At the end of this school year approximately three million students will graduate from U.S. high schools. They will not be ready for what awaits them. These are the students who have passed their No Child Left Behind tests year after year. They are verbally, mathematically, and technologically literate. They have been successful at meeting the requirements of our educational system. Yet, for the most part, even our highest performing graduates are unprepared for the important roles they must play in today’s world.
Because we are confronted with escalating, interrelated, global problems, such as climate change, human trafficking, growing extinction rates, economic instability, a looming energy catastrophe, to name just a few, we must educate a generation to solve systemic problems. Plenty of people are already working to solve these challenges, but the systems in place that perpetuate them are entrenched. We need to create better, sustainable, and restorative systems in a host of arenas from food production to energy to transportation to financial markets.
But to change these entrenched systems, we need people who have the knowledge, tools, and motivation to be conscientious, engaged and wise changemakers. Where will these people come from? If we commit to changing just one of our most deeply entrenched and failing systems we can the stage for the unfolding of timely systemic changes throughout a range of systems. That one system is schooling. We must embrace a new and bigger purpose for education: to provide students with what they need to be solutionaries for a better world through whatever careers they choose.
Unfortunately, this isn’t what schooling is currently for. Our goal continues to be to graduate students with enough verbal, mathematical, and technological literacy and knowledge of certain subjects so that they can find jobs and “compete in the global economy.” While such literacy is, of course, essential, it should be perceived primarily as foundational. It should not be the goal of schooling, because were we to actually succeed at graduating a generation that all passed their No Child Left Behind tests and were all employed, we would find that most of them would perpetuate, and perhaps even escalate, the systemic problems we face. They would not have learned how to become what we really need our graduates to be: solutionaries for a healthy and humane world.
Education is in the news these days, with feature length documentaries such as Waiting for Superman at theaters alongside Toy Story III. Tom Friedman at The New York Times, calls the “education beat” the most exciting of our time for journalists. Never in my lifetime has education been such a hot topic. Yet, the conversation about education reform is so terribly missing the mark. The gaping hole in the current debates about education is the failure to assess our ultimate goal. In Waiting for Superman, for example, the ultimate purpose of schooling – depicted almost farcically through cartoon images in the movie – is the better filling of each child’s head with information rather than the better cultivation of great critical and creative thinkers. As William Butler Yeats once said, "Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” Our current goal is anything but lighting a fire.
Instead of teaching youth about the interconnected global challenges we face and engaging their creativity and intelligence in the unearthing of new ideas and solutions, schools often trample upon their creativity, curiosity, and thirst for meaning with boring textbooks that fail to engage them, timed multiple choice tests on often irrelevant information, memorization of information that in today’s world is a click away, and a curriculum that doesn’t draw connections between “the basics” and what these foundational skills could actually achieve in the world. At the same time, our society actually discourages brilliant and inspiring people from becoming educators not only by paying teachers poorly, but also by squelching their own creativity by forcing them to teach to seemingly endless standardized tests.
Rather than offer unconnected academic disciplines, imagine if each year of high school covered a single overarching issue, such as Sustenance, Energy, Production, or Protection. Teachers with expertise in different subjects could provide students with the skills to conduct research into current systems and articulate new viewpoints, understand and use scientific and mathematical equations and methods to solve systemic problems, and draw upon history, politics, economics, psychology, sociology, and geography to analyze, assess, propose and create new or improved systems. And the arts, relegated to the chopping block because of budget cuts, could find new life as vehicles for expression of visionary ideas.
Imagine if instead of debate teams, in which students are assigned either one side or another of a fabricated either/or scenario and told to research, argue, and win, we had solutionary teams in which students came up with and presented ideas to solve problems. For example, rather than endless debates about “jobs v. endangered species” which have been presented to us by the media and politicians ad nauseum since the Northern Spotted Owl was declared endangered, we had solutionary teams come up with viable ideas about how to protect other species and keep people employed at the same time. Since we love to compete and honor our victors, the “winners,” (those with the really brilliant, practical, and cost-effective ideas) could watch those ideas be implemented. Such teams could tackle problems in their school, communities, country, or even global challenges and in so doing make a profound, and profoundly rewarding, contribution.
If solutionary education became commonplace, students everywhere might revamp their school buildings for renewable energy sources. Or transform their food service systems and cafeterias so that they received healthy, sustainably and humanely produced lunches. Think what the students would learn about chemistry, ecology, biology, physics, business, farming, architecture, and construction from just these two projects alone. Imagine how fully the teachers could contribute their knowledge and passion for the subjects they know best. There are already teachers who do such projects with their students within the constraints of the current public school system, but they face perpetual hurdles. When we hear about them, we laud them in the news. But their work shouldn’t be newsworthy; it should be the norm.
What would children offered such an education grow up to do when they graduated? The same things graduates do today. They would be businesspeople, healthcare providers, lawyers and law enforcement officers, architects, engineers, and plumbers, beauticians and politicians. The difference would be they would perceive themselves as responsible for ensuring that the systems within their professions were humane, and healthy, and just for all. They would do this as a matter of course because this is what they would have learned to do in school.
A few years ago I was the speaker at the National Honor Society induction at our local high school. To illustrate the connections between even the most mundane choices and the systems in place that need changing, I brought with me a cotton T-shirt, made in China. I asked the audience the effects, both positive and negative, of this shirt on ourselves, other people, the environment, and other species. While we couldn’t know much about this specific T-shirt, there’s a lot we do know about conventional cotton production: that it uses massive amounts of pesticides; that children are being forced into slavery in cotton production in Asia and Africa; that sweatshop conditions are ubiquitous in many overseas factories; that the dyes, often dripped into the eyes of conscious rabbits in testing laboratories, are largely toxic and a significant percentage winds up in our waterways. There are also positive effects of course. The production, distribution, and advertising of the T-shirt employed many people, and its wearer was able to buy it at a reasonable price, but my final question, “Are there alternatives that do more good and less harm?” suggests that we can create better, healthier, more just and humane systems.
After the talk, one of the girls who’d just been inducted was furious that she’d never learned about these issues before. “We should have been taught this since kindergarten!” she exclaimed. Yes.
Whether or not we would have wished this on them, our children must grow up to be solutionaries. Yet they are still memorizing names and dates of battles. They’re told to “do their best” at school, but what would be best is if we engaged their loving hearts and brilliant minds so that they yearned to play their important roles in the great tasks ahead. Core competencies in core subjects are simply tools. We must make sure that we’re providing our children with the knowledge, skills, and commitment to participate in the creation of a peaceful, sustainable, and humane world for all. And if we embrace such a vision for the purpose of schooling, we will watch our graduates quickly and inexorably solve the pressing, persistent and systemic problems we face.