“What Is The Purpose, The Aim Of Public Education?” — Every School Board Candidate Should Answer

In on-going commentary, Dan and Duane have identified themselves as “New Earth” creationists, who believe the earth is 6000 old.  I called this view an anti-science, astonishing, view to hold in 2009.  Eric asks, “Do Dan and Duane’s kids need to be fixed by public schools?”, and says, “This is an important issue for a school board candidate.”

My response:

According to the principle of local control, a big responsibility of school board members is to set local school policy.  In order to set policy,  every school board member should have an answer to the question:  “What Is The Purpose, The Aim Of Public Education?”

In the example that Eric gives, of a school board pressed to deal with the concerns of “New Earth” parents, I feel, in this matter as in other school matters, policy should flow from a clear understanding of the aim of the system.  In answer to Eric’s question, if Dan and Duane were living in Kettering and, if I was pressed as a board member to make “New Earth” policy, my point of view would be that the belief that the earth is 6000 years old is a religious belief.

If Dan and Duane want their children to be indoctrinated into their belief that the earth is 6000 years old, as a board member, I would resist any proposal that would use taxpayer money to finance such an indoctrination.  It is not the aim of public education to promote a specific religion, or a specific religious belief.

I wouldn’t need to have a complete understanding of aim to rule on the Dan and Duane issue — I would just need to know what the aim is not.  But a good understanding of aim / purpose is crucial in order to make valid planning about the future.  It is impossible to make good judgments about the future without a guiding aim / purpose with which to evaluate those judgments.  The aim for public education has become lost in the blizzard of state tests that has confused the whole question of school purpose.  I write about it in this post:   A Great Question: How Can We Tell If a School Is Excellent?

Aim should guide any system — establishing aim / purpose, of course, is a  W. Edward Deming principle — and aim should come first.  Deming said, “Without an aim, there is no system.” (I can’t imagine a definition of an aim for public education that could justify taxpayer’s money used to accommodate a parent’s view that the earth is 6000 years old.)

The children of Dan and Duane, and all children, in my view, if they attend Kettering Schools, because of their education, hopefully, should gain the skills and experience needed to grow into their potential and gain the skills and practice needed to become thoughtful, active citizens.  Our system of public education should be producing leaders, independent thinkers.  This should be an aim of the system.  It should be producing individuals well grounded in contemporary science, well practiced in the use of democracy, and well prepared with understanding of their world — prepared and inclined to be effective and contributing citizens in a democratic society.

Defining quality, defining aim, is the first step to transforming public education, and defining quality is a community responsibility.  Defining quality, defining aim is essential for local control of public education to have any meaning.   Scoring well on state tests is only a small part of how quality public education should be defined.   A community discussion concerning school purpose, concerning the future of public education, I believe, is a valuable conversation essential to have as part of a school board election process.

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8 Responses to “What Is The Purpose, The Aim Of Public Education?” — Every School Board Candidate Should Answer

  1. Eric says:

    Q: Do Dan and Duane’s kids need to be fixed by public schools?
    A: The children of Dan and Duane, and all children, if they attend Kettering Schools, because of their education, hopefully, will gain the skills and experience needed to grow into their potential and will gain the skills and practice needed to become thoughtful, active citizens.

    How would “thoughtful, active citizens” address Bob Garbe’s concerns (see below; Bob does a better job raising his concerns than Dan and Duane do.)
    Evolution is useless in the workplace
    March 7, 2000 testimony to the Ohio State Board of Education

    Is the purpose of public education to train citizens who believe Dan and Duane are ignorant? Who are contemptuous or dismissive of their concerns? Or citizens who listen carefully and respond respectfully and creatively within the limits of law?

  2. Stan Hirtle says:

    Science can not prove “blind, pitiless indifference” any more than it can prove intelligent design. These are faith statements, as is Garbe’s ideas linking the decline in student achievement to belief in evolution.

    Garbe also wants to hire people with ideas like his own. This doesn’t prove the ideas either.

    What should public schools do about faith statements? They do not enforce them. For instance they would not teach kids that there should or shouldn’t be a pope. They can teach what happened historically when those who thought there should fought with those who thought there shouldn’t. Sometimes religions can conflict with other subjects. The founder of the Nation of Islam taught that original humans were black and that white mutant evildoers had enslaved them. There was no known historical basis for that belief, and schools should not pretend that there is, or that they should teach both and let the best idea win. Similarly believing the earth is 6000 years old because the Bible says so is not in tune with what science says now. People can believe that as a faith statement and that faith is better than science, or that belief in evolution makes people worse, but it is still not science.

