Purposes of Public School Education
THE CONSTITUTIONAL PRINCIPLE that government should not establish religion sets limits on the place of religion in public schools, but the purposes of those schools provide powerful reasons not to disregard religion altogether. Reflection on this tension requires us to consider several issues. How does teaching about religion fit with the basic purposes of public education? Should schools aim to counter spillover effects on religious belief and affiliation caused by liberal education? How should the authority of parents, educators, school boards and legislators interact in determining what schools do?
Clearly, American education serves multiple, overlapping objectives. These include developing the vocational skills of students, their capacity for choice, their ability to participate in enriching activities, their civic virtue, and their moral character.
Although liberal education is often contrasted with practical or vocational education, public education inevitably has a vital vocational component.1 Much early learning—reading, writing, and counting—is required for ordinary work, as well as for larger educational purposes. Further, to perform work successfully, people need to be able to concentrate, to discipline themselves, and to work with associates—qualities schools aim to instill. And education that seems far from practical may help develop the kind of judgment that is crucial for making decisions about people and complex situations. Schools help students learn how to do the work required of them; the only serious question about this objective is how prominently it should figure in relation to other aims.