Lately I’ve been working a side project, a lengthy encyclopedia article on religion and education in America. I’m taking a historical approach in the article and laying out a basic narrative: building a Protestant educational establishment, challenges to that establishment, and, finally, Protestant educational disestablishment. With that article in the back of my head, it has been interesting to listen to the ways Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have approached questions of education during this election. For the most part the candidates and political reporters have focused on the differences between the two. For example, this comes from the Washington Post:
President Obama and Mitt Romney agree that improving schools and providing more training is one of the keys to restoring America’s economic prowess. But their views diverge over what’s holding the country back. Obama says it’s inadequate investment. Romney says it’s the teachers unions and cumbersome bureaucracy.
In their basic stump speeches, both Romney and Obama include education among their five-point plans to turn around the economy. Obama spends more time talking about Pell grants and student assistance because he’s eager to fire up enthusiasm among young voters, who were a key to his victory four years ago. Romney emphasizes conservative themes of school choice to fire up his base.
You can check out the Obama and Romney campaign pages on education for more details on the differences between the candidates. But what is striking to me, as someone who has been thinking about the history of education in America lately, is what both men share in common. They both put education in economic terms. The goal is to make good on an investment. Obama’s site explains how the president wants to invest in community colleges to ensure folks can find good jobs. Romney wants to ensure students find jobs when they graduate so they can get a return on their investment.
Compare this with Noah Webster’s view of the purpose of education (1790):
Every small district should be furnished with a school, at least four months in a year; when boys are not otherwise employed. This school should be kept by the most reputable and well informed man in the district. Here children should be taught the usual branches of learning; submission to superiors and to laws; the moral or social duties; the history and transactions of their own country; the principles of liberty and government. Here the rough manners of the wilderness should be softened, and the principles of virtue and good behaviour inculcated. The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.
Such a general system of education is neither impracticable nor difficult; and excepting the formation of a federal government that shall be efficient and permanent, it demands the first attention of American patriots. Until such a system shall be adopted and pursued; until the Statesman and Divine shall unite their efforts in forming the human mind, rather than in loping its excressences, after it has been neglected; until Legislators discover that the only way to make good citizens and subjects, is to nourish them from infancy; and until parents shall be convinced that the worst of men are not the proper teachers to make the best; mankind cannot know to what a degree of perfection society and government may be carried. America affords the fairest opportunities for making the experiment, and opens the most encouraging prospect of success.
What a difference. “The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities”–so much for those community colleges and returns on investment. It’s all about your virtue and how your virtue shapes society, not the market. As Webster saw it, the goal of education was to produce fully-fledged citizens. In his time that meant Protestant citizens, hence the need for the Statesman and Divine to work together. But what about for our time? What would “good citizens” nourished form infancy look like now? This is the important educational question of our time, as I see it. Because, as Webster says, a system of schools can produce an unknown “degree of perfection” in society and government.
For a long period in American history the goal of education was the production of proper citizens. What made a citizen proper varied over time and was a source of dispute. Protestant educational reformers sought to inculcate a non-specific Protestantism, to borrow a phrase from Tracy Fessenden, in students. Catholics pushed back. Many non-whites found the Protestant educational establishment thrust upon them. But even with the insidious and systematic power of cultural assimilation and Protestantization, American education aimed at social, civic, and cultural goals.
This election is about the economy, stupid, and so I understand why education has become a line in our national investment portfolio. But that portfolio is worthless in the hands of an atrophied civil society.