The basic responsibility of public education

In this classic Kappan article, the author discusses the purpose of public schooling and what it means for schools to be truly “public.”

 

Bernard Shaw once said that the schools are always driving the tacks where the carpet was last year. The social lag is conspicuous in the schools, noticeable in the elementary school, discouraging in the secondary school, and almost unbelievable in college. I shall concern myself today with the elementary and the secondary school, particularly the latter. The public school is not primarily a socialistic undertaking, though we operate it as if it were only a device for bringing about benefits to individuals by means of a government enterprise supported by public funds. The policy of supporting public schools by general taxation according to ability to pay is logical only for an educational system which has as its principal objective some important contribution to society, to the welfare of all of us, and not merely to serve those who have children in the public schools. The history of education clearly indicates that such has been the principal argument for free public schools.

The policy of supporting public schools by general taxation according to ability to pay is logical only for an educational system which has as its principal objective some important contribution to society, to the welfare of all of us, and not merely to serve those who have children in the public schools.

The schools have never operated entirely on that principle. They have been diverted by a number of influences. Colleges and universities from their ivory towers have attempted with considerable success to control the lower schools and to shape them around the single objective of preparation of the few for higher education. Employers have held, in general, the idea that schools should provide business and industry with an abundant supply of young labor well trained for store, shop, and factory. Both of these influences have had the support of parents. Society, social welfare, has had no attorneys in court, no pressure groups, save the occasional educational philosopher or social analyst who saw in public education the necessary foundation of a functioning democracy and the principal means of social progress. The fundamental principle in the redirection of education is the re-emphasis of its primary function — education for intelligent, responsible citizenship.

In a democracy, the people are in a sense sovereign. In a representative democracy, such as ours, it is necessary that they be able to distinguish between sound and unsound leadership and representation. To remain in office, the representatives of the people must convince the people that it is to their interest to choose them as representatives. In office, to a very great ex tent, they are susceptible to the opinions of their constituents. The federal government has become not only responsible to the masses of voters, but responsible and sensitive to their opinions. As a good ex ample, you may take the present policy of the national administration to go no faster than majority public opinion would approve. As good examples of the dangers of any other policy, we may take the painful lessons taught by the supreme court packing fiasco, and the tragedy of Woodrow Wilson’s peace plans at the hands of an American people who were not adequately prepared to consider them intelligently. In general, what solutions to the problems of state and nation are adopted, depend largely upon the ability of the people to understand proposed solutions and to evaluate them. Therein lies the great opportunity and the great responsibility of public education. Herbert Hoover, in his inaugural address, said so truth fully, “Democracy can succeed only through an instructed electorate. Our objective is not merely to overcome illiteracy. We have marched far beyond that. The more complicated become the problems of our nation, the greater the need for more and more advanced instruction.”

In this day of highly complicated industrial organization, of highly organized interdependence within the nation and between nations, our problems have become most complicated and difficult to understand and most perplexing to solve. I doubt sometimes that our founding fathers would ever have trusted the welfare of the nation to a democratic form of government had they been able to foretell how complicated our economic and political life would become and what demands upon the intelligence of the common man the democratic government they created would entail. They were, of course, equally unable to imagine the opportunities for public education which the next century and a half would bring.

 I doubt sometimes that our founding fathers would ever have trusted the welfare of the nation to a democratic form of government had they been able to foretell how complicated our economic and political life would become and what demands upon the intelligence of the common man the democratic government they created would entail.

We have on every hand evidences of the need for redirection of the program of the public schools. In the depression, it was clear that the people had not been adequately educated to meet the problems involved. All sorts of unsound schemes were able to attract thousands, even millions of followers — the fallacious, “pig-killing” economics of scarcity, the Town send Plan, the Coughlin demagoguery — the theory that the depression would just solve itself, and theories based upon the idea that the standard of living could be improved by decreasing production. Our inability to hook up the nation’s great resources of men, money, and materials to solve the problem of unemployment except in time of war is a definite challenge to the redirection of the program of the schools. The conservation of our priceless possession — the soil, the product of a million years is another; the provision of medical and dental service to the masses is another, as is the defense of democratic government against group control in city and state government. The emancipation of millions of tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and their full acceptance into our economic society is one more. The problem of contributing our maximum to peace and of avoiding the incomprehensible awfulness of war is still another. Hitler’s confidence that democracy is too unwieldy and inefficient to solve such problems was not the raving of a mad man; they were rather the cunning of a group of clever men who knew social psychology all too well. Even our isolated geographic position and our prodigal natural resources may not always constitute sufficient margin to save us from the weaknesses of democratic government without popular intelligence. We are reminded of James Madison’s oft-quoted observation, “Democratic government without public education is prologue either to farce or tragedy or both.”

The program of the schools needs to be radically reorganized to meet the needs of a changed and rapidly changing nation and world. Vocational education and preparation for college must give ground. At least one-fourth, probably more, of the school program should be dedicated to the task of insuring the effective functioning of democracy. Every boy, every girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen should spend at least one hour and a half each school day in the preparation for intelligent thinking about social, economic, and political problems; even before twelve, much can be done. In college, there is little hope for much progress in the next few decades. The college has never emerged from the status of a startlingly in consistent hybrid of stilted academic culture on one side and vocational education at the level of the professions on the other. The great mass of college graduates are unbelievably ignorant about matters of crucial public concern and the majority not enough interested to correct this ignorance.

The program of the schools needs to be radically reorganized to meet the needs of a changed and rapidly changing nation and world. Vocational education and preparation for college must give ground.

