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Are We Educating For Capitalism or Democracy?

The purpose of education is democracy, not preparing children for economic success in a distant future.

This is the second post in a three-part series on the purpose of school.

In my introduction to this series I proposed "that pedagogy, policy, and politics have been isolated and protected as separate discourses—both in the hyper-local conversations of our learning communities, and in the national discourse on education," that we must "work together to bridge . . . a common conversation that identifies . . . the purpose of 'education' itself," and that an appeal to the principles of John Dewey will be the key to unlocking the many doors that have been closed. Not long after that post, I was taken by Nancy Flanagan’s invitation:

Think about this: There is almost no education policy in America written to support the creation of genuinely excellent, innovative, place-based teaching practice. In America we seem to think that the right policy has to come first—and effective practice will follow.


Flanagan has identified a powerful misconception that dominates our thoughts about national policy, classroom practice, and the relationships between them. This misconception continues to limit our thinking precisely because of a second false assumption: both education policy and teaching practice have been governed, for far too long, by a preoccupation with preparing students for a nebulously defined vision of their future as professionals.

I mean this to refer to two false premises of some school practices and most education policy: first, that the sole purpose of education is to "prepare" children, at each stage, for success in the next stage of their lives, rather than for engagement in this one, and second, that the ultimate goal of each leg in this foolish relay is exclusively, and reductively, to prepare children for economic success in the present international economy.

Flanagan is spot-on when she indicates that, "in short, before you can create good policy around teaching, you need to know what you're trying to achieve." My answer to that question is framed most powerfully by Peter Gow: "We want to see democracy, not capitalism, survive as the root, stem, leaves, and fruit of American education."

If so many of our aspirations in the classroom are governed by the service we provide to "the future"—whether that's the next grade level, college, or career—I wonder why we can't together think more creatively, and generatively, about a dynamic vision of a future students can create, rather than a static vision of a marketplace they should simply service. As Carla Rinaldi reminds us:

School is a place of culture—that is, a place where a personal and collective culture is developed that influences the social, political, and values context and, in turn, is influenced by this context in a relationship of deep and authentic reciprocity. . .

We must not forget how closely the school is connected to the society in which it is situated. The recurring question is whether the school is limited to transmitting culture or can be . . . a place where culture is constructed and democracy is put into practice.


To realize this potential to work with students, teachers, parents, and the community to create a world, Gow says that it's not enough just to educate our students—we need to add real value, cultural and even moral value, to society. This is a tall order, and not all of our constituents may fully understand it. But it's what we must do.

And Chris Lehmann, as always, gives purpose to this call to action, helping us to realize how pedagogy can promote this vision:

Schools can be places of great passion where students learn what it means to be scholar-activists, fully invested in authentic work that matters to them today, not someday. When we do this, we will fully realize the promise of the idea that school should not just be preparation for real life, but rather that school can be real life, not just after school, but all day long with students and teachers who are making meaning relevant to the lives we all are leading now, as well as growing thoughtfully into the lives we will live tomorrow.


Creating the lives they lead tomorrow, and the society in which they will lead them, should be foremost among the goals for students that we promote. Thankfully, the most forward thinking educators already recognize that students' imaginations are more valuable than their ambitions, their decision-making processes are more valuable than their products, their collaboration is more valuable than their competition, and their engagement is more valuable than their achievement.

We have come to understand that creativity, communication, critical thought, and character—as well as many the other "Cs" we might posit as "twenty-first century skills"—emerge from dynamic relationships and engaged activity among learners in a community, and not from fixed curricula designed to transmit information and skills, in a static package, from a dominant culture to its initiates. Students should not be misunderstood as apprentices to the world that we have created, but creators of the world they will inherit.

In many ways we've come to understand that the purpose of education is not "career" or "college readiness," but something more like "society readiness." But we haven't liberated our practices or our policy from the limitations of old language, and we haven’t found a way to synthesize the old view with the new. "Lately," Flanagan observes, "we seem bent on achieving uniformity and internationally competitive results. The "product" in American schools used to be good citizens. Then good workers. Now, the product is test scores and being admitted to college. And we're designing policy"—and, I would add, we often design our curricula—"to achieve those goals."

Dewey didn't see in this line of reasoning a false dichotomy, nor do I intend to construct one, between a student's preparation for the future, and engagement in her present learning:

If I were asked to name the most needed of all reforms in the spirit of education I should say: 'Cease conceiving of education as mere preparation for later life, and make of it the full meaning of the present life.' And to add that only in this case does it become truly a preparation for later life is not the paradox it seems.


Ironically, perhaps, a recent national survey of business and nonprofit leaders found that more than 90 percent of employers prioritize "a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems" among applicants. So, too, more than 90 percent of employers need applicants to demonstrate "ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning." These are not the capacities that used to define an old idea of "readiness" for the workforce. And these are not the skills to which current educational policy, or much of classroom practice following from that policy, is directed.

These are the skills required to participate as citizens in a democracy.

Click here to add committing to the Covenant to Help Inspire Learning and Development's 16 transformative education principles to your GOOD "to-do" list.

Boy learning image via Shutterstock

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