Remarking on Glenn Youngkin’s victory over Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial race, New York writer Ed Kilgore framed the top issue in the race, public schools, in terms of a choice: “The fundamental question that must be asked is whether education is a public good in which the citizenry at large is the essential stakeholder, or a publicly provided private benefit for children and their parents.”
The correct answer isn’t one or the other. It’s both. Schools are both a public good, benefiting the public, and a private good, benefiting individuals. The fundamental problem comes when public schooling’s various stakeholders—parents, students, policymakers, employers, faculty, and staff—can’t agree on which of the four purposes of public education are most important.
Is public education’s main purpose social mobility—preparation for higher social positions? Social efficiency—preparation for the workforce? Civic instruction—preparation for self-governance in a democratic society? Or social justice—emancipation of the oppressed? These purposes can converge in some ways, but when given equal weight, they come into conflict.
Schools can satisfy the four competing purposes, but to do so they must prioritize the one purpose that will accomplish all the others. Without a clear vision for the end—the telos—of education, it’s impossible to organize the content of public schools in a coherent way.
To understand how to identify that telos, think of public education as mirroring the three sectors of society: market (or business), government, and civil. The market sector consists of private corporations selling goods and services. The government sector represents taxpayer-funded institutions that enforce laws and provide services. The civil sector represents nonprofit and fraternal organizations, volunteer associations, grassroots initiatives, and religious and familial institutions. These three sectors are distinct but intersect to some degree. Imagine a Venn diagram in which the circles of government and market overlap, market and civil overlap, and civil and government overlap, with all three intersecting in the center.
Each of the four purposes of education prepares students to participate in one or more of the three sectors. The social-efficiency purpose of public schools is about preparing students to take up needed roles in the market. For example, schools offer STEM classes to teach skills that the tech industry demands. These skills are also useful in government and nonprofit organizations, but the primary aim is preparation for private-sector, for-profit work.
The social-mobility purpose also prepares students for the workforce, with the goal of improving their social position and increasing their individual economic success. For instance, schools may provide internships or mentorship opportunities to connect students with adults in high-status positions. Though this purpose may also stress the importance of civic participation, the aim is to improve students’ social capital and thereby elevate their economic status.
The social-justice purpose views education as emancipatory, but the aim is also to prepare students to engage in civil society—ultimately, to change or overturn power structures that marginalize or oppress certain groups. For example, teachers may emphasize the importance of advocacy and provide students with opportunities to support a cause. These initiatives often affect the government sector, either by supporting government action or by seeking to change policies and laws.
The civic-instruction purpose of education, however, is located in the space where all three sectors converge. Civic education is thus the proper telos of public schools because it subsumes the other three purposes, satisfying both the private and public function of schools and the various stakeholders of public education. To make social efficiency the end of public education is to overemphasize the market sector at the expense of government and civil society. Social mobility is not the proper telos, either, because it overemphasizes individual economic gain at the expense of the civic aspects of prosperity, such as community formation and engagement. And social justice is not the proper telos because it rejects the market as a system of oppression, ignoring its capacity to lift up individuals. For schools truly to be emancipatory, they need to teach about how American institutions function, rather than reject them outright.
Civic education teaches students about each sector and how to thrive in all three. Education about government transmits knowledge about which institutions govern society, how they function, how they came to be, and the importance of participating in them. Education about the market sector teaches about our economic system but also about how students can respond to market needs. Education about civil society imparts knowledge of the history of volunteerism in the U.S., the role that associations and nonprofits have played, and how religion and family structure shape society.
A liberal arts course of study fits the profile of a civic education. It provides students with the knowledge of Western history and American culture necessary to make informed decisions about public matters, and it guides students in determining their place in society by helping them cultivate the habits of heart and mind for good thinking. Classical schools and virtue-based schools, for example, emphasize knowledge acquisition, inquiry and discussion-based learning, and character development.
Civic education also provides students with the skills to participate and prosper in the three sectors. A civic education teaches bedrock skills of reading and mathematics, without which full participation in society would be impossible. Strong reading skills in English allow students to access knowledge on their own, to read the documents that guide the governance of our society, and to distinguish truth from falsehood. Strong math skills prepare students for participation in the market and enable them to understand the facts and figures being described in the news, among other applications.
If public schools are to prepare students for life in a free society, they must choose civic education as their telos. Certainly, this choice is no simple matter, but until then, teachers will continue to spin their wheels and students will not be properly prepared for the demands of democratic citizenship.