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.