The goal of education in a modern democracy should be lifelong learning.
In my decades working as an educational activist, I have pursued some constant concerns. Some of the ideas I have posted here reflect conversations with educators, as well as reading about education, watching good parents and good teachers, and thinking about it all. As many of my posts here suggest, with time I began to question the very foundations of education.
What is education?
My concerns started early on, when I began asking legislators, school board members, teachers, college professors, and others a simple question:
“What is education?”
They couldn’t tell me. What occasional answers I did hear were highly inconsistent. There apparently is no clear consensus in education on what the critical activity is.
After thinking about it awhile, I changed the question. I decided that if we could agree on goals, we could work toward an overall definition from there. So I began asking, “When is a person educated?”
No one could answer that one, either.
Stop and think about that. State and federal government spend just over $1T per year on education, and we dedicate a huge part of our lives and our children’s lives on education, which appears to be a system with no defined endpoint.
Now, I should point out that education is a hot political topic, and there is always some disagreement inherent in politics. If I ask, “What is national defense?” and, “When are we adequately defended?” I will also get various answers. The difference is, I will get answers; almost everyone will have an opinion.
In education, at least the people I spoke with did not have any answer. It may be that we have never thought about it.
Gradually I came developed my own ideas, but I continued asking. Then a friend of mine, a retired teacher, administrator, and superintendent replied: “We’re educated when we want to learn more.”
Which was pretty much what I had been thinking. I have continued to refine the definition over the years, and my current version is, “We are educated on a topic when we want to learn more about it and will do so for the rest of our lives.”
This concept of education falls under the theory of ‘lifelong learning.’ We should continue learning throughout our lives. It’s what the employer wants, it’s what the community needs, it’s what the democracy demands.
It’s also what we see among professional thinking classes, our best-educated, our experts: lifelong learning is a description of the research faculty member’s career. College faculty have some well-defined obligations, teaching classes, working on committees. But they pursue research in an entirely self-directed manner; they pursue their topics out of curiosity, and our of the need to produce information that other scholars find useful.
And lifelong learning is what we expect, what we need, in the modern world. We want doctors who are up-to-date on the latest advances, lawyers who understand the most recent statutes and court rulings, engineers who are familiar with the most modern, effective designs.
But as the world becomes more complex, even the janitor has to be a lifelong learner. She has to keep up with the chemicals she is using, and the dangers inherent in her equipment and in the company property she maintains. Certainly the corporations who sell janitorial equipment hire highly educated lifelong learners – engineers and researchers – who constantly generate new products and systems. The janitor needs to keep up.
As the world advances, menial, repetitive jobs will disappear. Corporations already ship them overseas, and domestically robots will eventually supply most of our menial work.
So if our goal for education is that our children are self-driven, lifelong learners, then we must consider a rather frightening problem: by that definition, every kindergartner starts out educated.
And very few high school graduates still are.
Which leaves us with the rather unsettling question: What happens in the intervening 13 years? Why do our graduates not want to learn?
The fact of the matter is that for 10,000 of civilization, schools and our educational paradigms were designed to teach us not to think.
Illustration: Fairy Tales by Jessie Wilcox Smith courtesy of Wikimedia.org.