The race is on. Forty-one states have just finished the mad dash to submit proposals for the Obama education initiative, Race to the Top. Now that the first round of competition is over we should be asking the basic questions that got lost in the flurry: What is the true purpose of all this reform? What should it be? Why do we send our kids to school?

The answer given for decades, from the national to the local level, from Democrats and Republicans, is that education prepares the young for the world of work and enables the nation to maintain global economic pre-eminence. There is an occasional nod to the civic purpose of schooling in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, but that goal pales next to the economic justification.

To be sure, economic prosperity has long provided a potent incentive to fund and improve schools in the United States, but it is only one of multiple goals of education in a democracy. The architects of public education knew this. In a landmark report to the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1848, state Secretary of Education Horace Mann did make the economic argument — original at the time — that education is the great equalizer, fostering social mobility and national prosperity. But this economic goal was embedded in a celebration of the physical, intellectual, civic and moral goals of schooling.

We need to reclaim that broader vision, for we have terribly narrowed our thinking about school. Our tunnel vision is dangerous because the reasons we give for education affect what we teach and how we teach it. Vocational education provides a cautionary tale of what a strictly economic focus can yield.

When vocational education was being formulated in the first decades of the last century, some proponents had an egalitarian conception of a curriculum that integrated the manual and mental to foster intellectual, social and civic development. But as VocEd materialized, much of that ideal was lost to a strictly functional job-training curriculum that, ironically, wasn’t very successful at preparing students for the new work of the day. A major effort of recent reforms of vocational education (now called career and technical education) has been to recapture some of those earlier goals. The best education for work is one that is broader than job preparation, that emphasizes literacy, quantitative reasoning, problem solving, creativity — and that gets at all of this through a range of human expression, from mathematics to the arts.

Economic preparation is a primary goal of every nation in the world today, repressive societies included. Shouldn’t education in a democracy have a richer set of goals? Even if our policymakers seem to lose track of this broader purpose, students and their parents on the whole do not.

I’ve taught for 40 years — kindergarten to graduate school to adult literacy programs — and one thing that has become very clear to me is the multiple purposes and meanings that education can have for all involved. To be sure, even young people are aware that school will affect their chance of getting ahead. “Math will take you a long way in life,” a middle-school student tells me. But there are many other reasons that people take to education. It provides intellectual stimulation (“She’s teaching us new things that we couldn’t do before,” another middle-schooler observes). Students enjoy the protected social setting and the connections they establish with adults. Many people, young and not so young, discover a passion. Our worlds get bigger. School is one of the primary institutions where we define who we are.

What is telling is that even in programs explicitly targeted to economic advancement — community college certification programs, for example — there is typically much more going on than job preparation. Students report that they are going back to school to be better able to raise their kids, or to feel better about themselves, or to open up new options — economic options, but intellectual and social ones as well. In fact, one of the things that strike me about working with adults returning to school is how often the experience leads them to re-evaluate themselves, to see themselves in a new light.

The way we express the purpose of schooling shapes our collective definition of the educated person. If we want our youth to thrive and stay in school, the goal of all current school reforms, then we need an education policy that embodies the full range of reasons people go to school in a free society.

Mike Rose is on the faculty of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA and is the author of “Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us.”

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