During the initial installment of this conversation about the future of Texas public education, I focused on the “general diffusion of knowledge” that is the constitutional purpose of our “system of public free schools,” under Article 7, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution. Consistent with that constitutional purpose, I proposed a 21st Century mission for our public schools to provide Texas students with:
… the incremental foundation of truths, facts, and principles they will need as adults to function as effective American citizens in a global economy, together with the experiences and tools to use such knowledge effectively and wisely.
In this second post I want to delve into the meaning of this proposed mission in more depth before we try to take the step next in our discussion—a conversation about the curriculum that will be needed to pursue this mission.
It is fair to admit that none of us mortals know what the future will be. The sky could actually fall—a Meteor could hit the Earth, the climate could change one way or the other in some drastic way, our world could be attacked by aliens from outer space, or the worst of our fears of an Armageddon could unfold—causing life to end on this planet as we have come to know it. But most humans have learned from experience not to plan their lives based on the worst of their fears, or even the best of their dreams, but from the foundation of their experiences. Applying this time-tested approach, I am looking toward the future from the vantage point of being a “young” member of the Baby Boom Generation in mid-2012. From this perspective, I believe that the experiences of the past few decades point to some specific challenges that the next two or three generations of Americans will face during this century. Our educational system should provide these next generations with the knowledge and tools they will need to meet these challenges.
The first of these challenges is of our own making—the rebuilding of society in America. From its beginnings, America has been an experiment based on ideas and ideals forged by a Western Civilization whose defining moment occurred on a hill called Calvary almost 2,000 years ago. This experiment has evolved since the early 1600s through trials and errors and triumphs, but the ideas and ideals always guided the experiment, and created the basis for a society of free people to exist and flourish. However, over the last half-century, my generation has not only continued to test this system, but has so fundamentally altered the experiment that we have separated and isolated each other in ways that actually threaten the continuation of the experiment and the society it created.
If our children are to inherit the American experiment that we were taught was so exceptional, we must give them the knowledge of the ideas and ideals that formed it, and the tools with which to rebuild a 21st Century society based on the foundation of those ideas and ideals. The re-construction must still allow for the spirit of innovation that has been a hallmark of our experiment, but our children must be given the knowledge to discern between innovations that strengthen and expand the original experiment, and change that destroys the experiment. They must realize that as we prize the gift of liberty we have learned through the ages that “no man is an island,” and citizens can not thrive without a home, a neighborhood, and a country to call their own.
This first challenge is related to the second challenge, because a new, and as yet undefined, global economic “civilization” is emerging in the likeness of the American experiment, and if we don’t understand the foundation of our own society, we will miss opportunities in this new economy. To say that there is a new economic civilization emerging is not to say that there will be “One World” of which we will pledge fidelity as new citizens. Instead, what is emerging is a culture based on economic interaction among diverse people, which will co-exist with older regional political and cultural civilizations, and with nations and societies that comprise those older civilizations.
The second challenge the next few generations will face is how to work and thrive within this new economic civilization, and how to shape its formation for the better, while retaining an allegiance to family, neighborhood and country. To meet this challenge our children and grandchildren will need knowledge of the American experiment and its Western Civilizational roots, of how our experiment impacted the emergence and shape of this new civilization, and of the foundations of the other civilizations, nations and societies whose members are participating in this new civilization. In addition to this philosophical, historical, and spiritual knowledge (and to the exposure to the social science disciplines that inform such knowledge), they must be provided with the knowledge of math and science sufficient to understand what comprises our physical world, and how the physical world works, and how the physical can be harnessed and manipulated to improve the human condition without destroying its essence. They also will need to master more than one language in order to effectively communicate in, and understand the world in which they live. Then, they will need the tools to effectively and respectfully use this knowledge as they engage in the new emerging civilization.
This second challenge is intertwined with the third and final challenge our posterity will face over the next 9 decades: avoiding an Armageddon of our own making. Avoiding war has never been an easy task. History teaches us that, regardless of our best intentions, the more we interact with people of different cultures, the more these interactions will inevitably lead to frictions—and frictions lead to political, economic and cultural conflicts. The challenge to the future is not just to keep these conflicts from leading to war, but from keeping conflicts and wars from leading to human destruction. This challenge requires knowledge of those disciplines that used to be called, the “Liberal Arts”—the study of man and man’s nature—and the tools necessary to use those arts to effectively keep frictions from becoming catastrophic conflicts.
Now, will most of our children need all of the knowledge needed to address every challenge I have listed? The answer to that question is clearly, “no”. It will probably be true for our great-grandchildren as it is for us, that most of them will still spend their entire lives quietly raising families in local communities. To the extent they ever become engaged directly in the wider world it will be through broader communications and entertainments, local interactions with people from different parts of the world, or the trips they will take outside of the United States. But they all will share their citizenship as free people in a country that will remain crucial to the future of mankind—they will live the American experiment and be part of the foundation of the global economic civilization: they will raise the children of the future; they will make the American products, provide the American services, or do the American research that will be traded within the global economic civilization; they will maintain the neighborhoods that keep this country prosperous and free, and they will choose the leaders who will make decisions and use the powers delegated to them to affect the future. Therefore, regardless of their stations in life as adults, our posterity will need a foundational knowledge in how to be an American citizen, and how and why the global economic civilization is emerging and working.
The new mission I have been describing in these first two posts will require what is sometimes referred to as a “knowledge-based education,” rather than a “method-based education,” for its effective implementation. The ongoing debate between a “knowledge-based education” and a “method-based education” is at the heart of the next topic we will discuss: the proper curriculum needed to pursue a new, focused mission for public education. But I want to end this post with a brief comment about a recent controversy related to this debate.
The Republican Party of Texas was criticized recently for its adoption of a platform plank entitled “Knowledge-based Education” during the June, 2012 State Convention. The plank included the words “critical thinking” in a context that was interpreted by some critics as meaning that Republicans in Texas don’t want to people to think critically. Although I would have worded the plank differently, this whole argument is beside the point—everyone wants an educational system that produces individuals who are able to critically think about the world in which they live; “critical thinking” is one of those tools our children will need as adults in order to use the knowledge they are taught effectively and wisely. The real question for us to answer is, what is the best approach to education that will create effective critical thinkers?
As we will discuss in the next post, the consensus of cognitive scientists is that the attribute of “critical thinking” is difficult (if not impossible) to teach as a skill separate and apart from the core knowledge of a subject to which the critical thought is to be applied. What such scientists are telling us is that we need a “knowledge-based” curriculum in order to develop critical thinkers. Ironically, cognitive scientists are acknowledging what the drafters of the Texas Constitution originally advocated (and what the Texas Republican Platform is really advocating)—an education focused on a “general diffusion of knowledge.” How we can apply cognitive science to effectuate the requirement of Texas Constitution, as well as the modern mission I’ve proposed, is what I will address next.