    Public schools do not exist to make sure that children believe the faith statements of their parents, say about whether there should be popes or bishops. Hopefully the children will be able to evaluate that on their own, or at least deal with what social groups they care about say about it. Whether people believe people who have different faith statements than themselves are ignorant may not be something that can be dealt with other than teaching us to respect differences and diversity. This is a faith statement that some will disagree with also. However while popes and bishops may be differences that there is less passion about now than there used to be some of these other differences have passion with them, including this one. It sounds like the position is often that faith in ideas contrary to science is more important than science, at least involving some issues. Even Biblical literalists accept some science, and some even work in scientific areas, usually those that do not involve conflict. Garbe is a pharmacist and knows chemistry, for instance. Conflicts between faith and science may be something young people end up understanding and deciding about. No doubt communities are important in helping people decide such things, so it is not just thoughts or thinking skills.

  3. Eric says:


    Should public schools teach that popes and bishops were responsible for “dark ages that persisted until the enlightenment?”

    But back the prompt, let’s juxtapose the core of Garbe’s concerns with Michael Ruse.

    Ruse: If teaching “God exists” is teaching religion – and it is – then why is teaching “God does not exist” not teaching religion? Obviously it is teaching religion. But if science generally and Darwinism specifically imply that God does not exist, then teaching science generally and Darwinism specifically runs smack up against the First Amendment.

    Note: Ruse is objecting to the “new atheist’s” (Dawkins, Shermer, etc) claim that evolution implies atheism.

    Garbe: In the areas of faith I do not want the State of Ohio or the public school system advocating philosophical theories hidden in science that contradict or insult the faith I impart on my children. When the Board of Education advocates for the theory of evolution by giving it the status of required learning then the board is acting to divide major portions of the community. This split is evident by the flight of children to alternative schooling. An illustration of how destructive this theory is to society can be measured by the increase in amoral attitudes of many young and old alike. The news papers are replete with reports of the consequences of an “anything goes” philosophy rooted in the hypothesis that we evolved from hydrogen.

    Note: Garbe is objecting to evolution based on the new atheist’s (Dawkins, Shermer, etc) claim that evolution implies atheism.

    So, how ought we teach evolution so it doesn’t become a proslytizing tool on behalf of the new atheistis? Ought Dawkin’s and Shermer’s books be in school libraries? Is Inherit the Wind–which deliberately ridicules fundamentalist Christians for political reasons–approprate for a school play or classroom video?

  4. dollslikeus says:

    I believe what is written in the bible is God’s interputation of how the world was made . I also believe what is written in text books is mans interrputation of how the world was made . Guess what man wasn’t there when the world was made God was belive a eye witness to how the world was made or believe the person whomade the world tough choice .
    I go for the eye witness but nowhere in the bible does it tell us how old the world is only God knows that we are not as smart as God , So I think the 6 thousand years was mans idea of how long we have been here not Gods . But I believe strongly in Adam and Eve being everybody’s grandparents all races all people the building of the temple caused us to change colors and speak different languages because we defied God when we build it . We figured if we could build a high enough temple we could be as good as God big mistake,.

  5. Stan Hirtle says:

    Not sure about the Dark Ages question, particularly since much of what learning there was went on in monastaries. Can you teach about the wars popes started or intimidating Gallileo? Sure.

    Dawkins says that the universe as science knows it, including evolution, is consistent with “blind pitiless indifference.” His faith statement is that this is in fact how it is, although we don’t know how to prove or disprove such a statement scientifically. I guess Garbe agrees with him that evolution implies atheism but has a different faith statement. Many Christians have no problem with evolution, seeing it as a how rather than a why. Garbe also connects evolution with declining test scores and an anything goes philosophy responsible for the evils of society. Any of that can be studied and debated in social studies or philosophy. It’s not science.

    Should books someone doesn’t agree with be in the libraries? Sure. Should public schools put on “Inherit the Wind” or “Godspell” as a school play (for different reasons)? Or maybe “To Kill a Mockingbird?” Sure. Should they not put on Hamlet because someone disagrees with murder? Schools don’t exist to indoctrinate kids in what the majority wants to indoctrinate them in (or what comes out of a political process as acceptable to highly motivated minorities, which is likely to be meaningless platitudes), or to shelter them against bad implications of bad ideas. That approach is self defeating.

  6. Eric says:

    Dark Ages … much of what learning there was went on in monastaries.

    So Roger Bacon is out, Francis Bacon is in. And taxpayers will support public schools whose graduates can’t comprehend West Wing:

    BARTLET: Did you study St. Augustine at Stanford?
    JOEY: Yes sir.
    BARTLET: Thomas Aquinas?
    JOEY: Yes sir.
    BARTLET: Two pretty smart guys, right?
    JOEY: Yes sir.
    BARTLET: They believed in that part of the Old Testament which said, “Who sheddeth a man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed.”
    JOEY: And Immanuel Kant said that the death penalty is a categorical imperative. But, Mr. President, those writings are from other centuries.

    Garbe also connects evolution with declining test scores

    Keep in mind that Garbe was arguing against an exagerated (in his view) emphasis on the value of teaching evolution. Thus his context contradicting claims of educational necessity used by “new atheists” to smuggle their philosophy into public school. School board members ought to be concerned with doing right by Bob Garbe and his children (without violating the US Constitution) and keeping Garbe’s support for his public school district at levy time.

