Recent events have spawned what has been for me some vitriolic but otherwise meaningless debates about education in the United States. The debates have been vitriolic because the sides involved have dug into positions that are primarily rhetorical in nature and have been meaningless because most of the rhetoric has little to do with how education in the US in 2017 actually works. It is easy to fall into such a trap when passions are so high, and I understand why people did. Nevertheless, I do not see how the nature of that debate helps solve any of the problems people perceive about modern public education.
Beneath the rather nonsensical nature of the debate lies what appears to be a more fundamental realization that education, especially its public variety, is less up to the fundamental task of educating than anyone would like it to be. The various sides in the debate nibble around the edges of this notion, thinking that minor tweaks like who runs the system or who pays for it and how will answer this fundamental deficiency. Perhaps, however, what all of us should be considering is transforming education into something sufficient for the world we live in now.
I am not just talking about transforming how or what we educate. Instead, I am suggesting we need to revisit the fundamental question of what we even mean when we talk about educating someone. Our world has changed dramatically from what it was a twenty years ago, let alone a hundred and more when the heart of the system we use to educate now was first conceived. Are the notions that drove the system that long ago even appropriate now? Do they adequately educate now? What do we even mean when we talk about educated and education?
I am not questioning that everyone needs access to knowledge and skills in order to be a productive member of society. Rather, I am asking if being a productive member of society is the actual objective of the current system. The reasons we educate have evolved over time–the first argument for public education was to create informed citizens, then later, capable workers, the still later students suited to go on to college. Are any of those reasons still valid now? Are all of them? And is the system we are using to educate fulfilling any of them?
To me, given my view of the 21st century, it seems that the purpose of education is to equip individuals to navigate an ever more connected, sophisticated, and automated world in whatever ways suit an individual’s talents and skills best. The unimaginative view used in the current education system that equipping every individual with the same basic, unfocused set of tools then requiring them to some how figure out how to use them in a world of near infinite possibility seems only capable of producing the result it is: unprecedented un-, under-, and mis-employment among some of the most educated people the US has ever produced by measure of time, money, and effort spent educating.
Granted, there are certain minimum educational standards most individuals need to achieve in order to navigate modern life, but I believe we have to ask whether indoctrinating those standards requires 12 or more years while we meanwhile fail to equip those same individuals with practical, meaningful skills in order to support themselves. In specific, does the old saw of making sure an individual can read, write, do math, have a basic view of history and government, and so on trump teaching them how to grow their own food, fix a car, program a computer, install an electrical outlet, or the thousands of other practical skills an individual could also learn and put to good use?
None of this is to say that the entirety of the system we have now should be abandoned, but we need to ask ourselves the fundamental question whether the system we have, unchanged at any fundamental level, is accomplishing the task we want it to accomplish, and we cannot answer that question until we understand what exactly it is we want that system to accomplish in the first place.
I understand there are no easy answers here, but no one said this was supposed to be easy, and we are never going to have answers if we do not start asking the hard questions. Now seems as good a time as any to start.