Society's Educational Needs
Research Note #04
Consultant to ATG/Learning Concepts Group
(Learning Concepts Group Note #8)
January 14, 1994
Our current system of schooling was created in another century, to meet the needs of that time, but now our society's educational needs have changed. The author lists and discusses current needs, which our schools may be inadequate to address.
I've been thinking about school reform, and I'm starting to believe that what society really requires in terms of learning cannot be supplied by schools.
What educational needs does our society have?
This is a trick question. Schools reflect a society's view of what of what is important--one could say that our schools are already providing for the society's perceived educational needs.
But most people who work to change education do so because they want to change society. Education reformers are social reformers. In their view, society is not healthy, and one way to improve society is to change education.
How, then, does society need to change? Here's a beginning list, far from exhaustive.
- We need common methods to work on common problems .
We've got so many different kinds of people here now, with such diverse backgrounds, that it's hard to find ways to discuss problems without retreating into name-calling and fear-mongering.
I keep thinking about something that Alan Kay said about AIDS: for someone who understands mathematics, the future spread of a disease that is contagious and incurable can be predicted. That projected spread is a fact. But for somebody in Congress, with poor training in simple mathematics, projections of the future spread of AIDS are just an opinion.
Ironically, the culture of the West has developed some good tools for thinking about problems, but our current educational system has made these tools accessible only to a tiny minority of the population. Everybody else falls back on common sense knowledge, which is inadequate to cope with many current problems.
Perhaps deeper than the problem of figuring out how to disseminate proven tools is our common problem of building a multicultural, multiracial society. We are still, at bottom, a racist country. No country has yet figured out how to be multicultural. In order to throw off the centuries of bigotry and racial violence that dog us in this nation, we need some new ways of understanding ourselves and new ways of working together. These are not trivial problems; they reach into our very soul.
- We need wisdom and compassion.
Sounds corny, but it's true. As a culture, we act as though excellent tools lead automatically to excellent results. This has not been the case. There's an Einstein quote about how the 20th century has been characterized by richness of means and poverty of ends.
- We need a better balance between individual independence and group cooperation.
As the authors of Habits of the Heart pointed out, America's culture is so extremely individualistic that we no longer have language to think with about what we hold in common. We are so used to protecting individual rights that we don't know how to talk about shared responsibilities.
Our society needs people who are independent, who think original thoughts and feel unique feelings, who can also live and work in cooperation with others.
- We need to recover soulfulness.
There is more to life than thinking. Our individual lives are impoverished by over-reliance on thinking, and our collective life on the planet is threatened by our unease with those parts of ourselves that are not logical or rational.
Alan points out how we need only 3% of our people to feed 100% of the population, and this is a sign of how powerful our culture's tools are. But there has been a cost: 97% of the people are out of touch with where their food comes from, out of touch with the deep satisfaction that can come from working with the soil, and most of us lack respect and reverence for the natural systems that produced the food. Eating disorders are common, we eat substances that are hardly food at all, and we are notably wasteful of food. These disorders seem to me to be somehow tied to our intelligence at raising food.
From Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul:
The great malady of the twentieth century, implicated in all of our troubles and affecting us individually and socially, is "loss of soul." When soul is neglected, it doesn't just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning. Our temptation is to isolate these symptoms or to try to eradicate them one by one; but the root problem is that we have lost our wisdom about the soul, even our interest in it....
....It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway; the soul prefers to imagine. We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth, as when we say certain music has soul or a remarkable person in soulful. When you look closely at the image of soulfulness, you see that it is tied to life in all its particulars--good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart.
- We need to make ourselves less susceptible to manipulation.
Neil Postman is right that our civic health depends on our understanding the ways in which our thoughts and feelings are manipulated by the media. In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky talks about how what we are able to think about is constrained, without our even knowing it.
Robert Pirsig, in Lila, refers to the "cultural immune system" that every society possesses to keep its paradigms from being corrupted. Our culture is in need of new paradigms now, and our cultural immune system is getting in the way, making the things we need to see invisible, making it hard to think about what we need to think about, manipulating us into the same old trains of thought.
- We need to address our national habit of denial.
