First Things First

A recent essay from the Brookings Institution began with a point about the current  attacks on education that should be obvious–but clearly isn’t.

What is missing from the larger discussion on systems transformation is an intentional and candid dialogue on how societies and institutions are defining the purpose of education. When the topic is discussed, it often misses the mark or proposes an intervention that takes for granted that there is a shared purpose among policymakers, educators, families, students, and other actors.

Eleanor Roosevelt argued for education that builds “good citizenship.” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that education transmits “not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living..”  E.D. Hirsch added cultural literacy– knowledge of a given culture’s signs and symbols, as well as its language, allows culturally-literate people to communicate with each other.

Privatizers ignore any emphasis on these civic and social benefits; they define education  solely as  a consumer good– the transmittal of skills individuals need to operate successfully in the marketplace. I have previously argued two things: that education is an essential element of democracy via the creation of an informed and engaged citizenry–and that a broad liberal arts education enables human flourishing.

Beliefs about the purposes of education will rather obviously inform approaches to education policy. 

If, as the privatizers and voucher advocates insist, education is simply the transmittal of skills that will allow individuals to succeed in the economy, there’s no particular reason to give government the job. (On the other hand, you might think evidence that private schools don’t transmit those skills as well as public schools would lead to some re-thinking, but evidently not.)

If you are Ron DeSantis, Florida’s “anti-woke” Governor, and you see education as indoctrination, your primary goal will be to substitute yourself as the indoctrinator–to control the educational institutions in your state in order to protect your ideological and/or religious beliefs from examination and the possibility that they–and you–will be discarded.

If you are a college like Marymount,  and education is just a product you are offering, you move to eliminate undergraduate majors in English, history, philosophy and other subjects when your analysis suggests they are less profitable than the job training subjects on offer.

Even the major in theology and religious studies — a staple at many colleges but especially those with Catholic affiliation — would be cut. The plan, which has spurred fierce faculty protest, represents a pivotal moment for a 3,700-student institution in Arlington that describes itself as a “comprehensive Catholic university.”
Marymount President Irma Becerra endorsed the cuts in a Feb. 15 letter to the university’s Faculty Council. In all, the plan calls for phasing out nine bachelor’s degree programs. Among other majors that would be eliminated: art, mathematics, secondary education and sociology. For economics, the Bachelor of Arts would be cut, but the Bachelor of Science would remain. Also proposed to be cut: a master’s program in English and humanities.

Marymount points to the small number of students majoring in these subjects as justification for eliminating them. Opponents of the plan point out that those courses continue to draw substantial enrollment from students majoring in other disciplines.

Among the university’s larger programs are nursing, business administration and information technology. As one faculty member accurately noted,
“What it looks like we’re going to be doing is focusing on majors that are training you for a very specific job. That’s a real change from the mission and identity of the university.”

Marymount and similar institutions are substituting a focus on the bottom line for fidelity to an educational mission. 

Meanwhile, lawmakers’ widespread disrespect for education has led a significant number of K-12  teachers to leave the profession. In Indiana, nearly 95% of Indiana school superintendents say they are contending with a shortage of qualified candidates for teacher openings. Districts are responding to the shortage by issuing emergency permits and using  teachers outside their licensed areas, among other stop-gap measures.

A number of those “emergency” permits are going to people who could not qualify under existing state standards–a situation that members of the World’s Worst Legislature consider irrelevant.After all, if education is just job training, anyone who can impart a set of limited skills can teach.

Who cares if the science instructor has ever read Shakespeare–or anything else? So what if the math teacher is ignorant of history and civics? For that matter, do the schools really need to teach science? A number of the voucher schools don’t–they teach creationism instead, and they still “qualify” as educational institutions entitled to receive our tax dollars.

Bottom line, baby!

It is past time for America to have a conversation about the purpose–for that matter, the definition– of education.


  1. As a former classroom teacher, engineer and researcher, I learned that the physical structure and curriculum of public schools was never really intended to provide the grace associated with liberal arts. The classroom structure itself resembles the order needed by big business. The curriculum was slanted toward preparing workers for the factories that made the corporate moguls rich.

    But since those worker jobs have been shipped to cheaper labor destinations, the need for that rigid curriculum went with it and we’re left with the screaming chimps from the right wanting to denigrate what’s left. This point was never more clear when I entered public school teaching after a 20+ year career in industry. “Where are all the vocational shops and classrooms?” I asked. “Oh, well we no longer can fund the expensive machinery and supplies. And the liability insurance rates went through the roof. So, we just abandoned those curriculum directions.” That was the answer from school administrators across the land.

    It’s always been about the Benjamins. Capitalism, left to its own devices without constraints, regulations and even, perhaps, the hint of graciousness, will destroy itself for the sake of the bottom line. See Norfolk Southern Railways as a perfect example.

    Corporate America simply doesn’t care.

  2. “It is past time for America to have a conversation about the purpose–for that matter, the definition– of education.”

