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Rethinking education: how we got here (1/4)

The fact that the US education system has unclear boundaries is unsurprising, as disagreement about the primary goal of the school system have been present since its founding. Successive periods that focused in turn on knowledge, morality, skill, liberal arts, and character have left us with a sprawling system and terminology. Each part may be valuable and deserve its place, but the way they are integrated (or not) today comes from leftovers of many individual programs more than any explicit decisions on what stays and what goes.

Early community-run school-houses were mostly one room with dozens of children, all ages, focused on memorization of certain facts and some literacy. Schooling in a more standard and scaled way came about through ‘normal schools,’ in which Catherine Beecher’s corps of female school-teachers were coached to be ‘mother-teachers,’ raising children morally to participate in democracy. Horace Mann, the first state secretary of education (in MA), also prioritized morality and preached “good-will towards men, and upward in reverence to god” above liberal education, which he thought was a waste. With these anti-intellectual roots, carried out by newly trained female teachers, the country’s network of schools grew and spread west.

The turn of the 20th century brought a more modern pedagogy focused on skill and personal development for children, ushered in by John Dewey and his disciples. These goals called for more student-led learning, and the role of the teacher and school necessarily changed (and broadened) as they now were asked to help students learn how to think, grow, and ‘learn to learn’ rather than absorb the facts and moral codes being recited at them. Then in the middle of the century, war years (among other factors, including some backlash) pushed priorities back towards morality with a focus patriotism, along with classes on “useful skills” like home economics and machine shop.

Throughout the 20th century as budgets grew, professional teachers and their unions gained influence, and education became near-universal, education policy became more visible. Debates around tracking students and vocational programs emerged among others, and big questions about who should control policy and content gained urgency when the 1965 Education Act put the state front and center for the first time. Over the century the school system also absorbed initiatives, reform movements and debates over (not comprehensive): health and nutrition (free lunch programs); sports and other extracurriculars; sex-ed; counseling and school/career planning; revitalizing STEM; character (grit and growth mindset), and others. This is before even getting to the central role education plays in questions of equal opportunity, with implications in civil rights law (busing, integration), taxation, school choice (charters, voucher programs), and others. All these debates, programs and goals sit on top of the core learning objectives that were the sole focus just 150 years ago: basic morality, social behavior, critical knowledge acquisition.

(A similar confusion of purposes is behind some of the debates about higher education today, as our current institutions maintain the liberal arts traditions modeled after the English aristocracy but have also heavily adopted the German research university model. This leads to an uneasy balance between workforce-ready engineering and broader liberal arts studies, with the lack of role-clarity made more apparent by unanswered questions about the role of internet/remote classes.)

None of this suggests any of these are unimportant, or that they should not be integrated into our school system. However, many pieces have been added ad-hoc, each to serve its own purpose. And when each new piece is added (whether because of new research, or politics, or fads) it’s often patched on rather than integrating with (or clearing out) old ones. This cycle is understandable (why is a whole separate topic). It is also a snowball - it’s easier to keep adding weight to a truck than a scooter. Like an overly complex tax system, merits of each individual policy may start to be outweighed by the crushing weight and confusion of a now-jumbled system.

So whose learning goals should we be solving for? Both students' and society's. Children are the primary stakeholder. Since a society’s reason for existing is to help its citizens thrive and survive, and in today’s world that requires an education in addition to security and rule of law, some basic level of education is an individual right. Society itself is also a stakeholder. If it is investing in each citizen, it should also consider the value education is providing for the broader society (to be more specifically defined later). Parents and teachers are not themselves stakeholders. Both have a right to input as proxies and the most informed citizens, respectively, but are not themselves stakeholders with their own learning goals

Some may be tempted to dismiss the societal goals as softer or less important, but this is dangerous and exacerbates the problems of recent history. Student goals seem more familiar and so ‘right’ because we have skewed that way in recent times, as specialized knowledge and competitive jobs pushed individuals (and so schools) towards more self-serving collection of intellect. School in the US and abroad historically had plenty of focus on morality, citizenship and character. And with good reason: we live in groups, so students need to learn to think about themselves as part of a group as well as capable individuals. The best historical predictor of the fall of a society is the decay of morals and character - individuals forgetting what it means to think of and act as part of a group. Learning goals must include fostering that (especially in the US right now - I’m happy to provide dozens of other links on this topic for anyone interested).

With this in mind, we can re-examine this huge system of “education,” the goals we’re asking it to achieve, how we’ve packaged the load.


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