Musings on education
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On the heels of the recent US election, some voices are bemoaning the state of US democracy. Some decry the choices of those they call the "uneducated", asking how these people could make such "uninformed" choices. "What has happened to our education system?" and "Why have civics classes disappeared?" they moan.
Before pursuing this sensitive topic any further, I would like to stress a quotation from Mark Gerzon, cofounder of The Common Enterprise, an organisation working to bridge ideological and partisan gaps between citizens, as quoted in this ASCD InfoBrief on public education:
“Democracy is a process, not a product. It is how diverse constituencies coexist. It is the fabric of our civil society. What keeps the United States from disintegrating into the Divided States is our fragile yet enduring compact as fellow citizens.”
So in this compact, what is the role of public education?
According to a report published by the Center on Education Policy (downloadable here),
"Public education in the United States emerged in part from the goals of democratic society: to prepare people to become responsible citizens; to improve social conditions; to promote cultural unity; to help people become economically self-sufficient; and to enhance individual happiness and enrich individual lives."
Let's distill these points.
Public schools serve three primary functions:
For the third point, I am going beyond the materialistic, interpreting "to enhance individual happiness and enrich individual lives" as:
3. To teach young people ways to enrich their intellectual lives, becoming both knowledgeable and intellectually discerning.
US public schools seem to address the first two points with varying success.
For (1) "societal norms", from Kindergarten forward, students are taught methods of coexisting, dealing appropriately with conflict, and what it means to be a citizen. How well students are indoctrinated in these norms varies widely, but overall people grow up believing in a democratic union.
For (2) "skills", students are given the tools to access the job market - the tools have changed over the years, but the concept remains. Even so-called "21st Century Skills" were created by the OECD to meet the projected needs of employers. Nothing has really changed since the advent of public education two centuries ago.
However, it is the third point which may not be addressed fully, if at all, by public schools. And it is this third point, becoming both knowledgeable and intellectually discerning, that is fundamental to a well-functioning democracy.
Thomas Jefferson famously wrote "wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government".
We must ask if being well-informed or nurturing the "intellect" is being addressed by public schools.
Are students given the chance to become intellectually discerning by facing well-constructed arguments that go directly against their own opinions and beliefs?
Without such point and counter-point in the public school system, how can the electorate become well-informed and discerning? It is only through debate that one can become knowledgeable and intellectually discerning.
Liberal or conservative.
Take a moment to ponder this: Are you open to listening to ideas that run contrary to your own?
Or, if not, is it fair to say you are contributing, perhaps unknowingly, to the current rise of anti-intellectualism?