I agree with Danielle Allen that we have lost focus on the civic purpose of education. I also agree that civic preparedness is critical to democracy, so I enthusiastically endorse her approach. But I worry that, with respect to civic purpose, she asks education to do heavier lifting than it realistically can.
Allen argues that the civic conception of education is “fundamental” for addressing inequality, sets a “higher educational standard” that “requires that more resources be allocated for schools,” fosters social and political change, and justifies studying the liberal arts. But while these are all worthy ends, their link with the civic mission of education is more tenuous than she portrays. To probe the relationship between equality and civic education, for example, we need to know more about what the program of civic education requires and precisely what kind of equality we are trying to achieve. Allen invokes two standards for what education should accomplish: one is that appealed to by the CFE’s lawsuit against New York, which mentions the capacity to responsibly serve on a jury and to vote; the other is the Arendt-inspired “participatory readiness.” But both of these civic standards are too indeterminate to imply that education can fix inequality.
While political and social change are worthy ends, their connection with the civic mission of education is tenuous.
Suppose however that we accept that the civic conception of education justifies a liberal arts education through the twelfth grade. Would all students get the same education, or would schools be free to offer more advanced preparation in the liberal arts? If the latter, civic education may not have some of the egalitarian consequences Allen hopes for, since allocating more resources for poor schools would not necessarily level the playing field.
Whether the civic conception of education requires more school resources than the vocational conception also depends on the details of the latter. If vocational education means training for low-level jobs, as had been the case in New York before the CFE suit, then Allen’s point is well taken. Yet vocational education can also mean preparing students to enter a large array of jobs in a dynamic economy. This is important because circumstances change, affecting which jobs are available. Students need flexible skills and capacities that allow for growth and development, come what may. From this point of view, vocational education arguably requires not only computer science and coding, but also the ability to write, analyze, and communicate; knowledge of foreign cultures and languages; and a greater emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving rather than rote memorization. Presumably this kind of vocational education would also require allocating more resources to schools.
Indeed, because jobs are positional goods in a way that voting and jury service are not, the vocational conception of education may be a better lever for arguing for equality than the civic conception. When more knowledgeable people vote, the value of other votes is not diminished. But when many people have a college degree, the value of having only a high school degree is reduced. Since this worsens the plight of the least advantaged, there is a strong argument for giving everyone the same education: preparation for college. I would argue that both the civic and vocational conceptions should aim for this high threshold of attainment.
Just as it is not clear that the civic conception of education would lead to greater equality in schools, so it is not clear that civically educated students would vote for the more egalitarian social policies Allen promotes. She provides some data suggesting a positive correlation between humanistic education and raising voter turnouts. Getting disadvantaged students to vote in higher numbers could indeed have an influence on distributive policy, given that we know the poor are less likely than the rich to support Republican candidates, who tend to be skeptical of state welfare programs. But are these voting preferences shaped by exposure to the liberal arts or rather by social class? I suspect that Marx is the better guide here than Arendt. While there are many powerful reasons to teach and to value the liberal arts, supporting the cause of egalitarian distributive justice—which I do—is not the first one that comes to mind.