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What is education for, anyway?

How do we develop citizens and citizen leaders who work with others to solve problems and build a flourishing democratic society? This question, the heart of civic education, was once at the center of American schooling, from kindergarten through higher education. In recent decades it has been increasingly neglected. We are faced with the challenge of breaking out of gated communities of our minds and work identities that are as sharply drawn as those of our neighborhoods. In recent months, a growing number of leaders in higher education have called for far ranging change in our institutions to address this.

Parker Palmer wrote in Change magazine that higher education seems to leave students powerless to change institutions, even if these violate their deepest values.

In February, Elizabeth Coleman, president of Bennington College in Vermont, decried a pattern of schooling which she believes teaches more and more about less and less. “We have professionalized liberal arts to the point where they no longer provide the breadth of application and heightened capacity for civic engagement that is their signature,” she argued at the TED Conference. “Questions such as ‘What kind of a world are we making?’ ‘What kind should we be making?’ And ‘What kind can we be making?’ move off the table."

Coleman’s speech was followed this week by Mark Taylor, chair of the religion department at Columbia University, who issued a searing critique of higher education in the New York Times. Calling graduate programs “the Detroit of higher learning,” he said they "produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like minded colleagues)." Taylor proposes the abolition of tenure and remaking higher education curriculum to focus on problems like water, information, and media, not on particular disciplinary training.

I believe such statements indicate that we are on the edge of a huge debate about the nature of education generally. It will especially focus on how we can remake education - from kindergarten to graduate school - to develop citizens who are bold, confident, and skillful agents and architects of change. It will require a far ranging reconnection of schooling with life. Hold onto your seats. We could be in for quite a ride.

Comments

Excellent, excellent points made in this article. It seems I, as a University of Minnesota undergraduate student, have many of the same criticisms of university as Taylor, Coleman, and Boyte. It's high time that education becomes change agent and the social sciences at universities act as 'sciences of solutions' rather than 'sciences of problems'. I've noticed in social science classes I've taken (and also lectures I've attended that) that the overriding and oftentimes sole focus of the class is to deconstruct and analyze societal problems...which is very valuable, for sure, but only focusing on the problems and spending no time on analyzing and debating solutions to those problems leaves students at worst fuming at the world and remaining in a constant state of rage, or at best motivated to change the world but not having a clear sense of how to do it. That is why we should applaud Coleman, Taylor, Boyte and others for pointing out serious shortcomings of university (and K-12) education and building a movement to change things. There was a letter to the editor I wrote to the Minnesota Daily that expands a bit on these points. (http://www.mndaily.com/2009/04/28/science-solutions). Feel free to check it out and let the world know that we will not stand for anything less than exceptional education that motivates students to be civically minded and to lead the world through increasingly complex and challenging issues. Education is the backbone of society. Let's make sure ours is strong.

Looks wonderful

Interesting questions are posed here. I work at a liberal arts college, and you really do have to make sure that the curriculum is in line with what you are trying to accomplish both for the students and as a university. Great article.

Fantastic post. This is a question that we grapple with at the Institute for Humane Education too. We offer an M.Ed. and certificate program in humane education (and online courses, workshops, and free resources at our website) to enable people to bring the most pressing issues of our time to students, in age appropriate ways, so that they can be conscious choicemakers and engaged changemakers for a peaceful, sustainable and humane world. Shouldn't this be what education is for? I agree that we need to bring this question to the public, administrators, parents, teachers, and legislators so that we can recreate schooling (at all levels) and produce a generation of committed, creatively and critically thinking solutionaries.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs