“A pious man explained to his followers: “It is evil to take lives and noble to save them. Each day I pledge to save a hundred lives. I drop my net in the lake and scoop out a hundred fishes. I place the fishes on the bank, where they flop and twirl. “Don’t be scared,” I tell those fishes. “I am saving you from drowning.” Soon enough, the fishes grow calm and lie still. Yet, sad to say, I am always too late. The fishes expire. And because it is evil to waste anything, I take those dead fishes to market and I sell them for a good price. With the money I receive, I buy more nets so I can save more fishes.”  ― Amy TanSaving Fish from Drowning

Public education and the common school has been a stalwart in our society since the 1800’s. We need to question and look closely at the efforts to reform education. We must examine more deeply intentions and outcomes or reforms, otherwise we may engage in saving fish from drowning. Some education reformers have inadvertently or by design taken the attitude that to save public education they have destroy it through corporatization, privatization, and standardized testing.

The public schools – the ideal of the common school – have been disparaged. The so-called reforms have, in many cases, narrowed the scope of what an education is for children, which is a hazard to them and our country’s future.

Our society worships on the altar of science. In some cases, some believe that educated means emphasizing science, technology, engineering, and math, also known as STEM. Certainly knowing science and math are important, but that narrow definition jeopardizes other aspects of becoming fully educated. Living is not simply an act of engineering.

What’s missing? There are plenty of examples in history of people who had detailed knowledge in one or two areas, but who fell short in their responsibilities civically and personally. Wall Street is a recent example. Smart people armed with fancy diplomas and specialized knowledge made decisions that were ethically questionable or geared solely to corporate or personal self-interest. Client security fell by the wayside. In more extreme historical examples we see the consequences of intelligent people standing with their hands in their pockets ‘just following orders’ while gross injustices occur.

What is necessary? Our children need to be educated to understand their responsibility in a democratic republic and gain some sense of historical perspective about their duty to their family, community and country. This is much more than simply passing a content test in a few subjects.

Students must examine and understand the complexities of having a society based on truth, justice, liberty, and equality. They must comprehend history. They should study rhetoric so that they appreciate language, persuasion, and dialogue. They should also grasp quantitative reasoning and its advantages and pitfalls, particularly in this age of stem. They should appreciate literature and the fine arts because they enhance creative interpretation and the application of concepts, principles, and culture. They should explore ethical principles and their relevance to historical and current circumstances.

In essence, all children need a strong liberal arts education. Specialization and narrowness of their education is a disservice, not only to them, but also to our society. Problem solving in our society requires people with a broad perspective across content, and a deep understanding of the principles, values, and moral expectations to maintain and create a civil society.

History has demonstrated that in totalitarian regimes the first to be restricted and jailed are the artists, writers, poets, and philosophers. Understanding cultural values and their philosophical foundations are essential for the ethical and moral application of service and duty and for strong families.

The discrepancy between intentions and outcomes exists with some school reforms. We don’t have to destroy it in order to save it.