The Alcove

Reclaiming the Civic Core of Education

A Boston Review forum shows how our thinking about education has gone wrong, and how we might put it right again.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged CivicsDemocracyEducation

In the latest issue of Boston Review, Danielle Allen leads a symposium on the purpose of education with an essay advocating a “participatory” conception over the “vocational paradigm” that has come to dominate education discourse and policy over the last several decades. Allen provides a concise history of this STEM-centered approach to schooling, which originated during the Sputnik panic, consolidated in 1980s-era concerns about America’s global competitiveness, was supplemented by 90s-era research linking technological change to inequality, and is reflected in President Obama’s rhetoric today. It merges a “technology-based analysis of inequality” with a vocational approach to education “focuse[d] specifically on economic equality,” Allen writes. Yet our social inequalities are not limited to differences in income and wealth, and the attempt to ameliorate these gaps through science and math education only reinforces an apolitical solution to what is mistakenly viewed as an apolitical problem. As Allen observes:

Questions of political equality have no place in this [vocational] picture. Indeed, the purely technocratic treatment of income and wealth inequality as problems of technology to be solved through the dissemination of skills is blind precisely to politics. This is shortsighted because economic inequality is an outgrowth of politics. […] And if we choose political equality as our orienting ideal—empowering all to participate capably in the life of a polity—a different view of education’s purpose, content, and consequence comes into view.

This “participatory” alternative focuses on the skills of civic agency, necessary for the collective work of democratic politics and promoted through instruction in the liberal arts—disciplines whose chief goal is not to convey vocational or technical skills, but to instruct students in “social diagnosis, ethical reasoning, cause-and-effect analysis, and persuasive argumentation.”

This is a welcome corrective to a way of thinking about education that is far too prevalent, even among liberals. In the spirit of Allen’s civic-minded approach to the place of schools in society, it seems important to add that effective civic education should not only teach civic skills; it should model the ideal civic space. This is something that American public education has never actually achieved; still, as Leon Botstein has noted in these pages, to the extent that common schools did approach the idea of unitary public education in the mid-20th century, they were an object of admiration among European emigres—who were accustomed to an educational system that sorted students by ability early on. This common education among students of diverse skills was never matched by a common education for students who were racially diverse. Today, the chief obstacles to genuine civic education include not only the declining stature of the humanities, but the absence of an educational space that doesn’t replicate the fractures and inequalities that plague society generally. The task of desegregation heralded by Brown has suffered such severe setbacks that present-day education scholars have begun to use the disturbing term “apartheid schools.” A renewed emphasis on a modern liberal arts education geared towards civic agency has to be matched by a commitment to educate young people by modeling the kind of community in schools that we hope to achieve in civic life. Obviously, asking schools to model a social ideal that isn’t achieved in the communities they serve is a tall order—very much worth working for, but unlikely to be fulfilled anytime soon.

Even if it were, humanistic civic education faces another challenge at the current moment—one stemming from the dual missions with which it’s tasked. One function of schools is to replicate and perpetuate our culture: to transmit knowledge, traditions, behavior, and values to the next generation. This is especially true of the liberal arts. But in the face of a culture tending towards an aggressive economizing logic—the elevation of vocational skills and economic returns over everything else—this act of cultural replication is at some level counter-cultural. Schools are at once the key place where the repository of humanist knowledge is to be preserved and transmitted to new minds, but also the place where that knowledge is increasingly subjected to an alien logic that asks it to do things it was never designed for.

For evidence, look no further than President Obama’s disappointing remark that “folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” Leave aside for the moment that this was said by a politician who takes pride in his literary talents and has benefited immensely from an excellent humanistic education; it’s just dopey. Of course you can make more money in a skilled manufacturing trade. Who in their right mind has ever argued otherwise—or, one shudders to ask, could be misguided enough to think that was the point?

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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