President, Woodrow Wilson (from The Meaning of a Liberal Education, An Address to the New York City High School Teachers Association; delivered January 9, 1909

Let us go back and distinguish between the two things that we want to do; for we want to do two things in modern society. We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forego the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks. You cannot train them for both in the time that you have at your disposal. They must make a selection, and you must make a selection. I do not mean to say that in the manual training there must not be an element of liberal training; neither am I hostile to the idea that in the liberal education there should be an element of the manual training. But what I am intent upon is that we should not confuse ourselves with regard to what we are trying to make of the pupils under our instruction. We are either trying to make liberally-educated persons out of them, or we are trying to make skillful servants of society along mechanical lines, or else we do not know what we are trying to do.

In the This American Life Podcast, 550: “Three Miles,” Melanie says the following:

“And it was just like, OK, this is private…. Everything kind of is a fucking lie that you see your whole life growing up on TV shows or movies. It’s like, OK, this is not free. This is not available for kids of color. This is something that only privileged or the elite can have.

“I know I looked at it and I said, well, I know that we’re only being taught to flip burgers in Burger King or McDonald’s or to hold doors for students like them that will probably live in those buildings on Madison Avenue. And we’ll be wearing the uniform servicing these people.”

Ideas to Consider

Wilson says that the purpose of education heavily depends on the class position of the student. A very elite few in society should receive an elite education. But the vast majority in society should be trained to be “skillful servants of society.”

Ultimately, Wilson is arguing that since society is unequal – divided into unequal classes – then education too should be unequal. He thinks it is a mistake to provide students who are bound to be what he calls “skillful servants of society” with an elite education.

Do you agree with Wilson on this point?

Clearly we know that Melanie disagrees with Wilson. And she thinks there is something deceitful about finding out that education is so unequal. She feels like she has been cheated out of an elite education.

What do you think?

Essay Question

In this essay, you must evaluate the Wilsonian idea of education, ultimately rejecting it, defending it, or finding some sort of other position about it.
You must explain it. Explain why Wilson defends it.
And you must decide what you think about it.
Does inequality in education have to match the inequality in society?
What are the consequences educational inequality has on those that don’t have access to an elite education?
What sort of impact does educational inequality have on students who receive an inferior education?
What about the young student in Kozol’s article who explains that her educational experience felt “as if you have been put in a garage where, if they don’t have room for something but aren’t sure if they should throw it out, they put it there where they don’t need to think of it again.”
Or what about the vastly different teaching styles described in Anyon’s piece – obedience and discipline for working class students, and independence and creativity for the children of the super rich?
What would happen if the quality of education met the highest standards possible for every student? What would Wilson find problematic about that?
Should all students receive the best education society has to offer?
Is the purpose of education in our society to help each student reach their fullest potential? Or is there another purpose?
What do you think the purpose should be?

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