The Proper Goals of Public Education in the United States
Education as a discipline is based on the premise that individuals possess rational capacities for understanding. In relation to this, the function of education involves awakening and developing an individual’s rational capacities. Traditional education, however, has rigidly connected this with an educational process focused on the substantive aspect of learning evident on the importance it ascribes towards the value of knowledge over the value of thinking (Freire 23). This practice is based upon a conception of the educational system as a self contained and isolated repository of knowledge. Such an understanding has several adverse consequences, the results of which extend beyond the immediate scope of academic institutions since the educational system has a direct effect on social, economic, and cultural conditions. The educational system, in this sense, can be seen as a mechanism of power that enables the preponderance of a particular way of life.
As opposed to private educational institutions, this function of the educational institution is highly concentrated on public educational institutions. Since these institutions are funded by the government, it is necessary for such institutions to uphold and instill the foundational beliefs of their government upon its students. Thomas Bridges, in his book The Culture of Citizenship, argues that such systems ought to instill upon its students the political culture at play within their community (3). In the case of the United States, the goal of public educational institutions may thereby be seen as instilling the values of freedom and liberty amongst its members. Bridges states, “public education…must produce persons who in their own self-understanding, at least insofar as they act within the public sphere, see their membership in communities as…subordinate to their membership in the broader civic community (3). In this context, the goal of public educational institutions is develop the value of citizenship amongst its members. This, however, is only possible by ending the culture of silence within such institutions which is enabled by educational imbalance.
Educational imbalance leads to the culture of silence for the following reasons. First, an educational system that focuses on the substantive and quantitative aspects of learning fails to present the intrinsic value and the meaningfulness of ideas. Such a methodology leads the student to adhere to an infallibilistic epistemology and a relativistic conception of knowledge. Furthermore, such a methodology fails to develop the necessary tools needed to process meaning. A piecemeal presentation of ideas leads the individual to perceive knowledge of a particular phenomenon as a given which is independent and isolated from the development of ideas or from the progression of knowledge. Such a perception contradicts the fact that knowledge emerges only through invention, re-invention, and the continuous inquiry of men in the world, with the world, and with each other. This further leads to the child’s failure to account for unity and consistency within his environment.
Furthermore, such a culture hampers both individual and societal growth for the following reasons. First, it lowers the possibility of effective communication, which is dependent upon the participant’s awareness of the framework of communication. This awareness enables the individual to consider his position within a framework within society thereby enabling him to shift from perceiving himself as a solitary individual to a person who recognizes his participation within the world. This recognition however is further dependent upon the individual’s ability to understand the concepts within the framework within which he operates. These abilities are not developed through the traditional educational system’s methodology.
Another reason for the impediment of societal growth is evident if one considers the role of educational institutions in the formation of political individuals wherein a political individual refers to an individual who actively participates in thought and action within the public sphere. It should be pointed out that such a definition is based upon the recognition of the distinction between the private and public spheres of life. Whereas, such a distinction is based upon the recognition that the private sphere corresponds to the personal sphere concerned with the cultivation of the narrow self and the public sphere corresponds to the political sphere concerned with the cultivation of the self within a political culture. Political culture here refers to a way of life that enables the constant expansion of the range and accuracy of one’s perception of meanings. It refers to the activity of practicing one’s freedom through action within the public space where individuals may gather to consider the welfare of all. In other words, the public sphere refers to the rule governed space wherein individuals may realize their obligations towards each other by virtue of their participation within a common political culture. The public sphere then becomes a venue for dialogue wherein private views are deliberated with the common good in mind. It thereby fosters an atmosphere that enables the development of active cooperation and public support in direct contrast to the compliance and passivity within the private sphere. In line with this, freedom is possible within the public sphere since it becomes a venue for the realization of equality by virtue of common citizenship. Such a depiction of the public sphere accounts for the occurrence of participatory politics. In this sense, each person has a responsibility to act politically. In line with these, education should facilitate the development of dispositions, which will enable the child to act politically.
As the primitive formal arm of society, public educational institutions are responsible for the gradual transition of the individual into the wider domain of the public sphere. This transition is made possible by the individual’s acquisition of various cognitive and social skills during his academic experience. Besides these, the school also serves as the ground for social enforcement. In line with this, since the school functions, as the immediate institution that has a direct effect on the individual’s child’s socialization process the school becomes a horizon wherein the child may systematically explore his formation as a person within a social atmosphere that provides varying possibilities. However, such an opportunity is unutilized due to the non-participatory atmosphere produced by traditional educational methodology’s emphasis on spoon-fed information, which further leads to what was stated above as the child’s inability to develop effective communication skills. In this sense, traditional education hinders societal development. Besides that, it also leads to the degradation of a democratic society.
A democratic community is characterized by equality, pluralism, and diversity. In line with these, it necessitates the existence of individuals committed to individual freedom and personal responsibility. Furthermore, it requires the existence of political sovereignty and political equality as well as the existence of a legal system that ensures stability and protection from arbitrary acts and decisions. All of these are dependent upon a democratic society’s belief in the capability of human rationality to influence human actions (March and Olsen 243-244). The possibility of the maintenance and development of a democratic society then lies in the development of an individual’s rational capacities. Traditional education, in this sense even hinders the existence of a democratic society.
An example of the way that this may be practiced within public educational institutions within the United States is by giving importance to the multiracial population within these institutions. According to the United States Census Bureau, as of July 2005, “98 percent of all U.S. residents, or 291.8 million people, belonged to 1 of the 5 single racial groups” within the country (1). Although, majority of those who live within the United States are classified as belonging to the White race, there is still the continuous growth of those who belong from other races [e.g. Asian, Mexican, Hispanic etc] and those who are have a combination of two or more races. Public educational institutions must thereby explain and develop the importance of the practice of pluralism and multiculturalism within the classrooms. By instilling the value of pluralism, within the members of the public educational institutions, such institutions will develop individuals who are more open minded to the differences of each individual as well as the relativity of the different values of each culture. By introducing and giving importance to both multiculturalism and pluralism, it is possible to solve the misconceptions resulting from racism and other forms of social differentiation. Verma, for example, notes that emphasis on multiethnic education does not only diminish hate crimes but it also allows the individuals within the educational institutions to have a deeper understanding of the country’s history (9). He states, teaching these within public educational institutions allows the practice and development of the advocacy that “educational opportunity is for all regardless of sex, race, creed, class, ethnicity, and religion” (Verma 2). This is an instance of the practice of the belief of both equality and freedom within the domains of the public educational institutions.
Within this context, it is safe to say that the proper goals of public educational institutions within the United States is the development of individuals who give value to citizenship as well as individuals capable of recognizing the meaningfulness of the participation within public discourse [an example of which can be seen in the development of students’ understanding regarding both pluralism and multiculturalism] since it is only through this that the United States will enable the creation and development of individuals who value both liberty and equality. The emphasis should be placed on the foundational values within individuals since such foundations will guide their actions as they participate within the larger scope of the public sphere which is American society as a whole.
Bridges, Thomas. The Culture of Citizenship: Inventing Postmodern Civic Culture. New York: SUNY Press, 1994.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum, 1984.
March, James and Johan Olsen. Democratic Governance. New York: The Free Press, 1995.
United States Census Bureau. “Race and Hispanic Origin in 2005.” U.S. Census Bureau. Feb 2007. U.S. Census Bureau. 13 Dec. 2008 <http://www.census.gov/population/www/pop-profile/profiledynamic.html>.
Verma, Gajendar. Education for All: A Landmark in Pluralism. London: Routledge, 1989.