Education. What’s it for?

Education. While the word itself may not spark as much passionate debate as religion and politics, everyone has an opinion. Those opinions vary wildly, yet there’s one common theme: we can, and we must do better at educating children. Education is viewed as essential to “progress” and better lives. So, ideas for improvement are put forth. Sides are taken. Debates rage—ratcheted up as test scores arrive. What makes sense?

More school choice? More teacher accountability? More parent accountability? Longer school day? Longer school year? More test prep? Budgets are squeezed, yet, even in crunches, we increase money spent on education. Yes, we know a few things that make a difference, e.g. preschool, great teachers. But some don’t always add value, e.g. money spent (even as gaps between rich and poor increase). Importantly, this all happens in the context of community integration and family bonds breaking down. And while every living system is in decline. Our existing capitalist model, led by the most ‘educated’ graduates, decimate the natural resources which make life possible, burning fossil fuels and using the air, water, soil and our bodies as repositories for their waste.

Admittedly, I’m an authority on nothing, but because my nephew thinks I’m as smart as most 5th graders, I apply logic and deduct, “something’s not working.” Understanding everything’s connected, let’s follow Eisenhower’s suggestion, “If you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.” So, we take a step back, widen the lens and begin with, What’s education for? Farmer, professor and writer Wendell Berry argues, that, rather than prepping students to be upwardly mobile citizens, we ought to change the standard and constantly ask, what do communities need? This way, learning becomes more practical. Sure, we get specialists, but they learn in a wider context, understanding how actions and policies impact jobs, community, food and fuel. Students as consumers make better decisions and advocate for policy change so business begins to integrate all the costs of bringing products to market.

Along the same lines, professor and writer David Orr argues, “there isn’t a problem in education, but of education.” He makes the case for eliminating environmental education as a separate subject and integrating it into every subject. Orr uses the Oberlin college campus and town to teach energy flows and nutrient cycles, and applies the lessons to a wide array of specialties, e.g. history, economics, science. Orr also proposes measuring schools differently. Rather than ranked by test scores and the income of graduates, measure schools in their success cycling nutrients and relying on current solar income. View them in the context of how well they’re integrated into, and support, the community they’re a part. Lastly, consider how successful graduates are in their work redesigning our relationship with the earth,  and creating jobs while improving quality of life in communities the world over.

Yes, to progress, we need education. Just a different type of progress than our schools teach today. What do you think?



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