to abolish free public education, and that’s socioeconomics. We know, thanks to history, what happens when women, minorities, and poor people do not have access to education. Private schooling and homeschooling in their various iterations absolutely cannot fill that void on their own.

      • MrPopularSentiment

        Well, there is an argument to be made about the purpose being “to lock up the children for most of the day so that their parents can get some work done.” – At least once child labour laws went into effect.

        Once parents lost the incomes their children generated AND suddenly found themselves responsible for their care during working hours, it made sense to provide an alternative, public care. And while we’re at it, why not teach them at the same time?

        It’s what we’re looking at now with full day kindergarten. Just a few years ago, kindergarten in my area was only half days, but a lot of parents couldn’t afford day care for their children in the afternoons. So my city has been transitioning all its kindergartens to full day. It’s still optional (compulsory education doesn’t begin until Grade 1), so many parents simply “excuse” their children every afternoon and continue to treat it like a half day kindergarten, but the point is still the same – we need a public care option while parents work, and we might as well educate them while we’re at it.

      • Sally

        OK, but I don’t think we can say that the *purpose* of public education is childcare. I think it’s the other way around. Once children were required to go to school, that freed the mothers up to go to work (even if it didn’t happen right away).

      • MrPopularSentiment

        That’s really not historically accurate, at least not for the vast majority of people. Working class mothers have always had to work – and work has been predominantly outside the home since the very first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution.

        But that was okay, because they had opium to drug up the babies so they’d sleep all day, and the older kids were working too. The whole system got pretty messed up when we decided that children working dangerous/strenuous jobs for 15 hour days was a bad thing, so we started making child labour laws.

        The narrative that “and then women had to start working” is very… privileged. There is no time in history that a majority of a society’s women could afford to focus on childcare for the majority of their day.

      • smrnda

        Completely true. Women working only turned into an event once well-to-do white women started working. All the other women had been working in the mines and factories and fields along with their 10 year old kids for along time.

      • Sally

        Good point. And I should have recognized that in my post (who is a big Catherine Cookson fan and who otherwise realizes women of lower classes have always worked outside the home since the IR).

    • Kristen White

      As a teacher, I agree with you that his is a problem (and with Alix that it’s usually an execution issue rather than a purpose issue). I wish people who had this experience wouldn’t use it to paint all public education as a complete loss, though. I work very hard to see my students as individuals. Some of the kids I enjoy teaching the most are kids who are in trouble a lot in other classes for “causing disruption.” Granted, a lot of them don’t handle their frustration well, but they’re teenagers–that’s to be expected. They’re bored, they see through the pretense and busy work, and they resent it. I wish more people who had this experience in education would go into teaching or administration. I can try to make my class a better experience, but I can’t do much beyond that.

  • Sally

    I think the purpose of a public school education is for the
    general public to provide children with the opportunity to learn the skills
    needed to function and succeed in our modern society. This needs to be differentiated from the
    additional benefits of public school education.
    Benefits include socialization, daily purpose (since we are no longer an
    agrarian society), and community. As we’re
    discussed extensively here, an additional benefit is a safeguard against
    unaddressed neglect and abuse at home as children come into contact with
    mandated reporters at school (although public school is not necessarily the
    only source of such contact).

    While I would consider the above to be the purpose and
    benefits of public school and in average and better cases, that is what is
    provided, it is also true that each of these can be turned on their side and
    said to either be inadequately provided by the public school, or in some cases
    to be provided to the detriment of the children.

    Like anything, public school is not a monolith. There are advantages and disadvantages to any
    method of education. For the most part,
    you pick one and make it work.

    • Alix

      For the most part, you pick one and make it work.

      Sure. And the purpose of free public education is to serve as a safety net, so that all people, in theory, can get at least some kind of education. Because, of course, not everyone can pick, and public education is meant to provide a floor through which no one, in theory, falls.

