Monday, November 25, 2013

The Purpose of an Education

For as long as there have been schools, there has been a debate as to what the big-picture “purpose” of education should be.  The role of public education has varied over the course of history as we have grown and developed as a people and as a nation.  Education has served as a tool for the hidden agendas of civic responsibility, moral development, naturalization and deculturalization, and economic opportunity.  Education is a powerful tool, perhaps even a fulcrum, on which the hopes and dreams of a people’s future balance precariously, fully dependent on the capabilities of the next generation to drive our way of living into the future. 

And because powerful people in powerful positions recognize this, everyone wants to have a say as to what we should expect and demand of our education system.  As a result, educational policy shifts frequently- just as quickly as the social, political, and economic trends that dictate educational policy also shift.  This makes the role of an individual teacher incredibly challenging.  Given the state of affairs in the United States, a teacher is asked to not only teach, but to role model, advise, advocate for, discipline, instill moral values, encourage civic responsibility, and produce functioning and contributing members of society. Beyond these duties, vogue educational trends come and go, leaving teachers to, once again, realign their curriculum to new standards, adapt to new administrations, or to emphasize certain philosophies promoted by recently elected school boards.

Most recently, there has been a particular emphasis placed on STEM curricular areas.  This shift, in many ways, can be attributed to the “slipping” of American students in international math, science, and engineering assessments.  We are being outperformed by China, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore in Asia, and by many other northern and western European nations.  In response, we are now prioritizing these content areas above all others, redistributing resources to improve our performance, which we believe will enhance our “competitiveness” in international economic markets.

 It’s not that I don’t believe in the value of STEM curriculum, or even that I disagree with our need, as a nation, to find ways to maintain a competitive advantage on an international level.  Mostly, my qualms come as a result of the whiplash effect of public education’s response to outside pressure.  Our policy- our standard mode of operation- is not dictated by educators, but by bureaucrats, lobbyists, multinational corporations, and a variety of other contingencies who have little or no expertise in the field of education.  Unfortunately, regardless of where we look in our nation’s history, this is the story… education is always reactive, never proactive.

This is what I believe to be the greatest issue in education today.  Public education rarely innovates… it reacts.  If you look at the meteoric rise of charter schools and private academies, you see a sense of creativity and inspiration that has been missing from public education for some time.  And part of the success of these upstart schools can be attributed to the fact that they are different and that they do break from traditional paradigms. Our inability or unwillingness to define our profession just may result in the total undermining of a centuries-old public education system.  This, to me, is a travesty.

The United States is a country of innovators, or creativity, of inspiration.  This has been, and is still our competitive advantage on an international level.  Other countries wish that they could tap into the creative expression of our software designers, our scientists, our inventors. So why are we taking a step back by attempting to do what they already do better?  How about we focus on our strengths by building upon our problem solving skills and ingenuity? 

And what if we extend this beyond the marketplace and into the classroom?  What if we actually entrusted our public educators to define what education could and should be?  What might happen if, rather than bowing to the forces of the market or to the politicians currently in office, we actually worked to define our own profession- our life’s work- on our own terms?  We are, in reality, the professionals.

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