What Is Education For?
With Responses From
May 9, 2016
21 Min read time
Schoolhouse in Princeton, Kansas. Photograph: Jonathan Moreau
In 2006, the highest court in New York affirmed that students in the state have a right to civic education. It was a decision thirteen years in the making, and it spoke to a fundamental question: What is an education for? Lawyers representing the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), which brought suit, argued that the purpose of education is to develop not only vocational capacities, but also civic agency. Students, in other words, are entitled to learn in public schools the “basic literacy, calculating, and verbal skills necessary to enable children to eventually function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury.”
The state, in the position of defendant, did not disagree with the need for civic education. But it argued that once students had completed eighth grade, the public schools had met their responsibility to enable children “to eventually function productively as civic participants.” Not coincidentally, the state argued that this education level was adequate preparation for minimum-wage labor.
CFE disagreed, arguing that the standard should be set higher. “Capable” civic participation, Judge Leland DeGrasse finally ruled, includes, for instance, the ability to make sense of complex ballot propositions and follow argumentation about DNA evidence at trial. The court agreed that “meaningful civic participation” and prospects for “competitive employment,” not simply minimum-wage employment, demanded a twelfth-grade level of verbal and math skills and similarly advanced competence in social studies and economics. The court ordered New York City to increase school funding with these goals in mind.
The language of work and global competitiveness did not always dominate public conversations about education.
In part because of the Great Recession, the state and city failed to deliver, and a new lawsuit is underway. But the economic downturn cannot be blamed for the fact that citizenship remains effectively absent from discussions of education policy, not only in New York but also generally. The dominant policy paradigm attends almost exclusively to education’s vocational purpose: the goal is to ensure that young people, and society generally, can compete in a global economy. This view is tightly connected to a technocratic economic policy that focuses on the dissemination of skills as a way to reduce inequality in a technology-dependent economy. The result has been massively increased investment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education—STEM—and correspondingly reduced outlays for the humanities.
Yet this is not the only possible response to contemporary inequalities. As economists such as Dani Rodrik have pointed out, gross economic inequalities do not result from an inexorable forward march of technology or globalization or from the nature of markets. They are products of policy choices, which are themselves the outcome of politics. “Inequality,” as Joseph Stiglitz argues in Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy (2015), “has been a choice.” Achieving an economy with more egalitarian outcomes will require different political choices and economic policies. It will require that we choose different rules to govern labor, housing, and financial markets.
Where does education enter the picture? At the most fundamental level.
When we think about education and equality, we tend to think first about distributive questions—for example, how to design a system that will offer the real possibility of equal educational attainment, if not achievement, to all students. The vocational approach imagines that this equal attainment will translate into a wider distribution of skills, which will reduce income inequality.
The civic conception of education suggests a very different way to understand the link between education and equality. This understanding begins with the recognition that fair economic outcomes are aided by a robust democratic process and, therefore, by genuine political equality. Thus an education focused not merely on technical skills, but also on what I call participatory readiness, provides a distinct and better way to promote equality through schooling.
Moreover, the aspiration to educate for civic participation and not merely work has important distributive implications. The participatory paradigm demands a higher educational standard than the vocational, and meeting that standard requires that more resources be allocated for schools.
It should not be necessary to argue for a vigorous public commitment to civic education in our society. The vast majority of state constitutions include a right to education tied either explicitly or through legislative history to a civic purpose. In addition, as scholar and litigator Michael Rebell writes, twenty-four state courts “have explicitly held that preparation for capable citizenship is a primary purpose of public education, and no state court has disputed this proposition.”
And yet, the argument for civic education is now indispensable. To see why, we should begin by exploring more deeply how the vocational paradigm arose and why it can neither vindicate our rights nor overcome the challenge of inequality.