      It raises the baseline. Look at how many aspects of education we are taking for granted in our responses – look at the fact that we are all taking education as a given right. That’s possible because of free public education.

      (Not disagreeing with you. Just building off your comments.)

      • Rosa

        Moreover, COMPULSORY education – which is different than public education, but is in theory what we have in this country – is intended to extend that safety net to every citizen, whether they have the ability to assert their rights, or not. Since the 19th century, we have believed that the public interest in children receiving and education outweighs the parents’ interest in the child’s labor and/or wages, or the parents’ interest in the child remaining uneducated.

        There have been gaps in that – legal support for the education of African American children lagged far, far behind their own parents’ belief in it, and we still have religious exemptions, and right now we have some fake homeschoolers keeping kids home to work rather than to learn. But compulsory education sets that baseline – even if your parents want you home plowing, even if they’d rather put you in a factory or domestic service and collect your wages, our society thinks you belong in school.

        That was a huge step forward in women’s rights (since girls are much more likely to be denied an education than boys) and in our conception of children’s basic rights.

      • Sally

        Excellent point! We tend to compare public school to homeschooling on this blog for obvious reasons. But I think comparing it to the original “alternative” of working (child labor) is an excellent way to highlight what we as a society value.

  • ILoveJellybeans

    Public schooling gives every children equal rights to an education, if there was no schools, not every child would get an education-not all parents are able to homeschool-some have to work and some just dont have the education to teach their children. Not every parent has the dedication you need to homeschool-some, if it wasnt mandatory to educate the kids, wouldnt bother teaching them anything at all, or not give them a proper education.

    It also ensures that all children get education of the same standard (pretty much, some schools are better than others, and theres different curriculums that are used and some are better than others).

    Its also easier to teach a group of children who are all at the same level of ability the same thing, than teach children who are all at different age levels, like some large families that homeschool do. I guess it must be hard trying to do algebra with one kid, while teaching their little brother to add, and their sister to count to 10, while stopping their toddler siblings from messing up their work and breastfeeding a newborn.

    • Sally

      “Its also easier to teach a group of children who are all at the same level of ability the same thing, than teach children who are all at different age levels, like some large families that homeschool do. I guess it must be hard trying to do algebra with one kid, while teaching their little brother to add, and their sister to count to 10, while stopping their toddler siblings from messing up their work and breastfeeding a newborn.”

      I am a former public school teacher and former homeschooler. Believe me when I tell you public school classrooms have kids at quite varying levels. I substituted in a first grade this past fall for three months. I had children who didn’t know all their letter sounds, and I had several children reading above grade level. One child was several years above grade level. Grouping is something that is constantly being revamped in public education. When I was a kid we had reading and math groups. Then when I taught in the 90s, we weren’t allowed to ability group. Now you can ability group, but it’s supposed to be on a daily basis after you have taught the base lesson to everyone (i.e. differentiation). (The one exception is reading groups are allowed, depending on the grade and school district.)

      As a homeschooler, I was teaching 3 kids. But the model was so very different than what a classroom looks like (both have their merits!). We did some subjects together and some subjects separately. When you do something together, each child is getting something (a lot) out of it based on his level. It was a matter of orgaizing our day well. We joined outside activities and I co-founded a co-op (once a week attendance).

      All that said, I have mixed feelings about homeschooling, having done it for 8 years. I also have mixed feelings about public school both as a teacher and as a parent. There is good in all of it, and there is not so good.

      • Rosa

        it takes skill, for sure – my son is in a wildly differentiated classroom (2 grades – 3 next year – and age ranges within each grade, and skill levels from “just moved here from a refugee camp, illiterate in all languages” to “99% on all standardized tests and professor parents supplement at home”). I watch his teacher handle the differentiation with remarkable grace and skill. Even within that school, where the multi-level classroom is idealized and teachers get a lot of support to implement it, not every teacher can do it.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    There was a time when education was something that was available only to those wealthy enough to be able to afford tutors (and, as kids grew older, send their children to university). Throughout history, there have been movements to brings education “to the masses.” These were usually conducted through religious institutions, and children of poorer families could send their young children to learn math, reading, writing, and a bit of religion – until they were old enough to be of invaluable use on the farm. There are also plenty of examples of charities (or funds) set up to pay tuition for the kids “with the most promise” so that they could continue their studies.

