Smack in the middle of a conversation with a colleague it occured to me with a flush of embarrassment that all my critiques of contemporary education have been entirely misplaced; not so much wrong perhaps, but certainly unfairly aimed.
Contemporary education is not broken. Indeed, it’s wildly, unimpeachably successful. The contemporary model was never intended to do anything more than bring broad basic literacy–the Three R’s–to millions. In that it has been brilliantly successful. Between 1870 and 1979, illiteracy rates (the percentage of the population that could not read or write in any language) in the U.S. fell from 20% to 0.6%. That, by any accounting, is a stunning achievement. Instead of criticizing it, we should be throwing education a party; a retirement party perhaps, but one where we nevertheless congratulate ourselves on a job well done. (Even so, we will want to keep the old schools around in a consulting role for a while. Our current cry for reform glosses over the fact that the educational needs of all communities are not uniform. There are many places at home and abroad where we have not yet achieved basic literacy and for that we have a proven model to deploy.)
Sadly, our current discussions around educational reform are characterized by destructive and frustrating criticism and, worse I am afraid, shameful blame–on both sides. State authorities blame teachers for failing to meet prescribed outcomes; teachers blame authorites for failing to see those outcomes are losing their relevance. Perhaps those outcomes are out of step, but it won’t do either to replace them with yet another set, even if they are called something like 21st Century literacies. Swapping “literacies” says we have not significantly changed our thinking. We have to imagine a wholesale structural change, just as we did when we invented public schooling in the first place.
Forgive the crude generalization, but we might say there are just two models of education: the first and the oldest, an education for the privileged that was is meant to prepare a them for politics, business and higher study. Call this a liberal education. The second, only a century or two old, a basic literacy education, meant to prepare everyone else to take a place on the shop floor. But now that we have achieved the broad literacy that is the prerequisite for a broad liberal education we can seriously talk about delivering what was once reserved for the privileged few to everyone.
I’m not sure we yet properly appreciate the enormity of that proposition. No one has any idea what that looks like because it’s never been seen before. For me at least, this makes our time the most exciting time–not the most depressing or desperate and hardly the most frustrating–in the history of education. We quite seriously have a chance to make history.