[Publisher’s Note: Boles Blogs author Howard Stein died on October 14, 2012 at 90 years of age. In an ongoing effort to preserve his legacy and memory, David Boles is sharing articles and preserving other works from his private Prairie Voice archive. The following article was likely written by Dr. Stein in the early 1980’s — and his point still rings true, and still bites us with a bitter hardness of the flat truth — three decades later.]
Public education in the minds of the parents, schoolboards, teachers, and local politicians seems to have as its purpose either the preparing of the young for higher education (preferably private education), or the preparing of the young for a variety of jobs and trades.
Public education in the minds of the founding fathers, however, had a different purpose, a loftier and in many ways a far more practical purpose: to prepare the young in the habit of intelligent choice.
The reason for this latter purpose is that our democracy is based upon the principle that every person in the society can manage his own her own affairs, that the members of the society are both the governors and the governed, and that our government has the obligation to provide public education in order to make certain that the young are sufficiently educated to become responsible adult citizens with the specific ability to choose the appropriate governors.
Iran, at this very moment does not need such education any more than the Soviet Union does. These countries may need education for the advancement of their society, but they do not need public education for that purpose.
Our democracy, on the other hand, cannot function without an informed public educated in the habit of making intelligent choices. Our own democracy is in peril when our education in this habit is forgotten.
We cannot afford to forget. Public education was devised in order to develop skills that could not necessarily be learned at home but skills that necessarily had to be learned in order to “form a more perfect union.”
The purpose of our public education is not individual advancement; rather it is for the public good, for the good of the nation. How many of our children are being educated to consider the good of the nation?
I fear that the nation itself has been forgotten, and we must restore the memory of a country that had everything to gain but somehow was devoured by greed and never learned the fundamental lesson, “for what does a man gain if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?”. We must, nevertheless, function as if we have everything ahead of us in the way of individual liberty and society’s advancement because the nation itself remains a spectacular experiment.
Despite all the corruption, the piracy, the robber barons, despite all the greed (the voracious greed), the gain (the gluttonous gain), and the distortion (all that distortion!) of principles and ideals; the idea of the U.S.A. is still a spectacular idea. The governed will be the governors!
Although we today function in the context of that idea, we have lost faith in that idea; as a result, we have lost faith in the nation. My children have little, if any, of the belief, pride, loyalty, humility, patriotism or pleasure (as well as the naiveté, innocence, or ignorance) in the nation that I had at their age. Their Uncle Sam became a monster while mine was a strong, virtuous, firm but kind relative and friend, an Uncle whom I eagerly rushed to defend in 1942.
The schools have before them a difficult task fighting this loss of faith. BUT THE SCHOOLS MUST REGAIN THEIR AUTHORITY AND THEIR SENSE OF MISSION IN ORDER TO COMBAT THIS HORRENDOUS SENSE OF LOSS.
We don’t have to sentimentalize the nation’s history or distort the story of the development of this nation in order to nurture among the youth the need for “the public good.” We must present to the youth an awareness of the context in which they live and to train them in the habits necessary to live well in that context.
For example, our system of justice is based upon what many consider an impractical principle, sufficiently impractical that it is highly, highly rare among nations: innocent until proven guilty. That many violate that principle and render it suspect because so many of the guilty get away with murder does not negate the power of that principle.
We must teach the young the price they have to pay in order to live in the experiment that we call the U.S.A. That concept of reality — one must pay a price for the luxury of one’s basic principles — must be taught in the schools because it can only be learned with the help of reason, logic, intelligence, and imagination, the skills necessary to develop the habit of intelligent choice.
If the U.S.A. experiment fails, it will be because we don’t believe that every human being in the society can manage his or her own affairs, that the governors cannot be the governed, that a public cannot be trained in the habit of intelligent choice because the public does not value reason, logic, intelligence and imagination. Our public education must regain its rightful name. It has a great mission and a great obligation, but it has for too long listened to a public that is far more interested in private gain than in private good.
Plato, more than two thousand years ago, said that the schools will teach what the society honors. Our present public education confirms Plato’s observation. But for the sake of survival, our schools can no longer afford to mirror the society’s values; they must illuminate the values intrinsic to the national good and therefore lead rather than follow, illuminate rather than mirror. The word is educate (derived from the Latin “to lead”), not edgicate.
The schools will have to establish the values that the youth must cultivate, and the schools’ mission will come from the founding fathers rather than from the present group of parents, politicians, businessmen, advertising executives, and marketing experts.
The public schools cannot take on the tasks of the home. Parents, not public schools, must teach their young how to sew, cook, drive, plan a career, and manage sex. Private schools can establish these tasks as their objectives, if they wish, but they will be doing the nation harm. Still, it is their choice.
But public schools have no choice! And a vigorous leadership which will recapture its mission, which will place as the objective the development of the young in the habit of intelligent choice will be performing the service which we so desperately need.
Our nation must regain its faith in “forming a more perfect union” despite all the poor reasoning, poorer logic, limited intelligence and absence of imagination that have created the doubt. We must regain the belief in “forming a more perfect union,” and the only way we can do that is to consider, discuss, examine, reflect upon, and imagine the perfect union that we are attempting to form.
If we don’t know where we are going, any road will take us there. This nation must establish where it is going, and that direction should come from the public educators leading our youth.
It is a mission for giants and heroes, but the time for size and heroics is upon us with a vengeance, and we best seize the opportunity. Let us pause for the moment in considering our anxiety about all the patchwork, about merit raises, the three r’s, and the scarcity of science teachers — all real, major, and significant problems not to be dismissed nor subordinated.
Instead, however, for a brief time, let us consider and reflect upon the basic basic: learning how to discriminate among possibilities and then choosing the most intelligent alternative.