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Image courtesy of Operation Respect.

Long ago, psychologists recognized that children are not simply mini-adults. Similarly, children are not simply future workers. They are current and future citizens of the world, citizens (or otherwise participants in) of our democracy, members of their individual communities. That – along with giving short thrift to critical functions of the Labor Department, such as protecting workers’ health, safety, and right to unionize, though not my focus here – is why the U.S. administration’s proposal to merge the Department of Education and the Department of Labor is so wrongheaded.

The director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, asserted that the merger “makes tremendous sense. Because what are they both doing? They’re doing the same thing. They’re trying to get people ready for the workforce. Sometimes it’s education. Sometimes it’s vocational training.”

Yes, preparing people for the workforce is certainly an important function of the education system. Our schools have a central role preparing us for life, and work is certainly an important part of life. But to reduce the role of our education system to a dozen-plus years of job training is to neglect those aspects of our country and our world that are most broken – how we relate to one another as fellow human beings, how we function as a common polity, as people with a shared future, whether in our neighborhood or on our great blue sphere.

The idea that our education system is about more than job training goes back to the founding of our Republic, and earlier still. It is also about building a strong democracy, where we can participate as informed citizens, understanding everything from the foundational knowledge and skills we need to participate – basics of how our government functions and media literacy in the digital age, for example – to the principles and ideals upon which our country was founded and how we have – and have not – measured up to our values — so that we can do better. We would learn about why our country and the world are as they are today, from the lasting legacies of our founding sins of slavery and the decimation of American Indians to modern challenges like climate change and fast-moving epidemics, so that we can respond in ways that respect the basic humanity and the rights of all people, that creates a safe and secure future for us all, that create peace.
Indeed, the rights of all people – human rights – would be a theme throughout the educational experience; these, after all, are our highest principles. The basic recognition of the dignity of each us and should be the starting point for all democratic deliberations.

Our education system could help us recognize our shared dignity in other ways, exposing us to situations and realities that many of our children will be all too familiar with – homelessness, a parent in jail, a parent undocumented – but to others of us, may seem like an alternate reality. Yet reality is a space we must all share.
As with our country, so with the world. In our interconnected and seemingly ever more complex world, we cannot be responsible citizens unless we understand our connections to seemingly the most distant of people – people who might stitch our cloths in Asia, or perhaps mine the minerals in our iPhones in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or grow the food that we eat in Latin America. We cannot be responsible citizens unless we understand the plight of refugees, or of so-called “economic migrants” who may be seeking a way out of desperate poverty, or an inability to pay for their children’s education, or whose farms can no longer sustain them in the era of climate change.

To borrow from Eleanor Roosevelt, who said that “human rights begin…[i]n small places, close to home,” understanding of each other begins in our communities. Schools can be places where we learn to respect and value each and every one of us, our young peers who may come from a different socioeconomic class, or may have a disability, or come from a different country, or have a different gender identity. Schools can help people grow as people. A song from the classic Broadway musical South Pacific reminds us that “you’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.” Compassion and kindness can be taught too.

Education can do more still. It can introduce us to ideas that spark our passions. These might lead to a career, yes, but also might lead to a fascination with history that has nothing to do with one’s job, awe at the universe and a lifelong interest in science for the non-scientist, or any other number of sources of life enrichment.
Education as just a means to prepare people for work? It is a shallow, diminished vision. Education is a means to prepare us for the world, in all its beauty, with all of its horrors, in all of its complexity.

Fortunately, the merger of the two departments requires congressional action, which seems unlikely. Our education and labor departments could certainly do far more to prepare children for the world and protect and empower our workers. But far from facilitating these functions, combining the two departments, and the vision that the proposal to merge them represents, would diminish the potential contributions of both departments, and in the process, diminish the potential we hold for a more decent, more humane, society.