The American system of education derives most clearly from the pragmatic philosophies of William James and John Dewey, both of whom were influential at the time public education system was coalescing. Pragmatism in the context of education could potentially mean preparing students for adulthood, for full participation in and contribution to society, for citizenship, for entry into the labor force, etc. In short, the objective was to teach students thinking and practical skills needed to succeed in life. As time has worn on, some argue, educational objectives were diluted, diffused, and/or coopted. Reducing the citizenry to mere labor or economic units (read: consumers) is one of the most damning of modern criticisms. Ironically, many students regard college degrees as nearly sure-fire means of obtaining high-paying and rewarding jobs/careers specifically so that they can enjoy a profligate lifestyle (read: be consumers). Further up the academic scale, higher education is criticized for weighing down graduates with burdensome debt (see here, too) of the sort previous generations took only later in life when purchasing a first home. Even further up the scale, some even argue that the cost of a graduate school education (especially in the humanities) and its value as a ticket into one’s chosen profession is so suspect that young people would be better off forgoing the effort.
Current educational objectives, if they truly exist in any agreed-upon form, scarcely serve to prepare students for the struggles they can be expected face in a future that looms dark. Sweeping demographic, economic, technological, and environmental changes promise to alter our reality and social structures in ways so fundamental they can’t yet be fully anticipated or appreciated. If schooling used to mean preparing students for a future that had strong continuity with the present, schooling now must contemplate preparing students for an unpredictable, discontinuous future of unremitting change and fluctuation. Take as an example of fundamental change the strange result of uncritical embrace of social media, namely, that students increasingly need to be taught basic face-to-face social skills. Such lessons used to be learned passively through involvement with extended family and participation in various forms of community. But today, it’s clear that many kids suffer from parental neglect and isolation from community, so they turn to their peers, mostly through electronic gadgets, to develop a value system and sense of belonging. Students also need preparedness for what’s being called gotcha capitalism, where everyone is a mark for some scheme, plot, scam, or con.
With those points in mind, one revised educational objective might be simply to teach students to understand what’s happening to and around them and how to devise thoughtful, dynamic responses. This is the new millennium’s version of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. What happens, for instance, when the trucks stop coming and the store shelves empty, as happened recently (and surprisingly rapidly) in Washington, D.C.?
Who knew that hoarding could deplete food stocks so quickly? All of this is related, of course, to an emerging suspicion (or among some, a foregone conclusion) that industrial civilization will not last much longer, the effects of which will be felt most forcefully by those now young.
A growing population of home schoolers and unschoolers is appearing who reject current educational models, methodologies, and objectives for a variety of reasons and have already opted out. I cling to public education provided by local government not because I think government always does a better job than the lone parent or even the parental cluster but because, for society to retain cohesion, there needs to be a normative educational experience and a clearinghouse for authoritative or canonical knowledge, which is now disappearing as spin, propaganda, religious dogma, and Wiki-ness corrupt what we think we know.
Large-scale social upheaval is almost uniformly irrational, and mob mentality morphs quickly into vigilante justice. The so-called Tea Party movement may be among the first signs of significant grassroots dissatisfaction expressed by those who feel, rightly or wrongly, that haven’t gotten their share of the American dream. And when the time comes to assess blame for society’s failures, inchoate anger and frustration are unlikely to be tempered by a thoughtful examination of the long-term trends that underlie any point of historical arrival. The masses are simply unprepared to think critically. And though it won’t be merely young people who are disenfranchised, it is their futures that are being sold out, typically by Baby Boomers who have failed utterly to demonstrate the political will to take up social problems and address them in ways that don’t amount to simultaneously exploiting the young via cheap rhetoric and mortgaging their lives under crushing government debt. If they develop the capacity to frame the issues at all, I expect youngsters to be hopping mad when their elders’ failures manifest fully, but I rather suspect they won’t understand that they’re really the unfortunate victims of a historical trajectory to which we unwittingly committed quite a long time ago.
There is something horribly sad, too, that even as parents claim to only want the best for their children, they have consistently chosen paths of least resistance and missed opportunities to build their children’s character, which has resulted in the Strawberry Generation. Although the term is Taiwanese in origin, its applicability elsewhere should be obvious. In short, many parents have so habitually sacrificed for and genuflected before their own children that the ungrateful cretins have developed a king-sized sense of entitlement and inability to withstand even modest hardship without wilting and going to spoil under the pressure. The American workplace is a Petri dish of this culture. Although shirking and cheating during secondary and higher education are now standard behaviors, graduates often believe they should enter the workplace with high levels of responsibility and pay for which they’re simply unprepared since the typical new graduate has neither the skills nor the work ethic to succeed on merit. And good jobs aren’t exactly waiting for them anyway, as economic setbacks have prevented boomers from retiring from the workforce early as expected. Human resources departments have plenty of horror stories to tell about hiring recent graduates. But as noted above, the young are victims in this scenario, as they can’t really be expected to have assumed mature responsibility for themselves before their time, or perhaps ever if they are unable to move out from under their parents’ roof. What a shining future they’ve been left with.