My oldest child is applying to colleges, so there’s been a lot of talk around my house this year about the underlying purpose and real value of education. My family’s ideas on that subject have always been a little off-center; we home-school all our kids through the early grades. But the mental energy we’ve expended on the topic of education is not unusual. Education is a major obsession for most middle-class American parents. So it’s no surprise that, for the past 20 years or so, education policy and school reform have also been near the center of national political debate.
The furor started when America’s manufacturing base headed to Japan and points east. Some genius noted that this might have happened because Asian kids out-perform our little darlings on so many standardized tests. Ever since, Americans have been subjected to an endless stream of policy wonk nostrums—school choice, charter schools, high-stakes testing, merit pay, etc.—all purporting to fix what ails American education.
But for all the verbiage spilled on the topic, we still don’t hear much talk about the true purpose of education. Instead, there is an unquestioned consensus that schools exist mainly to be engines of economic growth and personal prosperity. To those few who know history, this is a startling devolution. The Puritans prized literacy because it gave the believer direct access to God’s revelation in scripture. Later, public education in the U.S. began mainly because it was self-evident that democracy would require a literate population with some grasp of history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the rationale for schooling expanded to include the assimilation of immigrants and the forging of a common American culture.
But those appeals to the common good (much less the notion of revealed truth) have long since been cast aside, and the rationale for education has shriveled to mere balance-sheet calculation. Corporations need educated workers. If we don’t provide them, China will. The students I meet in freshman composition every year know only one thing about higher education: People who go to college make a whole lot more money than people who don’t.
What really ails education in America is the low priority that most Americans place upon it. And the narrow emphasis on “prosperity pedagogy” is part of the problem. Many young people, and most of their parents, value the paychecks that a first-class education may bring, but not the education itself—the novels, the theorems and proofs, the grand sweep of history. All that stuff is just a necessary evil, a set of hoops to be jumped through.
From my recent observations of college admission gamesmanship, I’d say this attitude is as prevalent among the children and parents of the professional class as it is among the children of poverty. The obsession with the mechanics of education policy and school reform on the part of parents and politicians is, in a perverse way, a confirmation of the low priority given to education as a value unto itself. It’s job training, and the idea is to match the goal with the most efficient technique. Nobody expects it to fundamentally reorient your life with a sense of transcendent purpose. That still happens sometimes. I’ve actually seen it. But when it does, it’s a happy accident—a fluke—not any harbinger of hope.
In this environment it should come as no surprise that America is, in fact, losing both its sense of identity as a community bound by a common, transcendent purpose and its ability to function as a genuine democracy.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.