NOTE: This essay is the second in a series focused on education reform Federal, state and local governments currently are contemplating policy and funding changes for education at all levels. These essays are intended to provide some context for these discussions.
In his State of the Union address for 2012, President Obama hailed our teachers, noting the tireless effort and self-sacrifice they devote to the education of our children. His nod to teachers was important at a time when many are feeling the effects of shrinking budgets, accusations of incompetence, and shifting expectations as one education reform fad leads to another. We have a lot to consider about education in this country as our public policy choices have yielded less than stellar results for nearly 40 years. That’s a long time to be failing. At times like this I go back to a rather basic question: What are we trying to achieve?
We hear a lot about global economic competitiveness and fears of falling test scores. Significant references are made to the need for job training to prepare highly skilled workers for a knowledge economy. Demands certainly are growing for greater efficiency and productivity in all our educational settings. This perspective was evidenced for me in a simple statement made by the president during his speech:
“We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000.”
I guess that’s the bottom-line now. I’m not sure how such a figure is derived, but what puzzled me more was the sense that our aims for educating the citizens of this nation seem to be focused entirely on personal economic outcomes. Is that what we are trying to achieve? At one level it makes sense given the financial pressures experienced through the Great Recession. Yet I wonder if our current focus on the obvious near-term need for jobs is imperiling our long-term future as a society. Is the tyranny of the urgent crowding out that which is most important to us? Given our rhetoric, one could easily draw the conclusion that the effectiveness of education should be measured by the growth in personal income. Is that the purpose of education?
Let’s go back to first principles and consider whether the purpose of education is a public good or a private good. This is, of course, a false dichotomy. Forcing the question, however, enables us to ponder the balances between individual success and collective well-being.
To explore this issue, I returned to the report of the President’s Commission on Higher Education published in 1947 as “Higher Education for American Democracy.” Known more commonly as the “Truman Report,” it reflects the earliest thinking about the role of education in a democracy in the modern era. The report states:
The first goal in education for democracy is the full, rounded, and continuing development of the person. The discovery, training, and utilization of individual talents is of fundamental importance in a free society. To liberate and perfect the intrinsic powers of every citizen is the central purpose of democracy, and its furtherance of individual self-realization is its greatest glory. (p.9)
Here we establish the importance of individual success. It is essential that a democratic society enables its citizens to unleash creativity, innovate relentlessly, and realize individual fulfillment and accomplishment. We benefit personally and society benefits collectively. So, isn’t it right to focus education on the economic success of individuals? Shouldn’t we assume personal achievement will automatically lead to collective well-being?
The report continues:
If our colleges and universities are to graduate individuals who have learned how to be free, they will have to concern themselves with the development of self-discipline and self-reliance, of ethical principles as a guide for conduct, of sensitivity to injustice and inequality, of insight into human motives and aspirations, of discriminating appreciation of a wide range of human values, of the spirit of democratic compromise and cooperation.
Responsibility for the development of these personal qualities cannot be left as heretofore to some courses or a few departments or scattered extracurricular organizations; it must become a part of every phase of college life. (p. 10)
Personal liberty is a core value deeply rooted in the lives of Americans. Yet, the writers of the “Truman Report” draw our attention to the role of citizenship in our society. Citizens find virtue in interpreting private gain in the context of the public good. Education plays a critical role in sustaining a democracy by modeling and reinforcing the need for us to work together and understand our journey as a people.
The report continues:
Higher education has always attempted to teach young people both spiritual and material values. The classroom has imparted the principle of collective responsibility for liberty – the rule that no one person’s right to freedom can be maintained unless all men [and women] work together to make secure the freedom of all.
But these efforts have not always been effective. All too often the benefits of education have been sought and used for personal and private profit, to the neglect of public and social service. Yet individual freedom entails communal responsibility. The democratic way of life can endure only as private careers and social obligations are made to mesh, as personal ambition is reconciled with public responsibility. (p. 10)
The vision for education placed before our nation in the “Truman Report” 65 years ago was lofty. It was not a recipe for the creation of personal wealth. It was not a formula for national economic development. It was an assertion that a society rich with democratic values will yield shared success. Accordingly, the role of education is to facilitate the creation and dissemination of knowledge for the public good; to develop the skills needed among citizens for sustaining individual freedom and a collective well-being; and to nurture a shared experience sufficient for ensuring equality and justice. How have we done?
It seems we have a problem. Our vision for building this system of education held in its sights a set of ideals related to a healthy democracy. Despite the challenges of recovering economically from the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II, the focus of our previous generation of leaders was on sustaining the social fabric of this nation. They saw firsthand how badly things can go when a society loses its collective sense of purpose and direction.
Education for democracy is intended to transfer the collective well-being from generation to generation by strengthening the societal framework on which a healthy nation can build sustainable outcomes in growth and development. Decisions in this setting are made for the long-term benefit of a people rich in diversity, but committed to unity. Investments in the future are made at all levels knowing first and foremost that we work for our successors.
These ideals informed the development of our system of education in the 1940s. How did we move from education for democracy to education for personal income? Has our focus on testing and accountability advanced our collective purpose? Is education reform on the right track? More on this next time.