Equality and the Vocational Paradigm
The language of work and global competitiveness did not always dominate public conversations about education. Its recent ascendancy can be traced to 1957. The Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first satellite, provoked a sense that the United States was falling behind in a Cold War scientific contest. The response was the National Defense Education Act, signed into law in 1958, which increased funding for science and math education, as well as vocational training. The 1983 Reagan administration report A Nation at Risk deepened the country’s anxiety: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war,” reads one provocative sentence. Although its data were later debunked, A Nation at Risk is generally understood to have kicked off the era of school reform that currently shapes education discussion and policy. Tellingly, the commission that produced the report held hearings on “Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education” and “Education for a Productive Role in a Productive Society,” but none concerning the humanities, social sciences, or civic education.
By 2007, when the National Academy of Sciences’ Rising above the Gathering Storm again emphasized the need for significant improvements in science and technology education, these disciplines had already been consolidated under the umbrella of STEM, a concept that has been employed with equal gusto by education reformers and politicians. “An educated, innovative, motivated workforce—human capital—is the most precious resource of any country in this new, flat world,” the report asserts. “Yet there is widespread concern about our K–12 science and mathematics education system, the foundation of that human capital in today’s global economy.”
Consensus thus emerged in the 1980s around vocational education’s essential role in global economic competitiveness. At the same time, economists drew closer connections between education and inequality. By the early 1990s, economists had identified technological change, which biased available jobs toward high-skilled workers, as the primary culprit. It was a short step from this diagnosis to the argument that education was the remedy. That was the lesson of Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz’s important book on The Race between Education and Technology (2008). In Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014), French economist Thomas Piketty writes, “Historical experience suggests that the principal mechanism for convergence [of incomes and wealth] at the international as well as the domestic level is the diffusion of knowledge. In other words, the poor catch up with the rich to the extent that they achieve the same level of technological know-how, skill, and education.” Broad dissemination of skills is expected to drive down the wage premium on expertise and compress the income distribution. To the degree that Piketty’s recommendations turn to educational policy, he focuses on access. When he considers curriculum, he is explicit only about vocational goals. Thus he argues that educational institutions should be made broadly accessible; elite institutions, which serve mainly privileged youth from the highest income brackets, should draw students from other backgrounds; schools should be run efficiently; and states should increase investment in “high-quality professional training.”
Such arguments from economists—that vocationalism generally and STEM in particular are the solutions both for inequality and for America’s ostensibly precarious global economic standing—have been widely adopted at the highest levels of government. President Obama, in his 2013 State of the Union address, announced a competition to “redesign America’s high schools.” Rewards would go, he said, to schools that develop more classes “that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math—the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.” More recently, in his 2016 State of the Union address, the president announced a Computer Science for All initiative that would make students “job-ready on day one.”
Today, these technologically oriented, vocational approaches to education and the problem of inequality leave almost no room for the civic alternative. It is not that civic education is incompatible with professional training, but policymakers, education specialists, and many parents—including low-income parents, whose children are most likely to see their civic education shortchanged—have narrowed their focus exclusively to the economic field. In the process, they have lost sight of the full range of inequalities from which our society suffers and which well-rounded education could alleviate.
Lamoine Schoolhouse, Eastern Washington. Photograph: Tom Overlin
Equality and the Participatory Paradigm
When we invoke the concept of equality in conversations about education, we generally don’t bother to define it or to identify which concept of equality pertains. Is it political equality that concerns us? Social equality? Or economic equality only?
The technology-based analysis of inequality and the vocational paradigm focuses specifically on economic equality. Questions of political equality have no place in this picture. Indeed, the purely technocratic treatment of income and wealth inequality as problems of technology to be solved through the dissemination of skills is blind precisely to politics.
This is shortsighted because economic inequality is an outgrowth of politics. “Today’s world economy is the product of explicit decisions that governments had made in the past,” Rodrik writes. “It was the choice of governments to loosen regulations on finance and aim for full cross-border capital mobility, just as it was a choice to maintain these policies largely intact, despite a massive global financial crisis.” Or, as Daron Acemoğlu and Jim Robinson argue, “It is the institutions and the political equilibrium of a society that determine how technology evolves, how markets function, and how the gains from various different economic arrangements are distributed.”
