What is the purpose of education?
There are several common answers to this question, usually implied but not necessarily outright spoken. For some, a K-12 education (and even a college education) is first, foremost, and primarily about preparing a young person for a job. In this worldview, education is about developing productive skills that can be used to earn a living and support a family.
For others, the purpose of education is to expose individuals to the breadth of human experience. Sometimes, this is through a specific lens driven by religious faith or set of personal values, but nonetheless the theme here is to prepare young people to be well-rounded, creative, and curious about their world and help them see themselves as part of a larger whole.
These are not mutually exclusive answers, of course. However, regardless of which answer one chooses, there is a separate, essential layer to consider. Throughout the American educational history, whether the pendulum swung toward the “vocational” or the “liberal arts” model, we have traditionally valued the role of education to help make young people into engaged citizens of our democracy.
Unfortunately, much of our K-12 system has lost connection with this purpose of educating engaged citizenry. As we’ve piled on more standardized tests and more required curriculum elements, there has become less and less classroom time to focus on questions of what it means to be civically engaged. As our national and state politics have become more polarized and our society has become more litigious, the least risky path for teachers can be to avoid exploring civic and democratic engagement and the “messiness” that comes when diverse communities come together to address shared needs and opportunities.
Yet, encouraging informed, active civic engagement and democratic participation should be at the apex of our educational priorities. The Gates Foundation, in Civic Pathways Out of Poverty and Into Opportunity, notes, “The importance of civic engagement transcends charitable acts of kindness—the skill development, increased content knowledge, and self-empowerment resulting from civic engagement activities foster the necessary confidence and skills for success in higher education and the workforce.”
What I mean by civic engagement is a broad set of actions and behaviors that demonstrate care and commitment to one’s communities. These communities may be based in geography (local, state, national, global), identity (religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity), or cultural and social groups and allegiances. But regardless of the basis for “community,” a civically engaged individual takes responsibility for learning about the issues confronting his or her community, identifies which issues align with his or her strengths, values, and passions, and chooses to take action in accordance with those to make his or her community stronger and more vibrant.
This is where teaching civic engagement can be liberating for teachers and students alike. Civic engagement is not just limited to voting, or volunteering, or giving money to causes. It might also include organizing petitions, or speaking at a public forum before the local city council, or writing a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. Civic engagement might be even less formal than these—learning how an issue affects you and your peers and engaging them in a discussion of the possible consequences would also make a community stronger and more vibrant.
This is why we should be excited by a new effort at the Kansas Department of Education. Last year, Dr. Randy Watson, the still-new Commissioner of Education, convened nearly 300 focus groups across the state to explore the question I posed at the outset: “What is the purpose of education and how would we characterize success?” And wouldn’t you know it, Kansans identified “citizenship, ethics, and duty to others” as the single most important category of interpersonal social skills required for student success. It’s now up to a task force at KSDE to figure out what this means for the future and how we take steps to help educators foster civic engagement for students at all levels. I’m honored to be a member of this task force.
In that work, I’m hopeful that we embrace the view that civic engagement is not something that yields itself to another standardized test. Civic engagement does not equal the old “civics.” I believe everyone should know when the Declaration of Independence was signed (1776), how many amendments were in the original Bill of Rights (10), how many U.S. Supreme Court Justices there are (9), and which branch of government has the power to regulate interstate commerce (the Legislative branch). But the ability to recite these facts does not make one civically engaged. The ability to see how these facts and others may affect issues facing your community, and how these facts may provide avenues for taking action on those issues—that is civic engagement.
At the same time, as a child of educators, I believe that we cannot make civic engagement just another item on a list of items that teachers must check off during the school year. This effort cannot, it must not, be treated as just one more thing to shoehorn into the curriculum. Civic engagement is not just “another subject area” to be taught. It needs to be woven into the fabric of everything taught in our schools, from kindergarten to high school. Civic engagement can be a part of every subject. We should be able to teach writing by writing letters to the editor to newspapers or to Member of Congress. Math classes could include explorations of the use of geometry in creating community gardens. Art classes can involve speaking about the history and value of public works of art with others. The list is endless and exciting, and many students are drawn to learning by doing, which is the only way to truly foster civic engagement.
In the end, Kansas needs to embrace the importance of civic engagement as connective tissue for the entirety of the educational journey, and in so doing, we will equip future generations with the most valuable knowledge they can receive.
Matt Lindsey is the president of the Kansas Independent College Association & Fund, where he coordinates a range of programs designed to strengthen Kansas' private, non-profit, colleges through collaboration, governmental advocacy, and public engagement and to support the ability of college students to choose and afford an effective, high-quality college education that fits their individual goals. Lindsey previously worked as the Executive Director for Kansas Campus Compact and as an adjunct faculty member with Kansas State University's Staley School of Leadership Studies. He also worked in Washington, DC as the Senior Associate for Freedman Consulting, where he advised non-profits, philanthropies, and civic groups on public advocacy strategies.