    WHOSE definition?

  3. Well said, Vernon & JoAnn!

    We crossed the line years ago, arching downwards when China and Norway headed upwards with restructured education programs. We let capitalism completely take over the schools when it needs to be socialized. What about morality, civics, and philosophy?

    We aren’t training young people to be better citizens; we aim to make them better workers. And even at that, we are failing. Artificial Intelligence is going to change everything – again.

    After the failed MAGA movement for Trump, DeSantis will be the frontrunner. How will he appeal to blue and purple states?

  4. Schools are more diversified into various fields of learning that fit the student or the wishes of the parent.
    As a student of Engineering, languages and having a degree in mathematics Ive found that the application of education is paramount to a students ability to survive upon graduation.
    The classics weren’t taught that much even when I was in school.
    Parents and teachers need to work together to bring about the best solution. Open access by parents makes parents more involved. Eithout their involvement the educator fights an uphill battle.

  5. In high school, I got what I considered a second tier education in the classics. I knew it, but it didn’t matter that much, because I had some advantages. My oldest brother went to a first tier school and I had access to the books he was assigned, my parents were exceptionally well read, and the Shelby Street Library was a football field from my front door. The curriculum was being dumbed down before our eyes.

    The one thing all of those who want to continue the dumbing down of America seem to be is a boisterous minority rather than a majority. They are the bullies of this world. The rest of us need to stand up and make our voices heard. So, if you are able, attend your school board meetings. Speak up and speak out.

  6. “First Things First”; education tops the list in today’s blog but with Trump back on the media 24/7, swearing “retribution” against his enemies, whom he claims are the nation’s enemies, there are other issues which need to be address ASAP. There have been 4 Norfolk Southern train derailments in Ohio over the past 5 months; is this a Norfolk Southern issue or an Ohio deregulation issue? Ohio, being a red state MAYBE leaning to a swing state, has eliminated nearly 1/3rd of all rail jobs and train crews over the past 6 years. The Ohio elimination left employees remaining on call 24/7, resulting in exhaustion. This takes us back to Trump’s rampage on deregulation throughout the federal government which effected red states primarily. It appears that prior notification of freight cars carrying hazardous materials is the primary target of the New Palestine, Ohio derailment, et al. The transport of hazardous soil will be welcomed here in or near Roachdale, IN; what are federal regulations regarding transporting hazardous materials and are there any regulations covering acceptance of of hazardous waste dumping in this red state of Indiana…or any other states targeted as designated dump sites?

    The public needs to be educated on these issues; regulation and deregulation responsibilities should be part of civics classes. The Ohio victims of two train derailments in only a few days, one of disastrous proportions, are at a loss who to seek help from…if there is help to be found. Education does not end when we end our formal schooling; it is ongoing and our rights, or the loss of them, is now deep into our economic situations and our most private lives, giving us no voice in any of these matters.

  7. This is not new news as several have already pointed out. Nor is the warning: read “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” from (gulp) 1969.

  8. Excellent point, we first need to ask what should be the point of education. If it’s something other than to turn out trained technicians, then government does have a role in running it, or regulating this course content for all primary and secondary education.

    Vernon, I had never thought of the liability issues. I remember my shop classes casting molten tin and aluminum, arc and torch welding with the sparks or molten metal flying, the big machine lathes with the little curlicues of razor sharp metal shavings, and the table and band saws with spinning blades just inches from the fingers. I ending up graduating from college with an IT degree, but understanding how science, and chemistry worked, being able to read (and enjoying reading), helped make me a better person for everything I have tackled in life. I will have to say that it has taken me most of a lifetime to realize this things that were left out of my history lessons, but none of that was fatal with a good basic education because I had the tools to self correct.

    Yes, we need to ask ourselves why we believe everyone should be educated, and make sure every publicly funded institution meets those goals, because cranking out trained technicians might not be the ultimate goal.

  9. It is nearly impossible to effect significant change in an entity as vast and entrenched as America’s public school system. To be fair, many of the people who originally championed the charter school movement saw it as a way to initiate positive change by providing environments where such changes had a chance to flourish. It is not their fault that their ideals were cast aside when some people in positions of power exploited that movement to gain money and promote harmful ideologies. What could have become a multitude of laboratories for the testing of diverse educational strategies morphed into a way to stifle creativity and move schools backwards. Charter schools became just another victim in the culture wars. This has left us long overdue for a renaissance in our educational system starting, as Sheila pointed out, with defining the meaning and purpose of education. We need a mission statement and the will to adhere to it.

  10. Noble thoughts all – but, there is no longer “We, the people” to rebuild democracy. There is only “I, who chooses my own brand, my own values” and “We, the tribe, who about our ideology”. I have spent my life as an idealist, with both fading…IGIO.

