Countless schools districts include the desire to create life long learners of their students in their mission statements. The most common attributes in school goals across the country are: mastery of basic skills, career education, intellectual development, enculturation, interpersonal relations, autonomy, citizenship, creativity and aesthetic perception, self-concept, emotional and physical well-being, moral and ethical character, and self-realization. I’ll bet you can guess which two we pay attention to and which ten we don’t. I think that’s why most young adults leave school without a strong sense of any of these unless they were developed outside of school, and sadly, we haven’t made major inroads on the two we obsess on, basic skills and career education.
How many schools have inspiring quotes on the morning announcements or on the dry erase board at the front of the classroom that say things like, “Education isn’t the filling of a pail, it’s the lighting of a fire, or, “Education isn’t preparation for life, it’s life itself,” then we spend the rest of the day making sure all fires are extinguished and if anyone questions what we’re doing, we say, don’t you want a job when you get out of school? We are trying to prepare you for life in the real world. If only they could read and acquire job skills, we say, then we could light their fire. I fear we’ve been putting out fires for so long, we forgot how to light one. If we would start revisiting what it takes to light the fire within each child, the job skills and reading skills would come. If we want our kids to care about school, we need to give them something worth caring about.
My fire was not lit throughout my k-12 education, but I had enough desire to please my parents and be a “good” girl that I went on to college, and thank goodness, my fire for learning was ignited there. I was on fire pretty quickly because, from the get go, they kept asking us all sorts of questions that I was never asked before in school, what is our purpose? what is right and wrong? who are you? what kind of world do you want? what is the best government? what is the good life? Is there a God? Then when they asked these questions, they seemed to really want to know my opinion, not just my opinion, but everybody’s opinion. In no time at all, I realized that life is a much a grander mystery than I had imagined, that I loved trying to figure it all out.
When I graduated high school, my religious and political views were on the far end of the left right spectrum, and by the time I finished my bachelor’s degree, those views shifted to the complete opposite end of the spectrum. The change didn’t occur rapidly. There was no revelatory experience. It happened so slowly that I barely noticed on a day to day basis. It didn’t occur because I was brainwashed by a bunch of liberal professors. In fact, I challenged the views of my far left professors to the bitter end. Not only did I express my views in class, I was an activist. And I wasn’t just part of a group, I was leading groups. Looking back, I don’t know where I found the guts to do half the things I did. I was shy and introverted, plus I was raised to be a polite quiet good girl who doesn’t make waves. One morning, I saw a political group gathering for a moment of silence for a man who was executed in the electric chair the night before, so by lunchtime, I held a gathering for a moment of silence for the victims of his crimes. Leave it to me to find a way to turn a conservative world view into a pseudo-hippie activist movement.
Later in my education, my political science degree was earned from a brilliant cadre of conservative political philosophers, who reinforced my views and developed them with the ideas of incredible writers, social scientists and theorists that deepened my understanding of my assumptions about human nature, for example, and how that translated into my views about sin, foreign policy, the role of government, and many other aspects of human existence.
But by the time my liberal arts experience was coming to a close, I found myself no longer holding the views of the girl who went off to college four years before or those of the parents and community that raised me. Another person going through those same experiences would have come to quite difference conclusions. My conversions in thought and perception were mine alone. I can honestly say that none of these changes were intentional or rebellious, in nature. I had entered adulthood with views of the world that I had acquired for myself, which I submit is the very purpose of education.
I believe I transformed into my authentic young adult self for a very simple reason. I was in an environment that allowed me to. I was expected to spend my time thinking, discussing, writing, reading, making connections, finding inconsistencies, reflecting, synthesizing, evaluating, and making sense of the world. I was in a setting that was incredibly tolerant of whatever views I may have held at the time. I felt safe to debate the opposite view. I felt safe to have undeveloped views as long as I was working toward their development. I am certain my Marxist history professor from my freshman year would go into shock if he knew how far I am now from where I started.
Every young person should have that experience, not so they can move across a spectrum, but so they can become independent critical reflective thinkers who have a chance to question and uncover and re-think all assumptions, beliefs, and behaviors. Some will shift their views. Some will re-commit to their previous views with a more authentic and profound depth of understanding. But every person will change and evolve. That is the beauty of education, to armor our youth with tools for self-actualization and citizenship.
Our greatest crime in education is that, despite what we say we want for our youth, colleges and our k-12 system are moving further and further away from providing this experience. Even if colleges were still offering this kind of education, there are two major reasons we must do the same for our primary and secondary students. First, many of the students who receive a good liberal arts education have been too programmed to think of school in the way we trained them to think about it in public education- do the work to get a good grade to get a degree to get a job. So by the time they get to college, they don’t see the value in it. They could have been presented with the key to the meaning of life itself, but they wouldn’t have recognized it unless it was going to be on the test, and the value of the key would be getting the right answer, not finding the meaning of life. By the time kids are 18, we have done far too much damage for them to know a good education in college when they see it. We never prepared them for a college liberal arts education that seeks to develop their mind. In a sad irony, the reason they are so unprepared is that we were busy preparing them for college by teaching them to write research papers, to find evidence from the text to support a main idea, to take notes, to turn in assignments on time, and to take tests.
The second reason we need to embrace a liberal arts approach to education in k-12 is because when we don’t, we are denying access to this journey to anyone who happens to choose not to go to or who is unable to go to college. If we educate our youth to become independent thinking life-long learners like we say we want to in our mission statements, our young adults will have the skills and passion necessary to become active participants in our democracy, to continue to learn and grow as an individuals throughout their lives, and certainly, to find their way in the workforce.
If my own children received that kind of education in primary and secondary school, I would not be so insistent that they go to college. I would rest easy seeing them off to a vocational school, to perform blue collar work, or to do a minimum wage job. There is nobility in all kinds of work as long as we are active participants in our democracy and we are life- long learners, knowing that our quest on this earth is to seek understanding and improvement of ourselves, others, and the world.
If we start graduating kids who see themselves as the heroes that they are, who are on a grand quest that is theirs alone, intending to bring their ideals and their highest self-which is different from every other person on earth- into their every day existence, we will have graduated, not just heroes, but hope for America and the world. This is the true aim of education and what makes teaching a calling.