Piketty agrees that the wage premium on skill can explain only part of growing U.S. income inequality: political forces shape distributive outcomes, and there are limits to how much the advantages of education can be moderated through the dissemination of technological skills. Income growth at the highest end, accruing to what he calls “supermanagers,” reflects social acceptance of sky-high executive pay. In his argument, such social norms constitute and reinforce a political ideology endorsing “hypermeritocracy.” Reining in income inequality therefore requires not only the dissemination of skill but also social and political change. If political choices determine the rules that shape distributive patterns, it makes sense to focus first on political, not economic, equality. And if we choose political equality as our orienting ideal—empowering all to participate capably in the life of a polity—a different view of education’s purpose, content, and consequence comes into view.
In an important 2006 paper, “Why Does Democracy Need Education?” economists Edward L. Glaeser, Giacomo Ponzetto, and Andrei Shleifer argue that education is a causal force behind democracy. Specifically, they point to the relationship between education and participation, considering three hypotheses for why the former might be a source of the latter: through indoctrination, through the cultivation of skills that facilitate participation (reading and writing and “soft skills” of collaboration and interaction), and through the increased material benefits of participation. (On the last, the idea is that education increases income, and participation correlates to socioeconomic status.) The authors reject the first and third hypotheses in favor of the second. Education, they argue, fosters participation because it prepares people for democratic engagement. Reading, writing, and collaboration are, after all, the basic instruments of political action.
An education that prepares every student for civic and political engagement not only supports political equality but may also lead to increased economic fairness. As Acemoğlu and Robinson argue, the expansion of political participation drove egalitarian economic reforms in Britain in the nineteenth century and the United States in the early twentieth. We are currently seeing a resurgence of participation on both the right and left. These movements, dubbed populist by many commentators, are putting issues of distributive justice on the agenda once again.
This resurgence increases the stakes for participatory readiness. It also raises the question of how best to prepare students for their lives as civic agents. While the technological view of the link between education and equality reinforces a vocational approach to curriculum and pedagogy, a participatory view demands a renewed focus on the humanities and social sciences.
So what exactly is participatory readiness, and how can education help people achieve it? To answer these questions, we first need to understand what students should be getting ready for: civic agency. While there is no single model of civic agency dominant in American culture, we can identify a handful at work.
Following philosopher Hannah Arendt, I take citizenship to be the activity of co-creating a way of life, of world-building. This co-creation can occur at many social levels: in a neighborhood or school; in a networked community or association; in a city, state, or nation; at a global scale. Because co-creation extends beyond legal categories of membership in political units, I prefer to speak of civic agency instead of citizenship.
Such civic agency involves three core tasks. First is disinterested deliberation around a public problem. Here the model derives from Athenian citizens gathered in the assembly, the town halls of colonial New Hampshire, and public representatives behaving reasonably in the halls of a legislature. Second is prophetic work intended to shift a society’s values; in the public opinion and communications literature, this is now called “frame shifting.” Think of the rhetorical power of nineteenth-century abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, of Martin Luther King, Jr., or of Occupy Wall Street activists with their rallying cry of “we are the 99 percent.” Finally, there is transparently interested “fair fighting,” where a given public actor adopts a cause and pursues it passionately. One might think of early women’s rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage.
The ideal civic agent carries out all three of these tasks—disinterested deliberation, prophetic frame shifting, and fair fighting—ethically and justly. Stanton is an example of this ideal at work. At the Seneca Falls Convention, she was in deliberative mode for the debate about the text of the Declaration of Sentiments. However, before the convention’s deliberations, when she drafted that text, she was in the prophetic mode, just as she was in her innumerable speeches. Finally, in campaigning for legal change, as in the adoption of the Woman’s Property Bill in New York and similar laws in other states, she was operating as an activist.
