I tuned in this morning to see what’s being said at the NBC News Education Nation Summit this week. Immediately, I noticed a talk by Condoleeza Rice about education and national security – that a bad education system is a national security matter because a poorly educated nation will not be able to keep up with the demands of the military for minimally literate soldiers. Added to the prevalent idea that we only educate to compete globally, Condie’s words were the final straw. Nothing personal. She expresses a widely held view.
What follows is an effort to describe what I think the problem is with entangling national security and global economic competition with the education system and a thought about what to do about it.
I’m involved with writing a charter petition. The petition instructions ask us to answer a brilliant question. It asks us to describe “what does it mean to be an educated person in the 21st century?”.
The system is the message.
This is the message of our education system according to its web site:
“ED’s mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access … and [to achieve] the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” – The U.S. Department of Education, web site
This is not an inspiring message to send to kids. The most important message an educational system should send is … your existence as an individual self matters. All other good things flow from that.
Ensuring equal access to all, adopting “high standards” and “believing that all students are capable of learning” is not enough. If our problem is underachieving, meanness, and dropping out/not finishing college then we cannot solve this problem at the level it was created. Department of Ed, you need to level up.
Students can sense they are being used and condescended to. They know when they are cajoled to “achieve”, “succeed”, “stay in school”, and “go to college” for some ulterior agenda. These goals are motivated by economic and political reasons: “American competition in the global marketplace”, “a failing education system is a potential threat to national security”, or “[beating] other countries in college graduation rates”. Finland first served its students and its teachers and parents and THEN, as a result, they also looked good to the world. U.S. Dept. of Ed, your goals don’t land because they do not speak to the students at the existential level where young persons live – at the level of the intention of the individual self.
While all schools should be a perfect as possible in every way, of course, there are endless examples of people who succeeded in life who got bad grades in school (Einstein, Malcom Gladwell couldn’t get accepted into grad school), who dropped out of college (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Ted Turner, Mark Zuckerberg), who had miserable and abusive parents (John Lennon, Oprah), and who went to segregated schools (Martin Luther King).
U.S. Ed, your (unintended) message is: You, kid, as an individual self, don’t matter
The interest of the individual self is laundered right out of your, the U.S. Department of Education’s system, according to your mission statement. The logic is that the global competitive/national security good of the whole trumps the presumed ignorance and selfishness of the individual as soon as tax money is in play. Everyone must be modest and selfless so that the system can be outrageous and self-serving. In effect, our educational system says to kids in school “we are educating you for the sake of U.S. global economic competition and national security”.
I see that one could argue that if the state/taxpayers are paying for your education, kid, then we expect you to give back by making us economically competitive and/or at least learning enough in school so you can qualify to join the military and protect our national security.
The problem with this argument is that the system sends the message to the kids that ” you, as an individual self, don’t matter”. Because you don’t matter as one person – you only matter as part of a mass – we have the right to enact on a daily and hourly basis the most extreme form of psychological and philosophical insult and minimalization against your individual self : In return for your “free” education, (1) we assume the right to limit what school your ignorant, selfish parents can send you to, (2) to evaluate your worth and that of your lazyass teacher based on copyright-protected testing instruments of the multi-billion “K-12 industry” which neither you, your parents or your teachers can ever see under penalty of law, and (3) to determine what you “should know and be able to do” through national standards that ensure the multi-billion “K-12 industry” steady textbook sales as elected school boards “adopt” their products – shifting tax dollars into corporate pockets – so that teachers, who matter as little if not less than you, can teach to the standards using books whose dubious literary merit ensure kids will hate reading them and then be accused of not reading and, thus, creating more potential for profit.
So, here’s a proposal, U.S. Dept of Ed:
Whereas, the goals of the U.S. Department of Education constitute highly subjective beliefs about the purpose of the individual self of the student that do not comport with the individual self’s purpose for their own existence, (i.e. (1) Although we now live with global awareness, competition rules: the existential purpose of the individual self is to promote economic competition for one country over another, (2) a democratic, “public” education exclusively means ensuring equal access to a standardized one-size-fits-all curriculum, teaching methods, and assessments and (3) military readiness is a fundamental purpose of K-12 schooling.)
Whereas these beliefs – even though they do not mention “god” – are godlike in their power to determine how public resources are allocated. Belief in the above violates the principle of separation of church and state. The state, through these beliefs which are highly subjective, self-serving, and dictate what others should value, be, and do, is not acting as a state but as a church. A state provides equal opportunities for diverse views, ways of being, and multiple options options.
Therefore, since education, in contrast to the limiting mission statement above, is an existential necessity for the individual self, a right of the human species, and a civil responsibility, we need to think about a 21st Century Vision Statement for the U.S. Department of Education. It could go something like this:
PROPOSED 21st CENTURY VISION STATEMENT FOR THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
For the 21st Century the U.S. Department of Education has a vision of equal access to a differentiated system of education as an existential necessity for the individual self, a fundamental right of our species, and a shared civil responsibility. The Department exists to support, serve, and protect schools and systems of schools offering programs that further the human individual self to grow in knowledge, social empathy and playfulness, and initiative and innovation. Ed schools set for their students and the world an example of what it means when the human species cooperates, collaborates and learns together.
That’s it. Mr. Duncan, your thoughts?
PS This stream of thought today was inspired by something William McDonough said at a DWELL show: ”What is the intention of our species?” – William McDonough/Cradle to Cradle and by thoughts shared with me about gene manipulation of Craig Holdredge and Steve Talbott/The Nature Institute http://www.natureinstitute.org/