Public Schools as a Public Good

Schools find themselves enmeshed in the difficult position of serving both collective ends and legitimate private ends, such as obtaining knowledge that secures an economically viable vocation. This situation is nothing new, but rather has been overtly addressed for centuries, including by Thomas Jefferson as he proposed an American system of primary education, which held several goals for the schools, some collective and some private in nature.72 Across many eras, school have been expected to prepare children to be economically stable adults, with marketable skills to procure their own occupational well-being. They must serve the private needs of the domestic space by preparing graduates who can navigate their home, family, and religious spaces. Simultaneously, they must produce citizens who are competent voters and capable of serving on juries and following laws. And they are guided by state constitutional provisions that require them to educate each child adequately and equitably. When we relinquish public ends in favor of fulfilling the private desires of individual consumers, we jeopardize not only commonly held public goods, but also the types of conversations and collective work that enable publicness and the defining of public goods in the first place.

Tensions between freedoms for individuals, especially those aligned with pursuing economic prosperity, and ensuring equality and opportunity for all raise the need for citizens to develop corresponding rights and responsibilities, to which we will turn later in this book. It is up to the public schools to help identify and cultivate those rights and responsibilities as well as ensure their balance. Securing individual liberties while collectively benefiting participants is central to fashioning the public good through schools.

Public schools are a public good; we have forged and continue to forge them together through public processes that themselves help to constitute us as publics both in the present and through the future citizens they develop. Within and through public schools, we deliberate, craft, and institute the goods we seek as publics. Moreover, public schools are a special public good because they impart the skills and knowledge necessary for future generations to remake themselves as publics and to deliberate upon and determine the public goods they will uphold. They are a public good that helps to ensure the formation and quality of future publics that engage in democracy to bring people together as they develop new public goods. Feinberg goes so far as to claim, “The goal of public education is to renew a public by providing the young with the skills, dispositions, and perspectives required to engage with strangers about their shared interests and common fate and to contribute to shaping it.”73 It is to defining public schools, including their connections to publics and the public good, that I turn in the next chapter, for understanding their public source and benefits gives rise to my justification for citizens’ responsibilities to support them.

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