“full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air…”
Thomas Gray (1716-1771) Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard
An earlier post suggested that independent journalism and an educated, engaged public go hand in hand. The two destinies are intertwined! Neither can survive without the other. Absent a supportive, discerning (and demanding) public, journalists can’t maintain the requisite independence, or sustain the effort needed, to probe deeply into complex issues, to explore shades of gray, to speak truth to power. Absent an energized, vibrant community of journalists, the public can’t maintain the situational awareness required to hold politicians accountable. Stereotypes aside? Politicians want an actively involved public and insightful journalism as well. Leaders are equal parts vision and sensitivity to the public pulse. Lacking public support for tough decisions, their hands are tied. How to achieve and maintain this ideal? A wicked problem indeed.
We’ve already discussed the challenges facing journalists, both individually and as a profession. Today, let’s have a first look at the 21st century task of public education. Rather daunting! We’re asking a lot of our public-school teachers. We want them to: (1) prepare and motivate each of us to contribute to society through our jobs; (2) equip us to vote; and (3) help us in our individual and societal efforts to identify and develop our most basic values. In each case, they have a big job to do, and we need to help them do it.
Contribute to society? For some time workers here in the United States have enjoyed job skills that were among the best in the world. In recent years, however, we have watched the U.S. lead erode, even as other nations, including India and China, have been building their respective workforces. At first we sent only low-skill tasks abroad. We’ve now started to outsource knowledge work, and experts see these trends continuing. Our immigration policies, especially since 9-11, have played into this. Emerging opportunities abroad encourage immigrants to return to their homelands. And the recent financial sector meltdown has exacerbated the trend. Much of the best and most insightful writing about U.S. recovery from the current (or recent, depending upon your definition) recession has focused on how long-term unemployment threatens further erosion of U.S. job skills. If the U.S. is to have the future we all want, our educators have to prepare us for tomorrow’s jobs, not yesterday’s. And if they are to do this, we have to help them help us. We need to support teachers in numbers sufficient to give our children the individual attention they need to learn. We need more nationwide discussion and action (both at the local level!) with respect to curriculum and standards. We need to accord public school teachers high standing in our communities – and expect a lot of them in return.
But put aside the economic competitive aspect – nation versus nation. There’s a larger piece, transcending national self-interest. The explosive growth in world population growth over the past century has largely been in countries least able to cope. Moreover, many of us are consuming resources at a per capita rate several times that of our forbears just a few generations back. More people driving automobiles, eating more meat, living in larger homes. Trends like these are raising the stakes of virtually every decision and action with regard to energy, food, water, and the environment. And those high-stake decisions, which in hindsight had only been trickling in over past decades, are today coming at us fast and furious. But only a small fraction of the new population is in any position by virtue of education or training to cope with the blizzard of decisions and actions required. [Roger Caiazza, who’s been commenting on some of the recent posts, is one. You’ll see in his last comment he talks about his expertise in electrical power generation – on the ground expertise in keeping the lights on, making sure that electrical power is always there, always cheap. He says the job is getting more demanding. We have many Rogers, but we need many more, in every walk of life.] Education – for more people, for more extended periods, of greater effectiveness, of higher quality – is our main hope. “No child left behind?” We need an additional, new slogan, germane to all seven billion of us: “everyone a problem-solver.”
Vote. I have a colleague – a former graduate student of the late Steve Schneider, and like Steve, a blend of climatologist and ecologist (and also, like Steve, no stranger to economics and policy). He’s fond of repeating that the single greatest challenge facing the world is the preservation, and spread and exercise of, democracy.
Right on! But what’s the connection to education? Simply this. There’s a big difference between just reflexively pulling the lever in the voting booth and providing guidance and direction to the political process. The great task of public education in a representative democracy is to prepare and motivate you and me not just to contribute to society at home and at work, but, in addition, to equip us to vote – and make our votes count.
