A Shift In How We Think About Education

Random thought I had on the way back from dropping my daughter off at the Nanny…

There’s been a remarkable shift in our public discourse about education, and what it ought to entail, over the past few centuries, more remarkable for the fact that (I think) it’s gone unnoticed.

Simply put, in the 19th and 18th centuries, the public discourse about education was about politics; over the past few decades it’s become about economics.

Here’s what I mean: if you read the great advocates of democracy in the 18th and 19th century (the Enlightenment philosophers, the American Founding Fathers, various French liberal and/or republican intellectuals (using those words in their French meanings)), to them education was a necessary precondition of democracy and its main goal was to build enlightened, free, citizens. What was foremost to them was that education be liberal, in the oldest and etymological sense of the word: an education to freedom. A free society could not long endure if its citizens were not educated enough to make responsible use of that freedom in their personal lives and in public life, and so education was not only crucial but a certain type of education was.

Flash forward to today, and the only goal is to beat the Chinamen who are coming to eat the bread off our plates. The central question about education, both sides of the aisle agree, is how to create productive worker bees workers to win the economic race against China.

This has obvious consequences. The classic curriculum of the public schools of the French Third Republic emphasized philosophy, mathematics and latin. There were also “morality” classes in elementary school. Today the United States is obsessed with producing ever more graduates in the field of experimental science and engineering.

Now, there are several possible explanations for this shift, not all of them bad:

  • To some extent, the earlier focus on liberal education was related to an anxiety about whether the then-new experiment of democracy could succeed. Critics notwithstanding, the architects of democracy were well aware of how the regime could fall victim to populism leading to despotism (today we would say fascism). One might say liberal education has become less pressing a concern, because we’ve reached that goal. Advanced democracies have been around and relatively stable for a long time, and almost everyone in them agrees with the basic tenets of individual rights, representation, rule of law, etc. Of course, a critic would say that this is all dangerous complacency—we think democracy just “happens” whereas in fact it is a constant struggle.
  • If you agree that the polity should encourage some form of liberal (in this sense) education, then you are postulating that there is some sort of “public morality” that everyone must subscribe to, and perhaps this is dangerous. Perhaps we’ve grown a lot more weary about “imposing morality” on anyone and this is something we prefer to leave to the private sphere. There’s an obvious sense in which any attempt to impose a worldview through (mandatory) public education is creepy; Jules Ferry, the architect of France’s public school system, once wrote that his main goal for his school was to teach citizens to be able to sit quietly for hours at a time and to obey orders. And obviously the overarching goal of public education in France was to rid the country of organized religion by combating the “brainwashing” of non-secular schools with secular brainwashing. But there are obvious retorts to this libertarian-ish view: that it amounts to a dangerous relativism; that the ideology that has replaced it, which we could dub “economism”, is itself a form of public morality; that indeed the very belief that only the private sphere should teach morality is itself a form of public morality; that really no one actually believes this, witness ever-flaring debates about e.g. evolution and sex in school curricula, or the striking resemblance between school curricula in the US’s manifold jurisdictions.

What’s striking to me here is that if we’ve gone away from “public morality” as a goal for education, it seems to me that it’s either because we all agree on what the public morality is, or because we can’t agree on what the public morality is. And I have a nagging sense that the answer is actually “both.”

There’s a sense in which there is a “public morality” in education and that it works out to some sort of “atheistic productivist moral therapeutic deism” where the goal of life (and what education should prepare you for) is to be happy and do whatever you want and find fulfillment as long as fulfillment involves earning a degree from a four-year institution of higher education in a vocational field and finding a productive 9-to-5 job (and getting married but as long as it’s not before 30 and having had many other romantic experiences before that). Or something.

Keen readers of this post will rightly guess that I side with the “politists” against the “economists” in this debate, if only because the “economist” view is so awful, but what I’m more interested in is in why we’ve actually shifted away from this view so much that to articulate it is to seem old-fashioned and out of step, and perhaps even outside the Overton window.

(PS I guess I’m thinking about this because yesterday I had a convo with libertarians on Twitter about civil liberties and terrorism. They argued that another 9/11 wouldn’t be such a huge deal because after all plenty of people die in car crashes every year. I responded that another 9/11 would be a huge deal because it would have huge social and political ramifications. Now they’re right that it doesn’t have to be this way, but they’re wrong to just wave away the stubborn fact that this is the world in which we live. I really wish it weren’t this way. As I said yesterday, I agree strongly with David Foster Wallace here. But most Americans don’t. Perhaps teaching that sacrifice is part of liberty should be part of our public goals for education. Of course, the idea of public goals for education would also horrify libertarians…)