In America, the purpose of education has rarely been made explicit. Left entirely out of the US Constitution, provisions for schools were relegated to the states, only some of which took up the cause in the country’s earliest years. Only recently have we begun to organize as a nation (for better or for worse), but even with these efforts under way, the discourse about the purpose of our education remains incoherent; luminaries lob volleys back and forth in the media, swinging between arguments like a pendulum. The result is a system that competes with itself to define itself. And students--not to mention teachers, who are challenged with creatively executing the work on the ground--end up caught in an uncertain limbo, attacked on all sides for failing to succeed at something that we have yet failed to define.
But a historical look at America’s legislative and judicial relationship with education provides some help. History contextualizes well the question of the purpose of education. It reveals wide-ranging sentiments about why we educate--sentiments that ultimately cohere around a few core tenets.
The clearest message from the earliest state constitutions is that education is necessary for civic participation. The survival of the nation, these first states declared, depends on an education system that prepares citizens for participation in public discourse, voting, and jury deliberation. The Massachusetts Constitution, written in 1780, still declares today, “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the people… [are] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.” New Hampshire’s constitution, written several years later, similarly argues, “knowledge and learning… [are] essential to the preservation of a free government.” These and other state documents speak to a public need for education, though they leave to their people the challenge of defining what “wisdom,” “knowledge,” and “learning” mean. These states indicate that a successful society requires an educated populace for participation in civic responsibilities.
Some states, however, did not immediately take on education in their legislation, but waited until later. They, and many of the states that later joined the union, often used less specific language--sometimes contextualizing education in surprising ways. In 1889, for example, Montana’s first state constitution lumped schools, prisons, and asylums together in one charge, declaring: “Educational, reformatory and penal institutions, and, those for the benefit of the insane, blind, deaf and mute, soldiers' home, and such other institutions as the public good may require, shall be established and supported by the state.”
This language changed in 1972, but then only to say broadly that in order to “develop the full educational potential of each person” the state must “provide a basic system of free quality public elementary and secondary schools.” In 1885, Florida declared simply, “The Legislature shall provide for a uniform system of public free schools.” Nowhere does it say why or towards what ends--even in broad strokes. Even New Jersey, whose first reference to schools in its constitution came in 1844, today still uses vague language from 1947 requiring the provision of a “thorough and efficient system of free public schools.” These are broad and open-ended charges, on the one hand helpful so that states might customize their education systems to their local communities, but on another hand unhelpful because they don’t identify the purpose of the schools their communities should build. By the mid-twentieth century, then, while some of the oldest states seemed to have agreed that civic participation was the ultimate end of education, the collection of states across the country held a wide range of rationales--if any--for their school systems.
The Judiciary and Gainful Employment
In the absence of coherence among the states, the judiciary took up the task of justifying the education system, in some cases making rulings that applied to all states, thus marking early movement on a national scale. In particular, since Brown v. Board of Education (1954), language about the purpose of education has grown far more specific. In that landmark case, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the early states’ emphasis on civic participation, but it also invoked a second purpose: to prepare children for employment. The court ruling includes:
Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments… It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities... It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him adjust normally to his environment.
Brown begins here with “good citizenship”, but it clearly adds the purpose of “preparing [the student] for later professional training,” or: preparing students for employment. References to these purposes--civic participation and preparation for employment--have been standard in state court cases across the country ever since. Robinson v. Cahill, in New Jersey, established that a “thorough and efficient” education is one that will “equip a child for his role as a citizen” as well as for employment. Other cases in other states declared that the purpose of education is “to participate intelligently and effectively in our open political system” (Washington), to prepare students to become “participants and… potential competitors in today’s marketplace of ideas” (New Hampshire), and “to become equipped for their future roles as citizens, participants in the political system, and competitors both economically and intellectually” (Wyoming).
So, while the earliest state constitutions seemed to agree that preparation for civic participation was a key purpose for education, so have the courts of the late 20th century seemed to agree that preparation for employment is an additional essential purpose for education.
Not to be lost in these public-minded purposes, however, is a third reason for education. It is one that harkens all the way back to--is even guaranteed by--one of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence. While Jefferson’s words never mention an education system, every citizen, according to the Declaration of Independence, has an unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, and so while Jefferson may not explain how we ought to preserve this right for all citizens, it follows that our education system should provide the tools necessary to pursue that happiness, to seek fulfillment, to live what philosophers call “the good life.”