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.