"It's possible," writes Robert Bly in The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, "that the United States has achieved the first consistent culture of denial in the modern world. Denial can be considered as an extension--into all levels of society--of the naïve person's inability to face the harsh facts of life."
We see ourselves as the best, the shining example for the rest of the world, and this makes it impossible for us to acknowledge the ugly side that, as human beings, we share with everybody else. We're great at pointing the finger at other countries' evils--the recently-opened Holocaust Museum and Schindler's List are just two examples of how movingly we can do this--but our own cruelties are nearly invisible to us.
Denial is connected to addiction, and there are some who think that America is a culture of addiction. (See Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel, The Addictive Organization.) People don't get over addictions by getting smarter; in fact they don't get over addictions at all, but they can learn how to live without being controlled by the addiction. Our addictions seem to be connected to unwillingness to acknowledge our human limits. We hunger for control, but we cannot control what happens in the world, and we cannot control those parts of ourselves that are unconscious and irrational. We need to acknowledge that there are limits to understanding, limits to what we can solve, limits to the usefulness of the tools we have developed. These limits need not be seen as oppressive; they are part of knowing who we really are and taking our rightful place in the world.
Bly says something very moving about denial, something I hadn't seen before.
Religion can fight denial, or give in to it. The pope gives in to denial when, standing in Mexico City, surrounded by three million people destroying the environment and their own children, he says that birth control is wrong. Each of us has the pope's brain defect, which is perfectly compatible with nobility, intelligence, courage, education." [italics mine.]
What is to be done about denial? It's hard to face something we don't see, something in which we are all unwitting conspirators. This is one place where art can help, Bly says.
Great art and literature are the only models we have left to help us stop lying. The greater the art the less the denial. We don't need avant-garde art now, but great art. Breaking through the wall of denial helps us get rid of self-pity, and replaces self-pity with awe at the complicated misery of all living things.
- We need to keep learning.
There's lots of talk about this one. Our technologies are changing so rapidly that people will need to keep learning new jobs. But we need to care about more than that--we should see ourselves not just as servants of our economy. (Wasn't the economy supposed to serve us?)
Anyway, schools, no matter how much they might say, "We all need to be lifelong learners," are places where learning stops at a certain point. That's one more reason why I think we need some new kind of institution.
- We need to find meaning in our lives.
Americans are trying to find meaning in what they accumulate or what they accomplish, but many wise people--Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning, Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, Thomas Moore in Care of the Soul, to name but a few--insist that the central truths of life, while they can be experienced, cannot be defined in words. Each of us finds meaning in our own way, in our own time. Nobody can tell us where to look for meaning, but maybe a learning institution (as distinct from a school) could encourage the search instead of colluding with the purveyors of addictions.
- We need to offer learning opportunities for everyone.
It's just no good to have a system in which accidents of birth determine a person's learning opportunities. As a society, we're still acting like it's okay for some people to get lots of learning opportunities while others don't get many.
- We need to develop administrative structures that keep as much local control as possible.
Most of our institutional models are centralized organizations, and in some cases power is getting even more centralized: corporations can make decisions affecting many nations without being responsible to anyone; recent trade agreements put decision-making power in the hands of committees that are not responsible to the communities their decisions will affect.
There are now numerous examples of successful decentralized organizations. Society needs to work on this, and whatever kind of education we have should help people to wrap their minds around this slippery topic.
- We need, at least temporarily, to provide people with nurture that used to be provided by families.
Gang members try to initiate themselves into adulthood, but, not being adults, they can't do it. Young people from broken families try to have relationships, but, having no other examples around, they repeat the mistakes of their parents. Society needs to intervene in such lives, not to enforce particular behaviors, but to offer more options.
These are some of the ways in which society needs to change, and so these are some of our educational needs.
But the learning that is required is not new skills; it is new ways of understanding, new viewpoints, new attitudes. Schools were developed to teach skills, and no matter what you think about how poorly they did that, they just aren't suited to helping people learn new attitudes. And they are terrible at helping people learn things that haven't been invented yet.
In my opinion, no amount of fixing will render schools able to meet society's needs. We need some new kind of institution.