What Does it Mean for Schools to Support the Common Good?

“What use would a carpenter have for biology?”

“What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1?”

While these quotes might sound like something your jaded uncle would say at a Christmas get together, they were actually spoken by a defense attorney in Pennsylvania this week. The lawyer was defending Republican legislators who have been sued by many Pennsylvania school districts for creating a school funding structure so inequitable that some claim it violates the state’s constitution.

When asked why the above questions were relevant, the lawyer said that the trial was about whether Pennsylvania was meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of education. Explaining further, he said, “The question in my mind is, thorough and efficient to what end? To serve the needs of the Commonwealth. Lest we forget, the Commonwealth has many needs. There’s a need for retail workers, for people who know how to flip a pizza crust.”

While Pennsylvania, and all places, surely do have a need for retail workers and those who know how to flip a pizza, the idea that this means schools don’t have an obligation to teach all students such basic topics as Algebra 1 and biology is narrow minded, misguided, and in direct conflict with the American Dream and children’s fundamental rights. (How’s that for a thesis statement?)

Kids Are Kids

I took Algebra 1 in seventh grade at a weird, small Catholic school, taught by an intense man who loved to assign convoluted sets of homework problems (“Page 157, do questions 1, 6, 8 through 12, 4, 7, and 21”) and who more than once marveled aloud at the engineering marvel that was the Chunnel. For a lot of students, Algebra 1 is taken the first year of high school. These are mostly 13- and 15-year-olds that we’re talking about. While I did spend a bit of time outside of class working with my mom (a former teacher) to get my head around the basics of multiplying two negative numbers together, my friends and I spent most of our time in that class joking about our teacher’s strange but charming obsession with the Chunnel and drawing stick figures on block erasers (which we would then throw at our crushes across the room). We screwed around, and you could look at us at that time and say that we weren’t getting anything out of Algebra 1 and that it would be more efficient to put us in a pizza-tossing class so we could learn some marketable skills.

Today, the kids in that Algebra 1 class have gone on to be sports management professionals, bankers, accountants, or fancy grad students (or, in my case, enrolled at Iowa). Maybe a few of the ones I’ve lost touch with are screwups, but for the most part everyone is doing well, and for the most part you would not have guessed that from looking at how we acted in Algebra 1. But we were in Algebra 1 anyway, and it helped us all get where we are today. The point is that you really can’t know how a kid is going to end up when they’re 13, 15, or even 18. Kids are kids — they screw things up and goof around and don’t really have life figured out yet. They’re kids.

This point seems obvious and trite. But when it comes to talking about what kids should be required or expected to learn in public schools, many people seem to operate on an assumption that teachers, or maybe tests, can correctly identify, basically, which kids are smart and which kids will be screwups. Given this identification, these people then assume we can accurately tailor the education provided to these kids by giving the smart kids smart classes and prepping the screwups to work as pizza tossers. They think this system helps avoid “wasting” “smart” classes on screwups who will never be bankers. In addition to devaluing the hard work that it takes to work in food services, these assumptions are both factually wrong (screwing around in Algebra 1 doesn’t doom you to any particular fate) and morally cruel.

The Right to an Open Future

In the Foundations of Education course I helped teach last year, I lectured on the competing educational philosophies of the Progressive Era (~1920s). The Progressive Era is big and complicated and interesting, in education and beyond, but the main (simplified) thrust of my little lecture was that there was an ideological tension between the educational philosophies of John Dewey and Charles Elliot. Elliot, a fancy guy who was the president of Harvard, wanted schools to be efficient and produce good workers. The kids who were smart enough could get fancier classes, but everyone else would basically be taught to show up to work on time and listen to orders carefully. He also made it pretty explicit that he mainly thought immigrants were the ones who needed to learn how to follow orders.

Dewey, another fancy guy who taught philosophy at UChicago, had a sprawling educational philosophy that is hard to summarize completely (the Dewey scholars in my program will come after me for oversimplifying things). Basically, he wanted schools and lessons to be very focused on the natural interests of each individual student. Dewey believed schools should focus on cultivating students’ curiosity and their interests, and provide them with the tools to understand and shape the world around them through practical and hands-on learning. Dewey’s philosophy emphasized the importance of democracy and recognized that democracy requires citizens who are capable of understanding the world around them, critiquing it, and shaping it to be better, as they see fit. The job of schools, then, was to help students develop as people and citizens fitting this description.

There’s a concept I’m a big fan of called a child’s right to an open future. It was first coined by a scholar named Feinberg in 1980, and I like the name because it’s so descriptive and evocative. A child’s right to an open future is the right to have their future open to them, to not have adults artificially limit the type of adult a child might become. It is a “autonomy right in trust”; children can’t exert much autonomy as children, but their rights can still be violated when adults limit their future autonomy.

