Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

The Civic Purpose of Public Education

by Don Cooper, Director of Civic Initiatives, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

One of the challenges of public education is that the people and stakeholders involved in it—parents, students, teachers, business and industry, colleges and universities, taxpayers, elected officials, and others—cannot reach an agreement on its purpose.

Broad-stroke consensus exists on public education’s importance: Education is the key to a brighter future, both for the student and the student’s community. Beyond this, consensus quickly breaks down. Parents and teachers often prioritize the care, custody, and social aspects that a school provides for kids during the day; many of life’s challenges that students face today must first be addressed by teachers before learning can take place. Business and industry too often see our public schools in the limited view of workforce preparation, focusing on the technical skills that students will need for the jobs of tomorrow. Taxpayers and elected officials seek a return on the investment of public funds, measured in standardized test scores, in core subject areas like English language arts and mathematics that narrow both the curriculum and the student experience.

Far too often the civic purpose of public education is left out of the discussion.

Our nation’s founding generation thought about public education differently than we do today. While each of the contemporary stakeholders’ needs from public education are, indeed, a benefit to students and society, our founders knew that the key to maintaining a self-governing nation is the transmission of democratic values through the generations. Preparing people to participate in a civil society was the purpose, not an afterthought. 

Through state constitutions and the Northwest Ordinance, the founders’ charge to us was that the next generation of citizens must not only be well-informed to participate in democracy, but also rightly oriented. Upcoming citizens must understand both how and why our nation was founded, the purpose of a federal system’s limitations and divisions of power, and the importance of the rule of law. They should learn to value the importance of their participation both in government and civic organizations, and that this participation will strengthen their community and themselves.

In fact, the Northwest Ordinance expressed this charge with clarity: “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” This charge to mix virtues and instruction has been carried forward in each subsequent iteration of our home state’s constitution, currently framing the responsibilities of the state and local institutions created by Article VIII to deliver education in Michigan today. Further underscoring its importance, state law even requires this passage to be posted in all public schools.

That enduring passage invites institutions such as the Ford’s DeVos Learning Center to join in. Not only does it acknowledge public education’s purpose—good government—it also recognizes that though public schools are the primary means to deliver education, they are not the exclusive means. Museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions, are all instruments of civil society that can provide opportunities for students to learn in addition to, and sometimes outside of, the school system with a focus not always possible in today’s public schools. At the DVLC, that focus is civics.

Leaning on both schools and other educational institutions to help prepare a rising generation of citizens also exposes students to the richness of the institutions that they will someday inherit. This exposure can both convey what’s important to the next generation and spark their imagination for what is possible, inspiring the next generation of leaders to serve.

And igniting that spark is something that we should all be able to agree on.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think the founders addressed public education at the state level, rather than the national level, of government?
  2. Are public education institutions fulfilling the charge originally set forth in the Northwest Ordinance? Why or why not?
  3. What other types of cultural institutions can enrich public education?

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