One of education’s greatest challenges is that there is no common definition as to its purpose. Even the American Founders differed in their views, with John Adams emphasizing character development, Thomas Jefferson arguing for round education, and Alexander Hamilton having to remind George Washington to even include education in his Farewell Address.
Americans have long looked to education as a way to advance themselves. They also see it as the primary means to overcome social class inequalities; Horace Mann called education “the great equalizer” for those born of humble origins. These powerful beliefs lead us to another cultural tangle. Education is a means to enhance one’s economic prospects. (And it provides a whole lot more in terms of one’s own intellectual development.) But education alone is not enough to trump some social barriers like racist hiring practices or inequality in pay based on gender. Furthermore, for disadvantaged populations–particularly the most impoverished–education must be one of a number of programs that would include health care, housing, family assistance, and so on. So, yes, we should create educational opportunity for the poor, but we should also be mindful that for some, educational programs must be part of a broader network of assistance.