Danielle Allen posits a tension between two competing purposes for public education. On the one hand is the vocational model, which she aligns with STEM instruction, technical education, and, by implication, a capitalist “hypermeritocracy” that facilitates the direct exchange of skills for money. On the other is the participatory model, which she aligns with humanities instruction, the liberal arts, and social engagement.
But from my vantage point—deep in the daily muck and glory of the classroom—the vocational and civic purposes are intertwined and aligned. There is no battle being waged between STEM and humanities instruction. Instead, across the disciplines, we are fighting to bridge a deeper chasm between those who are educationally privileged and those who are left behind—between joyful, rigorous, authentic, liberating education and the weak tea served to so many public school students. If you are lucky enough to send your kids to one of those high-performing STEM academies, your budding technocrats are almost certainly also earning the highest SAT Verbal and AP Humanities scores as well.
Education's vocational and civic purposes are intertwined and aligned.
The tension that concerns Allen may well be real at the university level, because in higher education the sciences and humanities rely on different sources of funding. But no model for higher education funding is rooted in any state or national constitution, so that conflict seems beside the point. The question is not whether schooling promotes economic or political equality but how to achieve equality—or better yet, justice—in the process of public education itself. This is the problem driving the current controversy over the Common Core and its most widely adopted assessment, the PARCC. Supporters argue that the promise of public education is meaningless without some national, universal definition of what that education ought to comprise. They have set an extraordinarily high standard, grounded in what has historically been expected only of elite students—leaving their opponents the uncomfortable and morally indefensible position that this standard is “too equal” for less-elite kids at less-elite schools.
The Common Core STEM standards require a great deal of critical analysis, collaborative reasoning, and even rhetoric, all of which are essential to political participation—which also demands proficiency in interpreting charts and distinguishing valid conclusions about data from invalid ones. And humanities standards are driven in part by the vocational necessity of critical thinking, communication, and synthesis. The same employers championing STEM skills call for employees who read, write, speak, and collaborate effectively.
For students and parents, there is no meaningful distinction between outcomes of vocational and political readiness. A student who is ready for an upwardly mobile, economically secure job is on the path to political empowerment. By contrast, a student who has somehow been prepared for civic engagement but can’t get a job with decent health insurance is in no position to affect our political system. The idea that we can separate economic security from some other virtuous ideal of political engagement is an idea of the elite. My students need to be ready to get a job, organize a protest, and call bullshit on arguments that don’t acknowledge their reality. All of these skills are of a piece, and taken together they constitute an education.
Should my students be able to meet these standards? For me, the answer is easy. They have a right not only to be “prepared”—a word that suggests some preexisting role that awaits them—but to be ready, radically ready, to claim power and space from those who may not want to yield to them. They have a right to the standards of the elite and then some.
The hard question is not what to teach but how. How do we help traditionally underserved students master the skills and content that elite students take for granted? How can teachers strike a balance between isolating particular skills and providing rich, complex, unmediated experiences? How should we measure student learning, and when and how should we use the resulting data? If data-driven instruction is so great, why don’t elite schools use it? That is, why are schools that seek to improve their results relying on methods the most successful schools disdain?
Our students need every kind of readiness: political and economic, mathematical and rhetorical, prosaic and poetic. The important problem for educators—the only readiness problem I care about—is how we can get there for every child. I would suggest that the question Allen raises—what exactly are we readying them for?—is one that each child must answer for him or herself.