We Want YOU . . . to Learn: The Education Imperatives

Matt Orourke Blog Catalytic Conversations

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uncle-samIf you’ve been working in the education field for some time, you’re used to hearing the imperatives. They are supported by compelling arguments about why education matters, why investing in education makes sense, why ignoring our education systems’ performance seems individually and collectively misguided. Still, we are challenged to make the case again and again—to ensure that education is a productive part of the national and international dialogue. Today there are at least three key imperative arguments in play.
The Individual Imperative
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Because of Socrates’ dogged commitment to seeking truth, he was being tried for corrupting young minds; yet he still challenges us with these words to question, critically evaluate, and approach the world with wonder. Critical thinking, problem solving, decision making, and the related habits of mind are at the heart of why education matters to each of us. Quality education frees us; it enables us to break the silence of status quo and look at life as our chance to add to the conversation, not just shut up and listen. Moreover, it engages us in artistic and creative pursuits that elevate and illuminate our human condition. Of course individual economic returns count as well. Particularly today, if you want to participate in a globally connected, knowledge-fueled economy, education is the pathway to possibilities. Those without education have fewer and fewer options. While the relationship is not absolute, all you have to do is visit a prison and examine the background of those held to see that there is some relationship between education attainment and options. Whether through degree programs or quality technical training, the argument is simple: If you want to live well, learn well. It’s the interplay of living free and well that is at the heart of the individual imperative. The education arguments aimed at you personally will almost always emphasize either the enlightenment or enlightened self-interest appeal.
The Community Imperative
If we advance the argument to the next level—our communities—you see a natural extension. For example, if we want a true participatory democracy, we need well educated and thoughtful citizens. Emerging advanced analytics and political micro-trend analysis create new opportunities to manipulate and strategically persuade a poorly educated public. Thomas Jefferson said it best, “if we want a nation that is ignorant and free, we want what never was and what never will be.” Additionally, if we want communities with vibrant arts and related creative enterprises, a quality education system is essential. However, the citizenship and artistic elements of the community imperative cannot compete these days with the frenetic embrace of the economy-related community argument. From Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded to Florida’s Who’s in Your City, pundits, politicians, writers, and researchers are making the case that our economic future is inextricably connected to our ability to educate our citizens. Sadly, the data for the US are not good. Of the top thirty developed economies, ours is the only country whose 25-34 year-old cohort is actually less educated than its 45-54 year-old cohort. We used to lead the world in education attainment, but now we are falling behind. In a knowledge economy—or a creative conceptual economy as Pink likes to call it—we need brain power. The other players on the field are investing in education—China, India, Brazil, Korea, and the European Union. And while many of them have a long way to go to educate most of their citizens, they have sheer size on their side. The ubiquitous Did You Know presentations make the surprising claim that China actually has more honors students than we have students. While many of the competitive claims are a bit hyperbolic, we still must take pause and realize that, as Friedman shares, “if we want things to stay as they are [i.e., the US a leading player in the world economy], things will have to change.” For us to keep up, education must change so our economic outlook can change.
Patriotic Imperative
Not since Sputnik spurred on a massive investment in math, science, and engineering has the call been as clear: getting an education is patriotic. From Sputnik’s launch in 1957 through the 1960’s, we worried about the national defense implications of other countries advancing technologically. We invested heavily in programs and policies to enable us to jump back into the lead in science and technology. Today, in addition to national defense, we worry about our economic competitiveness and sustainability in a world increasingly fueled by insight, innovation, and creativity. And when creativity is a commodity, we have to ask hard questions about why we’re stripping out the heart of that infrastructure in our public education system. Of course we need strong reading, writing, math, and science programs. Yet art, music, and theatre—as well as career and technical education—provide the context in which these skills are applied. Focusing on one over the other makes as much sense as going fishing only knowing how to cast. Moreover, it is clear that we are facing increasingly complex, systemically intertwined issues: for example, medical advances and their ethical implications, the balance between access to information and privacy, and the interplay between economic expansion and environmental sustainability. There are no easy answers here; and sound-bite policy and limited thinking likely will cripple us in the long run. President Obama made the strongest case for the patriotic imperative in his February speech to Congress. His message to kids considering leaving high school: “dropping out is not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country.” His challenge to adult learners: use our community colleges and public universities to get at least one year of higher education. He sees clearly the connection between his larger agenda and the ability of this nation to raise the bar on learning to a new level.
We Need YOU to Learn
Yes, education is good for us individually. It opens our eyes and—in today’s economy—it helps us feed our families. It follows that our communities are better off politically, aesthetically, and economically when more of us are educated well. However, we again find ourselves at a time when we must elevate the patriotic imperative. We need to truly become, and actively foster, a nation of learners ready and willing to embrace rookie courage, attend the latest seminar, take the extra training, and question even the most compelling claims. Indeed, our country is turning to us to say, “we need YOU to learn!”
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