What is the purpose of an educated population?

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I recently had the opportunity to discuss the value of education with a bright college student. She was reading the Horace Mann’s writings for a history course. The students were asked to discuss why you might want an educated population. My young colleague, who grew up always thinking that education is important, was struck by what she thought was an obvious idea. Of course you would want an educated population, she argued, because then you have an educated population. (I respectfully did not point out the circular reasoning in her argument). Yet, as we delved a bit deeper, she discovered that there is more to the question than meets the eye.

To quote Horace Mann, stated the student, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” Education is a tool for fighting inequity. It provides an opportunity for individuals to be socially mobile. Fair and equitable education allows individuals to have a chance to do anything.

Futhermore, the student argued that in a democratic society, if you are going to give the populous the power to choose lawmakers and to vote on policy, then it is important that they are educated. In other words they need to understand who they are choosing to lead society. Furthermore, she argued, you need an educated population to understand the choices your representatives are making so that policy is not simply dictated. These are all valid points. Though given the large electorate that repeatedly vote against their own interests, most of whom were educated in our school system, education is either not enough or in this country or is inadequate to create an electorate that understands their leadership. It is clear that misinformation and propaganda can influence even an educated population.

Something to think about is not just an education but the quality and scope of an education. One might forget that the Soviets under Stalin were part of universal education as were the Germans under Hitler. Controlling the education system is an opportunity to control what people think. Furthermore, an educated class can still elect or support a dictator. Germany was highly educated when Hitler was elected.

As recently shown by the Trump administration, education is a broad term under which propaganda can be served up like candy. The 1776 Commission attempted to rewrite history. Highlights of the new history curriculum included equivocating multiculturalism with Nazism and slavery. The American Historical Association summed up the report well in its reaction stating: “The report actually consists of two main themes. One is an homage to the Founding Fathers, a simplistic interpretation that relies on falsehoods, inaccuracies, omissions, and misleading statements. The other is a screed against a half-century of historical scholarship, presented largely as a series of caricatures, using single examples (most notably the “1619 Project”) to represent broader historiographical trends.” Upon taking office President Biden quickly dissolved the commission and essentially tossed the report in the trash. Yet, had Trump been re-elected or the report come at the beginning of his tenure, we may have had the beginnings of a universally educated population that was told that “the Civil Rights Movement was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders,” and that “a radical women’s liberation movement reimagined America as a patriarchal system.” (Read more in Peter Greene’s analysis of the report here).

So, what is in an education matters, too. Of course, that wasn’t the question that the history professor asked, but it is an important one to consider. The purpose of education has been long debated (the first third of Diane Ravitch’s book Left Back has a solid summary of this debate). We want our population to be educated. An education that prepares us to live in and understand the world is important. Our community members need to not only have a skill but understand, at least to some extent, how to think. In the knowledge economy, in particular, an educated population is more flexible in dealing with changing job needs.

So, yes, of course my young friend was correct. You need an educated population because you want your population to be educated. It can be an equalizer. Education can provide an opportunity. Education can support a democratic society. Why then is it so de-valued in the United States? Look for my thoughts and those of my young friend on this idea in part two.

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