Let’s agree: Schools should help grow citizens

How are we polarized about education? John Merrow counts the ways. We can’t agree on accountability, achievement, how schools should be run, the role of technology, the job of teaching and assessment, he writes. We’re polarized on the power of school vs. the limits of school. All the fighting is tiring.

We need to agree on the purposes of public education, Merrow writes.  “The goal of school is to help grow American citizens.”  Then we have to define what it means to be a good citizen.

“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle told us. If we complain all the time but do nothing to change the situation, that’s who we are: whiners.

. . .  We need to get beyond polarization and figure out what we agree on. Do we agree that children should learn to write well? We know that the only way to learn that skill is by writing and rewriting, guided by someone who is knowledgeable. If we value good writing, we ought to be insisting children write and rewrite all through school.

Do we, like, want our children to, you know, be able to speak clearly, persuasively and articulately? The road requires practice, practice, practice.

The way to develop readers is by reading, not by practicing to pass reading tests.

“Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit,” said Aristotle.

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  1. Uh…no. The underlying premise here sounds like Nazi Germany: We must “make” our children into “appropriate” citizens via public education.

    Her quote, “Then we have to define what it means to be a good citizen.” is the crux of the matter. Who decides? Who defines? Where is the liberty of the parents? Where is the freedom of thought for the children?

    Rather, the “experts” define, and then the schools indoctrinate?

    No, thanks…I’ll pass.

    • Sorry Charley but all public education systems are used, to a greater or lesser extent, as instruments of indoctrination. I mean, it’s just common sense, right? Catch ’em young and train ’em right.

      In an earlier, cruder age it was indoctrination in the superiority of the state – in many parts of the world it still is – but here in the U.S. the indoctrination function’s now up for grabs.

      Whoever wins election to the offices in charge of setting education policy get to indoctrinate kids in creationism or anthropogenic global warming or multi-culturalism. Or whatever direction the prevailing ideological winds happen to be blowing in at the time of the election.

      Pretty lousy way to run an education system, hey?

    • Seriously? In talking character education and citizenship in the United States of America, people are honestly making connections to Nazi Germany.

      Note to self: When you start making the Hitler/Nazi comparison, you’ve ceased to have rational discussion.

      Oops, wait. Was that the UN’s black helicopter hovering outside? Hushhhhhh.

  2. “We can’t agree on accountability, achievement, how schools should be run, the role of technology, the job of teaching and assessment, he writes. We’re polarized on the power of school vs. the limits of school.”

    This is why there are supposed to be 56 Deptartments of Education in this country – each for the 50 States, D.C., and the 5 territories. In a country this huge (both physically and population wise), it’s impossible to come to a federal consensus on such divisive issues. The federal Dept. of Education should be little more than a clearinghouse for federal Student Loans, and a referee of the University accreditation organizations.

    “The goal of school is to help grow American citizens.”

    I can agree with this, with the prenup that we have to be very careful not to let it turn into a Nazi Germany situation. K-12 students need to learn that good Americans – good citizens, good people in general – don’t hurt other people or animals, don’t lie and steal, do their civic duties with pride and seriousness (vote, serve on a jury, etc.), take issues like having a baby and raising a family seriously, and so on. But again, each of the 56 Ed. Departments can determine for themselves where to draw all those lines.

    • Remove the government from all student loans and return them to private lenders and appropriate risk analysis. If private lenders won’t lend to a low-achieving (SAT/ACT) student wanting to major in anthropology, so much the better. Government distorts the market, students accumulate lots of debt and the colleges rake in the money.

      Also, the accreditation process is (1) heavily bureaucratic (2) heavily politicized and (3) tends to focus on inputs, not outputs. It has little to do with quality.

      • Great deal for the banks. Not so much for the students.

        Did the Morrill Land Grants and the GI Bill somehow escape your study of American history?

        • Not the same thing at all; apples to oranges, all the way. AND, both of those were from the days when kids unable or unwilling to do real college-level work were flunked out as expeditiously as possible, via freshman weeder courses designed to remove about 1/3 of the kids (varying by major; 2/3 in engineering). Double-AND, GIs were and are are a special sub-population and not representative of the whole. The current policy is highly likely (almost certainly) designed to increase “diversity” on campuses and, sadly (partially thanks to the k-12 system), the low SES and “diverse” groups tend to cluster significantly lower on the prepared-for-college-work scale and it’s not politically acceptable to admit this, decline to admit them or flunk them out.

          • Also, the GI bill has a long history of being used for various kinds of technical training, including outside of the higher-ed world. I know vets who have used benefits to become pilots – second career.

  3. Cardinal Fang says:

    “The way to develop readers is by reading, not by practicing to pass reading tests.”

    Well, yeah, but we need also to find out if we have developed readers. And I’m afraid we have to do that by having students take reading tests.

  4. Education for citizenship has been –along with giving kids the tools they need to flourish and to have a good life—one of the two goals of education in America since colonial days. “Making good citizens” does not mean indoctrinating them to worship the leader. On the contrary, it means understanding the limited goals and power of government and being prepared to be an educated participant in self-governing democracy. “Good citizens” are prepared to do that. Interestingly enough, there is a great deal of evidence, however, that nonpublic schools—Catholic schools in particular– do a better job of this than public schools do.

    • True, indoctrination isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s pure definition is that of a neutral word. It’s WHAT we’re indoctrinating in our society that causes all the fights.

      For example, we’re all indoctrinated to know that lying, stealing, cheating, vandalizing, and hurting people and animals are wrong. Who could arge with that?

  5. A culture is grounded in the stories we tell. English class and the study of literature has always been the foundation of our character education. From the moral struggles of Huck and Scout to the battles of Antigone and Brutus, students debate issues of character and ethics through these records of the human experience.

    Civics class should help, too. But kids have always tended to learn more through the narratives.

  6. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Oddly enough, these days it’s often the homeschoolers who focus on growing citizens, in the sense of encouraging civic engagement and a knowledge of our country’s founding ideals.

    I took my kids to Lincoln’s boyhood home one weekday in July. Apparently you have to be a homeschooler with at least 5 children to take an interest in the place–we were the smallest family there!

    We may be becoming two Americas– The America who takes their kids to learn about the ideals of Abraham Lincoln, and the America who takes their kids to “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.”

  7. I agree with that, with a couple of comments. One, much of this can happen in extracurricular activities, because that is where they make decisions. Second, both Aristotle quotes are misattributed. They are Will Durant explaining Aristotle.


    Aristotle’s words from Nichomachean Ethics: “‘these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions”.