Education is the answer -- but what is the question?
I claim no credit for the witticism; it's a variation of a theme from some forgotten lapel button. But it does occur to me that here we are in the middle of a raging debate over how best to improve our failing schools, and we are nowhere near consensus over what purpose we expect the improved schools to serve. We are groping for answers when we haven't even decided what the question is.
I've just read (in the February issue of Harper's magazine) excerpts from a recent Harvard Club forum on fixing the public schools. The participants -- educators, journalists, public philosophers -- agree that America's public schools fall woefully short of what they ought to be, but they also reflect the national confusion over what they ought to be.
Listen to them on the purpose of education:
Walter Karp, a senior editor of Harper's: "We tell young people incessantly that if they stay in school they're going to get a better job. . . . This single-minded purpose is drummed into kids, and not only high school kids. There is a tremendous amount of this kind of crass utilitarianism in our schools."
A. Graham Downs, executive director of the Council for Basic Education: "To make people more functionally competent and employable is only the implicit purpose of education. Surely its abiding all- encompassing purpose must be to equip people with the taste for lifelong learning."
Theodore R. Sizer, professor of education at Brown University: "At the heart of it is teaching people to use their minds well."
Ernest L. Boyer, former U.S. commissioner of education: "The two fundamental goals of education are personal empowerment and civic engagement."
Great stuff. But the public that is demanding better schools is, I suspect, more concerned with Karp's "crass utilitarianism" -- they want the schools to turn out youngsters who are employable, or who at least are well prepared for college. And what is the purpose of college? For most of us: to render our children employable.
What would happen if the public schools instituted the sort of tough standards required to produce the sort of education these panelists described? Two panelists offered their real-world answers.
"It seems likely that a great many more (students) would fail," said Ivan Krakowsky, a teacher in suburban New York, where the state regents have mandated rigorous new requirements. "Certainly large numbers will not be able to meet the new standards."
Floretta McKenzie, superintendent of the D.C. schools had a different answer. "First off, they'd fire the superintendent."
Better education is the answer, but what's the question?
The public school representatives on the panel understand the conflict between what we say we want and what we in fact insist on. "The word you hear everywhere today is 'excellence,' said. "Everyone is concerned with the quality of graduates, not the quantity." But if improving the quality diminishes the quantity, by increasing the number of dropouts and flunkouts, will the public be satisfied?
Not for a minute. Since parents tend to view diplomas as passports to jobs (or at least to further education), they will insist that most children be given diplomas. We would like to have quality, but we will absolutely demand quantity.
We want well-educated leaders and public citizens, but we also want workers capable of supporting their families.
The debate over public education will lead nowhere until we reach some consensus on whether our top priority is an elite leadership cadre or a well- trained work force. If we want both, does that mean we will have to have two different kinds of schools? And if so, who decides what children go to which sort of school?
We haven't even begun to debate these crucial issues. We read the dismal reports of crisis in public education and we insist that the schools do it better -- with hardly any consideration of the nature of the "it" we want improved.
Education is the answer. But what is the question?