School is about to begin, and in my house we are talking schedules and dress codes, not philosophy. But when the public conversation comes up, I chafe at the well-meant but false assumptions behind the claim touting education as the answer to poverty. When we talk about education only as a means of grooming students to ultimately be good workers, we are missing its purpose. Public education needs to create powerful citizens.
Our N.C. constitution lays out the state’s duty to provide an education as being necessary to “good government and the happiness of mankind.” The University of North Carolina system has as its mission, “to discover, create, transmit, and apply knowledge to address the needs of individuals and society.” How appalling then to hear education talked about as a means to creating a workforce. What a tedious, low-minded aspiration! I won’t start on the wealth of benefits an education brings into a person’s intellectual, emotional, and practical life. Let’s just stick to what it can do for the common good.
A strong education informs citizens about history and how government works. It helps us contemplate our own role in society and study how injustice has been overcome in the past. It builds the ingenuity to come up with solutions. It means understanding climate science and voting maps. It means learning to articulate ideas to others, to listen with curiosity, and to be skeptical enough to recognize charlatans. It prepares us to share in the difficult work of democratic governance.
A public school classroom can raise kids who won’t bow and scrape for scraps from a benevolent wealthy class, but will instead build their own lives and make their own demands. Maybe they’ll start cooperatives to meet common needs or create unions to fight for better wages, like the red state West Virginia teachers did this past year and California grape pickers did in the late sixties. It may mean the taking on giant corporate interests as have environmental activists who fight to protect populations and natural resources from the devastation wrought by unaccountable greed.
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Education that leads to a high-paying job in an economy full of low-wage work helps an individual, but does little for the rest of us. High-paying corporate jobs can be among the worst offenders to the public good. If we want to think about how we all benefit from an education that creates empowered citizens, look to the Parkland High School students who have become a political powerhouse for change, organizing, mobilizing, and making demands for public policy. Compare those kids to the educated, well-paid bankers who quietly allowed the massive fraud that led to the housing crisis that undermined our economy a few years back.
For the kids waiting for the first day’s school buses Monday morning, the real path out of poverty is going to be through a fight to shift political power in this country, away from a ruling corporate class and in favor of ordinary people. Hopefully, this is exactly what their education will prepare them for.