Horace Mann once wrote “the public school is the greatest discovery of man.” He understood the importance of public education as a foundation for creating a culture of democratic participation in the relatively young United States of his day. We in America have come to take public education for granted, something that is still far from reality in many parts of the world. Mann and his fellow educational dreamers took nothing for granted as they built the early system of public schooling.
This past October, the world learned of Malala Yousafzai, 14 year-old Pakistani female student and social activist, who the Taliban attempted to assassinate because of her advocacy for the right of young girls to an education. Her story reminds me that public education stands between (as Lincoln orated in the Gettysburg Address) a government “of the people, by the people, and for people” and one controlled by a privileged subset, serving the interests of not all the people – but rather a select few. Malala understood the power of learning as a tool to liberate voices of women in her own country. The Taliban feared such power in the hands of young women whom they have subjugated for generations. Education liberates.
Education also creates. In revisiting the work of Neil Postman, I discovered this description of the importance of public education in the End of Education (p.17):
“Public education does not serve a public, it creates a public. The question is, What kind of public does it want?”
America’s public educational system serves children in what some call Statue of Liberty schools, ones whose doors are open to all regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, religion, handicap, or economic background. While we certainly need to answer Postman’s question as we work to un-anchor from the low orbit test prep curricula and factory schools of the late 20th century, we should also acknowledge that we have much to be thankful for when it comes to the work of America’s educators, its young people, and the communities that support our schools in creating a public for and of America.
Over time, we’ve pushed our doors open to the children of immigrants, to females, to those with handicaps, to children living in poverty, to those representing any religious belief or none at all, and to young people who once were segregated for no reason other than color. Our educational system is unique that way and we should celebrate its success in sustaining the Republic, even as we seek to advance the possibilities of our public education system as a space for contemporary learners. What we have here doesn’t exist everywhere.
So, here are the 11 reasons I’m thankful for American education.
- In the People’s Republic of China, the decision was made in 2007 to fund nine years of compulsory public education for the 80% of young people who live in rural poverty and cannot afford the many fees attached to schooling in China or have access to quality education in general.
- In India, less than 40% of adolescents attend school. An increased commitment of India to educating its young people has resulted in only 9.6 million school children not being enrolled in school at all.
- In Mexico, only 68 % of children completing first grade will complete nine years of education. Compulsory education now extends to 8 years of schooling, a recent extension across the country.
- In Afghanistan, only 14% of female children are enrolled in primary school.
- In Morocco, approximately 40% of females between the ages of 15-24 are illiterate.
- In Saudi Arabia women attend gender-segregated schools and are prohibited from studying architecture, engineering, and journalism.
- In Japan, gender gaps in society, workforce, and education continue into this century. Women make up only 38% of students enrolled in Japanese universities as compared to 54% of college students in the United States.
- In South Korea, performance on exit exams is considered a “life and death” matter. Parental pressure and personal pressure lead to high suicide rates, inflated grades, and enrollment of significant numbers of students in private tutorial schools. Even the American military limits operations to provide maximum quiet on exam day.
- In Finland, 42% of teenagers in school reported being intoxicated within the last thirty days, more than double the U.S. reported rate.
- In Germany, most “special needs” students attend “special schools” that only serve students who have learning or emotional difficulties.
Bashing public education has become a national sport for media and politicians who compete 24/7 for public market share. While our public education system certainly has room for improvement across multiple factors, we continue to educate far more of our young people for more school years than either India or China. Our best students may not be as academically driven as South Korea’s best or as academically successful as the Finns, but overall our young people are far less self-abusive teenagers. Our young women today have far more educational and career opportunities than their peers in Japan, the Middle East or on the African continent. Children who enter the United States from third world countries are better served in our Statue of Liberty Schools than in their own countries. We are dedicated to including, not excluding, special needs and immigrant children in our regular school communities and to keeping learning doors open rather than closed. And, of course, there’s number …
11. America’s dreamers created the reality that all young people, regardless of class, gender, race, ethnicity or religion are afforded the right to a free, public education. This gift, I do not take for granted.