In my previous column, “Are textbooks an obstacle to learning?” I urged teachers to assume a more significant role in determining the “big ideas” of their classrooms. Rather than abdicating such significant decisions to bureaucrats and publishers, the experts — we educators — ought to be the arbiters of a curriculum’s content. To that end, and also to answer the questions I asked previously, I hope to suggest some basic premises on which we can build a new set of curricula that better reflects the purpose of American public education.
Before we consider these premises, let’s try to understand the purpose of American education. As a government-provided service, public education must serve some essential civic end. Though many of us consider education a worthy end in itself, it is not listed among the inalienable rights in any of our founding documents. Instead, the government provides this service because it recognizes the value of an educated citizenry to liberal democracy. A government of the people, by the people and for the people will only succeed if those people are capable of governing themselves. Education prepares people for this duty. Its purpose is the production of good citizens.
Accordingly, our discussion should focus on this notion of “good citizenship.” How do we best prepare a student to thrive as a productive citizen in a nation that embraces the values of equality and liberty? A common critique of the American education system is that it’s designed to produce factory-ready laborers in a post-industrial economy. Students leave the system able to answer hundreds of multiple-choice questions without being able to formulate a good question of their own. Modern technology has successfully disrupted our economy and with it our schools. In response, reformers argue that we ought instead to prize and convey the qualities of the men and women responsible for this disruption, such as ingenuity, rebelliousness and collaboration. But we neither need nor can there possibly be 55 million shrewd businessmen like Steve Jobs. The more important point is that this country is more than its economy. We need 55 million good American citizens who are at once committed to liberty and equality and therefore to individualism and diversity — the four values that comprise the essence of American society.
What qualities must this sort of citizen have? I offer character and judgment as the qualities that are most essential to participation in our democracy. While these qualities have economic implications (our current recession is a byproduct of poor judgment by loan-givers and loan-takers as well as unscrupulous behavior by banks and brokers alike), character and judgment are also involved in every other realm of American life. In America, we value honesty, fortitude, mutual respect and initiative. We also value an understanding of the principles that bind us as a nation. We ultimately judge character by the firmness of a person’s commitment to our common values. Similarly, good judgment is the ability to make choices in the face of complexity and uncertainty. But the principles that guide those difficult choices should ultimately be informed by those values. The representatives we elect, the businesses we promote, the artists and celebrities we honor, the peace we strive to preserve, and the equality we hope to achieve require the work of a noble and prudent citizenry.
How do we cultivate this? What curriculum content and instructional strategies best nurture these qualities? What skills must we develop in students? And how might a school, a classroom, and its texts be designed to best develop these attributes?
Lest anyone charge me with trying to homogenize a diverse population of students, I hasten to point out that embracing diversity itself requires the very qualities of character and judgment for which I’m advocating. Still, these are controversial and complicated questions. Answering them calls to the surface our political, religious and cultural beliefs, and requires an open-mindedness that is, unfortunately, rarely found in public discourse. But it is a conversation that citizens of a liberal democracy must have. Who better than we teachers to lead it?