The Purpose of Education in a Democratic Society

I think it is fair to say that the educational system in the United States faces an existential crisis. From the university level on down it, the expense continues to increase without producing recognizably better outcomes. The United States continues to lag behind other nations in student performance while our system of higher education (once the envy of the world) is being replicated around the globe. It is past time to decide what we want from our education system, how we plan to achieve that, and what we are willing to sacrifice to do so. Then we should get moving and stop using the public schools as chits in other partisan struggles.

While education benefits individuals in myriad ways, it has a special purpose in a democratic society that I fear is too often overlooked: promoting civic cohesion. Sure, an educated citizenry might be an important priority. But more fundamentally, a democracy thrives or stagnates based on how well its citizens are able to relate to one another, on their degree of fellow feeling even (and especially) when they vehemently disagree on public policy. Public educational institutions are uniquely situated to foster this kind of civic solidarity and unity.

In order to strengthen our democratic ties and diminish the damage of partisan rancor, we should keep civic cohesion uppermost in our minds when we talk about education reform. In the midst of attempts to strengthen our schools while diminishing costs, we need to ask, “Will this change increase or decrease the level of civic solidarity and unity among the student (and ultimately the citizen) population?” This may not be the controlling question, since it will need to be balanced against other ideals, but we also cannot afford to keep ignoring it if we want to maintain our democracy.

Watch for some posts in the coming days on the subject of education in which I’ll highlight how we might apply this question to address recent controversies and suggested reforms. As always, I welcome your input and ideas.

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