Education is a causal force behind democracy—reading, writing, and collaboration are the basic instruments of political action.
Yet if these three are the rudimentary components of civic agency, they do not in themselves determine the content of any given historical moment’s conception of citizenship. There is no need for each of these functions to be combined in a single role or persona, nor is there any guarantee that all three will be carried out in each historical context. These tasks can also become separated from one another, generating distinguishable kinds of civic roles. This is the situation today, as roles have been divided among civically engaged individuals, activists or political entrepreneurs, and professional politicians.
The civically engaged individual focuses on the task of disinterested deliberation and actions that can be said to flow from it. Such citizens pursue what they perceive to be universal values, critical thinking, and bipartisan projects. Next comes the activist, who seeks to change hearts and minds by fighting fairly for particular outcomes, often making considerable sacrifices to do so. Finally, the professional politician, as currently conceived, focuses mainly on fighting, not necessarily fairly. In contemporary discourse, this role, in contrast to the other two, represents a degraded form of civic agency; for evidence one has only to look at Congress’s all-time-low approval ratings.
In the current condition, we have lost sight of the statesman, a professional politician capable of disinterested deliberation, just frame shifting, and fighting fair. And, even more importantly, we have lost sight of the ideal ordinary citizen, who is not a professional politician but who has nonetheless developed all of the competencies described above and who is proud to be involved in politics.
If we are to embrace an education for participatory readiness, we need to aim our pedagogic and curricular work not at any one of these three capacities but at what lies behind all of them: the idea of civic agency as the activity of co-creating a way of life. This view of politics supports all three models of citizenship because it nourishes future civic leaders, activists, and politicians. Such an education ought also to permit a reintegration of these roles.
The United States has a history of providing such an education: it is called the liberal arts. How, you may ask, can the seemingly antique liberal arts be of use in our mass democracies and globalized, multicultural world? Let us consider where we find ourselves and how we got here.
Schoolhouse in Moab, Utah. Photograph: Amy Henschen
Science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine have done much to create the contemporary condition. Thanks to the industrial, aeronautical, biomedical, and digital revolutions, the world’s population has grown from one to seven billion in little more than 200 years, a profound historical transformation. We surely need the STEM fields to navigate this new landscape. But if the STEM fields gave us the mass in “mass democracy,” the humanities and social sciences gave us the democracy.
The Europeans and American colonists who designed systems of representative democracy capable of achieving continental scale—while employing genocidal techniques in the process—were broadly and deeply educated in history, geography, philosophy, literature, and art. The pithiest summary of the intellectual demands of democratic citizenship that I know appears in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, especially the final clause:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed; that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
This final clause summarizes the central intellectual labor of the democratic citizen. Citizens must judge whether their governments meet their responsibility, spelled out earlier in the sentence, to secure rights. If a government fails in its core purposes, it is the job of the citizen to figure this out and decide how to change direction. This requires diagnosing social circumstances and making judgments about grounding principles for the political order and about possible alternatives to the formal organization of state power. Properly conducted, the citizen’s intellectual labor should result in a probabilistic judgment answering this critical question: What combination of principle and organizational form is most likely to secure collective safety and happiness?
To make judgments about the course of human events and our government’s role in them, we need history, anthropology, cultural studies, economics, political science, sociology, and psychology, not to mention math—especially the statistical reasoning necessary for probabilistic judgment—and science, as governmental policy naturally intersects with scientific questions. If we are to decide on the core principles that should orient our judgments about what will bring about safety and happiness, surely we need philosophy, literature, and religion or its history. Then, since the democratic citizen does not make or execute judgments alone, we need the arts of conversation, eloquence, and prophetic speech. Preparing ourselves to exercise these arts takes us again to literature and to the visual arts, film, and music.
In other words, we need the liberal arts. They were called the free person’s arts for a reason.
