True Curriculum

HPHR Fellow Rebecca Elliott

By Rebecca Elliott, MPH

Lesson 1: The Health of the American Education System-Two Fundamental Questions

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Let’s start with a question: Is the American education system working?

As straightforward as this question might seem, I don’t think that it is a fair one. Asking if our education system is working is like asking if America has the best healthcare system. While it is easy to answer “yes” or “no” depending on where you live, how healthy you are, and how much money you make, the question itself is too often wrapped in a cloak of politics designed to push the person answering the question towards a specific political ideology. Instead, I believe a more thorough, and genuine alternative would actually be two questions, and these will be the foundations in which we will explore American education throughout this series: 1) What is the purpose of education and 2) How does the design of our education system hold up to this purpose ?  Now that we’ve got our questions, we have a much more solid foundation to base our further discussions, let’s get started.

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What is the purpose of education?

Now, for many this can sound like a loaded question. One that is designed to trick you, or question the quality of education you yourself received in school. I assure you, however, there are no tricks here, nor are there any objectively wrong answers. If you polled 100 people, from 100 different countries, from 100 different time periods, you would certainly get hundreds of different answers, and all those answers, or at least most, would be valid. However, even within those hundreds of answers, you would find a common thread: the purpose of education is to learn things. Simple enough, right?  Everyone would agree that the purpose of education, academic or otherwise, is to be fully informed about a topic or concept that you were misinformed or uninformed about previously. Since school is the dominant force of education in America, it is safe to say that receiving your education through American schools, public or private, should accomplish the same goal.


My personal belief about  education is more robust, and idealistic, but I don’t think that’s rare. I believe the vast majority of people who are asked this question would agree that the purpose of education goes far beyond learning information and more towards understanding the world around you, developing critical thinking skills, and being a kinder, more empathetic human being. In my opinion, the purpose of education is this: to create curious, competent, and compassionate individuals who have the skills and streetsmarts to make their country, and the world, a more efficient and empathetic place. Idealistic, I know, but shouldn’t we want our education system to instill these values in the next generation of leaders, regardless of race, income, gender or social class? I believe so, and deep down, I believe the majority of people believe this too. Now, given our foundational belief in the purpose of education, we can answer our next important question: How does the design of our education system hold up to this purpose? In other words:

Is American education... education?

Now, this question is a little more nuanced than the previous one, so I think it is important to use the foundation we have from our last question, to help us answer this one. When you first approach this question, the answer may seem obvious: “Of course American education is education! It’s where I learned to read, write and count, make friends, and learn various subjects.” And of course, that is correct, but remember the purpose of education we discussed in our last question. Education should not stop at learning information, but should develop and cultivate curiosity, empathy, problem solving abilities, and an accurate, complex view of the world. Now think, is the American education system designed to do any of these things? Are you a well-informed, curious, problem-solving, self-aware global citizen? And if so, how much of your knowledge and understanding do you credit to what you were taught in American schools? If the answer is everything, or even most things, then you probably would have no further interest in this blog, but, I can take an educated guess and say that’s not the case. Throughout this series, we will deeply explore the purpose of American education, who it is inherently designed to help and hurt, and what are the lasting effects on students, the country, and the world. Stick around while we explore these topics, and maybe, just maybe, you will leave a little more education than how you came in. 

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