It is unfortunate that so much ignorant faith is placed in the ability of the school to give specific preparation for college and for a vocation. The findings of a score of careful investigations all agree that no pattern of subjects — foreign languages and mathematics, for example — prepare uniquely for college, but that history, science, and social studies possess as much value for college preparation as other subjects. All claims in favor of certain subjects as possessing unique values for college preparation have been proved to be little more than superstitions, perpetrated upon a credulous public by vested academic interests.

The possibilities of specific vocational education in school have been exaggerated. Of the thousands of occupations listed in the U. S. Census, the school can give practical specific training for only a pitiful few and with the increasing use of complex machinery, the few constantly become fewer. Workers in other callings must acquire their specific vocational education outside of school. In spite of the relatively ex pensive nature of vocational education, specific vocational training for millions of workers has to be secured on the job.

Careful students of industrial personnel problems have concluded that the majority of workers today can learn their jobs well enough to be satisfactory workers within a comparatively short period of time — usually from three to eight weeks.

The concept of vocational education held by many is not democratic or truly American. It stems from the idea that the great mass of children should not be trained for anything beyond literacy, a very primitive but emotional citizenship, and work on the farms or in the industries owned by the better classes. The business executive is sorely tempted to believe that he belongs to a superior strain (maybe pure Aryan!) and that the schools should supply him and his fellows with trained workers like Kipling’s “Sons of Martha,” numerous enough to provide a favorable labor market.

The need for redirection along the lines of intelligent citizenship will be unusually keen in the next decade or so. It becomes increasingly apparent that the solution of employer-labor problems cannot be left to the struggle for power between the two interested groups. The only thing solved will be the question of which is more powerful and the people will eventually foot the bills for the struggle, as every day’s labor lost means that much lowering of the general standard of living.

The need for redirection along the lines of intelligent citizenship will be unusually keen in the next decade or so.

We face today the formidable problem of financing a most costly war, more costly than all wars of modern time combined. Shall we accumulate a staggering national debt — twice or three times that which the anti-new dealers told us five years ago was already dangerously large If we pay as we go, shall it be by tax exempt or other bonds which will be a millstone around the necks of the next two or three generations? Shall it be by enforced savings or by taxes on wages and earnings? Our present generation of voters are like little children in the presence of these problems. They are swamped — overwhelmed.

At the conclusion of the present war, we will be faced with the necessity of absorbing 20 to 30 millions of men now engaged or soon to be engaged in military or allied work. How shall it be done? Will we be able to finance another new deal on top of a national debt of a hundred billion dollars? What would be the effect of a plan of enforced savings which would re lease at that time billions of dollars of purchasing power?

It is true that we could not have taught the answers to these questions to the youth of a generation ago. We cannot teach the answers to youth today. That isn’t the point. Education does not consist merely of the learning of answers. The answers are likely to be soon forgotten or they may be answers to the wrong problems, or they may become wrong answers. The important thing is that by continued study in these fields, the voters of tomorrow develop the abilities to think clearly about such matters, a background of previous history in those fields, insights and understandings which make them effective in tackling new problems, just as training in law enables attorneys to tackle all kinds of cases which arise, just as training and experience in business enables men to think more clearly about new business problems as they arise. They are at home in familiar surroundings. They know the landmarks and the fundamental principles.

The schools should give much more attention to the study of other peoples and other nations. We must understand them as friends or as enemies, as competitors, and as co-operators. We must be able to think intelligently about foreign trade. It must no longer be necessary for political leaders to advocate “sell ’em everything — buy nothing,” and to insist upon a favor able annual trade balance. We must bring up a generation which can live at peace and in prosperity with the other nations. Isolationism and ignorant provincialism can bring us eventually only grief and economic if not political disaster.

We must know the nature of foreign peoples, the economic physiognomy of their problems, their attitudes, and ways of doing business. We must know how to win the good will of all Latin America and undo the wrongs of ignorance and greed which have characterized our previous relations with them.

We must begin in the first grade to develop the belief in the economic and political dignity of all men whatever their languages and the color of their skins. Our educational policies, however suitable for the isolated position we occupied in the 19th century, are no longer sound or consistent with the conditions of 20th century life.

While the redirection of the program of education will take and is taking many new directions, none is more important or more badly needed than the great emphasis upon the training of young people for the intelligent consideration of the problems which confront American democracy.

While our brave English cousins as well as our courageous Russian allies must be supported to our fullest ability in the present struggle, care must be taken to so educate the American public that we will not be misled into an English alliance which will discriminate against our Russian and Chinese allies in the reconstruction of the post-war world. By reason of the facts that we speak the English language and the majority of us are descended from ancestors from Great Britain, we have been and are being subjected to an emphasis upon English influence on our thinking, which may prove a considerable obstacle to our clear thinking about the problems of international relations in a period of reconstruction. In other words, it is necessary for the schools to develop a conscious policy of an impartial consideration of all other nations, particularly of our allies, lest we lay the basis for another war twenty or thirty years hence, or become an ally of one or more nations following an imperialistic international policy.

Almost every great leader has, from Ben Franklin to the present, pointed out the importance of public education in some public document or address; as George Washington put it, “In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion be enlightened.” Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, every great president has unequivocally favored the extension of public education in the direction of more intelligent citizenship. While the redirection of the program of education will take and is taking many new directions, none is more important or more badly needed than the great emphasis upon the training of young people for the intelligent consideration of the problems which confront American democracy, for as Daniel Webster put it, “In the diffusion of education among the people rests the means of perpetuation of our free institutions.”

 

Citation: Douglass, H.R. (1942). The basic responsibility of public education. The Phi Delta Kappan, 25 (1), 4-6.

HARL R. DOUGLASS is Director of the College of Education, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado.

One Comment

  • Joel Berg, Ph.D.

    Superbly stated! And I call your attention to James Spinning’s article in the , September 1957, “Other People’s Children” which asserts that the education of other people’s children is more important than the education of your own.

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