By Duane Swacker
The Purpose of Public Education
‘Honesty is the first chapter in wisdom’ Jefferson
Ask any teacher or administrator “What is the purpose of public education?” and more likely than not they will recite their district’s mission statement, perhaps one as succinct as the Nebo School District’s in Utah “We engage, empower, and collaborate to ensure student success.” Or perhaps it more typically reads like this one from a rural Missouri district “The mission of the Warren County R-III School District is to empower each child to fully reach his or her potential as a life-long learner, a responsible adult and a contributing member of a diverse society.” Or it may even come with a disclaimer as this long mission statement from a Pennsylvania district:
The Mission Statement, Beliefs, and Goals presented below are the result of work completed by Cumberland Valley School District’s Strategic Planning Steering Committee. These philosophy statements are not an attempt to state how things are, but rather are intended to give impetus and direction toward meeting the needs of all children who attend the schools of this district now and in the future.
The Cumberland Valley School District, in collaboration with students, educators, parents and the community, is committed to developing 21st century learning and thinking skills through a rigorous, relevant, and comprehensive curriculum, while preparing students to be innovative, productive citizens in an interconnected world. (italics in original)
Does each mission statement, being used as a proxy for the fundamental purpose of public education, help fulfill the fundamental purpose of public education? What is that fundamental purpose and where can it usually be found? Is there even a fundamental purpose? To answer the last question first, it depends! Well, what does it depend on then? In answering that question we also answer the where question—the constitution of each state.
But there’s a catch, not every state constitution gives a purpose for its authorization of public education. It’s a 50/50 split with 25 states not giving any purpose such as West Virginia’s authorization “The Legislature shall provide, by general law, for a thorough and efficient system of free schools.” (Article XII, Sec. 12-1) and 25 states providing a rationale.
Those 25 rationales can be divided into three types. Those that declare that the purpose of public education is to ensure that the state’s form of government will continue, such as South Dakota’s “The stability of a republican form of government depending on the morality and intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature to establish and maintain a general and uniform system of public schools. . . .” (Article VIII § 1). Those whose fundamental purpose focuses on the individual and his/her rights such as Missouri’s “A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the general assembly shall establish and maintain free public schools . . . .” (Article IX Sec. 1a) And those that are a combination of both. As it is, fifteen mainly focus on the benefits of public education to the individual citizen and the preservation of his/her rights, five on the benefit to the state and five that state both citizen and government benefits.
All together then, there are 25 states with no stated fundamental purpose, five with a purpose that extol the benefits of public education to the state, fifteen commending the benefits to the individual and five a combination of benefit to both state and individual, resulting in 80% of those with a stated purpose of having the benefits for the individual as the primary rationale. Is it possible, then, to discern a fundamental purpose of public education? Yes, I believe it can be ascertained, by starting with the fundamental purpose of government in this country as stated in each state’s constitution (sometimes as troublesome to recognize a stated purpose as that of public education). Since public education is a function of each state and not the federal government we must begin at the state level to determine what the fundamental purpose of the state is. In examining the constitutions one finds that there many and varied exhortations.
For example Alabama’s constitution states: “Objective of government. That the sole object and only legitimate end of government is to protect the citizen in the enjoyment of life, liberty, and property, and when the government assumes other functions it is usurpation and oppression.” (Section 35) Or this from Nebraska “All persons are by nature free and independent, and have certain inherent and inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the right to keep and bear arms for security or defense of self, family, home, and others, and for lawful common defense, hunting, recreational use, and all other lawful purposes, and such rights shall not be denied or infringed by the state or any subdivision thereof. To secure these rights, and the protection of property, governments are instituted among people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (Art. I, sec. 1)
All well and good, eh! Quite compelling is the Missouri constitution’s wording on the purpose of government: “That all constitutional government is intended to promote the general welfare of the people; that all persons have a natural right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the enjoyment of the gains of their own industry; that all persons are created equal and are entitled to equal rights and opportunity under the law; that to give security to these things is the principal office of government, and that when government does not confer this security, it fails in its chief design.” (Article. II, Sec. 4. § 3.)
Tying together the aims of our constitutional government with the purpose of public education as stated in some of the state’s constitution allows us to propose a common fundamental statement of purpose. Since 20 of the 25 state constitutions give a reason attending to the rights and liberties of the individual through public education combined with the mandate of state constitutional government as reflected in Missouri’s constitutional language of “That all constitutional government is intended to promote the general welfare of the people; that all persons have a natural right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the enjoyment of the gains of their own industry. . .” it follows that the rights and liberties of the individual in being educated as each sees fit supersede those of supporting and maintaining the government. And that one can logically conclude that if the educational wants and needs of the citizens obtain then those of the state will follow. But without an educated citizenry who can promote their own interests, and who can understand and tolerate others thoughts, opinions and desires, the state would surely be subject to tyranny by those whose knowledge and wants exceeds most.
I propose, then, the following statement of the purpose of public education with which, hopefully, most in the United States could agree:
“The purpose of public education is to promote the welfare of the individual so that each person may savor the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the fruits of their own industry.”
Any educational practice that is shown to hinder, block and/or otherwise cause an individual to not be able to indulge in any of aspect of his/her rights as stated has to be considered as harmful and unjust not only to the individual but also to society and therefore must rightly be condemned as educational malpractice and ought to be immediately discontinued. Trampled rights are rights that are non-existent and the educational malpractice that tramples any right is unjust and as noted in Alabama’s constitution “is usurpation and oppression” and as Missouri’s declares “. . . when government does not confer this security, it fails in its chief design.”
I contend that many of today’s federal and state mandates and even long standing educational practices are, indeed, malpractices that trample the rights of the most innocent in society, the children, the students of all ages attending public schools, in essence “it [public education] fails in its chief design.” Should the government through the public schools be sorting, separating, ranking, and/or grading students through logically bankrupt invalid practices discriminating against some while rewarding others? I contend it should not! Where is the justice in discriminatory practices? By evaluating those malpractices against the aforementioned purpose we will be able to ascertain whether or not they are just.
In what follows concepts of truth and Sponville’s “fidelity to truth” will be illuminated, justice concerns will be discussed, professional ethical issues delineated, and the error and falsehood filled conceptual bases of standards and measurement and grading as now used in public education will be elaborated. It will be shown how using the epistemologically and ontologically bankrupt schemes of grading, educational standards and standardized testing come together in causing untold psychological harm to the students, discriminating against some students while rewarding others and begetting structural injustice causing public schools to “fail in their chief design.“