Sunday, August 06, 2006

Another Myth: Public education does not prepare young people to become good citizens

I had a post about a week-and-a-half ago that defended the overall performance of public education. There were a number of concurring comments, but then a few days after the post, this comment came in from Elizabeth:

I think the place where you and I disagree, based on this post anyway, is that I don't believe the sole purpose or even the primary purpose of public primary and secondary education is to prepare people for future careers. I believe the primary purpose of public primary and secondary education is to prepare people to be good citizens. In that we have failed. We have a citizenry that does not participate in a meaningful way in the political process, that cannot read a newspaper critically, and that has little to no understanding of the cultures or languages of other countries that make up 95 percent of the world's population.

I decided to respond to this comment with another post instead of a comment because of the time that has passed since the original post, and also because I think Elizabeth raises an important point.

I agree with Elizabeth that preparing people for future careers should not be the sole or primary purpose of public education. I do think an important purpose should be to enable people to become happy and productive members of our society. That includes their lives in the working world, but it also includes citizenship. I disagree with Elizabeth's assertion that we have failed in preparing people to become good citizens.

It is a well known fact that the number of Americans who vote in elections is low compared to other democracies. Many people look at that and come to the conclusion that those darned public schools are failing again. However, there are a number of factors that help to explain our low voting turnout, and none of them have to do with what people have or haven't learned in school. First of all, it is more difficult to register in the United States than in just about any other democratic country, so our registration rate is one of the lowest in the world. In European countries the people don't have to do anything to register; the government does it for them. We also don't penalize people for not voting the way some other nations do. We also have a lot of elections. We have primary elections, and general elections, presidential and congressional elections, state office elections, county, city, and township elections, school board elections, and various referendums. There is an election going on somewhere in the United States almost every week of the year. Many European nations have one election every four or five years. When they do have elections, it's a much bigger deal than it is here. I also think more people would vote if the two major political parties weren't dominated by ideologues. The loony left of the Democratic party and the radical right of the Republican party turn many people off who don't share their extreme views.

Even though our voting turnouts are less than impressive, Americans are actually more politically active than people in Europe or anywhere else, for that matter, in other ways--joining civic organizations, writing congressmen, supporting social movements, fighting city hall, etc. Americans are also much more active in their churches than people in other nations. So the idea that Americans are woefully inactive politically is a myth. Public education enables people to participate in the political process if they choose to--and a lot of people do--but we don't indoctrinate them.

Elizabeth says Americans can't read a newspaper critically. I disagree with that, too. A lot of Americans don't read newspapers critically because they don't care, and schools can't force people to care. The other day I had a great discussion in our weight room with a 16-year-old about the situations in Iraq and Lebanon. He complained that most of his friends don't even care about what is going on in the Middle East. The only things they seem to care about is what boy likes what girl, who is going out with whom, and what's going on next weekend. This kid cared about what's going on in the world, and his friends didn't, but they all went to the same school. What's the difference between them?

The young man I talked to has parents who talk about current events in their home. They have magazines and books, and their television gets turned to the news once in awhile instead of being locked on ESPN, HBO, and MTV. The events he has heard about in school also get talked about at home. This kid will read newspapers critically for the rest of his life. Some of his friends will get concerned about public affairs as they get older, and they will join him, but some of his other friends will never care about anything beyond their next car and mortgage payments, who is going to make it to the Super Bowl, and which Hollywood couple's marriage is falling apart. And that's their right.

Finally, Elizabeth says that we aren't adequately teaching about other cultures, which I assume in an endorsement for multiculturalism. Those of us in public schools can't win on that one, because there are others who say we are teaching that too well. A group sponsoring a movement called the Exodus Mandate calls multiculturalism "cultural Marxism," and they say that we are using that to indoctrinate kids into communism. They are urging parents to remove their kids from public schools and enroll them in private religious schools or to homeschool them.

As I said in my earlier post, public education doesn't create doctors, lawyers, or mechanics. We also don't create active citizens. What we do is to give people the opportunity to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to become those things if they want to. Public education still also serves as the great equalizer in our society, but I have to admit it doesn't work for everyone. It only works for those young people who are willing to do the work necessary to take advantage of the opportunities we offer.


Blogger Mr. R said...

Whenever my students ask the popular "when are we going to use this" question, I always tell them that you are going to use this when you choose to put your education to use. You can probably decide to get through life without Algebra, but you can do more in life if you decide what you learn is worth using.

Those of us in public education cannot make our student use their education. We can just do our best to put them in the right place to chose to use it.

8/06/2006 6:12 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Amen, Mr.R!

8/06/2006 6:50 PM  
Anonymous MellowOut said...

I can care about Mel Gibson getting arrested AND have passionate opinions about the situation in the Middle East, all the while choosing to vote or not. That's what is so great about the United States.

