By Ryan Williams-Virden
To begin to answer this question, or move toward the more important question of what SHOULD be the purpose of public education in America, first we must start with what WAS the purpose of education in America.
Thomas Jefferson, widely considered the most adamant supporter of public education among our country’s founders, proposed a two-track school system that would separate workers from the “learned” class. Jefferson describes, “The mass of our citizens may be divided into two classes — the laboring and the learned. The laboring will need the first grade of education to qualify them for their pursuits and duties; the learned will need it as a foundation for further acquirements.” He went on to explain how this system would operate by “raking a few geniuses from the rubbish,” making it nearly impossible for those in the laboring track to access the opportunities, power, and wealth that are often tied to educational attainment.
Contrary to what many believe, the Constitution of the United States does not explicitly guarantee the right to a quality education. Challengers to the quality of education have had to utilize the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to work towards educational equity. This has left Jefferson’s two tracks largely in place. In 2009 a study of urban and suburban school districts showed that the high school graduation rate in urban schools was 60.9% compared to 75.3% in suburban schools. A 2014 report from the Annie. E. Casey Foundation found that 80% of low-income students are reading below grade level, compared to 49% of students in high-income families. And, because of how systems stratify society, these results are compounded by race. For example, an amazingly comprehensive study led by researchers from Stanford University, Harvard University, and the Census Bureau found that black men born into wealthy families are more likely to end up poor as an adult, which was not true for their white counterparts. On the other hand, white men born into poverty are more likely than their black counterparts to move up the social ladder.
The failure to truly educate all people has resulted in schools becoming sites of social reproduction. The wealthy and powerful send their children to schools with other wealthy and powerful children. They are taught the skills and norms necessary to maintain their status, power, and wealth. Meanwhile, the children of the working-class and poor go to schools with other working-class and poor families. They are taught a curriculum that represents the story of the wealthy and powerful. They go to schools that set the lowest possible expectations and have police patrolling their hallways. It is clear Jefferson’s tracks are alive and well.
It’s hard to come to a conclusion other than the purpose of public education is to maintain the social order, keeping power and resources in the hands of those who have traditionally hoarded both. Threats to this arrangement have been many, from the enslaved learning to read under the threat of death to the Black Panther Party’s community schools to ethnic studies programs like the Mexican-American studies program in Arizona, oppressed communities have always understood education has a pivotal role in the struggle to end oppression. Similarly, those in power have taken steps to leverage the power of the state, and its institutions, against upward mobility movements. Slave owners brutally punished or even killed slaves who pursued literacy; the Black Panthers were the main target of the FBI’s COINTEL program; Arizona banned ethnic studies; and bills like the Academic Balance Bill currently being debated in Minnesota continue to pop up around the country.
It’s not often that public education is placed in this context. Typically, we talk about public education as the great equalizer, as the one thing that inherently combats oppression. But, we know that’s not true. We have to be intentional about facilitating that process. We have to bring truth-telling into the classroom. We have to engage the production of knowledge in a way that nurtures community and challenges the oppressive narratives our system has been built upon.