What's Education for, Anyway?

Again! The American people and our leaders demonstrate that we have forgotten the fundamental purpose of education in our republic -- to create engaged citizens. On November 19, 2013 President Obama announced the Youth Career Connect program offering $100 million in competitive grants to secondary schools, universities and businesses. These grants -- administered by the department of commerce and not the department of education -- are yet another STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) initiative designed to prepare students for the job market. Is that all? Is public education merely job training? No. The primary purpose for public education in a republic is to develop and train qualified citizens.

The hyperfocus on workplace development is keeping us from accomplishing the core civic education mission of our schools. Strong, engaged citizens make an excellent and reliable workforce. Any initiative to improve our commerce, our job pool or our technological innovation must begin with civic education.

What does it take to develop strong American citizens? A recent Youth Civic Development & Education report published by Stanford University and the University of Washington suggests that it requires "A common grounding in the history, values, and workings of the American constitutional tradition," and the opportunity to develop and hone critical civic skills.

Citizenship in this nation is complex and requires more than voting in an occasional national election. We are citizens of our country, of our state, of our community, of our local institutions, of our school, of our workplace, of our family. We have responsibilities in each of those roles. Throughout our lives, "We the People" engage each other at every level of our social and political world. This engagement is the ideal on which America is founded -- the belief that the individual and his or her actions (or inaction) in community matter.

Americans citizens are passionate, innovative, willing to debate with others the best course of action, and they understand that individuals are strongest when they collaborate to achieve common goals. We understand that diversity of ideas and perspectives is an asset. American citizens understand that tough problems facing our communities and our nation today are not solved with the true/false and multiple-choice answers drilled into children struggling to survive the regimen of school standardized testing. We are willing to take a stand and implement a solution, all the while knowing that it likely won't be permanent, and we will have to come back, change, alter, and improve in order to get a better solution. We understand that the best learning happens with failure and we are prepared to pick ourselves up and tackle it all again.

The American people -- all of us -- should be concerned that these national characteristics are disappearing. They are not innate. They are skills. They are learned, and can be developed only with practice. Schools should spend less time on standardized testing and more time helping students practice essential civic skills. Politicians should spend less time posturing on ideological positions and insure our schools have resources to teach the "history, values and workings of the American constitutional tradition." Businesses must understand that a competent technical workforce naturally flows from a civically trained and engaged citizenry. The citizen must instruct leaders that civic education is an essential priority our future security. Students must take advantage of the educational opportunities presented by the community. It will require a coalition of the many -- We the People -- to see our country rededicated to "the history, values, and workings of the American constitutional tradition" that is the idea of America.