In the early 21st century, this is far more challenging than it was back in the day of one-room schoolhouses. The basic values haven’t changed much, have they? You and I still want to vote for people who are honest, courageous, selfless, wise, energetic, up on the issues, politically adept, etc. Little debate there. The difficulty lies in that all these qualities come wrapped in a cocoon of complexity. How to create jobs? Increase access to health care while lowering costs and maintaining quality? What should be our posture internationally, and how should we achieve it? Protect the environment… just what does that entail? Each of these issues has become quite convoluted, hasn’t it? And new technologies have immersed us in an information soup. How can we decipher politicians’ remarks and thinking on these specifics into a general picture of their character, and what they stand for, and how clearly they’re thinking through all these challenges? Are they just spinning sound bites? Or addressing substance? Or some blend of both? How can we master all this, rather than allow ourselves to be overwhelmed? Our heads are spinning.
So our educational system has to equip us for this task, in addition to preparing us for our respective day jobs. But that’s not the end of it. Public education also plays a part in helping each of us:
Identify and develop individual core values. This one may make us feel uncomfortable. Each of us would say, “that should take place in each and every home. Public education shouldn’t be pushing any particular set of values. Public education should focus on facts.” All true enough. The family can and should be the starting point. And public schools shouldn’t be imposing some arbitrary set of values on the population. We should allow and encourage a diversity of perspectives to flourish. That’s part of the reason that school systems are and should remain local. But where we run into difficulty in today’s world is how we handle that diversity of ideas and values once we leave home. We see signs in everyday life that we’ve lost some ability to have reasoned discourse on these subjects. Instead we are prone to retreat behind slogans and sound bites. With some many judgments to make and so little time, we’re tempted to stereotype others, and then tune out, or demean, or punish those with opinions different from our own. This is not working well for us in today’s complex world. To become more argumentative and contentious while real-world problems mount is dysfunctional. Ideally, local schools would be a safe place for students to explore value-laden subjects, see the connections between values and facts, test their ideas against those of others, and begin to develop real-world skills in juggling facts and values in ways that build consensus, not tear it down, and foster effective coping versus render it nigh-on impossible. They’ll need such abilities the rest of their lives.
So let’s all agree that the public education has to emphasize basic proficiencies. The three R’s of Sir William Curtis (1752-1829). Reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic (or originally, “reckoning”) are still in force. They remain basic, in fact, more essential than ever. This generation, no more than any of its predecessors, can’t squirm free. You and I have to learn basic skills!
But let me, with some hesitation, suggest three values that public education might explore, in the hope (taking a deep breath – nothing is certain!) that these might might offer common ground, or at worst be minimally controversial. Here goes…
Realism. We’ve got to be rigorously, unflinchingly realistic about our world. This means that our thoughts, our actions, need to be based on facts, knowledge, and understanding of the real – the complex, changing, nuanced world on which all life depends. [Again, Roger Caiazza hinted at this in his comments on the earlier posts.] This requirement has always been with us. In itself, it’s nothing new. What makes it more challenging and difficult today is not just that there’s a greater body of knowledge to master. Instead it’s primarily that so little of our knowledge today is firsthand, on-the-ground. We’re having to trust each other to an unprecedented degree. Hopefully, this isn’t controversial. We may disagree on what is realistic – but few people claim to prefer delusion.
[And if we, the public, can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s merely notional or plausible, the journalists we’re relying on won’t be able to hold our leaders to any higher standard.]
Reasoning. We ought to value an ability to reason, a facility for sifting through facts and opinion and distinguishing between them, for comprehending ambiguities and apparent contradictions, and seeing both sides of (and indeed synthesize) complicated arguments.
If we’re settling for sound bites, seeing every issue in terms of black or white, and choosing sides, we can’t realistically expect either our political leaders or our journalists to give us anything more textured. Surely we don’t want to be unreasoning.
Responsibility. We ought to value individual responsibility for our words, our actions, our mistakes, our impacts on others. That includes the responsibility to contribute to society, to participate thoughtfully in the political process, and both listen and have an insightful say in discussions of values. Any argument there?
Educators ought to be given the remit, and the means, to explore these subjects. In the next post, we’ll drill down to a piece of this large puzzle that’s a little closer to home. We’ll look at a particular school subject – the Earth sciences – and its role in public education.