Wonk Wednesday (sort of): The Purpose of Schooling

Ed. Note: Okay, so I am not doing a good job with the whole posting on a schedule thing. We’ll get there, I swear.

Last week, I read Larry Cuban and David Tyack’s book Tinkering Toward Utopia, a history of education reform in the United States. One of the biggest challenges that I saw coming up again and again is the question of WHY we have schooling, particularly universally accessible public schooling.

On the one hand, we want to believe in equality of opportunity; we want to believe that our country is a meritocracy. The idea of everyone having the same chances in life is the foundation upon which we built the narrative of the American Dream and the Horatio-Alger-esque “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mantra.

On the other hand, we want to WIN. So for our own children or communities or what-have-you, we want to have the BETTER equality, essentially. It’s fine for everyone to have schooling–but for our group, we want the best schooling. Everyone can have an opportunity, but we want to have the success.

In my opinion, it boils down to the ferocious individualism that underpins so much of the American ideology–although we are all in this together, as a society, we are more concerned about the success of ourselves and our “people” than we are with the success of our society. If we were worried about our society as a whole succeeding, then welfare and Obamacare and whatnot wouldn’t be so controversial and consistently contested. However, we are concerned that by providing for others, we are lessening our own chances. Rather than seeing “good” as a common pool for all, where the more our society wins, the more we win, we see “good” as a finite resource, and if we are sharing with others, then there is less for us.

This fear of losing comes into play in how we approach education. However, because our country was also founded on the idea of being a “city on a hill” and being an example to the rest of the world, because of our extreme pride in our excellent values and equal society, we cannot actively voice these beliefs. While this is quickly changing–one need only look to a great deal of our welfare debate to see the fact that it is becoming more and more common to loudly proclaim that we are not all equally deserving–it is still fairly taboo in education to admit that we wish a lesser quality upon groups who are “other.”

In fact, education remains so firmly rooted in this idea of equality BECAUSE it justifies our ability to deny welfare or the necessity of affirmative action or anything else like that. So long as we continue to buy into the narrative of equal opportunity that is provided by our universal public schools, then we can blindly insist that because everyone had the same choice to make something of themselves, those who are on welfare or don’t get into elite colleges or so on have only themselves to blame and we shouldn’t be responsible for helping them, as they CHOSE not to help themselves. Education is, when you get right down to it, one of the most basic foundational principles that justifies discrimination in our society.

So what I looked at in my essay for this week is the idea of education as a lofty narrative, but actually a very selfish and grubby purpose. It is our unwillingness to be honest about what we want out of education that makes it so difficult to reform schools and actually succeed in creating quality education in America.

So, it’s a really light-hearted and cheerful read is what I’m saying.

The Purpose of Schooling – PDF

10/06/2014. Tags: , , , , , . Uncategorized.


  1. Sajuka replied:

    If you haven’t read the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey, I think you’d enjoy it, but it also has an interesting look at the future of welfare/education on Earth (it’s a small detail in a much larger story, but an interesting thought experiment). Basically welfare has been extended to everyone for their entire lifetime (I interpreted it as a current lower-middle-class lifestyle, but that could be my internal bias), but someone is only approved for higher education after proving a willingness to work; e.g. all the baristas are 16-20 year olds earning their work credits so they can go to college (but of course college is free once the credits have been earned). Compared to many of the other sci fi series I’ve read it was an interesting mix of Star Trek’s “everyone is awesome and educated” and dystopian stories where inequality has won out.

    • Cuppy van der Cake replied:

      I LOVE the Expanse series! I’m on book three now. I think the social structures that he briefly outlines are so interesting, and I’d love to see more of it. I found the education model fascinating, particularly since it is all elective education once you qualify for the basic support. What drives people on? Why be a barista and earn those credits? I can imagine many reasons, and I’d love to see more of that world. His world building is just amazing.

      • Sajuka replied:

        Then we’re on pretty much the same page regarding Basic 🙂 Which is why I think it’s a cool thought experiment…

        Volume 4 moves even further from Earth, so that bummed me out a bit, but it very much channels Firefly (which is cool), and the epilogue sets up some very interesting possibilities for some of my favorite characters (I absolutely adore Bobbie Draper, but I don’t know if she’ll be coming back having played such a large roll in the second book). Further comments are here (including a link to my original trilogy comments included at the beginning): http://sajuka.livejournal.com/135068.html

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