Creating a Public

One of the reasons many of us believe so passionately in public education is that it is–in the words of political scientist Benjamin Barber–“constitutive of a public.” In other words, in addition to teaching children English, math, science, history and other subjects, public schools are intended to create a generation of citizens. 

Of course, if the sole purpose of schooling is to arm children with the skills needed to obtain employment and be knowledgable consumers–as many people evidently think–there’s no reason education need be public.

We need to recognize the profound difference between these views of schooling  as we debate various reform measures. And let’s be honest: reform is badly needed. No honest person, looking at the sad state of schools in urban and rural areas alike, can defend the status quo. But all reforms–and all reformers–are not equal.

A great fear of those of us who see schools as more than job training venues is that rather than focusing our efforts on fixing our broken public systems, we will follow those who want to privatize and abandon them. It is important to note here that there is a huge difference between charter schools–which are public schools–and voucher programs that divert public resources to support private and religious schools. (It is probably also important to note that–at least thus far–neither category has been shown to be reliably better academically than our beleaguered public schools. If there’s a magic bullet, no one has yet found it. )

What is the civic function we expect public schools to play? What does it mean to “create citizens”? Civic knowledge is certainly an important element; so is civic participation.

A colleague brought an intriguing recent study to my attention that sheds some light on the latter criterion; it was done by the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College, a religiously-affiliated institution.

The researchers found that Protestant religious schools produced students who volunteered as young adults, that Catholic schools had a more modest effect on later volunteerism, and that home-schooled students and those who attended private, non-religious schools were the least likely to volunteer as adults. (Evidently, no Jewish or Muslim schools were included in the study.)

Of course, volunteerism, while highly desirable, is not equivalent to involved citizenship. One of the thorniest problems we currently face is that many  young people want to make a difference, but are repelled by activities they deem to be “political.” Rather than involve themselves in citizenship activities, they channel their contributions to their communities through nonprofits and other voluntary associations. And like philanthropy, a significant amount of such volunteer activity is religious: support for one’s church,  religious missions and the like.

The study didn’t report the nature of the volunteer activities they found. But while Protestant religious schools evidently inculcated a degree of what we might call public-spiritedness, it is telling that home-schooled and private schooled students were unlikely to participate in any volunteer activities, civic or religious, even after controlling for such things as educational attainment, parental income, religious identity and similar characteristics.

Assuming the study was sound, the results are evidence of something our common sense tells us: that the nature and focus of the school a student attends matter.

If some religious schools have figured out how to inculcate socially responsible behaviors, public schools should be able to figure out how to produce civically-responsible graduates. As we wage “reform wars” over Common Core and high-stakes testing and all the other “fixes” being proposed, we need to keep our eye on the goal: academically excellent public schools that educate engaged and knowledgable citizens.

Schools that create a public, in the best sense of that word.


  1. As with all other issues in this life; it all gets back to “follow the money”. How, where and why are our tax dollars being spent on public education in the current manner? In Indiana, our state Constitution provides for public education, including educating physically and mentally challenged students. Is this happening anywhere in the state via public education? The busing of children across town to strange neighorhoods and bringing in strangers from other areas has done away with any feelings of neighborhoods, neighbors, citizenship and replaced it with feelings of displacement. How can they understand what being a good citizen means, and what is needed to become a good citizen when they are being hauled around entire counties? It takes a sense of knowing people and caring to instill the desire to become a good neighbbor, friend and being involved in keeping your neighborhood clean and safe. Forcing students into foreign areas and travel time to and from has allowed education to become a totally political issue and caused a loss of feelings of community and belonging.

  2. So, you’re assuming that all players in the education reform biz have an interest in creating better citizens? For my part, I think not.

  3. The idea that “community” means your closest neighbors, those most like you in color, education, and income, confuses the word with “tribalism.” In a community, we recognize that the person who doesn’t live around the corner, but works around the corner at our local grocery store, is part of our life. We see him every week, he spends time and money at the same places we do, and he is part of our community. We want his children to get as good an education as ours. When we exchange pleasantries, we mean them, we’re not just holding the riff-raff at bay. The doctor who treats our children is part of our community, even if he lives in a nicer suburb than we do. That’s a pretty simple concept. But isn’t it equally true of the man who cuts our lawn but doesn’t live in a suburb, but the city itself? Insulating our selves, running and hiding in tiny enclaves of those like us after we’ve “made it,” then yelling “everybody else keep out” isn’t community. It is the destruction of community.

  4. Sheila,
    My life has become seriously more complex in the last few years as we founded Project Libertas. Now, while I don’t wholly disagree with your critique on private schools, I remind you that my children are where they are (in a voucher school that “diverts public resources to support private and religious schools”) for precisely the reasons you mention. They are receiving an education based in social justice and learning how to be citizens. However, due to the absurdity of our ed reforms that are already in place, and the quantification of intangibles, we had to take this path to continue to provide them with that education. This is a quandary.

  5. Shelia – Thank you once again for sounding the drum for civic education. I couldn’t agree with you more. While the future employability of our children is key to our collective economic well-being, vocational training ought not be the sole goal of our public schools. I cringe at the consistent discussion of STEM without an equally powerful drive for civic education. I cringe at school reform that is driven by the short term interests of an unwilling tax-base. We as a nation need to start refunding public education and prioritizing the civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions of responsible citizenship. There is no silver bullet, just the worthy uphill battle of convincing our neighbors that investing in the future must truly be diversified.

  6. Thank you SO much for reminding readers that education is more than job training. Your blog has been posted on ISTA’s Keep the Promise Indiana website.

    Thomas Jefferson has a quote that’s an eternal favorite. Paraphrased, it says that any democracy which expects to be ignorant and free expects what never was and never will be.
    A PUBLIC education is essential to our nation’s future and our ability to live together in relative harmony with everyone respecting everyone else’s right to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    We really need to restore civics education to better inculcate the responsibilities of citizenship in all our students. Volunteerism is one indicator. So is voting; staying informed; becoming good parents and neighbors; good stewardship of community, national, and global assets; caring for others in times of need – none of which a standardized test will ever be able to measure.

    As you so ably note, building a public which includes everyone is one of public education’s greatest contributions. Charters and/or voucher schools balkanize us into collections of children sharing the same characteristics (same religions; same math and science interest; same language; same income levels; motivated parents; able bodied abilities excluding those dependent on wheelchairs or other special assistance).

    How do we grow up to understand everyone’s interests if we’ve never been exposed to them?

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