What is the purpose of public education?

I recently finished a book that has altered my perception about the purpose of education. E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know brought up some very interesting points, even if the book was published nearly three decades ago.

When Libby Anne first posed the question I had just started listening to the Cultural Literacy audiobook and honestly couldn’t have written this post. The book helped crystallize my thoughts although I now sound like a Cultural Literacy disciple.

The big educational reform in the past decade was No Child Left Behind (NCLB). With NCLB has come a backlash against the increasing number of standardized tests and the amount of time spent by teachers preparing kids for those tests. Keep in mind that I don’t think there is anything wrong with the intent, but here’s what’s dangerous about the practical implementation of something like NCLB.

The purpose of public education should not be merely to crank out individuals with good test scores. Hirsch provides ample evidence and a persuasive argument that schools should provide students with a shared knowledge because life is a collection of interaction with other people, not just a series of individual achievements.

My purpose isn’t to recap the book, so an example would be that instead of giving young readers an arbitrary fiction book, like Cat in the Hat or Go Dog Go, that beginning readers should learn something about history or geography or literature in those books. Hirsch argues that treating reading as a skill – decoding the words – is fine until students look for meaning in what they are reading. Understanding the meaning in the words requires a backlog of knowledge and that knowledge can only be gained through learning – usually through memorization.

This memorization is not an end unto itself, though. The purpose of having this knowledge is to provide clear, articulate communication and understand incoming communication. Education doesn’t occur in a vacuum and students don’t depart from school into a vacuum. We need to ensure that public education prepares them for social interaction. And one way to smooth that interaction is to ensure they are taught a broad swath of what is considered common knowledge by the rest of the nation.

This doesn’t mean doing away with programs and classes that encourage and develop critical thinking, just a realization and acknowledgement that knowledge and understanding require more than just pure logic. Critical thinking skills, for instance, won’t help you know the importance of the year 1776 or what states fought on which side in the Civil War.

Even without this social component, the general importance of public education cannot be overstated because of the need for informed citizens as part of democratic politics in the United States. Since much of the world now has some form of democratic government and the globe has shrunk with the advent of worldwide trade and communication via the internet, the need for a high standard of national education is necessary for the U.S. to remain relevant economically and scientifically.


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