National Public Education
8Jul/170

Our Need for Public Education

Some time ago, my brother sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal ridiculing the excessive, the author felt, interest in the DeVos nomination to be head of the Department of Education.  Here she is, he said, in charge of one of the smallest cabinet posts, with a budget that amounts to just 3% of federal spending, and yet she is on the front page of every liberal newspaper and website in the country, and is the subject of a massive campaign to block her nomination.  Why is that?

Her position is not even that important to public education in general, since federal programs make up only about 10% of the total amount spent on the schools.  There are probably some individual states that have just about as large an educational budget.  But who knows the name of their state superintendent of public instruction?  Why is there such a fuss about this relatively unimportant federal position?

I may differ with the tone of this article, but it does have some truth to it.  There is no doubt that the general public does care more about public education than would seem reasonable.  The DeVos story is just one aspect of this.  Hardly a day goes by without some story about the schools making headlines.

This isn’t just because the schools deal with children.  You don’t see a similar level of interest in other programs for children, such as youth leagues or well-child programs.  America, in fact, is well behind most other countries in providing social programs for children.

Nor is this interest in the schools related to education in general.  If that were the case, wouldn’t there also be an interest in the private schools?  But where is this?  Do you ever see an article about a private school in the paper?  Fully 10% of our children attend these schools, but there seems to be little overall interest in them.

Rather the public is fixated on the public education aspects of these issues.  And this explains why they are so fascinated by Ms DeVos.  She is as close as we can come to having a leader of this program.  True, she is only in charge of 10% of the overall program, but who is in charge of more?  The state superintendents?  Each of them is only in charge of his or her own state, one of 50 different autonomous entities.  They have absolutely no influence on the other 49, by law.  At least there is some possibility that Ms DeVos might influence several states, not just one.  She is the best we can do in terms of the leadership of our public school system.

Putting aside for now the obvious question of why we don't have a leader for our public school system, let’s look at a more basic question:  Why do we care so much about this issue in general?  What is it about public education, in contrast to other kinds of education, and other programs for children, that makes us worry about it so?  Why do we all seem to want a better public school system?  Does it satisfy some basic need in us?

Thinking about this issue, I was reminded of a quote by Benjamin Rush, the famous Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence:

"Our schools of learning, by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogenous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government"  (A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic (1786) p. 14).

As many have pointed out, Americans came here to accomplish their own personal goals.  They have a built-in mistrust of government programs that will tell them what to do.  They want to be free to develop their own ideas, their own way of doing things.  As Rush notes, though, they then need some help in finding ways to join together in collective activities. They don't do this naturally.  They need to find out how they agree on things; how they are similar.  Public education can do this.  It has been a way, from the start, of smoothing out all those differences that the immigrants brought with them.  It has helped make them "amenable to peaceable government."  Perhaps that is why we worry about it so much.  We can see, to some extent, that we Americans need it.

This would also help to explain why we are somewhat irrational in the intensity of our interest in public education.  We know it’s a problem for us, something we haven’t yet solved, and so are concerned with that problem; it bothers us.  But we’re not even sure there is a solution.  We like that independent and individualistic way of doing things.  Perhaps we will never find a way to join together as one homogenous country.

All the more reason, then, to worry so about it, even in a somewhat irrational way.  That, at least, is one way to deal with it.  It gives us something to do.  Maybe if we think about it long enough some solution will turn up.  That is one way to look at it.

But, of course, it is not the best way.  A better way would be to try to think through what the problem really is and then take steps to solve it.  We might start with that question of who ought to be in charge.

What this all implies, it seems to me, is that it is crucial that we solve our public school problems.  The whole issue is an integral part of our American heritage.  It’s not just a problem for the children or the parents or the teachers; it affects us all.  We really do need working public schools.

Peter Dodington

July 8, 2017

 

 

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