    That’s the idea of public education, as far as I am concerned. It’s about democratising access to education, replacing the charity/religion-based nature of affordable education with one that we pay for collectively.

    I think that the idea that all children should have access to elementary/grade school education is deeply tied in with the ideals of democracy. If all people are going to be responsible for governing our society, all people must have the knowledge base and critical thinking skills to do so wisely. So as long as democracy is our political ideal and reality, it’s in our best interests that all of us have access to education.

  • Kristen White

    I think it varies by level. The purpose of primary education should be to foster a sense of community and connection and to encourage a love of learning. The purpose of secondary education should be to help students develop their intellectual abilities and their work ethic.

    I like the school where I work and I think that in general, we do this fairly well. What frustrates me more than anything, though, is the emphasis on rote knowledge without purpose. Is there a value to learning how to memorize? Sure–many professions, from doctor to lawyer to restaurant manager, require memorization of specific information, and it’s a learned skill. However, it shouldn’t be more than ten percent of a curriculum, if that. I teach English, and can’t imagine giving endless multiple choice tests and character quizzes. Do I care if my students remember the name of the character in Huckleberry Finn who sees through Huck’s disguise? Not a bit. I want them to see how Huck as a character learned to lie adeptly because of his abusive background, and how lying can be a defense mechanism, social lubrication, and also a way to hide one’s vulnerabilities. I want them to be able to take the evidence from the novel to construct and support an original argument about basically anything they want. They take fairly easy multiple choice quizzes for accountability in terms of keeping current with the assigned reading, but that’s what it’s for–not actual learning.

    • MrPopularSentiment

      Like with most primary/grade school education, I don’t think the point is WHAT is being taught, but rather what skills are being transferred along with the knowledge.

      In the case of memorization, I do think it’s important to know HOW to memorize. There’s a skill to it. It’s why many musicians, for example, can learn the lyrics to a new song much more quickly than non-musicians – they are practising a mental skill and they are learning tricks to memorize more easily.

      And I think it’s just important in terms of giving your brain a little workout.

      I’ll give you an example – I make it a habit to memorize something new at least once every couple days. That might be a poem, a new song on the piano, a quote, whatever. And since I’ve started doing that, I’ve noticed a fairly dramatic increase in my memory for unrelated things – like remembering to bring my shopping list when I go do groceries.

      But I do agree with you wholeheartedly that it should not REPLACE a more emotional/analytical interaction with the material, and that many schools get the proportions wrong.

      • Kristen White

        That’s very true. I usually work on the assumption that my students are going to be getting ample opportunity to memorize in their science and history classes, so I try to minimize it in English. However, if I saw a general trend in the school overall in deemphasizing memorization, I might incorporate it more.

        When I require memorization, I also require that it is long term. Cramming and then discharging information the next day is a waste of time. Vocab is one area where (for many students) it is about memorization in my class, but we do a small chunk of words at a time and the weekly quizzes could include any of the entire year’s vocabulary words. It’s both an exercise in memorization and responsible study habits. The kids who don’t usually study often have a crisis in about November when they haven’t been studying, they’ve been skating by, but then the number of words reaches a level where they just have to study or their grade is going to drop. I teach juniors, so I try to use it as a teachable moment and tell them that many college classes are that way. “Homework” isn’t worth points, they’re just expected to do the reading to keep up with the material, and if they don’t do it for half the semester, they’re going to reach a point where it’s overwhelming. Instead, it’s on them to take 15 minutes a couple of times a week to review the vocab words, and then they will be fine.

