In 1837, at the age of 51, Horace Mann accepted an appointment as the secretary of the Massachussetts Board of Education, becoming the the first secretary of a board of education in the history of the United States.
Just one year later, in November 1938, Mann penned the prospectus for The Common School Journal, which would become one of the most influential sources of pedagogical theory and ideas in the world. Mann would use the journal to propose ideas like the separation of faith and education, public funding for schools, and the need for well-trained teachers.
In other words, Horace Mann might be one of the single greatest examples of leadership in the history of the American education system. By finding the courage to lead, he has had impact on nearly 200 years of education in the United States.
Whether you agree with the principles he instilled in our system or not, it would be hard to argue with the courage, grit, and servant’s mindset necessary to see so much of his work through.
Since Mann’s time, education has continued to be a hot topic of public debate and an important issue in state and federal elections. That has continued to this day as the conversation shifts towards student debt and the potential for access to a free college education for all.
I’ll leave it to you to host a discussion on the merits of universal post-secondary education amongst your friends.
In the mean time, it might be useful to consider a question: what is the point of education? Not just a college education, but education in general. From elementary schools to Harvard to Udemy, what can we hope to gain from the education of society?
The Focus of Education
Throughout time, we’ve seen an amazing variety in focus in our education “system.” By system, I mean the prevailing standard of education during a given time period. We’ve seen the focus placed on:
- Trade – the model of apprenticeship, job training, and hard skills has been a focus of education since the middle ages. From blacksmiths to carpenters to bakers, apprenticeship is a period of 3 to 6 years for a person to learn a trade. The apprenticeship model has taken different forms over time, including vocational training and more.
- Religion – parochial schools have existed as long as education has existed in the United States. They have served as institutions for learning religious practices and moral decision making, as well as more common education topics.
- STEM – the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math that has become the fetish of policy makers in modern times, with the goal of preparing students for modern jobs that take advantage of technological advancements.
- Liberal Arts – tracing back to ancient Greece, the classic education in grammar, logic, and rhetoric has grown into the study of history, art, music, philosophy and more in today’s world. the value in a liberal arts education is often framed as “learning to learn” or “appreciation for culture.”
- Basic literacy – arguably a subset of the classic liberal arts education, this dates back to the earliest U.S. public schools, which focused primarily on literacy and basic arithmetic. This grew into the study of science and history as secondary education became more common and the curriculum expanded.
- Professional – the emergence of medical schools, business schools and more led to the equivalent of vocational training for white collar jobs.
Of course, education has had many aims beyond just these few. My point is simply that the focus of education has changed quite a bit over time and run the gamut from moral religious education to the study of public accounting.
The Purpose of Education
If these have been the focus of education over time, I’m not sure that entirely answers the original question: what is the purpose of education?
Each of these foci suggest that there is a “right” system for educating the next generation of humans. But what if the uncomfortable reality of the matter is that there is no right answer?
“If we just teach children to code, they’ll never be unemployed,” we kid ourselves. “If only our children had a stronger sense of morality, there would be less pain and suffering in the world,” we proclaim hypocritically.
What if STEM is a fruitless endeavor? What if the common core is a fool’s errand? And what of the reality that any technology we teach school children today will likely be irrelevant by the time they land their first internship?
Likewise, what if parochial school is the fastest way to build a generation of jaded young adults who lack a sense of faith? What if morality cannot be taught in a course, but only observed and in the world around us?
These are all straw man arguments, of course. I ask these questions because I don’t think we question our assumptions enough. We don’t consider that we might be getting education seriously wrong and, in the process, imposing a generation’s worth of flawed thinking on the world to come.
Would we not be better served to start with why we want to educate humans and then build a curriculum to suit that need?
Six Principles for a Better Education?
What if we started from a set of principles? What if we designed our education systems to build better humans by focusing on an adaptable set of skills? The kind of skills that lead to self-directed learning over the course of a lifetime.
Or, in other words, what if education is not about the subjects studied, but the capacity to lead.
Equipped with the right mindset and tools, any child can turn into a leader capable of starting a company, leading a government, raising a well-adapted child, or simply taking the initiative to do no harm in the world.
So if I were starting today, these are the principles I would use to design an education system. I have no background in public teaching, education policy, or pedagogical theory. I don’t know how we would transition from a test-centered culture of education to a principle-centered culture of exploration. But I know that as a lay-person, these principles seem to make sense:
- Literacy – basic reading and arithmetic are, and always will be, the foundation for learning. They are the source of basic self-confidence as a learner and more essential than ever in a world of self-directed learning.
- Research – in a world where every book in history will one day be cataloged by Google; where any fact can be found in seconds; where any calculation can be performed automatically… the key skill will not be memorizing information, but accessing it. Organizing it. Interpreting it. Research will become the foundational skill for all future learning.
- Exposure – shove HTML down a child’s throat, and she will learn to treat code as one of those things “she’ll never use again.” Expose a child to a variety of topics and tell her that code will help her build her own thing related to the topic she loves most, and watch her teach herself to code. Children (and adults for that matter) don’t need to be forced to learn topics, they simply need to be exposed to enough topics to find one they can get lost in. And if they don’t learn the history of the industrial revolution, oh well! We’ll get over it.
- Leadership – every child should experience the joy and possibility of serving others thought leadership. What does that mean? It means that every child should be named captain of at least one team — not given a trophy, but given responsibility and encouragement to lead. Every child should be taught to make their own rules. Every child should be encouraged to define their personal values, build emotional intelligence, and taught to communicate what they think and feel. They should be shown that leadership is a trait available to anyone and it is a choice to embrace it. They should be warned that leadership comes with risk, that evil people will try to deny your ability to lead because of your skin color and accent and culture and gender and a million other factors. And that leadership matters because of this reality.
- Design thinking – a thoughtful, human-centered framework for solving problems and evaluating the results. For trying, failing, then making it better, then trying again. Design thinking can be used to solve any number of problems and it can be taught in the absence of expensive technology that inevitably favors more privileged schools.
- Sustainability – the simple fact of the matter is that children of future generations can no longer take growth for granted. They can no longer use resources in the way we have to this point. They have to be taught to build sustainability into everything they do. They need to know the importance of taking care of the earth and of each other. They need to know the consequences of everything they do.
Before we make any more commitments to systems like common core or universal post-secondary education… it could be helpful to reach an agreement on the answer to a simple question: education for what?
There is no way to teach all that a person will need to succeed in the world of infinite access to information and the exponential rate of technological advancement we will continue to experience as a society.
The best we can hope, and perhaps all we could ever hope from a great education: Show people their own capacity, and give them the confidence and courage to lead.
I think we would be amazed at the results of a system designed on principles, not on tests. There is no test that will gauge a person’s ability to be a good human and protect the world for future generations. Why do we pretend that there is?