Education Opinion

The Proper Goal of Schooling

By Diane Ravitch — September 17, 2007 3 min read

Dear Deb,

I don’t think you should worry at all about annoying those “with more power” than you. You no longer work inside a school; you no longer have to worry about what “they” can do to you because “they” can’t do anything to you. As a writer, you have a public voice and have more power than “they” have. “They” can’t shut you up, can’t touch you, and can’t stop you.

It is sometimes hard to see the line that divides where we agree and disagree. I agree with you—passionately—about the importance of building a democratic culture. Indeed, I think that this is the basic purpose of public schooling. We don’t sustain a massive investment in K-12 schools to produce workers for our economy, but to create thinking citizens for our democracy. As long as we aim for the civic goal, we seem to satisfy the economic one as well. I read a couple of weeks ago that Americans are the most productive workers in the world. That comes from having basic smarts, as well as adaptiveness and the ability to think on one’s feet, I would argue.

One might well claim that we have never succeeded in educating thinking citizens for our democracy, that the goal has not been met, not now and not ever, but that is our goal nonetheless. That is the reason we have public education rather than an elaborate system of private schools for the affluent and publicly funded trade and vocational schools for everyone else.

The scores, whether in reading, math, science, or any other subject, are not the goal of schooling. They are an indicator. If youngsters, in large numbers, have not learned and cannot use the basic skills, they are not likely to be prepared to be thinking citizens of our democracy. Thinking citizens need the tools and the power of reading and math, and they need the skills and knowledge of science and history so as to contribute to our common project as a democracy. I would argue—again passionately—that we all need the insights and wisdom and experiences of the arts and literature if we are to advance as a civilization.

Where we disagree is on the question of curriculum. You speak of teachers who complain about being required to teach certain songs and books. I don’t see why that is a problem. We can’t have a common culture if the schools do not teach its rudiments, and we should have a vigorous discussion about what that common culture is. I would want all of our students to read (yes, even memorize) the Gettysburg Address, to discuss the meaning of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. I would want them to know of our heroes, people of all races and conditions, as well as the Founding Fathers. I would want them to learn about the great struggles to extend our democracy, as well as the institutions and conditions that were a stain on our democracy. I would want them to vigorously debate the issues of our times and our past. And, yes, I think there is a reason to learn the songs that we have sung, having no doubt that they will hear thousands of other, non-prescribed songs on the radio and on their iPods and other gadgets.

Where we agree is that things are terribly amiss in American education when the civic purpose of schooling is reduced to the very small goal of raising scores on standardized tests, a goal that is being pursued relentlessly, stupidly, and—frankly—with meager results. It is not “educationists” who are pushed aside—that is the customary phrase that is used to refer to theorists and professors of education. No, it is educators who are being pushed aside, as businessmen, lawyers, MBAs, and other organization men and women move in to rationalize education and run it like a business. Schooling, to be sure, has its business side; decisions have to be made about purchasing, supplies, capital improvements, maintenance, distribution of textbooks, contracts, and so on.

But to allow the people who make business decisions to make educational decisions is nothing short of a disaster. I have sometimes thought that the business takeover of schooling has been facilitated by the appearance of a vacuum in educational authority. If educators don’t take charge, outsiders will. The business leaders think that the problems of education are all managerial; they belittle the importance of curriculum and instruction. They don’t understand anything about the civic purpose of education. And right now, they have the upper hand.


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