    • Wow

      Learn the difference between a community and a network.

      • Kristen White

        First of all, if you’re going to parse words, I didn’t say it is a community, I said that a purpose of education ought to be to encourage a sense of community. Even using your fairly narrow definition of community, which seems to be Nancy White’s definition of people working together with a common goal or interest, it works. One of the purposes of school administration, in my opinion, ought to be to help students form a community where their common goals are to learn together and support each other.

        Second of all, ‘community’ does not have one accepted definition, even among sociologists. Sociology professors Goe and Noonan write in 2008 in a Sociology 101 textbook, “As a sociological concept, community has been used to refer to a range of social phenomena. . . . Because of the diversity of definitions of community that have been developed, there has never been extensive agreement within the discipline of sociology on the precise meaning of the concept.”

  • Niemand

    Is this a trick question? The purpose of public education is to ensure that every child has access to the education that they’ll need to succeed later in life. There are all sorts of positive secondary effects to having a good public school system (an educated populace, greater equality, more people doing science and discovering new things about the world, fewer teens hanging out with nothing to do, better educated and so more competent workers when the children grow up, etc.) but the core purpose of public education is simply to teach all children.

  • Sheena Young

    Public education is equal parts providing knowledge and providing social interaction for children. It’s not a perfect system by any means (the current focus on testing is a mess and a half), but public education has some definite strengths. One is that kids learn how to interact with peers and adults who aren’t part of a microsociety; they learn how to deal with conflicting views and opinions, when to stand up for themselves (or others), when to compromise, and how to interact in a group. They don’t just learn to obey adults without question or that boys can do what they want and girls will be stay-at-home-mothers. They don’t just interact with people who believe the same things they do.

    And, even with its flaws (and there are MANY), public education does provide a reasonable basic body of knowledge. Most high school graduates will be able to read, write, figure out basic math, and have some basic knowledge of science and history. And, especially in higher grades, teachers KNOW what they’re teaching (at least in theory). The honors math teacher has a math degree, and the PE teacher has a degree with includes health and safe physical activity.

    Of course, public school has more than its share of problems. Self-segregation (and others-enforced segregation) is prevalent; teachers tend to have overfilled classrooms, not enough resources, and are told that passing the year’s benchmark tests is the highest priority — which means kids are learning to regurgitate, not analyze. Ethnic and religious groups tend to clump together, bullying is still a problem, and the arts/PE are considered less important than testing skills. But, like anything, there’s good and bad.

  • jose

    So the poor have a chance at life.

  • Ina Kuster

    Read the book “Dumbing Us Down” by John Taylor Gatto to learn the true purpose and history of compulsory schooling. The author has won the New York Teacher of the Year award. He is brilliant. There is a place for public school, but I can not help but feel that in this blog, you are trying your damnedest to shove your ideas down other people’s throats. I find that very ironic, since this is an atheist page and it has always been my understanding that atheists didn’t do that. Really, read the book.

    • jose

      Right, writing a reasoned opinion on her own blog and then encouraging readers to discuss the question is literally like going to your house and shoving something down your throat.

    • Sally

      I think it would be helpful for this discussion if you summarized the book a bit (well a lot) and talked about how that impacts the purpose of public education today. Are we still under the same goals as the original?

  • Wow.

    The true history and purpose of compulsory schooling is best explained in “Dumbing Us Down” by John Taylor Gatto.

  • Saraquill

    Public education should give all students the means to support themselves and contribute to society. In a perfect world…

  • smrnda

    I wanted to add that I don’t want to pretend public schools are all good. They’re used as means of teaching kids to shut up, be cogs, and do what they’re told a lot of the time. I notice that minority kids or poor kids are more likely to get that type of education, mostly since a lot of people aren’t interested in developing their potential, they’re just interested in making the masses as manageable as possible.

