Education Opinion

A Course in Defense of Public Education

By Ira J. Winn — January 29, 1986 3 min read

If only in their own defense, public colleges and universities must take the lead in educating their students about the special place of public schools in American society and the very real crisis in American education. A seminar or discussion-centered course on the great issues in education should be made part of the general-education requirement for college students at public institutions.

The goals of such a course would be to offer a historical perspective on school issues, to counter one-sided criticism of public education, and to educate future opinion leaders about the role of a free and critical education and of the public sector that nourishes it. But what would such a course encompass and how might it function?

To begin, it would be important for students to consider the competing demands for government investment in education, health, welfare, public safety, and other areas.

These demands would be viewed against Ii background of recent national and state budget priorities. Students would research the elements of a budget pie-chart and weigh the investment value to society of major old and new programs. Some interesting case studies, including cost comparisons, could be discussed: for example, the G.I. Bill, nuclear power, cancer research, industrial retraining, and “Star Wars” research.

Students would also probe the historical rationale and advocacy of public education in the United States. They would review, for example, the Northwest Ordinance, the Morrill Act, the Smith-Hughes legislation, and the arguments of public-education supporters from Horace Mann and Daniel Webster to John Dewey. Recent debates in the Congress over education aid would underscore the currency of the arguments.

A comparative look at educational reform would aim at developing a global perspective on education. Here, I would involve the students in examining such questions as:

• Why did German education and society in the 1930’s fail their most critical test?

• Why have Great Britain and Sweden, as representative examples, made major efforts to democratize schooling and to develop public education as both a social and an economic investment strategy?

• What differences in values underlies Japanese and American education, and what are Japanese critics saying about their educational system?

Next, the class would delve into the recommendations and rationales of recent reports on educational reform. The students might ascertain which were products of actual field investigation and which stemmed from a pooling of thoughts by panels of critics and experts. The students then would be asked to draw up their own set of recommendations for secondary and higher education.

Political myths of educational reformers would be a tantalizing part of the course. The focus would include special-interest groups that squeeze the curriculum, gadfly critics of the schools, and the promise and I pitfalls of educational change. After watching the video version of In Search of Excellence, students could be assigned to develop ways of applying to education the “lessons from America’s best-run companies.”

Finally, panels of students and guest experts would discuss current issues in public education: church-state relations under the Constitution, voucher plans, school busing, I.Q. testing, acculturation of immigrants, and the computer challenge to education. Variations on the course just outlined can easily be made. The point is that flagging support for public education and the public sector demand a rallying strategy.

If we are to train wiser policymakers and managers, we must make sure they understand public education as a historical force and national investment, and are prepared to defend it. Public schools today-and public universities, too-face the real threat of losing their democratizing and liberalizing role in American society, as the country is tempted toward a two-tiered Old World model with its entrance-examination mania and technocratic overspecializations. A kind of feudal stagnation will result, with education divided between elite schools for the well-to-do and watered-down vocational schools for the masses of low-paid servants in the coming technologically “advanced” society.

If all that is sacred to our free institutions is to be guarded and energized, American public universities must take the lead in educating future opinion leaders in the defense of public education and the public sector, and in the support of reform. Then they will be setting forth by example what it means to be a vital center for criticism and renewal.

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 1986 edition of Education Week