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.