  11. My admittedly tired old memory got jogged today reading a word from Sheila that struck me as antiquated. “Citizenship”. Wow. I recall hearing it often in school back in the day. “Be a good citizen” seemed then to be culturally iconic but unconsidered in today’s MAGA-infested sub-culture which I think is intent on changing English. MAGA really means MAWA, “Make America White Again” (like it used to be). “Woke” really means informed and considerate of others which, if you believe MAWA covert advertising, has gone from a goal to a fault, linguistically.

    Now I understand Trump and DeSantis and their disciples. Make America white, rude, and ignorant so that those who are can feel good about their lives like they used to. Also make, not suggest, going to Sunday “School” required because it used to be an all-white institution because the darker skinned went to those gospel singing, foot stomping, Amen(ing) bar like other churches on the other side of town.

    That’s a surefire cultural sideshow that will attract those not intending to ever change the culture of their parents and grandparents, strong authoritarians if I also recall accurately.

    Oh darn, I seem to be even more “woke” now.

  12. Lester. If you believe there is no longer “We the People” your idealism is not fading. It’s dead as a doornail. I’m glad not everyone is as defeated as you seem to be and I’m sorry you are.

  13. Sharon – I am not defeated. I will continue to my last breath playing Sisyphus. The weight just keeps getting heavier and I see few folks “muscling” below; lots hand wringing…

  14. Vernon, you perfectly captured the essence of the battle to protect and preserve education. The capitalists have been driving education decision-making for the last 40 years. But you were also correct that “Capitalism, left to its own devices … will destroy itself for the sake of the bottom line.”

    The State Chamber of Commerce wants schools to train robotic workers but then complains that they’re not robotic enough, seeking more and more legislation to control and even endanger their workers. The capitalists want workers who have strong, acceptable values and skills but don’t understand how schools build both.

    The healthiest discussions we ever had in schools about values and taking responsibility were in English literature classes. Unfortunately, the constant focus on STEM classes is squeezing humanities, fine arts, and creativity out of the curriculum. The message has been very strong – if you’re not going to college, you won’t be worth as much to yourelf or the rest of us. Your only worth is in how much money you’ll make. Who needs good citizens who care about their families, neighbors, community and yes, their employers? Oh, and since schools are educating as we businesses have mandated here in the U.S., we’ll move jobs to Mexico and overseas where education levels and sweat shop wages are much lower, temporarily improving our bottom line (even though those folks don’t make enough to buy the cars and appliances they assemble).

    You can be sure the capitalists will keep complaining about the bed they have made for themselves while draining our public schools of resources to broadly educate future parents, neighbors, and communities.

  15. It is my belief, stated here previously, that education’s job is to provide a comprehensive platform of studies in the liberal arts, as a way of preparing people to be active citizens, capable of wide ranging conversation, and honing their “bullshit detectors” while teaching them critical thinking skills.
    I we do not have this first we just create apartchi.

  16. Such a coincidence! I am just now reading John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education, written just a few years before my birth. (No, it is not written in pre-Latin hieroglyphics!) He was a favorite of my now deceased wife, a professor of elementary education, who especially liked his emphasis on the social element in one of his definitions of education as cultural expression.

    Dewey in his book treats the purpose(s) of education as we treat them today but against a background of industrialization as opposed to our electronic era, though for philosophical purposes his observations would seem to be appropriate whatever the era since change is change whether measured by Fulton’s steam engine or the internet. He reaches back beyond Plato’s educational philosophy in a very comprehensive look at where we are, have been and are likely to be, leaving no stone unturned in reaching his philosophical outcome of how education is necessary to democracy. He had then as we have now the arguments of liberal arts versus business friendly STEM products designed to make the rich richer (per Todd today) under the guise of what the latter call “education” – or education as they define it, and how to accommodate a possible truce between such warring factions, a war we see in some of the contributions to Sheila’s blog today (and notably sans truce).

    Unlike my wife who as a university professor had a doctorate in elementary education, I am a lawyer with only one course in education to my credit as an undergraduate, a course in educational psychology in which I (ahem!) received an A, but which hardly qualifies me to have an opinion on the very large area of educational philosophy Shelia has opened up today to me and other such non-academics for responses. Nonetheless, and in spite of cascading discovery and information necessary to assimilate and the precious degree hours that must be devoted to such assimilation, I think a necessarily rigid STEM degree requirement in which there are an admixture of science and liberal arts can be fashioned that will more completely “educate” such recipients though perhaps at the cost of their choice of other non- required courses that could have been taken, as now, aka “electives.”

    Returning from philosophy to today’s realities > But what do I know? Someone check with that master of curricular design, Herr Ronald DeFascist, to see if my design passes his muster since, after all, I am currently in Florida and may have unknowingly just committed a felony and will wind up in the pokey with all those criminal librarians (whose company I prefer to that of Nazis, incidentally). It appears the barbarians have taken over the Republican Party, have almost completed ownership of a large sector of religion, and are now angling for the hearts and minds of our impressionable children. Achtung, Philosophers! Let’s not be Good Germans.

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