My parents, immigrants to the United States in the 1950s, finished their formal education in Ireland around 6th grade. It was a different time, place, and circumstance. By sixth grade, students were considered literate: most having learned to read, write, and do math. My brothers and I, just one generation removed from our parents’ school experiences, graduated from college. Comparing my grandchildren’s with my parents’ opportunities, makes me realize how much expectations have changed. What remains the same is that children learn the basics during the early grades. Subsequent years of schooling provide opportunities to practice skills, develop fluency, and apply learning.
While some 18-year olds join the military or start working, most young adults postpone their entrance into the job market until their early 20s by attending college. In many places around the world, May 1st is Labor Day; in the US, May 1st is National Decision Day when high school seniors declare which college they plan to attend. Current political discussions revolve around who should bear the costs of post-high school education, which isn’t so much about exposure to new subject matter, as the attributes acquired: independence, discipline, and commitment to completion. Employers have discovered that academic success helps predict worker productivity. While most universities don’t view their core mission as providing useful professional skills, research indicates that a college degree boosts lifetime earnings, so students gain a financial payoff.
What is the purpose of education? In a 1930 essay “Good Citizenship: The Purpose of Education,” Eleanor Roosevelt mused: “This question agitates … The conventional answer is the acquisition of knowledge, the reading of books and the learning of facts.” Education functions as a cornerstone of democracy and is critical to society’s progress, a stance supported by Harvard professor Diane Moore in her definition of education: “For students to acquire the skills and experiences that will enable them 1) to function as active citizens who promote the ideals of democracy, 2) to act as thoughtful and informed moral agents; and 3) to lead fulfilling lives.” Historian James Fraser also emphasizes the connection of public schooling to democracy “if the United States is to function as a tolerant, intellectually informed, and dynamic democracy in the twenty-first century.” Educator Michael Apple suggests that: “The fundamental role of schooling is to fill students with the knowledge that is necessary to compete in today’s rapidly changing world. To this is often added an additional caveat: Do it as cost-effectively and as efficiently as possible.”
As conceived by educators and deemed deserving of governmental funding, public education ensures literacy in service to democracy.
While the terms “education” and “school” tend to be used interchangeably, education generally refers to a process of learning, which may or may not require an institution. But with education as a key to literacy, “The state-supported common school was supposed to serve and mold all citizens.” Until 1918, compulsory schooling was not required; and even until the 1930’s, many states had trouble enforcing compulsory schooling laws. Learning doesn’t have to occur in school, but the US created a publicly-funded school system, partly in response to soldier literacy issues in World War I. Fraser explains:
When the government instituted a military draft to ensure sufficient fighting men for the war, they found that as many as a quarter of those drafted were functionally illiterate. Some 8 percent could not understand commands, and another 8 percent could only understand commands if they were given in a language other than English. Most of those who fell into these categories were either the children of immigrants or from the rural South, both white and black. It was a crisis that demanded action.
In an address to the July 1918 National Education Association’s (NEA) annual convention, educator George Stayer claimed “the time had come for ‘universal conscription in education’ as ‘the only sensible method of perpetuating democracy, just as universal military conscription is the only democratic method of raising an army.” Others seconded this opinion: “Schooling … aim[s] at creating critically democratic citizenship as its ultimate goal” and “The public school was pressed into service as a new kind of national church, commissioned to create and carry the common culture and morality of the nation.” Until 100 years ago, it was assumed that parents would teach their children shared civic values; World War I exposed that as fallacy. With illiteracy as a national security issue, schools formed to remedy the situation.
Students, parents, and politicians seem to expect financial gain and job skills from schools, but public education was chartered to provide informed citizens. Literacy and numeracy are marketable vocational skills, although our country has determined that middle-schoolers should delay entrance into the job market. The main purpose of public education is to facilitate literacy, instill curiosity, and encourage critical thinking in children, who grow into adults who will demonstrate those qualities. How well is that working?
Those who do not study history are doomed
to be disappointed when reality crashes into expectation.
This is part one of a multi-part series on education.
© Joan S Grey, 3 MAY 19
IndexCardCure™: Living life intentionally
 qtd in Fraser, 132.
 Apple, 102
 Fraser, 3.
 Fraser, 43.
 Katz, 5.
 Fraser, 132.
 Zimmerman, 10.
 Moore, 9.
 Between Church and State: Religion and public education in a Multicultural America. Fraser, 3.
 Educating the “Right” Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality. Apple, 5.