I decided to join the forward thinking dialogue with my thoughts on public education. This week the prompt asks, “what is the purpose of public education?”
The question is loaded. First, “what purpose” begs the question, “whose purpose?”
Many people have pointed out links between school and the work industry. Henry Ford built and funded schools that in return trained students in building cars. Was this investment to help children read and write, or was this charitable contribution about making his corporation larger, or was it both? These are the questions Marx critics later came along and asked. Louis Althusser, a Marx theorist who wrote Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, wrote about how schools shape the “attitude and disposition” of students until children are content to become factory workers.
It takes children from every class at infant-school age, and then for years, the years in which the child is most ‘vulnerable’, squeezed between the Family State Apparatus and the Educational State Apparatus, it drums into them, whether it uses new or old methods, a certain amount of ‘know-how’ wrapped in the ruling ideology (French, arithmetic, natural history, the sciences, literature) or simply the ruling ideology in its pure state (ethics, civic instruction, philosophy). Somewhere around the age of sixteen, a huge mass of children are ejected ‘into production’: these are the workers or small peasants. Another portion of scholastically adapted youth carries on: and, for better or worse, it goes somewhat further, until it falls by the wayside and fills the posts of small and middle technicians, white-collar workers, small and middle executives, petty bourgeois of all kinds. A last portion reaches the summit, either to fall into intellectual semi-employment, or to provide, as well as the ‘intellectuals of the collective labourer’, the agents of exploitation (capitalists, managers), the agents of repression (soldiers, policemen, politicians, administrators, etc.) and the professional ideologists (priests of all sorts, most of whom are convinced ‘laymen’).
Many secular homeschoolers, beginning with John Holt, have made this same connection. And I understand why. I so often hear parents tell their kids, “you need to get an education” followed by “so you can grow up and get a job.” I find that ridiculous; we should teach kids to learn for the sake of learning. Here’s two pictures, taken on different continents, that illustrate my point.
Prague, of course, is recovering from the cold war, and so education is key to its growth – on a pure economic standpoint, this poster rings true. But this still asks the question, for us as individuals, ‘is school important for the sake of personal development, or is it important for our future pocket-book, or is both true?” I hope this poster means the latter.
I took this picture at the airport in Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
Expectmorearizona.org is an organization devoted to educational development and job opportunities. But still, this picture is mind-boggling because this organization uses an infant to make the point that education is a race against time. Maybe Althusser wasn’t exaggerating when he brought up infant education. If kids can’t be just kids, then what the heck is going on in our economy?
So I regress to my second, and more important, question.
We need to ask, “what should be the purpose of public education?”
From an economic standpoint, education is about preparing people for a job market. Its part of self-survival, but it’s also for the good of the people. People need jobs. Yet I do believe that public schools should first and foremost be about personal development and intellectual growth. It should be about a love of learning, and stimulating the brain through high arts. It should be about social growth, and extracurricular activities, including sports. And it should teach students to think (something America is lacking in).
It should also be about equality. Perhaps Matthew Arnold, of the 19th century, explained educational equality most clearly through his belief that a liberal arts education was important for the poor and middle class. Arnold believed it was the arts that helped us understand the world and ourselves, and he believed it was the humanities, more than math and science, that would create a moral and democratic society. All literature, Arnold writes in Culture and Anarchy, “must inevitably, from the very nature of things, be but contributions to human thought and human development, which extend wider than they do.” Being a poet, of course, he was bias towards the arts, but still, Arnold’s work strikes a chord in me because he recognized that higher thinking first and foremost develops the soul, not the whatever-kind of future job. Education is about getting in touch with human life itself. As important that skills were to Arnold, a moral and humanistic education was of greater importance. It was that kind of education that would allow people to truly live and choose their own destinies. Where Althusser feared that public education divided the classes, Arnold felt it could unite them.
In the end, I see the purpose of education as three-fold. First, echoing Arnold, it’s about the development of the human soul. Second, it’s about equalizing the rich and poor. And finally, it’s about creating a society of human beings able to think and build a healthy government.
As Arnold did recognize, society does flourish through government education, but more important, education develops the individual. This is what education should be all about.