The Two Essential Goals of America’s Schools
The social studies curriculum is both the heart and brain of our hope to sustain and improve our exceptional society. Contemporary neglect of social studies endangers our future.
Our founders had it right: reading, writing, and arithmetic (the “three Rs”) are essential but insufficient tools needed to empower people and prepare American citizens for their greatest challenge: remaining in control of their local, state, and federal governments.
School, you see, has only two goals: 1) instruction designed to prepare the individual to take care of him or herself, and 2) instruction designed to prepare individuals for their essential involvement in civil society. These goals are interrelated and quite important, for a person who fails at goal one will invariably fail to achieve goal two. Schools need a laser-like focus on goal one, but they dare not dismiss or neglect instruction aimed at goal two.
The education that our nation’s children experience comes not only through the extremely important formal curriculum that schools offer, but also through the way in which classrooms and schools are run (sometimes referred to as the school’s operational atmosphere or its informal curriculum).
Of course, the formal curriculum provided in modern K-12 public and private schools goes far beyond the classic “three Rs” because schools must lay the foundation for students’ successful careers in many different sectors of our robust economy.
Some of our sons and daughters will grow up and make their living as truck drivers, auto mechanics, house painters, shop owners, schoolteachers, or one of the other many thousands of modest-wage jobs that are essential to our economy.
Those children with special talents may become linguists, musicians, artists, singers, ballerinas, professional athletes, novelists, or even nationally acclaimed poets. Some children will become successful lawyers, politicians, doctors, or dentists.
And a very small percentage will make their living as, professional athletes, mathematicians, scientists, or astronauts.
However, all students will become citizens, and our society would benefit greatly if the vast majority became very good citizens.
The above sample of varied occupations obviously demonstrates the fact that schools must provide a foundation of learning in the “three Rs,” while not excluding the need to address their social/civic education function, and then, in later grades, offer a diverse array of more specialized courses tailored to maximally develop each individual student’s interests and abilities.
The early grades should focus on the bedrock “three Rs” skills and require that every student achieve grade level specific competencies prior to promotion. Middle and high school grades should offer a much more diverse, selective, and elective menu of courses for students to take, based on decisions of students, parents, and teachers. In short, schools must build the bedrock essential “3 Rs” skills in every student and then offer a tailored array of elective courses that are foundational to each individual student’s abilities and career interests.
Students who are struggling with school must be intensively aided to ensure their eventual success at achieving the first and second goals of education. This must be so because school failure pushes individuals to the fringes of society, invites antisocial and illegal activities, and ultimately winds up costing taxpayers much more than the cost of effective remediation efforts when difficulty with school first appears.
With the forgoing understood, it should be apparent that every student must have sufficient formal instruction in social studies to attain the second goal of education. This means that even young primary grade level children must begin learning their responsibilities (obeying the teacher, taking turns), theirrights (being treated fairly, not being ostracized or bullied), the social values (for example, honesty, compassion, prudence), and concepts (for example, justice and equality) that undergird our society.
In addition, the ways in which schools and classrooms function on a daily basis — specifically whether students are viewed as citizens and consciously included in important decisions — must model the future citizenship role individual Americans must play in their communities, states, and nation. Failure to provide for participatory citizenship experiences in K-12 schooling endangers our society and our nation’s future as surely as neglect of the formal social studies curriculum.
Students must not only understand and practice their age-appropriate rights and responsibilities: as adult citizens they must embrace and bind to these rights and responsibilities as essentials for our collective wellbeing and the survival of our nation. Insisting on our Constitutional rights and guarding that they not be infringed without due cause is quite important. Fulfilling responsibilities also is important and foremost among these responsibilities is the duty to oversee our governments, to ensure that they operate efficiently, and are free from corruption.
This means that every person has a responsibility to be informed about how government is funded and how it spends our money. This tall order obviously requires that individuals care enough about their community, their state, and our nation, to have some level of interest and personal involvement in civic life. Daily newscasts are full of the negative consequences of failing to effectively teach these important understandings.
The worldview of our founders assumed that most of us would live in small communities where we would know one another and attend frequent town hall meetings. Citizens would know the mayor and their town council members, and they would call on these people if they noticed a public problem. Town citizens would pay their fair share of taxes and support a tax system that they thought was fair.
However very few of us live in small communities today, and many of us can’t name our local government officials. Larger communities require larger, more complex governments, so it is easy to see how the greater anonymity and social isolation of modern life can disconnect us from our governments, leading us to often ignore them or even to view them as malevolent encumbrances to our everyday lives. This pernicious perplexing problem can only be addressed through the provision of high-quality K-12 social studies instruction for all of America’s children.
Given the present condition of our representative democracy, it’s time for all Americans to reengage with our governments, to unite, and organize to fully assert our sovereign authority. This is most easily done at the local level, but certainly also needs to be pursued at our state and national levels. The correction that is required won’t happen overnight and it will require that a great majority of citizens assume their responsibility to be informed about and engaged in the operation of their local, state, and federal governments.
To be clear, everyone needs to have basic knowledge of the purposes, authority, and operation of their governments, and everyone should have some civic association, some cause, or some area of concern that engages them in the life of their community, state, and nation. Our natural and self-selected affiliations will always differ, but they must not discourage us from engagement in serious dialog and sensible compromise aimed at achieving increasing levels of widely recognized goods such as education, healthcare, profitable and secure employment, freedom of religion, security in our homes, and the other foundational ideals that have inspired many generations of Americans.
To achieve this greater citizen involvement and much needed oversight of government, both our private and tax-supported public schools must do a much better job of helping all students attain the second crucial goal of education. This can only be done by ensuring that the operational atmosphere of schools takes advantage of every possible opportunity to include students as important citizen-stakeholders who have a right to influence how their schools’ function. The revival of a robust and engaging formal social studies curriculum is also essential to the attainment of this important goal.
If we readjust our K-12 school curriculum to make social education a critically important component of every child’s daily learning and do whatever is possible to democratize our classrooms and schools, we will reap sweeping benefits ranging from dramatically reducing all forms of crime to dramatically increasing the happiness and life satisfaction of a much higher percentage of our nation’s people.
This is not mere speculation; it’s a highly probable consequence of doing what our founders understood to be a necessary condition of life in a society that functions as a healthy democracy. We must educate every young American in citizenship responsibilities well enough to fulfill his or her much needed role as a worthy member of a standing society that is the sovereign governor of the trajectory and fate of our nation.
Summary of Main Ideas
• Schools serve two basic purposes: (1) to prepare individuals for successful lives, and (2) to produce individuals who care enough about their community, state, and nation that they function as informed and effective citizens.
• The social studies curriculum is both the heart and brain of our hope to sustain and improve our exceptional society.
• Citizenship is best learned in schools that teach the knowledge, skills, and dispositions it requires.
- Every person must be a citizen.
• Good citizens are required for the survival of our representative democracy.
- Schools must function as much as possible as democracies.
- Contemporary neglect of social studies endangers our nation’s future.
- Permission to duplicate, distribute, or reproduce the unaltered entirety of this essay in any format or forum is hereby granted by the author, John Douglas Hoge, Professor Emeritus, Department of Elementary and Social Studies Education, University of Georgia. Abstracts or excerpts also may be published if the full work is cited. This work is the personal opinion of the author and is based on his experience as a social studies educator. For correspondence Dr. Hoge may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Appreciation is expressed to Dr. Dale Greenawald and Dr. Ronald VanSickle and Jane Mathis, Esq., for their helpful review comments.
- The author does not consider the custodial function and recreational programs as goals of education.