This type of education has not always been the goal of education in the US. The founders didn't feel as though an egalitarian and generic education was necessary or even desired. That the founders didn't include a national education system in the Constitution is telling. Yes, Jefferson believed an educated citizenry was important to successful democracy, but he didn't necessarily believe that the "citizenry" included anyone but the privileged. Education was for those who could afford it or those who deserved it. It was left up to states to decide whether they wanted to bother with educating anyone, and it took a long while before the idea of education for the masses took hold.
The Industrial Revolution and the end of child labor laws brought upon us the dawn of education as we know it today. When we stopped allowing children to work, we needed a place to put them. We also realized that they needed to be prepared for the types of futures we wanted Americans to have. We began to experiment with the idea of schooling for everyone, first putting everyone into a little red schoolhouse and moving on to more efficient models that divided students into grades and courses. It was only after Brown v. Board that we started believing that school could be for everyone. It was only then that we tried to figure out what that really looked like.
Today, education reformers are trying to redefine egalitarian and generic. Instead of judging whether these ideals work based on the type of courses we offer or the quality of our school buildings, they want to define these ideals based on test scores and effectiveness ratings. They still want for no child to be left behind (egalitarian) and for all of us to race to the top (generic), but they don't believe we in education have succeeded in either of these goals. They believe that education is unequal and dependent on your socioeconomic status, and I must say, they are probably right.
The numbers don't back us up. Students from higher socioeconomic areas are more successful at school than their poorer counterparts. Students who attend schools with more resources are more likely to go to selective schools than those who go to schools with fewer resources. Students from certain demographic groups are more likely to do better than those from other demographic groups. The numbers are damning, and we have not done a good job at explaining them.
Maybe we need to embrace a new philosophy of education in the US. Maybe we need to redefine what it means to get a good education. I don't want to abandon egalitarianism - without this part of the philosophy, I would not have been educated as well as I have been. I was that apartment kid on free and reduced lunch who worked hard to get into college on scholarship and worked even harder to stay there. I believe in the power of education when it works. But perhaps we need to redefine what it means to have a generic education.
Our culture rejects generic. We are trained from the earliest of ages to be set apart. We worship prodigies and geniuses and overachievers. We don't want our kids to blend in. We want them to stand out. We want our kids to attend selective schools and get prestigious internships and land coveted jobs. But our culture wants us to produce these kinds of results without seeming elitist - essentially, without sacrificing egalitarianism.
I believe schools need to be better at assessing students' skills as they grow instead of assessing the knowledge they are supposedly accumulating. The knowledge they accumulate is less important than the skills they develop. No one has ever asked me to demonstrate my knowledge of my job through a multiple choice tests or even an essay prompt. But I have been asked to demonstrate my skill sets that make me qualified for my job. I have to give presentations and analyze data and write reports and generate new ideas and deal with emerging technologies, all skills that I began learning in school.
To me, in order to demonstrate my skills, I have to possess a knowledge base. The knowledge should be a given if I can demonstrate that skill well. And if I don't know an answer, I can go look it up. I've never been called out by my bosses for not knowing an answer, but I have been called out on not being able to do something.
Maybe our standardized tests need to be skills based rather than knowledge based. Maybe the standards we develop for curricula should be skills based rather than knowledge based. What we need to realize is that knowledge is not generic. Skills are generic. Let's move towards a skills based education in order to redefine what we all believe are the good parts of an education. Let's go back to an egalitarian and generic educational system, but on terms that will really help students prepare for tomorrow.