We are at a Cultural Crossroads in Education

After yet another interaction with products of our failed educational system, I’ve come to a conclusion: we need to stop worrying about school reform and focus on education reform.

Our problem with ‘reform’ is that we’ve been thinking too small scale. The word ‘school’ is restrictive. It limits our thinking about education as a concept that only exists within the confines of a formal school structure; when in fact, education exceeds classrooms, computers, teachers, students, textbooks, curricula, and policies. It transcends the 1870s school house and the 2012 charter- magnet-college prep academy. It encompasses more than zero tolerance behaviors and the Common Core Standards.

It is about learning. And learning has no boundaries.

I therefore challenge us to focus our reform efforts not on minute components of the educational process, but instead on the culture of education. The way we think about learning. The way we encourage others to think about their thinking. The value and use of what we learn. The quest for knowledge to be knowledgeable. What happened to that?

I met some young men today who were proud to have cheated their way through high school. Who were offering $100 to anyone who would write their 5 page college psychology paper. Who were pondering the applicability of a psychology class to their future employment as police officers.

Their lively conversation made me think: is this the 21st century culture of education?

It’s a hard question to answer because everyone has their own values, norms, and behaviors related to education. I am certain if I asked any of my students about the role of learning in their lives, they would pontificate on the value of learning to be ‘a well rounded person’. While their words aren’t eloquent or specific, I know what they mean. Learning for them has its own intrinsic value. They are proud to have learned something new, to have stepped outside of their comfort zone (another of their favorite lines), to have demonstrated to themselves they are able to comprehend and produce complex ideas. Learning provides a sense of security for my students. They feel like their ‘education’ is something no one can ever take from them. It is a gateway to new experiences and new opportunities.

I feel the same.

But so many people don’t see the purpose of learning things that aren’t immediately applicable to their life circumstances. What bothers me about that is most people can’t see how things are applicable to their lives. Why did we stop teaching that? In the 1700s, an educated man (women had more limited curricula) was someone who was well versed in world affairs, could speak, read, and write multiple languages, had a firm grasp on economics, could recite poetry, and was up for intellectual discourse at any moment. This model of education held until the industrialization of education in the 1900s, when we needed people to work in factories and learn specific trades. Only recently have we begun to move back to a more interdisciplinary ideology of education. But is it too late? Is it all for naught? Can our new emphasis on mathematical and linguistic literacy override the last 10 years of vocational (e.g., STEM) pedagogy? More importantly, are we ready to shift our thinking to fit our practices?

Can we change the culture of education?