Education makes a huge battleground in our political sphere. People will argue fiercely over what is to be taught in school, be it evolution, religion or sex, because the children being taught are the future. They will eventually become adults and play sports, fight wars, procreate, entertain, make commerce, preach, teach, heal patients, build bridges, make legal arguments and even run governments.
One of government’s natural functions is the oversight of education. This oversight should not be exclusive. Private organizations, especially religious ones, have for centuries done excellent work in the educational sphere. But if education is to be open to everyone, then a degree of governmental involvement is necessary.
The U.S. has had a long tradition in which state and local governments provided high quality public schools. This tradition has suffered in recent decades, but we should not be so quick to give up on our public schools. Their decline has been caused, to a large extent, by the politically-based decisions of politicians affecting them.
What our public schools need are politicians who understand and actually value education. This, of course, requires a combination of intelligence and integrity, which has become quite rare in public life.
New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo is now proposing an academic system that would considerably damage our schools. He suggests that education should almost exclusively emphasize testing results. Such a policy, he argues, would make NY students more competitive with other future members of the workforce.
But education is not so simple a matter. We must understand that the purpose of education is twofold. The first aspect involves vocational training. A student needs specific career training in order to take his or her place in the workforce.
The second is more subtle. It involves the development of the mind and nurturing of the total human being. This latter aspect may be hard to quantify, but it profoundly influences that quality of the student’s future contribution to the workforce, the family and society. As Cardinal Newman observed in his treatise THE IDEA OF A UNIVERSITY, a liberal arts background will provide the physician, lawyer, engineer, teacher or cleric with fuller resources by which to assist others.
The needs of education vary according to each student. All have individual abilities, interests and needs. One program does not fit all. In deciding a few years ago that all students in New York needed Regents diplomas, the State caused many young people to drop out without receiving vocational training.
An ideal education would be based on the individual student’s needs. This may not now be possible, but certainly the system should be more student-based than it currently is.
The results of Governor Cuomo’s result-based education program would be dismal. Students would leave school with only the stress from repeated testing. They would lack the imaginative, cultural, scientific, intuitive, intellectual, athletic and social skills they need to hold jobs, raise families, run governments and cope with an ever-changing world.