Who Cares about Knowledge—or the Public Good?

I have to start with a confession: I am a PhD dropout.

After 31 years of teaching mostly secondary Instrumental Music, with brief forays into 7th grade math, English as a Second Language, a Gifted Student pull-out program, and random K-12 music courses (which I was actually qualified to teach), I decided to pursue a PhD in Education Policy when I retired.

I wanted to study education policy intensively. I was tired of being the object of education policy and wanted to be a partner in creating that policy.

I wanted to learn everything I could about where the power levers were and figure out how we found ourselves—a wealthy, democratic society which generated the unique idea of a free, high-quality common school for all children—in a such a muddle.

Why I didn’t finish my terminal degree is a subject for a later column–but I genuinely loved all the coursework, especially digging deep into the purposes and history of public education. The single most impressive researcher and thinker I read was David Labaree. His piece, ‘Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle Over Educational Goals’ made more sense to me than any of the hundreds of books, chapters, monographs and articles I read, reviewed and analyzed in white papers.  From the abstract:

This article explores three alternative goals for American education that have been at the root of educational conflicts over the years: democratic equality (schools should focus on preparing citizens), social efficiency (they should focus on training workers) and social mobility (they should prepare individuals to compete for social positions). These goals represent, respectively, the educational perspective of the citizen, the taxpayer and the consumer. Whereas the first two look on education as a public good, the third sees it as a private good… [T]he growing domination of the social mobility goal has reshaped education into a commodity for the purposes of status attainment and has elevated the pursuit of credentials over the acquisition of knowledge.
American Educational Research Journal,                                                                                        Spring, 1997, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 39-81.

Written over 20 years ago, before No Child Left Behind, before the monolithic Common Core State (sic) Standards, just as charter schools and whiz-bang classroom technologies were getting a toehold in the national imagination, Labaree provides a durable analysis of what we could lose (democratic equality) and what we could gain (the hot pursuit of credentials over the acquisition of knowledge) if we weren’t careful.

I re-read the piece every year or so, and damned if it isn’t still accurately evaluating our educational choices and outcomes. We don’t hear, anymore, about the melting pot, the rich townie and the poor farm boy rubbing elbows for the greater civic good of genuine opportunity. And when an articulate bartender, also seeking opportunity, gets elected to Congress, there’s a target on her back.

Today, we watch educators hold teach-ins at the southern border, as children are separated from their parents and put in cages. Hollywood celebrities buy test scores and slots in the most prestigious universities.  Social studies are the ugly stepchild in our STEM-focused, credential-driven world.

Labaree was prescient: Who cares about knowledge—or the public good?

Evidently, some (admirable) people do—and they also care about civic engagement and strengthening democracy. There is a movement to revise the traditional three-branches-of-government Civics curriculum by engaging students in the real work of democracy. From Andrea Gabor:

Civics fell victim to the narrowing of curricula under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and to the standardized testing regimen that focused on math, science and English. Worried about economic competition from China, neither Democrats nor Republicans anticipated the recent populist and authoritarian threat to Western democracies that civics education is meant to forestall. The reality is, schools need to do both: prepare students for a global economy and to be engaged citizens in a democracy.

The day after a successful student-led Climate Strike is a great time to be discussing this—and Gabor runs down a list of other projects, large and small, where students have provided action leadership, in addition to traditional ‘school’ tasks, like presentations and papers.

A telling fact: educators driving this project have fears about our now-embedded belief that only tests can reveal student learning. This headline says it all: Could Testing Wreck Civics Education?

It’s a thrilling idea, though, at the intersection of political power and scholarship: Students, encouraged by their Civics teachers, use their new-found knowledge and passion to address issues that have been mired in legislative concrete and acrimony for decades.

Labaree is still writing, bemoaning our love affair with easily imposed standardization and structures rather than investing in the potential of individual children:

Erratic funding, poorly prepared teachers, high turnover, dated textbooks – all of these may impede the socially efficient outcomes of education, but they do not prevent reformers from putting in place the central structure of social efficiency in the school system: a tracked curriculum organized around the idea of education for work. 

This is the central rationale around what education policy has become: Education is work training (and all that implies—compliance, duty, relinquishing power in exchange for a wage, and basic, replicable skills replacing human judgment and creativity). Those who have purchased the right credentials will have other options.

Andrea Gabor slips this into her piece quietly, but it’s the central point here: neither Democrats nor Republicans anticipated the recent populist and authoritarian threat to Western democracies. Once education has been devoted entirely to sustaining the economy, it’s no longer a threat to those currently in power.

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