In a recent post on his Practical Theory blog, principal Chris Lehmann of Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy wrote about the vision he and teacher Matt Baird have for an American History course. Among many salient points, he stated, "Both of us believe that we teach history so that kids can make sense of the world they live in, and therefore, be more informed and active and engaged citizens of that world." This resonated with me quite a bit. Regular readers know I often talk about this idea as the ultimate goal of education in some form or fashion. You can see this particularly in any of the posts where I address the notions of "value-added" or attack the over-reliance on standardized testing.
I also reacted so positively because Chris' sentence aligns so closely with an idea that has been percolating in my mind for a few weeks now. If you were to dig deeply enough--and sometimes it's right there on the surface--making sense of the world is the primary driver of any academic discipline. Literature allows us to probe into the human condition. Languages are a means to connect and thus do the same with people from other places and cultures. Science allows us to grasp the tangible and intangible mysteries of the universe. Math is a language that allows us to express and calculate and extrapolate and achieve in ways we otherwise couldn't. Ultimately, that we even have academic disciplines comes from this desire to make sense of the world we live in, to somehow categorize and thus corral the wild herd of complexities--of stuff--that could so easily overwhelm us.
I also wonder, well aware that this next statement smacks of possible hyperbole and melodrama, if this goal isn't more vital now than ever. Well, at least at any point I can recall. Yes, I know that history is full of doom-criers, convinced the end is near because of human behavior. And I remain basically an optimistic, occasionally idealistic person. Yet at the same time, it seems that recently my various news sources have been serving up an particularly unappetizing and varied buffet of human dysfunction. ISIS beheadings and stonings; Ferguson, MO; Ukraine; a growing wave of neo-Nazism is different areas; kidnapped girls in Africa; Israel versus Hamas; an epidemic of sexual abuse in one town--that's my list compiled in just thirty seconds of brainstorming. None are really new issues; just the details have changed. We're also more continually aware because of how we are bombarded with information and how easily we can find even more. Some data suggests it wasn't "the worst month ever." I know all that. Our current malaise still feels extreme.
Even if it's not, I'll make a more purely analytic argument. Given the perfect storm of technological advances, shifting demographics, and geo-political upheaval that has swirled--and even gathered strength--over the past 25 years. Along with other factors, these trends have made already knotty global issues even more complicated. Thus, we're going to need even more creative, truly collaborative people to develop comprehensive solutions.
For that to happen--and I fervently believe that it can and will--two key, slowly emerging trends must accelerate. Both necessitate keeping that long-term goal in the forefront of our consciousness. It should be the answer to the question about why education matters so much that it's about the only compulsory things in this country. The first trend is rather ironic, given where this post began by talking about a vision for a particular course within an academic department. We have to break down all the boundaries that exist in education--between disciplines, between all constituencies--and focus on the inter-connectedness of it all. The second is, in some ways, a natural outgrowth of the first, at least when it comes to program and pedagogy. Schools need to focus much more on students as real-life problem solvers working in teams. Foster this mindset, and they will launch their own moonshots.
That's also why I remain inherently optimistic: my faith in young people. As Rabindranath Tagore wrote, "Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged by humanity." With the right opportunities, each can improve the world, one little corner at a time.