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Why carpenters need biology
Public education is more than just job training.
“What use would a carpenter have for biology?” “What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1?” These were questions asked of plaintiffs by a lawyer for the defendants in Pennsylvania’s education funding case.
If you’re unfamiliar with this case, here’s a primer: a cohort of school districts, parents, and other groups are suing the state of Pennsylvania, arguing that its current funding formula violates the state’s constitution, which requires a “thorough and efficient” system.
If decided in favor of the plaintiffs, the case could spark an infusion of cash into some of the poorest districts in the state. This would be a good thing — the current funding formula is inequitable at best — and that’s a whole separate blog post (newsletter?).
The state, in defending itself, is trying to argue the definition of “thorough and efficient.” In the words of their own lawyer: “The question in my mind is, thorough and efficient to what end? To serve the needs of the Commonwealth. Lest we forget, the Commonwealth has many needs. There’s a need for retail workers, for people who know how to flip a pizza crust.”
What nonsense. Besides being disrespectful of the intelligence of carpenters, pizza makers, and McDonald’s employees, the state’s lawyer’s comments reflect a misguided notion of the function of public education.
Earlier this year I wrote about the importance of teaching social studies in a democracy. One of my key points: public education should be more than just job training.
In public education, we’re working to build competent citizens that can build a better society. They have a right to the fundamental knowledge and skills necessary to do just that.
We often talk about freedom as the foundation of our democracy: we’re free to choose our religion and speak our minds and read/watch/listen to our preferred media outlets. But true freedom requires knowledge. We’re not free if we’re chained down by ignorance.
Beyond that, carpenters are human beings. Human beings are living organisms. Biology is the study of living organisms. Carpenters work with wood. Wood comes from a living organism. It seems reasonable that carpenters might need to understand basic facts about themselves and other living beings around them.
The use of the phrase “McDonald’s career track” is also insulting and short-sighted. Does the state truly believe that teenagers working at McDonald’s should be denied the right to learn algebra because they’re destined to operate fryers and drive-thru windows? There’s good reason to wonder if teaching algebra is really necessary, but it’s not because the “McDonald’s career track” argument.
Fortunately, the lawyers arguing for the plaintiffs in the case understand this. From the above-linked Inquirer article: Would it be helpful, Wakelin (lawyer) asked, for a retail worker “to understand basic biology of viruses during a global pandemic” — to decide whether to get a vaccine, what steps to take to keep a business open, or to send children to school for in-person learning?
I’m all for expanding access to career and technical education (CTE), but not at the expense of access to more traditional domains of knowledge.
In unrelated news, my school went virtual this week because of staffing shortages. I’m frustrated by it, and it was the right call. More on that next week.
Happy New Year. Thanks for reading.