When our forefathers planned this new nation back in 1775-1776, it was obvious that there were certain necessities for having a democratic form of government. Educating the population was one of those.

In the United States public education is not limited to elementary/secondary education. It runs from kindergarten to graduate school and beyond. We use public tax money to support each level of education and that makes it “public.”

Thomas Jefferson said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Later, he added, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.” The primary reason for public education was to create citizens who would have enough knowledge and understanding to participate in their government. Thus, education for all is a foundation pillar of democracy.

Elementary and secondary education in the United States is focused on education for citizenship. We teach communication, World and American History, government, and a number of other courses that are necessary so students can know and understand our society and how the government works.

As a follow-up to citizenship training we have vocational/technical and community colleges created to educate the population into the local job market. The curricula of each is designed with that in mind. Since no two communities have the same job opportunities, no two vocational/community colleges offer exactly the same curriculum.

Does that extend to the college/university level? Indeed, it does. Public Universities are designed to meet the needs of the state where they reside. One state university’s motto is, “The borders of our university extend to the borders of our state.” They are saying that their purpose is to provide whatever advanced education is needed by the people of their state.

How about graduate schools? The majority are “public.” If we need more doctors, dentists, engineers, teachers, etc., they produce what is needed.

Does private education have a place in the field of education? Of course it does. Harvard University was our first private educational institution and its primary purpose in the beginning was to educate ministers to take care of the souls of the people. That was also true with Furman University in South Carolina, Wake Forest in North Carolina and many others around the country. The world of private education is broader now but religious training is still its base.

In business and industry, our purpose is to produce a product that the public will buy. Production is our process and the individual buyer is the consumer. It is an easy step from that reasoning to say that knowledge is public education’s product and the student is the consumer. Not so. Public education’s product IS the student and society IS the consumer. At the elementary/secondary level the primary purpose is to produce a graduate who will have the knowledge and understanding to participate in governmental process, a citizen. At higher levels we are educating for a broader purpose that necessitates an understanding of the economy and teaches the skills necessary to be of service to society.

Comparing test scores of secondary school students has become a national obsession. The secondary education systems of other countries do not have the same focus as ours, preparing citizens. Thus, to compare our student scores with others is like comparing apples and oranges.

Has our education system failed us? Not at all. It has produced a 240-year experiment in self-governance that has freedom at its foundation. It has also produced the highest standard of living in the history of the world. Should our educational approach be changed to meet the new challenges of the 21st century? Of course it should. That is why the ability to change with the new demands of society is built into the system. Smart people those forefathers.
— You can reach Dr. Mark L. Hopkins at presnet@presnet.net. Books by Hopkins, “Journey to Gettysburg, The Wounds of War, The World as it was When Jesus Came,” and “Facts & Opinions on the Issues of our Time,” can be acquired at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and through the E-mail above.