To say that we need all these disciplines in order to cultivate participatory readiness is not to say that we need precisely the versions of these disciplines that existed in the late eighteenth century. To the contrary, it is the job of today’s scholars and teachers, learning from the successes and errors of our predecessors, to build the most powerful intellectual tools we can. Where their versions of the tools were compatible with preserving patriarchy, enslaving black Africans, and committing genocide against indigenous peoples, ours must not be. This revision of the liberal arts curriculum is controversial but necessary, for we want to retain the purposes and intellectual methods of the liberal arts, if not all of its content. We still need to cultivate capacities for social diagnosis, ethical reasoning, cause-and-effect analysis, and persuasive argumentation.
Given that the liberal arts are especially useful for training citizens, it should come as little surprise that attainment in the humanities and social sciences appears to correlate with increased engagement in politics. There is a statistically significant difference between the rates of political participation among humanities and STEM graduates. Data from the Department of Education reveal that, among 2008 college graduates, 92.8 percent of humanities majors have voted at least once since finishing school. Among STEM majors, that number is 83.5 percent. And, within ten years of graduation, 44.1 percent of 1993 humanities graduates had written to public officials, compared to 30.1 percent of STEM majors. As college graduates, the students are generally of similar socioeconomic backgrounds, suggesting that other distinctions must account for the difference in political engagement.
Of course, the self-selection of students into the humanities and STEM majors may mean that these data reflect only underlying features of the students rather than the effects of teaching they receive. Yet the same pattern appears in a study by political scientist Sunshine Hillygus, which controls for students’ preexisting levels of interest in politics.
Hillygus also finds that the differences in political engagement among college graduates are mirrored in K–12 education. High SAT verbal scores correlate with increased likelihood of political participation, while high SAT math scores correlate with decreased likelihood of participation. Again, since socioeconomic effects on SAT scores move both verbal and math scores in the same direction, this difference between how high verbal and high math scores affect the likelihood of participation must be telling us something about the relationship between attainment in specific subject domains and participatory readiness. Moreover, the SAT effect endures even when college-level curricular choices are controlled for. Just as Glaeser, Ponzetto, and Shleifer conclude, it is attainment in the verbal domain that correlates with participatory readiness.
To identify a correlation is not, of course, to identify, let alone prove, causation. But those with more sophisticated verbal skills and with more skills at socio-political analysis are clearly more ready to participate in civic life. Another source of motivation may have engaged them in politics, leading them, once engaged, to seek out the verbal and analytical skills needed to thrive as civic participants. Or verbal competence and social analytical skills may make engagement easier in the first place. We don’t have a study that considers levels of engagement before and after significant increases in these kinds of competence. Nonetheless, data suggest that the work of the humanities and social sciences on verbal empowerment and social analysis is intrinsically related to the development of participatory readiness. The riches of the liberal arts of course extend well beyond verbal empowerment and social analysis, but these core activities are themselves of immense value. Such equality as the world has managed to achieve—whether political or economic—can often be traced to the operations of these human capacities.
• • •
Few among us pay adequate attention to the fact that almost all of our state constitutions guarantee a right to education. We pay even less attention to the fact that we have a right to civic education. Our state constitutions, in other words, are directed at the pursuit of equality. Through the acquisition of participatory readiness, a great diversity of citizens could tap into the power to challenge oligarchical social and political arrangements.
In the final analysis, the reliance on an exclusively vocational paradigm as the sole guide to education policy-making is a failure to meet the legal standard for securing a basic right. Precisely those parts of the K–12 curriculum most vulnerable during a recession—humanities, social studies, arts, and extracurricular activities such as debate and model UN—deserve rights-based legal protection. What is more, defending the right to civic education, and the kind of curriculum that delivers it, would benefit not only individual students but also society as a whole, advancing both political equality and distributive justice. This is an untapped source of advocacy around educational rights and on behalf of an egalitarian America.
May 09, 2016
21 Min read time