Boston Review Essayist and Respondents Ask, ‘What Is Education For?’

By Mark Walsh — May 10, 2016 2 min read
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As I departed the Education Writers Association annual seminar in Boston last week, a magazine cover caught my eye at a Hudson News outlet at Logan International Airport.

“What is Education For?” asks the cover of the May/June issue of Boston Review, an erudite political and literary journal.

Not only is there a cover essay that seeks to answer that question, by Danielle Allen, a professor of government and education at Harvard University, but the journal includes nine responses by other thinkers, and a reply by Allen.

Allen argues that “citizenship remains effectively absent from discussions of education policy.”

“The dominant policy paradigm attends almost exclusively to education’s vocational purpose: the goal is to ensure that young people, and society generally, can compete in a global economy,” Allen writes.

The result, she says, “has been massively increased investment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education—STEM—and correspondingly reduced outlays for the humanities.”

The focus on vocational education and a work- and competitiveness-focused school system began with Sputnik in 1957, she argues, and continued with such reports as “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 and “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” in 2007.

“Policymakers, education specialists, and many parents—including low-income parents, whose children are most likely to see their civic education shortchanged—have narrowed their focus exclusively to the economic field,” Allen writes. “In the process, they have lost sight of the full range of inequalities from which our society suffers and which well-rounded education could alleviate.”

Allen calls for what she describes as “participatory readiness,” “civic agency,” and a return of the liberal arts to attack educational inequalities. (I would hate to steal Allen’s thunder by trying to define all her concepts in my own words.)

The respondents include Deborah Meier, the former New York City principal now at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. She agrees with Allen that our public schools have lost focus on civics, but she adds that “Our current educational paradigm ... barely recognizes, in the most fundamental sense, what being a person is about.”

Lelac Almagor, a charter school English teacher, argues that the vocational and civic purposes of education “are intertwined and aligned.”

“Our students need every kind of readiness: political and economic, mathematical and rhetorical, prosaic and poetic,” Almagor writes.

Rob Reich, a professor of political science at Stanford University, says Allen’s diagnosis is correct but he questions her proposed solution to the problem. He calls for more civics classes, but also for children to learn “participatory readiness” outside of school, on sports teams and in religious groups and neighborhood clubs.

Other responses come from Debra Satz, Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, Carlos Fraenkel, Michel DeGraff, Lucas Stanczyk, and Clint Smith.

Plus, there’s a reply from Allen. That’s plenty enough to read that I had barely gotten through half the package before my flight landed in Washington.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.