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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Searching for an Educational Purpose Statement


We have spoken of the need to reach back beyond the rhetoric about public education in this country to ask “What is the Purpose of Public Education?” A similar concern is expressed by Walt Kelly who wrote  “Common Sense, A New Conversation About Public Education” to focus public attention on what he believed to be a crisis in our society:

“Is the operating purpose of public education today still a workable premise?  We are caught in a flurry of tactics and never question the premise.  What is the purpose of public education today?  Almost all of the education reforms that the experts propose have some merit.  Yet our public education is still failing our children and our society because today’s purpose of public education is outdated.
The educational model of today evolved with the Industrial Revolution and was designed to produce a new kind of worker: patriotic, civic minded, and obedient to authority.  It is demonstrably not working.  What’s more, it cannot work again in the future.  The entire context for learning is radically different than it was in the 1830’s when our current purpose for public education was born.  We cannot solve this crisis with remedial actions based upon our old map of reality.  We must develop a new and national purpose of public education…that would again produce schools that offer hope and opportunity to their children and communities.”

What follows is one man’s attempt to find the elements that might inform such a Purpose.

From an article titled “School: the story of Public Education in America” on, we find a beginning statement of some goals that have been held over time for public education:

To prepare children for citizenship
To cultivate a skilled workforce
To teach cultural literacy
To prepare students for college
To help students become critical thinkers
To help students compete in a global marketplace

In my humble opinion, these various goals make an assumption which may be part of the problem with public education:  all of them assume that students can only be taught.  There seems to be no part for the student to take in his/her own education or learning.  That, it seems to me, is a problem; a problem that needs to be addressed as part of any purpose for public education.  A student writer expressed it this way:
“The heart of the problem is something much more fundamental – that is, the roles of students and teachers. The common belief seems to be that schools should be like a factory. The teachers are the workers, and the students are the products. Ideally students are supposed to sit down, shut up, and absorb whatever the teacher pours into their heads. The idea is to produce as many contributing members of society as possible – a noble goal, but a horrendously misguided approach.
Why not create a system where students are partners with teachers in their own education? Where they are not supervised at all times? Where they can have some measure of control over their own education, and the responsibility that comes along with it?  Many students today correctly view education as something that is forced upon them, which is why so many react poorly to it. Were students truly given a stake in their own education, I believe that they would rise to the occasion.
I know firsthand that students are capable of so much more than school expects of us, yet many of us are not capable of what they do expect of us – unquestioning obedience, dependent thinking, and conformity. If we are ever to see any improvements in education, the bar must be set higher, for both student and teacher alike.”

Dictionary definitions of “education” concentrate on a similar process of imparting something: 1)  the process of training and developing the knowledge, mind, character, etc., especially by formal schooling; teaching; training; 2)  knowledge, ability, etc., thus developed; 3)  a) formal schooling at an institution of learning b) a stage of this (a high school education)  4) systematic study of the methods and theories of teaching and learning.  The basis of the word educate is ‘educare’ from the Latin to bring up, rear or train; but ‘educere’ from the Latin also means to lead or draw out or bring out. So apparently there is another process involved in education which is the drawing out or bringing forth of something.  Another definition of educate is to form and develop (one’s taste, etc.).  Possibly, there is more than one process involved in education: teaching or training, and drawing out.

Perhaps, we need to look beyond “education” to the word “learn” or “learning.” One definition is “to get knowledge” by study, experience, instruction, etc.  Another is to come to know (to learn what happened).  For synonyms, the word “ascertain” implies a finding out with certainty or careful inquiry; experimentation; research, etc.; “determine” stresses the intent to establish facts exactly to resolve doubt;  “discovery” implies a finding out by chance, exploration, etc. of something already existing; “unearth” implies a bringing to light of something, by diligent search, that has been concealed, lost, or forgotten.

Have we, in some sense, been bamboozled by the forces in favor of educating children only by “teaching” “instructing” “training” because anything else is too “messy”?  Have we given in to the forces of order, discipline, obedience, conformity and dependence, thereby avoiding the issues involved in also emphasizing self-discipline, constructive criticism and questioning,  non-conformity and independence; in other words, avoiding a balance in our educational system between teaching and learning?  I firmly believe that to be the case.

Thus, in my opinion, we must offer some additions to the purpose listing from PBS, above.

-To encourage, nurture and enhance the natural talents, skills and dispositions of all learners
-To provide the atmosphere in which students can develop their own educational aims and goals with input from internal and external resources
-To develop a milieu in which all in public educators (administrators, teachers and students) are considered learners for a lifetime
-To provide a spectrum of educational choices to every learner so that “schooling” will meet their individual aims and goals

Adding these to the PBS list, we have what amounts to a multi-purpose statement.  On the one hand, we must teach (input, instill, inculcate, etc) the basic building-blocks of our heritage: math, language arts, history, civics, etc. so that our young people can be given the knowledge they need to do all those necessary things for themselves and their country:  prepare for a good job, be a good citizen, become critical thinkers, be able to compete in a global workplace, become culturally literate.  On the other hand, we must learn how to learn and how to make learning the basis for a new paradigm:  drawing out talents and skills, research, experimentation, chance, discovery, lifetime learning, and full participation must all be part of our national education purpose.

Then the question becomes:  Can we do all of this?  And, the answer is: not under the current circumstances; not with the current mindset; not with the current funding formulas; not with the current buildings; not with the current 19th  & 20th century models, methods and materials. And yet, all of those are the obstacles that we keep funding and keep touting and keep tweaking! 

So, with all that in mind, what can we do to bring about a new purpose, a new paradigm, for our public education system?  In our next blog, we will try to define such a purpose with some ideas as to how to  implement that purpose.