What is the purpose of the public schools?

CT ct-met-back-school220.jpgIf I had the power to change things, I’d change the prevailing idea of the public schools—the idea that the national purpose of education is to train the work force of the future so as to make this country economically competitive with other countries, and that the individual purpose of education is to give your children a competitive advantage over other people’s children.

If the purpose of education is to gain an individual competitive advantage, it is not enough for your children to succeed.  Other people’s children have to fail.  From that standpoint, the disparity between the schools of the well-to-do and the schools of the poor are not a problem.  If there was less of a disparity, the well-to-do would have less of a comparative advantage.

I don’t intend this as a slur against the well-to-do.   I intend it to show why you shouldn’t think of education in terms of the economic advantages it confers.

The purpose of public schools should be to help children to understand the world they live in.  Yes, of course, this includes the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.  Yes, of course, this includes the skills and habits needed to hold down a job.  It also should include enough about history, civics, literature and science that they are in a position to judge the information and values of our mass entertainment and advertising culture.

Maybe I look at the past through a distorting golden haze (I’m 76), but it seems to be there was a time when these were goals to which we Americans aspired.

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3 Responses to “What is the purpose of the public schools?”

  1. mark adams Says:

    Which is it?

    First you say:
    ” …the idea that the national purpose of education is to train the work force of the future so as to make this country economically competitive with other countries, and that the individual purpose of education is to give your children a competitive advantage over other people’s children.If the purpose of education is to gain an individual competitive advantage…”

    Then your contradictory statement:
    ” …you shouldn’t think of education in terms of the economic advantages it confers.”

    Which one is it? Higher education is no longer about broad liberal arts program in a major University. Education in the 21st Century is NOT about being the smartest one at the next party or what college(s) you attended. Who cares? It is all about getting a god job.

    As far as a competitive advantage, it is one thing trying to compete to get into law school;yet, it is another to compete to land a 10/hour job.

    The way the world works? They(young peope) get out in it and not read about it. This does NOT includes the old time basics. The young no longer read the way you do. Writing is now condensed to contracted blurbs. Arithmetic is something a hand-held device does. This is not to say one way is wrong and the other right. It’s just the way it is. The skills and habits needed to hold down a job are not the same as they were in the 50’s. There is zero interest in history, civics, literature. Ask any 15 year old who Shakespeare was. The vast majaority of answers will either be “I don’t care” or “a pirate.”

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    • philebersole Says:

      Mark, the first statement you quote is the philosophy I state that I would hope to change, as the preceding words indicate, so there is no contradiction. If I wanted to be snide, I would say this is an example of the decline in the ability to read with close attention, but I’ve made the same kind of mistake myself, so I won’t.

      I think functional innumeracy is as serious a social problem as functional illiteracy, and is not confined to poor people. I am by no means well-educated mathematically, but when I worked on newspapers, I was regarded as a genius because I knew how to calculate percentages and knew the difference between the average and the median.

      This is not trivial. You can’t be well-informed unless you can evaluated quantitative information. And you can’t have a functioning democracy unless you have a critical mass of citizens who are well-informed.

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  2. archivemanager Says:

    Thank you sir, for stating what I have been thinking for years. I agree with you on every point. I assure you that a public education is meant to inspire creativity which is true bringer of economic prosperity. The drone like and robotic formations of education today is decrepit and only breeds conformity. Economic well being is achieve through technological and artistic innovation which is promoted by creativity.

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