Monday, November 23, 2009
From my point of view, one of the difficulties of modern education is the lack of a coherent, unifying goal for education. In my classrooms I have always told students that the purpose of American Education is to provide an educated electorate. In order for a democracy, or a democratic republic to survive, the people must be educated in order to evaluate what the candidates are saying, what they mean by what they say, and what is deliberately left unsaid, but may be learned. Things like past voting record, statements about beliefs and values can be discovered more easily than ever today through the internet. However, what is not happening is that students are not being provided with the skills, ability, and experience to think. Only an educated, thinking person has the least chance of deciphering the rhetoric of polished political candidates. It is a view that I vehemently advocate.
Historically, schools were formed with that goal in mind. One needs only to take a look at the urgency and intensity of schools in the South immediately following the American Civil War. The recently freed slaves understood the concept of education and its importance in participating fully in government. Those who had somehow received an education were able to hold public office and attempted to persuade others to vote for them. It was a laborious process, but one that was well understood by the African-American population at the time. The importance of education in this electoral process was also understood by Southern racists. Schools, teachers, and preachers who worked to educate the newly-freed slaves were the target of KKK raids and other destructive racist groups with a design to shut down schools, churches and to silence anyone who participated in the educational process.
If one goes back to the earliest American schools, most schools were religiously based. Students were taught a particular dogma along with reading and writing and arithmetic. But at the same time, there was a strong current of the importance of self-governance in those early schools. America was founded largely to prevent “taxation without representation.” Therefore the ability to write laws for oneself was of utmost importance. Thus, the early students in American schools were largely Northern European males. The belief was that white males had the intelligence to govern the people, therefore, they needed the education.
Following the Civil War, the idea that all men (and later, women) needed an education was a revolutionary idea. It was an idea that changed the face of this nation.
Modern schools have strayed far from this ideal of education as a medium for promoting thought. It concerns me that many of today’s students have lost that ideal. Education for them is simply a way that children must spend their days until they are of such age that they may work. For some, education is the means to a better paying job, or at least a job with more status. For others, the middle school and high school are stepping stones to college. However, they still have little concept of what it means to be an educated citizen. At this stage they are simply thinking about a job and making money.
Granted, I teach 12-13-14 year olds who have not developed conceptually to the point of abstract thought. Or to use Piagetian terminology, they have not yet reached the formal operations stage. However, I do not see the concept of education as a tool for participating in a self-governing political structure discussed in many classrooms albeit in rudimentary fashion. To my way of thinking, that concept should be basic to the tenets of American education. If our students are not educated to the wider world around us, introduced to the opportunities of participating in government, and oriented to the issues facing their generation, we have failed them. Educators would do well to remember that learning how to learn, is key to our students’ future success. Learning how to think and think about thinking (metacognition) will serve them well to become responsible citizens in a participatory government.