Published Online: February 23, 2005
Published in Print: February 23, 2005, as Schools and the Economy


Schools and the Economy

What Is the Purpose of Education?

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To the Editor:

I share with Eric A. Hanushek a concern about how our students perform on international assessments ("Our School Performance Matters," Commentary, Feb. 2, 2005). But what a warped vision of schooling his essay offers. Particularly disturbing are the following: “Performance on international math and science assessments directly relates to labor-force quality and has been closely related to national growth rates.” From this he concludes, “The performance of our students now will influence the pattern of our nation’s economic success.”

Is education about economic success? Mr. Hanushek sees our kids as cogs in a huge economic machine, whose purpose is to keep the machine profitable. He views the economy in terms of quantity of goods and services, rather than quality of life. Apparently Mr. Hanushek feels the job of schools is to develop future workers to provide more “stuff,” such as SUVs, video games, CD players, and so on. This may make Wall Street happy, but certainly not the kids.

Mr. Hanushek refers to our children as human capital. He is suggesting that the economy should drive the schools, and the schools should drive the children. A more sane, as well as a more humane, approach would be to start with the children, and design each child’s educational program around his or her particular needs and potential. These are not seals we are training. Neither are they widgets to be used interchangeably. These are children to be nurtured.

What is the purpose of education? Alfie Kohn, in his essay “What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated?,” sees education as a means for strengthening democracy, for promoting social justice, or simply fostering the well-being and development of the students themselves. Then there is Plato, who felt the purpose of education was enlightenment. Perhaps John Dewey said it best of all: “The end of education is more education.”

James Baldwin
Rockford, Ill.

To the Editor:

Eric A. Hanushek contends that “one plausible argument” for failing to concern ourselves with the poor performance of this country’s schools “is that we have made up for the quality of our primary and secondary schools by the quality of our colleges and universities, generally regarded as the best in the world.”

I would agree wholeheartedly with the main argument of Mr. Hanushek’s Commentary: that this country’s policymakers need to take into account the long-term impact of education on the economy. I also agree with him that our colleges and universities would be capable of accomplishing much more with students if it weren’t for the necessity of remediation, which serves to fill the myriad gaps left by our secondary schools’ educational programs. But I disagree with his argument that the current state of our colleges and universities is somehow compensating for the greatest problems in our public education system, and subsequent economic difficulties.

Colleges and universities offer remediation only to those for whom access to higher education is a viable option. Therefore, the achievement gaps that exist in our schools—between Caucasian and African-American and Hispanic students, between rich and poor students, between urban and suburban students—are exacerbated in the current higher education system. Only those students with the background and foresight to participate and plan financially for college education have true access.

The achievement gap, however you slice it, should be one of our greatest educational concerns, if not the greatest. Until institutions of higher education and policymakers collaborate to address these gaps, they will have done little to correct the inadequacies of the traditional K-12 system.

Justin C. Cohen
New York, N.Y.

Vol. 24, Issue 24, Page 41

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