What is an educated citizen?

Public schools are failing to teach character, values and citizenship because our society no longer can agree on what an educated citizen should know, writes David Gelernter in Weekly Standard.

Today there are few states or none where a public consensus or general agreement exists on what “educated citizen” means. Schools exist not only to teach skills but to mold character. (Although many object to this old-fashioned language, few Americans disagree that schools must teach an approach to life, a world view, a moral framework.) The culture war that has been underway since the late ’60s is precisely a war over approaches to life and world views and moral frameworks.

. . . It’s pretty clear that no consensus or general agreement on the nature of education is likely to exist in a country that’s so divided. Which suggests in turn that, for now, the age of the American public school is over.

Education Gadfly urges Gelernter not to give up on public schools. They can improve.

I see a lot of cultural consensus in our society about the sort of topics relevant to K-12 students. Honesty, courage, hard work and fair play still are respected. We all join together to sneer at Paris Hilton.

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  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    I believe the schools bit off more than they can chew when they decided their primary duty was to reconstruct society in the liberal image. The insistence even today to try and continue racial balancing under some as yet undiscovered new name now that the diversity scam has been blown bodes ill for the future of public education.

  2. I think that the statement “few Americans disagree that schools must teach an approach to life, a world view, a moral framework” is awfully presumptuous and not nearly so easily quantified as Gelertner makes it sound. I, for one, do not think that this is the job of schools. It’s the job families primarily and churches secondarily. But not schools. Schools may indeed teach these things, but we make an awfully large leap when we say that this is “their job”. And I think that more than a “few” Americans would agree.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I strongly recommend reading Lessons for Tomorrow by Edward L. Davis. He is talking about a paradigm shift in public education. Moving away from the factory model of the teacher pouring everything into the child’s head, teaching them only what the powerful elite think they should learn. He recommends we move to a learning model — learning is doing, teachers become more like facilitators guiding the student through what they want to learn, opening resources, engaging in dialogue. This is much like Parker PAlmer’s the courage the teach. In addition, there is heavy emphasis on technology. Think about it — those people in today’s society that are earning the money are the ones paid to think. This is not what opur public schools are doing — teaching kids to think. No, they are teaching them how to memorize and that info is quickly forgotten. Yep, we need a paradigm shift in our entire education K – college.

    Thanks —

  4. An excellent book on this subject is Neil Postman’s “The End of Education.” The title is a bit deceptive/provocative – “end” refers to the purpose or goal, not the cessation of schooling. Very thought-provoking book.

  5. Andy Freeman says:

    > Moving away from the factory model of the teacher pouring everything into the child’s head

    Yup, the bad old days, when students learned to read.

    > teachers become more like facilitators guiding the student through what they want to learn, opening resources, engaging in dialogue.

    In the best of all possible worlds, that would be great. In this world, it’s going to be an excuse for students who don’t learn.

  6. Richard Cook says:


    At least by anecdotal evidence many families are not teaching their offspring anything about manners, consideration of others, etc. I would think the schools, by default, would be the ones to teach this stuff. Who else?

  7. Ignorance is Bliss says:

    >We all join together to sneer at Paris Hilton.

    Actually our school has a zero tolerance policy on sneering…

  8. Charter Mom says:

    This diversity of opinion about how and what schools should teach in terms of character education and educational method is one of my prime arguments in favor of school choice. I chose a charter for my kids because they offered a strong curriculum and a back to basics approach. They also touted their character education curriculum but I was skeptical as I didn’t think a secular organization could do a good job there. I was pleasantly surprised. They did a pretty good job and helped reinforce what I was trying to teach at home. In general I always found the kids at the school more polite and respectful than many I met elsewhere.

    As far as educational method — the school’s method was teacher directed and I thought it worked well in the early grades when kids need to master the basics such as math facts, basic phonics and reading skills. My kids did seem to outgrow it as they reached middle school so I’ve moved them to another charter which uses the Paideia method which includes more teacher as facilitator characteristics.

  9. Elizabeth,

    Student centered learning, which I believe is what Edward Davis is advocating (I confess I have not read the book), can be effective in certain situations with numerous predicates that must be fulfilled. A number of higher end private schools are quite successful with student centered learning, but the catch is the higher end part. Their students come from the upper-end of society, with parents that have pushed for a high level of educational attainment since day one of their child’s life. The kids already have the skills necessary to engage in critical thought (reading, writing, mathematics, logic, etc.).

    Our public mainstream schools have a difficult time teaching basic skills such as reading and writing. Most students cannot read to grade level (I’m pulling this from thin air but I am 99% certain it is true, please correct if not) and Lord knows they can’t write to save their souls. If the school cannot teach reading, what on earth makes one think they can teach critical thinking? Those memorized skills provide a necessary foundation upon which the ability to think can be developed, but they need to be there before you take a stab at encouraging critical thought.

    I student taught for a semester in a fairly affluent suburban high school before determining that secondary education was not my shtick. I taught history, and in the six essay assignments I assigned my students learned more about paragraph construction, argument construction, syntax and grammar than they had in their previous three years of English courses. It didn’t just extend to their writin; when asked to craft logical arguments in class during discussions and for presentations most of the students were at a total loss.

    If the student does not have basic skills they simply cannot function at the level that student centered learning requires. I distinctly recall a survey that revealed most science professors wished schools would simply teach students the scientific method and bare bones basics rather than theory, because without that the students were at a loss in their college courses. Teach the kids the basics first, once that foundation is laid then you can go for higher end skills, but not until then.

  10. Ragnarok says:

    Gelernter’s piece is elegant and to the point. It’s pretty much the argument that many of us have been trying to make to people such as NDC and TMAO (I mean, SMAO).

    But I doubt that his argument will fare any better than ours.


  1. […] Efron Link to Article paris hilton What is an educated citizen? » Posted at Joanne Jacobs on […]


    Schools then have a duty to help shape this worldview and to assist children in developing character and citizenship. And without a shared worldview at least at the community level, schools can do a great deal of damage not only to the culture, but to …