A comic about Malala Yousafzai, from the Salt Lake Tribune This August I was invited by the University of British Colombia at Okanagan to join a panel of leaders in education for a big ideas session on the topic "Where are we going in education, and who are the teachers we need?" I sent a letter to the Dean of Education and others afterward, to thank them, and to summarize what I discussed.
I wanted to speak about middle-school and high-school education from two frames of reference beyond it: from the perspective of what we are finding students to be like as they are entering university, and more deeply, from the perspective of society’s conceptions of education and thinking.
Society has a profound shaping power on education, especially through determining students’ expectations of what education will accomplish for them. This is something teachers need to know and to which they must have responses The existing status of society doesn’t just shape what students learn, it shapes what will count as an answer to the question they ask about their education: “so what?”
We need to learn how to free students to figure out for themselves why things matter, or they will be that much less able to think for themselves. If they just take for granted what is important, what the direction and purpose of all of this is, if they think that it is already obvious, or if they think it’s not up to them to figure out what it’s all for, then they won’t be engaged, won’t be creative, profound, personally committed innovators; they won’t be the change that we need them to be, that they need themselves to be.
Our society normally thinks of school as the means by which students become adapted to or fitted to social life. Knowledge is taken to be a tool instead of something exciting and valuable for its own sake, and education is interpreted as skill acquisition, as technical preparation for use in a later career. Teaching ends up being seen as the delivery of information.
If the goals of education are supposed to be decided outside of school, in advance, by the family, by society, then learning is supposed not to be related to figuring out the real good and aim of life. The result is that education is expected not to transform who we are by challenging us to think about what is good. According to this idea, school does not help us find out what is worthy and beautiful, but to give us a toolbox for doing what we already decided to do.
To answer this misconception it is helpful to upend a common misconception—even in educators—of the relationship between theory (“thinking”) and practice (“the real world”). Theory is not an abstract idea or a figment of someone’s imagination, it is the activity of rigorously and creatively seeking the truth, it is the practice of seeing that is moved by, infused with, sharpened by, and in pursuit of the most important questions. It is theory that gives us the real world; practice merely relies on a hunch about what the world is like.
This means an educated person is someone who loves wisdom so much that they have the courage to seek the truth for themselves, a philosopher, a person who seeks and holds inside them the burning questions that demand that they find out for themselves what is good and why. Society is continually educating us already; an educated person is someone who continually educates themselves.
This is the bedrock of what I think we need to be aware of as educators. Other things follow: true education requires engagement with others, with the community. The truth that people will find for themselves is that we must commit ourselves utterly to re-imagining and re-shaping how we live in this world.
Thank you very much for giving me the chance to ask your students to think about this. It is exciting because it matters.