As an elected official, I am often asked what I think we need to do to “fix” our country. While it’s difficult to limit oneself on such a broad question, I do believe that rethinking how we educate children is an essential component in addressing some of the difficulties our nation faces.
In approaching any problem, it is essential to begin with the end in mind. In other words, we should seek to determine what we want young people to “be” or “have” when they finish their education. At various times in American history, we have answered this question differently.
At one point, American schools focused on instructing students what it means to be a good American.
With waves of immigrants coming to the United States in the 19th century, citizens were concerned that a large influx of newcomers may threaten what was essentially “American.” Therefore, the goal of education was assimilation to existing traditions and norms.
At another time, the focus for our schools was on helping young people become properly-socialized. Renowned education reformer, John Dewey, talked about the importance of American schools in helping kids “adjust” to life in a community. Dewey believed this was essential in order to strengthen the American “democracy.” Citizenship and the duties it carried were seen as a collective endeavor that began in our schools.
More recently, we have counted on our schools to ensure that students are “college and career ready.” This approach has also been referred to a “vocationalism” and the stress has been on urging children to choose a career path while young so they can spend their school years acquiring those skills necessary to succeed in their chosen field of work.
While I understand the reasons for these various approaches, I disagree with the ends they seek. I believe the purpose of education is the acquisition of wisdom and virtue for the student’s own sake. With this end in mind, we are less likely to confuse the primary and secondary goals of education. I think the majority of Americans would agree we want graduates who value our nation’s heritage, who recognize their responsibilities to their community and to the nation, and who have the skills to do the jobs our economy provides. But, I would argue these are all the secondary benefits of a good education.
Above all else, we want young people who are intelligent and good. This means they know how to think, not just what to think. And it means they recognize an objective standard of truth that acts as a mooring for imperfect young people seeking to become better.
Kevin J Ritter, Washington County Commissioner