You Can’t Reform Education Without Knowing What It Is For

American education is in crisis, but it’s not the crisis that most people assume. The deeper crisis is a philosophical crisis: most people have never seriously pondered what it is for. Education reform hides behind slogans – “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” or the current monolith of the Common Core – without asking basic, philosophical questions on the purpose of education.
For the last two years I had the pleasure of leading my conversation Oregon Humanities Conversation “What Is Education For?”, meeting in public libraries, universities and colleges, and the marvelous Tillamook County Pioneer Museum. When I wrote my proposal for Oregon Humanities, I proposed the title “The Other Crisis in Education”. American policy-makers and pundits have proclaimed a crisis in education for decades. Every time the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development puts out its Program for International Student Assessment  on reading, science, and mathematics, columnists lament how the comparatively science and math results endangers the United States’ economic leadership and explain why the United States should be more like Singapore, Shanghai, South Korea, Finland – or perhaps even Canada.
I think most of these lamentations miss the point or at least ignore the deeper questions: what, exactly, do we want from our education systems? Or, for that matter, what exactly is education? (This question is harder to answer well than one might imagine once you try to distinguish education from indoctrination and mere schooling.) People debate and in many cases spend hundreds of millions of dollars to reform the education system without seriously pondering what it is for. This is a bit like performing heart surgery without a diagnosis.
This revelation came to me when I started teaching Philosophy of Education and read through the Obama administration’s Blueprint for Education Reform. As a newcomer to the United States teaching Philosophy of Education for the first time, I wanted to learn as much as possible about the school system and the controversies about standardized testing, charter schools, Teach for America, federal involvement in funding and curriculum, and much else. I turned to policy documents, popular books, and news reports to help understand a bafflingly complex system.
The Blueprint for Education Reform reformulated the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” with the phrase “Race to the Top”. One of the books I had assigned was Jonathan Kozol’s Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. I had assumed that structural and institutional racism in American schooling would be a major topic for the Obama administration. But the word “race” appears only five times in the Blueprint and four of these occurrences are in the phrase “Race to the Top.” The only reference to race outside of this phrase is a single sentence mandating the disaggregation of data by “race, gender, ethnicity, disability status, English Learner status, and family income.”
The revelation was not so much that policy makers did not seem to think that racism needed to be addressed to improved schooling. Rather, it was that they provided almost no evidence of careful reflection on what they were trying to achieve. Their metrics – mostly test scores – didn’t reveal any serious attempt to ask what was to be measure (and indeed if what was most important can be measured, at least with the quantitative indicators that come from tests).
Any genuine reform of education needs to be based on a national conversation about what we want out of our education system. Behind every practice, curriculum, and proposed change there is a philosophy. Are we training workers? Creating citizens? Passing along culture or values? Giving children what they need to become adults who can freely choose who they wish to be and how they ought to live their lives? Sharing the joy of acquiring knowledge for its own sake?
My own view is that what we should ask from education is complex and involves many of these things. But regardless, we need to realize that every educational practice and policy has an explicit or implicit philosophy – and sometimes the implicit philosophy is different from the explicit one.
Elements of an Educational Philosophy
Central Question
Purpose(s) or end(s) of education
What does education aim at?
·         Human capital (creating workers)
·         Citizenship (good citizens)
·         Autonomy (people who can think for themselves)
·         Knowledge for its own sake?
·         Social justice?
Theory of human nature
What sort of animal are we?
·         Blank slates?
·         Proto-scientists?
·         Homo economicus?
·         Budding artists?
Account of authority
Who has the right to make decisions about how people are educated?
·         Teachers?
·         Parents?
·         Politicians?
·         Administrators?
·         Business leaders?
·         Students?
What do we teach?
·         STEM?
·         Literacy?
·         Literature?
·         Music?
·         Physical education?
·         Philosophy?
·         Business?
·         Vocational Training?
Place for education in larger society
How does education fit into other social institutions such as the workplace, government, and the family?
·         Should education impart skills for work?
·         Should education cultivate civic virtue?
·         Should education serve social justice?
·         Should education promote the families’ values?

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