I do agree, though, that many people do not read the newspaper or take in other forms of media with a critical enough eye. Part of that problem is not caring or not being exposed enough to care, but the other part is that we're not taught the skills to use that critical eye, whether you're wondering about Brangelina or Osama Bin Laden. It bothers me that the Internet, movies, and television are not studied enough in schools as a reflection of our national culture. Maybe a few more WOULD care or take the time to make the effort if they saw these forms given more attention, since they're a major part of our modern lives.

8/08/2006 12:51 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mellowout, you say that it bothers you "that the Internet, movies, and television are not studied enough in schools as a reflection of our national culture." Could you elaborate on that? I'm not sure what you mean.

8/08/2006 7:07 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

That info about the "Exodus Mandate" was pretty scary although also laughable.

I now realize that I went to a public high school that was better than most. One of the things that made it better than most was that teachers weren't afraid to take on politics. My 10th grade history teacher, for example, wasn't afraid to tell the class how much he hated Richard Nixon. That wasn't particularly controversial given that we'd just had Watergate and lost the Vietnam War, but I wonder how many teachers today feel free to speak about their feelings about current events and encourage discussion and debate among their students? I read a lot of blogs from U.S. soldiers in Iraq and I have the overwhelming impression that they went to high schools (none went to college) where they were spoon-fed Bush dogma and there was no discussion.

8/09/2006 9:50 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

To give you another example, another history teacher I had spoke to the class about his experiences as a draft dodger in the Vietnam War. I wonder how many school districts today would allow their teachers to speak about past experiences with civil disobedience? Come to think of it, how many teachers today have had experience with civil disobedience? Or with political involvement of any kind?

8/09/2006 9:52 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Elizabeth, although we should definitely encourage political discussion in our classes, a teacher has to be very careful about sharing his or her political views with the students. Once in a blue moon, I'll tell kids my views on something, but most of the time I try to avoid it for two reasons. 1. Since most high school kids are not particularly well informed, it gives me too much power to influence them. (Amazing as it may seem, I realize that my views aren't always correct.) 2. It kills the discussion. If you want students to have a good debate, the worst thing that can happen is for the teacher to jump into it. Students see the teacher as "the authority," so most of them think that if they disagree with him, they must be wrong. Believe me, I speak from experience on this one--I have ruined a few discussions over the years.

8/09/2006 2:14 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I don't believe it's possible to completely hide one's views. So you might as well be frank about what you believe, but just state that there are other opinions and people are free to disagree. I agree though that a teacher shouldn't try to monopolize a discussion because then it wouldn't be a discussion, it would be a lecture.

but you didn't address the question I asked: How many teachers are even politically involved or aware? How many teachers would even be capable of facilitating a genuine debate among their students about controversial issues?

8/09/2006 2:43 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Elizabeth, I can honestly say that the social studies teachers I've known in the two schools I've worked in during my career have been quite good. One of the best was a flaming liberal, but the kids never knew that. I know that because I had several students ask me, "Is Mr. Sage a Democrat or a Republican?" He was a precinct chairman and a had been a city council member earlier in his career. I used to be involved in DFL politics in Minnesota, but I was turned off after I attended a Minnesota State DFL Convention. It seemed like every delegate was all fired up about their own interest group--minority rights, women's rights, gay rights, and yes, teachers' rights--and no one seemed the least bit concerned with the state or the nation as a whole. (I would classify myself as a Lieberman Democrat.)

Mr. Sage retired two years ago, and I took over his A.P. American Government class. Talk about big shoes to fill!

8/09/2006 6:59 PM  
Anonymous MellowOut said...

Dennis, I tried to reply yesterday, but I see it didn't take. I think I babbled too much.

Basically, I'm a big advocate of media literacy, including using different forms of communication and understanding the messages mass media sends to our children via television, advertising, movies, etc. I think that more teachers need to be consciously putting aspects of media literacy into their lessons and curriculum. I would say many teachers already have elements of it in their lessons, especially if they're incorporating new technology in the classroom, but many do not realize it as they think media literacy is just a tirade against advertising instead of the development of critical thinking skills and other skills when it comes to technology and mass media. I also believe in discussions about truth and contemplating accuracy, not just in advertising, but from other sources like the Internet.

8/10/2006 11:11 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thanks, Mellowout! I got this one. You probably realize that what you're saying goes against the grain of most of the criticism of public schools. We usually get blasted for not doing a good enough job on the basics. I've read two books by E. D. Hirsch (the Cultural Literacy guy) this summer, and that is definitely his message.

You do have a point about the importance of being able to interpret what we get from the media. I once watched Fox News give a report about a dispute between President Bush and Congress, and then switched over and watched a report on the same event on CBS. The slants were so different that I couldn't believe I was watching reports on the same thing. I did share my views about this with kids in my classes.

I can only speak for myself, but I try to do some of what you're talking about. For example, I show the movie "Glory" after our Civil War unit in my American History class. After the video a pass out a couple of critiques of the movie, including one that blasts it for some very misleading inaccuracies. Then I have them write their own reflection on the movie.

In any case, thanks for giving me something to think about.

8/10/2006 11:44 AM  

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