    “Inherit the Wind” … Sure

    So Christian Fundamentalists are fair game for ridicule in public schools? Any other minorities up for targetting for attack? FWIW, here are some Alan Dershowitz quotes on Scopes: “As usual, the real story, as told in the trial transcript and its contemporaneous accounts, was more complex and far more interesting. The actual William Jennings Bryan was no simple-minded literalist. Introduction … All in all, Bryan does quite well defending his position and Darrow comes off as something of an anti-religious cynic. The law was on Darrow’s side, although it took more than half a century for the Supreme court to vindicate his position. But the primitive and misapplied evolution taught by John Scopes was neither good sciences nor good morality. ”

    BTW, Dershowitz doesn’t have much to suggest regarding the introduction of “good morality” into public education.

    How, Stan, will you convince voters to support your vision and aim for public schools with their tax money? Won’t some question the propriety of a public school system they see tolerating bigotry and graduating civic incompetents?

    If we rightly reject science lessons from Florida College in public schools, shouldn’t we also reject history lessons from the Unitarians? Not because of underlying religious motivations of their supporters, but because the lessons are bad science and bad history?

  7. Eric says:

    Here’s what I found when I Googled this: “martin sheen” “west wing” civics

    PBS Frontline: Drug Wars Transcript:

    Robert Stutman, for many years, a Drug Enforcement agent, the head of the DEA office in New York:

    “Now what’s interesting is there are very many different points of view on this issue amongst this group of people who put in, probably hundreds of years, collectively, and were willing to talk about it and discuss it, and argue it in a, in a intellectual way.

    “One of the things that bothers me is when you look at the Federal Government, and, certainly, the present political campaign, where is the discussion on this extremely important issue?

    “I will tell you the last discussion I heard. It was a very salient discussion amongst the President and senior advisors on how do we handle the drug issue in the United States, … it went on for about 15 minutes, made sense, and it was salient. Unfortunately, it was President Josiah Bartlett on The West Wing. That was the last salient discussion I’ve heard on this issue, and that part bothers me.”

    See also:
    Real Liberals versus the West Wing: “Perhaps real-life liberals should try to emulate the character of the liberals as portrayed on The West Wing–but don’t hold your breath.”
    And TIME You Could Call It the Wonk Wing: “former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers, … describes Sorkin’s approach as ‘Give me a really boring issue and let’s have a fight about it.’ … The West Wing has become our national civics lesson.”

  8. Stan Hirtle says:

    I never watched the West Wing so I have no comment on any of that or what it has to do with the debate over Biblical literalism. The Old Testament is full of death penalties, but Jesus appears to have rejected it, as with stoning the adulteress in John or telling Peter to put up his sword because those who live by the side die by the sword. Some point to a passage where Jesus tells someone it would be better for them if a millstone had been tied around their neck and they were thrown into the sea, but there is no evidence that he ever did that to anyone or approved of doing it. The Bible always has to be interpreted. In America the death penalty is so tied with race, class and police misconduct that the rest of the world that has abolished it looks better.

    It is a long time since I read the transcript of the Bryant-Darrow exchange in the actual Scopes trial or saw the movie version of Inherit the Wind, the “docu-drama” which changes the names and takes some liberties with history. I don’t remember having problems with the movie. Bryant of course backed off on the creation being in seven days (“how was there evening and morning without the sun”) saying it was only a period. And the case was overturned on appeal on other than substantive grounds, so the trial’s effect was essentially political.

    I do think that the stereotyped idea of the Scopes trial as a battle between Northern intellectual sophistication and Southern religious ignorance has made it a symbol of a culture war, particularly as evangelicals came into the economic mainstream about the time Reagan embraced them in his campaign. It has become a flash point of the culture war, which builds on and continues the civil war conflicts in a cultural forum. For this reason it doesn’t matter what actually happened or was said in the trial, or for that matter in the play. Bryant of course is a complex figure who was nominated three times for president as a populist Democrat who used Christian rhetoric against robber baron business interests (have all the Obama haters made the connection?), advocated the social gospel (he was concerned about “social Darwinism” justified the power of the rich), and ran a close race for moderator of the Presbyterian church (which was much more conservative then than now. After his death the literalist position lost ground in the mainline churches). He was not from a Southern state. The event was a media circus. The legendary Darrow-Bryan examination was eventually stricken from the court record (it makes no sense in strictly legal terms or for that matter strategy terms, as Bryan was actually a prosecutor and not a trained Biblical expert) but became the focus of media attention. Inherit the Wind is also influenced by the issues of its time since it was written during the McCarthy period, much like the Salem witch trial play the Crucible, which managed not to enrage generations of Massachusetts dwellers or to get as much flack when put on in high schools.
    I think the culture wars element of the Scopes trial continues to dominate, and unnecessarily fuel, the dispute over evolution, which is seen as a cultural insult rather than a dispute over theory and science.

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