Elliot’s approach to education (which sounds a lot like what the attorney in Pennsylvania is advocating for) envisions a static society with static needs, needs that we can cleanly slot individual kids into while they’re kids. Dewey’s approach envisions a dynamic society that is constantly growing and changing as we as a society learn and grow and change. In addition to just sounding more sensible and more inspiring, Dewey’s approach strives to give children an open future. Elliot’s, and the education imagined by the lawyer above, strives to close off children’s possible futures. It assumes a fate for a kid at the age of 13, 15, or 18 and then ensures that fate by limiting kids’ potential.

To me, the right to an open future is essential to that nebulous thing we call the American Dream. Part of the Dream is the hope to be better off than your parents, to be upwardly mobile. But another part of it is the freedom to be the sort of person you want to be. The Elliot/Pennsylvania lawyer approach to education actively works against this understanding of the American Dream. It hurts mobility and it hurts freedom. It ignores that kids are kids, and it ignores that people are people — individuals with full lives and interests outside of their career. I don’t use concepts from Algebra 1 every day, but I do use them pretty frequently! And, perhaps more importantly, my understanding of the world is richer for having taken the class.

The Pennsylvania lawyer certainly seems to think that the only reason a person might want to learn anything is that it might be relevant to their job. This ignores people’s innate curiosity and interest in the world around them and reduces all of education and schooling down to a capitalistic, worker-producing machine. It’s incredibly wrongheaded in nearly every way.

What Is the Common Good?

The Pennsylvania lawyer frames his argument in terms of schools’ interest in supporting the common good, or “the needs of the Commonwealth.” People throw this idea around all the time in education circles, but it often means different things to different people. It’s an example of a good sounding but vaguely defined term that anyone can use to make their position sound appealing. My undergraduate training in philosophy taught me to abhor a vaguely defined term, and in that spirit I want to quickly lay out a few different ways that I’ve seen people use the phrase “the common good” when it comes to schooling. I wouldn’t say that these are necessarily the only ways the term is used, but I think breaking down the term like this can help bring a bit of conceptual clarity to debates around the purpose of schooling and can help expose the underlying cruelty and stupidity in arguments like Elliot’s and the Pennsylvania lawyer’s.

All of these conceptions of the common good see schools as providing some sort of service to society, to “the commons.” But the way they understand that service, and how they understand society, varies.

(1) Schools Produce People Society Needs

First, schools can be seen as supporting the common good by producing people with the sorts of skills society needs. The shitty version of this conception is the Elliot/Pennsylvania lawyer argument that I’ve criticized enough. The more charitable and less awful version of this conception is that schools serve the common good by educating doctors and inventors and chefs and artists who do cool things that make society better.

Another form of this argument, one you don’t see as much in today, is that education produces a social class of the educated elite who are then able to run society for all the other, less educated, less elite people. If you read Charles Dorn’s book For the Common Good, you can see this version in action in the founding of Georgetown University.

(2) Schools Create Good People

You’ll often hear a version of this conception of the common good when talking to parents who have kids in school but who aren’t themselves educational policy wonks (or weirdos who study education in grad school). Basically, the argument here goes that schools can help the common good by teaching kids how to be good people. You can think of this in terms of social-emotional learning — schools teach kids how to get along with people who are different from them, how to work in a group, how to control their emotions, how to act in public, and so on.

(3) Schools Create Good Citizens

Finally, schools can support the common good by pursuing Dewey’s vision of schooling, by helping kids become well-rounded, curious, informed adults who can make competent evaluations of society and the world and actively work to change the world for the better, as they see fit. Being a “good person” is related but distinct from being this sort of person, a necessary but not sufficient precondition.

Conclusion: Schools Aren’t Just for Workers

The non-cruel versions of all three of these conceptions are good things that schools should consider and do. But I think it’s important to consider all three when thinking about what schools should do for society and for individuals. Schools can help provide the skills that society needs right now while also helping kids become the best versions of themselves, citizens that can debate and argue and work together to make the world better. Education and life are about more than just being a good worker, and schools should be too. Let’s hope the Pennsylvania court doesn’t buy Mr. Pennsylvania Lawyer’s argument that education should be hollow and transactional.

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Graduate student studying the history, philosophy, and sociology of civic and moral education in America. Interested in policy, culture, and cute cats.

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Logan Drake

Logan Drake

Graduate student studying the history, philosophy, and sociology of civic and moral education in America. Interested in policy, culture, and cute cats.

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