On September 9, 2013, a conference entitled “The Changing Role of Education in America: Consequences of the Common Core” was held at the University of Notre Dame.  I was invited to deliver an introductory set of remarks on the first panel of that conference. I post those comments here in full.

(Following the conference, a first-rate letter opposing the adoption of the Common Core in Catholic schools, composed by ND Law Professor Gerard Bradley, was circulated widely to Catholic faculty. I was proud to sign this letter, which stresses especially the profound insufficiency the narrowly utilitarian aims of the Common Core curriculum).

The Purpose of Education in American Society

Remarks Delivered at the Common Core Conference

September 9, 2013

University of Notre Dame

I have been teaching a freshman seminar for about eight years that is entitled “The End of Education.” In the seminar we study about ten different authors, ranging from Plato and Aristotle to John Dewey and Allan Bloom, all with an eye to exploring the questions “what is education for?” “What end does it seek to achieve?” The aim of the course is not necessarily to give my students the answer to that question but to make them aware of the intense debate that has taken place over the history of Western Civilization over the ends and purpose of education. As I begin my first class by explaining, if you want to know the commitments of a civilization, look at what it aims to teach its young. If one of the main marks of a civilization is its effort to perpetuate itself over successive generations, then its deepest and ultimate cares will be reflected in its educational commitments.

So I must acknowledge that at first glance the question that I’ve been asked to address for this session—“The Purpose of Education in America”—is exceedingly difficult, since there has been no national educational system in America, current efforts notwithstanding. This might be a sign or indication that America, as a civilization, has no civilizational commitments to its young, that it is a uniquely peculiar nation for not having long had a strong national curriculum like that of England or Germany or Japan. Many look at the patchwork, state- and local-controlled variety of education in America and conclude that it is time to standardize and modernize, time to adopt an American set of educational commitments.

I will have more to say about the longstanding local nature of the American educational system in my conclusion, but let me begin by suggesting that, in its historical commitment to state and local control of education, America has in fact embraced a set of civilizational commitments. Those commitments have historically been reflected in the belief that education—like many things, including civic voluntarism, military self-defense, and self-government itself—is best achieved locally, with the first-hand, immediate, and direct commitment of time, energy, and treasure by local people in their local communities. This practice was born of an explicit rejection of centralized and distant authority attempting to rule from afar in ways that took no cognizance of local circumstance and sought to replace the will of the people in their particular places with the will of a distant sovereign. The American “system” of education, for much of its history, consisted of local governance of educational institutions, high-levels of voluntarism by parents and members of local communities, and a rich diversity of public and private institutions that aimed to offer to families the kind of education that each saw fit for their children.

This “patchwork” reflected at once a trust and belief in the good judgment of republican citizens over their lives and destinies—and those of their children—and a corresponding mistrust of distant authorities as at the least unfamiliar with local circumstance, and at worst liable to be tempted by their position as dominant power to abuse that position and to act despotically. We have not only been willing to bear some local variety for the sake of avoiding tyranny; as the French author Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his penetrating work Democracy in America, based on his observations of American democracy in the 1830s, he viewed local self-governance in townships as the “schools of democracy,” the place where people practiced and exercised their citizenship—not simply because there was no one in the capital to do it but because it was at the very heart of republican self-government that a free people govern themselves in every respect, including the fundamental practice of education of their children.

Again, I’ll say more about this basic commitment—the basic “purpose” of the heretofore absence of a standardized “purpose” to American education—in my conclusion. But having stipulated that the American “purpose” of education—namely, republican self-rule—has been reflected in the absence of any uniform, top-down uniformity, let me turn to what I would see as a set of broadly-shared “purposes” that are, or ought to be, the purpose of education, and ones that have been largely embraced through much of American history.

I think we can point to five “ascending” aims in the education of the young (while I’m sure there are more, I want to limit myself to five main aims), beginning from a more basic to the more ascendant, and that each have a corresponding end, or purpose. They are:

  1. Education in basic facts or “figures” (math):  Education, at a minimum, needs to convey basic truths about the nature of our reality.  These include:  knowledge of the history (dates), math, scientific facts, the operations of language (and foreign language)
  2. A training in using these facts to more deeply understand things, especially provisional answers to questions that are not so easily achieved by simple memorization or “Scantron” answers. This skill is often called “critical-thinking”—we might also call it thoughtfulness, reflection, ability to manipulate and alter, the capacity to think capaciously and even to “change places” with another. This skill involves higher-level thinking like logic, Socratic questioning, scientific experimentation, and interpretation.
  3. Civic education. When we bring these building-blocks of basic knowledge skills together with others in a productive and cooperative way with other people, we are now acting civically. Civic education both explores how humans best learn and order these forms of cooperation—thus, is attentive to the study of political theories and organization—but it also seeks to instill practices of citizenship in and through the manner of learning.
  4. The cultivation of character. Closely related to the cultivation of our civic capacities is the cultivation of character, of which our role as citizens is one facet. Aristotle argued that every activity aims toward some end and that the final end for human beings is happiness, or flourishing. The flourishing human being is one, he wrote, is “an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence, or virtue.” While good citizenship ought to be an expression of these virtues (assuming that one lives in a suitably decent regime), the cultivation of character is more comprehensive, touching on the entirety of the human person, in both its public and private capacities.
  5. The highest attainment of education is one that has no further end outside itself: not knowledge that we use toward some end, whether political or social or private, but simply the act of seeking knowledge for its own sake.  This reflects the highest, and perhaps unique, human attribute, the hunger to know. Plato wrote that “philosophy begins in wonder”—if an education does not at least ultimately seek to keep this sense of wonder intact, and even to encourage it, we can conclude that education of the young in all its facets is likely to fail, since all of these various “purposes” of education are most fully and completely achieved only when students are driven not from outside, but ultimately from within, from their innate desire to know. This is not to say that all people will attain the condition of being a philosopher (or a theologian, which is the effort to know God), but that the philosophic and theological human instinct must be encouraged, supported, or at the very least left intact.

While I don’t have time to explore these various purposes in any real depth or to delve into the ways in which our current educational forms (and the Common Core) does, or does not, aspire to or achieve these purposes, let me point out one germane fact about these purposes: the first two—the learning of various “facts and figures” and their manipulation through “critical thinking”—when divorced of the last three (civic education, education for character, and learning for the sake of learning) are highly prone to being employed toward only one end or purpose—instrumentalism, or utilitarianism aimed primarily toward baser ends of acquisition, material accumulation, the pursuit of pleasure or hedonism, the conquest of nature, and the accumulation of power. Divorced of any higher end, they become tools for the fulfillment of our physical nature without the cultivation of their use toward a higher end involving our role as citizens or the full-flourishing of the human being in virtue and as a creature that desires to know for its own sake.

It is unmistakably the case that the most dominant voices in education today insist that education is or ought be solely about the first two pursuits—the accumulation of facts and “critical thinking,” divorced from higher ends. A wholly utilitarian mindset now informs our basic approach to education. For example, consider the basic aims expressed in the ambitions of the proposed national standards, the Core Curriculum—for every student to achieve “career and college-readiness.” Given the pressures today on colleges to retool their curricula to similarly deemphasize the liberal arts in favor of career-readiness (recall that President Obama recently delivered a speech in which he proposed a set of national standards for rating college success, tying federal aid to such measures, and that among them was a measure for how much income was secured after graduation by the graduates of various institutions), we see clearly how a basic utilitarian mindset now dominates the definition and understanding of education and how it thereby constrains, limits, and narrows the scope of education’s purposes solely to the debased end of work.

Liberal education was conceived to be the education that was appropriate for a free people—not those whose horizons were defined by work—whereas today we see a panoply of national leaders seeking the wholesale redefinition of education to be linked solely to the end of labor, without regard for our lives as familial, social, political, and fully human persons. It ignores the capacious understanding of education that was expressed by Pope John Paul II in his declaration Ex Corde Ecclesiae (concerning especially Catholic higher education, but ultimately implicating all education) that education should be “consecrated without reservation to the cause of truth, … the whole truth about nature, man and God…  By means of a universal humanism, [such education] is dedicated to the research of all aspects of truth in their essential connection to the supreme truth, who is God.” We perceive no evidence of a “universal humanism” in increasingly nationalized standards based on a narrowly utilitarian understanding of the human person, but only a dessicated and debased conception of what a human being is.

I should conclude. I began by suggesting that it was in the very absence of any national standard for education, and the strong tradition of local control of education, that we could perceive, in fact, a pervasive historical commitment to the aspiration of republican self-government. Because humans in their social and political communities are various, it was understood by our Founders that the way that these educational purposes to be achieved would be various, and so the commitment to local control of education was not born of a resignation in the absence of a strong central government, but a positive embrace of variety and multiplicity. Because there is likely to be debate and disagreement in a pluralistic society over the nature of our civic ends and the nature of a good character, it was understood that only in more local circumstances could the highest aspirations of education be pursued, even if that would be various and multiple. In our modern insistence to standardize and equalize, we necessarily discard any higher aspiration of education’s end in an embrace of a widely-secured agreement about lower, debased ends: an education based upon a lowest common-denominator, “career-readiness.” Our civilization thus shows its ultimate commitments through how it educates its young—that we think them incapable of anything higher than being workers in a deracinated globalized economic system, neither citizens nor, in the fullest sense, humans.

At the same time, we condemn ourselves, betraying our ancient faith in our own ability to educate and cultivate our young, handing over our final and most basic liberty to a distant power. Contained in the very act of handing over the education of our young is the self-indictment of a decaying Republic, a future feared by, among others, Tocqueville, as a possible path that America might take, since it is one that all republics heretofore have taken, and is an inevitability once a people has lost the taste and the art of ruling themselves.