What is education for?

US Dept Education reading

Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Education, published under Creative Commons license.


Is preparing students for minimum wage labor the goal of public education? That’s what New York State argued in Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. State of New York. The case dragged on from 1993 to 2006, with the New York appellate court eventually ruling that students deserve more than minimum education for minimum wage jobs. Last week, the Boston Review published a forum on the purpose of education, beginning with this case. While it doesn’t focus on the nuts-and-bolts arguments so often raised in debates over testing, educational equity and “reform,” the forum illuminates those issues as well. 

The forum’s lead author, Danielle Allen, began the discussion by contrasting crucial arguments that inform our continuing debates over inequity, inequality, opportunity gaps, achievement gaps, testing, “education reform,” and what the focus of education should be:

“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 of New York, the defendant in the case, 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.”

The New York appellate court eventually ruled that students need an education that makes them competitive in the job market — not merely qualified for minimum wage jobs. The court also said students need to be able to participate in civic life, at least to “make sense of complex ballot propositions and follow argumentation about DNA evidence at trial.”

In my reading of current education debates, the focus frequently falls on three goals:

  1. Producing good worker robots (Allen quotes from the 2007 National Academy of Sciences report, which says, “An educated, innovative, motivated workforce—human capital—is the most precious resource of any country.”)
  2. Reducing inequity, especially as shown in the current opportunity/achievement gap, and
  3. Focusing on more and better and more, always more, STEM education. (For anyone not immersed in current education debates, STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.) For example, in his 2016 State of the Union address, President Obama praised “a Computer Science for All initiative that would make students ‘job-ready on day one.’”

Human capital.

Job ready on day one.


Is that all that education is for? Is production the purpose of human existence?

Focusing only on education for job skills, writes Allen, misses an important point:

“[T]he 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.”

She argues forcefully that education also must be education for citizenship, and that education for citizenship and then participation in civic affairs is ultimately essential to economic success, pointing out that “economic inequality is an outgrowth of politics.”

Deborah Meier, one of the ten forum participants, puts it bluntly:

“We have ‘chosen’ inequality. And our schools—including the ways we assess them, their students, and their teachers—reflect choices that make inequality inevitable.”

Think politically.




Charter school English teacher Lelac Almagor writes that, “My students need to be ready to get a job, organize a protest, and call bullshit on arguments that don’t acknowledge their reality.” Almayor sees vocational and civic purposes of education as “intertwined and aligned,” both necessary components of a “joyful, rigorous, authentic, liberating education” that is too often offered only to the “educationally privileged.”

Forum respondent Rob Reich, a political scientist and ethicist at Stanford, writes that:

“… civil society is itself a great schoolhouse for citizenship, and reinvigorating civil society, especially for young people—through religious associations, sports teams, neighborhood clubs, and so on—should be part of civic education, too.”

Students need (and deserve) more from school than vocational preparation/job training/workforce readiness. Allen calls this civic agency, a term broader than citizenship:

“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.”

Someone with civic agency, she says, is someone who is “proud to be involved in politics.”

I think of my dad. He was deeply involved in politics, and convinced that participation in civic life was a moral duty — whether that meant serving on the board of a farmers’ cooperative or working to create a public park or campaigning for a political candidate. He was always “proud to be involved in politics,” studying the issues, thinking hard about political alternatives, and enduring the necessary late nights and often frustrating meetings and organizing.

Allen insists, and most of the ten respondents agree, that the humanities and social science must be preserved as essential parts of education at all levels, not sacrificed to a single-minded focus on testing and work preparation. Allen concludes that:

“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.”

The discussion of what education is for must also include the understanding that education is for the student. Education is not just about being able to work efficiently for an employer, or to produce profit for a business, or even to function as a citizen for the good of the state. While crucial goals of education, these still miss the value of education to the student, the individual human being. As forum participant Lucas Stanczyk eloquently argues, education has a third goal, beyond preparation for economic and civic life:

“The most important reason to improve education is not to make children fit for tomorrow’s job market. Nor is it to make them capable of voting well and serving on a jury. It is to help people escape a life of vapid consumerism by giving them capacities to appreciate richer pursuits and to produce their own complex meanings.”

x x x

Hat tip to my daughter, Macy Salzberger, for bringing the Boston Review forum to my attention. 

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