Some New Thoughts for Education

Complaints about the American education system are evergreen. “A Nation at Risk” was published in 1983 and catapulted the odious William J. Bennett to public stardom. We’ve been suffering through ‘books of virtue’ ever since. But the education reformist wagon goes way back. John Dewey gained a lot of fame and notoriety for his ideas on democracy and education. Further back into the nineteenth century we get Horace Mann.

So today I’m trying to imagine what a new education philosophy would look like:

  • For one thing education is too often confined to what happens in schools. I think we need to break this connection as soon as possible. People have to believe that education happens all around them, and then they need to be empowered to learn.
  • Easy community building tools need to be developed that encourage people to learn together in groups. This points to the yearning for collaboration mentioned by Bill Tozier recently.
  • Education needs to be both an individual and a communal strategy. I’ve been pleased to participate in two self-directed community education endeavors over the last few years, a philosophy discussion group in Minnesota, modeled on Chris Philips Socrate’s Cafe, and the Toastmasters group at UMich.

Part of this will be mediated through computers. See the work of people at Umich on collaboratories. These programs are more beneficial for those who are on the margins. People who are at the center, for example in a wealthy research university, are more likely to rely on their face-to-face ties. This isn’t a bad thing. Face-to-face ties are still much richer than solely online relationships.

The unconference phenomena is another alternative mode of organizing for communal education. Some examples are BloggerCon, Bar Camp, Woolfcamp.

I don’t think there is one single solution to the education dilemma. I was heartened to read recently about a study by the U.S. department of education which found no difference between private and public schools. Some might take this as an argument against education vouchers. I’m not so sure. I would like to see a world where both public education and vouchers could coexist. And more attention paid to those left behind.

The bigger problem is that education just doesn’t pay. In corporate environments training is the first expense to be cut during economic downturns. I’ve seen this happen in my own personal experience. Funding for public education is pathetic. The salaries of teachers are ridiculously low considering the size of the burden we, as a society, place upon them. When I compare the salaries of teachers to CEOs I can only conclude that America is doomed. We need to think bigger thoughts than we’re thinking now, about equity, money, and philosophy.