Why Adam Smith Is Right And Mike Flanagan Is Wrong About Public Education

April 24, 2013, 7:40 AM

According to Michigan Radio's Jack Lessenberry, Michigan Superintendent Mike Flanagan simply does not care for education as its own end. Lessenberry disagrees.

Michigan Radio: What Flanagan said that bothered me so much was this. “Most of us in education have grown up with an ethic that was something like this: Education for Education’s Sake. That’s just silly.”

Well, excuse me, Dr. Flanagan, but no, it’s not silly. There’s nothing wrong with education for education’s sake—if that means teaching people how to think, and how to learn.
There is also nothing wrong with knowing lots of things that are part of culture and civilization, even if they aren’t knowledge that can immediately be converted into cash.
Lessenberry's dissent doesn't go far enough. If you believe government's only valid role is to provide the services the marketplace cannot--and that's the very definition of government in a capitalist society--then the only valid purpose of public education is education for its own sake. We used to call that a Liberal education. We also used to believe such an education was essential for citizens of our republic.
Flanagan obviously would prefer to do away with the great books and pure science for a vocational curricula. In its place, he would establish a system that trains the next generation of workers for what The Simpsons' Superintendent Chalmers called "tomorrow's mills and processing facilities."
Here's the problem with that: It's in an individual's long-term financial interest to learn how to, say, cut hair or fix cars, if they wish to do so professionally. In many cases, it's in an employer's interest to train people to do a particular task. So, let the individual or business pay the freight for such job training. 
The public's interest is to ensure a common level of understanding and knowledge across society. Nations governed of, for, and by the people won't endure if the people are ignorant of the world, if they can't read, or fail to understand basic math.
Smith's Practical Vision
This is what Adam Smith believed about education. When he wrote "Wealth of Nations" at the dawn of the industrial revolution, he didn't think England required a public education system to train youth in the practical arts of farm labor or industrial weaving. He advocated the opposite.
The Wealth Of Nations: In Scotland the establishment of such parish schools has taught almost the whole common people to read, and a very great proportion of them to write and account. In England the establishment of charity schools has had an effect of the same kind, though not so universally, because the establishment is not so universal.
Smith's educational vision was practical as well as Liberal. He did not, as an 18th Century Mike Flanagan may have preferred, advocate for courses like "Geometry for Coal Mines: The Science of Small Spaces." Perhaps a mill hand would find practical science useful in his job, or perhaps he'd use that knowledge to create an innovative device in his spare time.
The Wealth Of Nations: If in those little schools the books, by which the children are taught to read, were a little more instructive than they commonly are, and if...they were instructed in the elementary parts of geometry and mechanics, the literary education of this rank of people would perhaps be as complete as it can be. 
The goal wasn't "workforce development." It was to provide enough education so that every citizen could be intellectually self-sufficient. Learn to read and write, acquire an understanding of basic mathematics and science, and you can obtain (as Will Hunting famously observed) an Ivy League education for "a buck fifty in late charges at the public library." 
Yes, American schools have always offered what might be deemed vocational courses--home ec, shop class, photography, etc. Most students in an auto shop class are unlikely to become ASE-certified mechanics. For most, these vocational classes are about learning general skills that translate to many facets of life--teamwork, problem solving, a sense of accomplishment that comes from doing a job correctly.
Education for education's sake serves the individual--but more importantly, it serves the general public. It's an intellectual foundation that liberates a person of even the most humble origins to rise above his/her station and allows them, if they so choose, to reach his/her intellectual potential.
Short-Changed By Career Tracking
In contrast, a strictly vocational education tracks students into paths of labor based on their family's financial and/or social status. Such a system could deprive society of innovators and surgeons and entrepreneurs who were pre-ordained to dig ditches by an educational bureaucrat.
A public education system that eschews education for education's sake no longer serves the public interest. Instead, it becomes a Chamber of Commerce subsidy that is ripe for corruption.  
A local school focusing on culinary skills would be of great value to a restaurateur. An ample supply of graduates ready to work in his restaurants could drastically lower his employee training costs. Would our restaurateur lobby a school board and contribute to campaigns to ensure such a school existed? And would a school board subject to such influence create vocational programs that benefit their backers' economic interest, rather than their students' long-term economic interest?
Given everything we know about government, it's reasonable to assume that would be the case.
Plainly, Mike Flanagan is wrong. The public education system, the one we as taxpayers fund, exists to educate for education's sake. This has been the goal and purpose of public education in Anglo-American society for as long as capitalism has been our economic system. To radically alter that now would be a huge disservice, not only to students, but to our nation's long-term social and economic fortunes.


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