    However, public schools often to a great job. The real reason why they can be both great and terrible is that they aren’t really all the same institution. Some of them are committed to actually teaching, and others are, more or less, devoted to controlling parts of the population. There’s plenty of work on this (Paulo Freire, Kozol’s books) that go into this.

    The thing with that is I don’t think the solution is school vouchers (corporate control of education) and I’m skeptical that home-schooling can fix this, since parents of kids who won’t be going to good schools probably can’t give their kids much of an education since their own educations were likely inferior.

    Part of the problem really comes down to organization and funding. Schools are funded by local property taxes, which basically guarantees that you’ll get the education scaled to your parents’ socio-economic status. I’d say we need to totally change that, and when possible, mix kids up more since it’s hard on teachers to face a class entirely comprised of kids who need lots of extra help than a class where there’s only a few.

    • Sally

      “Schools are funded by local property taxes, which basically guarantees that you’ll get the education scaled to your parents’ socio-economic status.”

      I agree.

  • Rilian Sharp

    The point should be to provide information and stuff to everyone. The best implementation would be community centers that are open to everyone, regardless of age, that are like not-required schools combined with libraries combined with community centers as they are now.

    • Noelle

      Now you’re thinking. :) How about changing the basic structure of public schooling to something more like college once one is of the developmental stage to handle that kind of set-up? Colleges and universities require a core of subjects for a basic degree, and one also has the freedom to pursue the subjects one likes and get the degrees and certifications one needs to get a job after graduation. Colleges also do not have age limits. Most adolescents would be able to handle such a schedule, and some public high schools have tried this type of model. I would’ve welcomed a more free and more academically rigorous institution starting around 7th grade.

      Now, to pay for free teachers and resources for everyone for a lifetime would be costly. Books cost money. Lab equipment and computers cost money. Keeping a building open and running costs money. If you want smart people to go into teaching, you need to pay for their education and a decent standard of living. That means taxes. I pay a lot of taxes and I want them to go to a good cause, and I love education. Not everyone is such a huge fan. You might have to consider an age range for free services, with perhaps pay for services beyond that. Grants, scholarships, and loans could help with that.

      Keep the ideas coming

    • Sally

      I like it. It would be exciting to try a whole new model. -Something that brings together what we can learn from unschoolers, homeschoolers, progressive education models, and traditional school. Perhaps the biggest goal would be for it to be a place where kids *want* to be. -A place where the topics, activities, and resources themselves are a reason to come. -A place where you do the hard work of learning to read and memorizing your multiplication facts because you want to participate in the activities that require those skills.

  • Christine

    The point has been made here that the intent and the effects of schooling are not necessarily the same, but that was in the context of bad effects. I would argue that this is true for positive ones as well. I do not think that the intent of public school is to necessarily expose children to people from other cultures. I think that is a fairly inevitable side benefit, to at least some extent. (You might live in a monoculture, but there will still be some diversity of opinion represented). However describing it as the intent of public school seems, to me, like saying that the point of daycare is to expose your child to lots of different germs. It’s a strong point in its favour, but that doesn’t mean it’s the intent.

  • aim2misbehave

    Public school is an investment. For every child that’s educated well, grows up, and has some kind of successful adult life, that’s a benefit to society as a whole. But, if a child grows to adulthood being unable to read, write, or do basic math, they’re going to be effectively unable to get any kind of job that can support themselves, and at best will require public assistance to cover living necessities, and at worst will turn to a life of crime because it’s a lot more lucrative than the few other options that they might find.

  • Shay Seaborne

    The role of public schools is to provide access to an adequate and standardized education. This education is necessarily institutional, and, by its nature not easily tailored to the needs of the individual child. Therefore, a public school education cannot honestly be held up as the pinnacle. Other options can be and are valid, including homeschooling. I homeschooled my children for many reasons, including the desire to spare them the negatives I experienced in my public school years. Primarily, I chose to give them an education customized to suit their individual needs and learning styles, as well as their personal interests. Still, I fully support public education, even though I believe it needs considerable reform.