THERE IS MUCH TALK TODAY in the United States about a crisis of education. Yet what is pointed to as the cause of this crisis is confusing at best, and misleading at worst. There is, for example, the argument made by some commentators that our economy is in trouble because of poor education. Of course this seems preposterous when compared to the role of the banks in our most recent economic crisis. Despite talk of demands for sophisticated skills and more educated workers, predictions are for an economy that will continue to employ high numbers of low and semi-skilled workers; jobs that used to be done by high school graduates are now increasingly filled by those with college degrees. Elsewhere there are the questionable assertions by media pundits about an educational crisis that is the result of kids performing poorly in comparison with students from other countries. This has resulted in the calamity of an education system more and more enthralled with a culture of testing which has sapped imagination, creativity, curiosity, and critical intelligence from our classrooms. This so-called crisis of accountability has become the springboard for rigid and mechanical forms of control over the teaching process in our schools.
Yet in all of this talk of crisis there is little that speaks to the profound moral and spiritual responsibility that is carried—or should be carried—by education. Beyond the usual focus of schooling (grades, test results, graduation rates, etc.) is surely something of far greater significance. Education has the capability and the obligation, I believe, of speaking to the very issue of what it means to be human; of how we as human beings live and relate to one another; and how we relate to, and care for, the natural world that we share with all life forms. Today these issues rise to the very top of what is important to our very survival as a species. For us, and even more for our children, what surely needs to concern us is the very quality of human life on our planet. And central to this is the continuing problem of violent conflict and violent behavior among human beings.
In a letter of invitation written to the contributors of a recent book, I noted that its purpose was to help articulate a new vision and purpose—and begin to set an alternative direction—for our children’s education at a time when, as I believe, there is an increasing delegitimation of the prevailing assumptions and orthodoxies that have shaped our public life over the past few years and which has included a growing threat to the very idea of a public education as the neoliberal fetish of the marketplace displaces notions of our common responsibilities and obligations. Paradoxically there is, at the same time, a deep hunger for the articulation of what Michael Lerner has called a New Bottom Line for education—one that focuses on our children’s lives as human beings who will assume the ethical, political, and social responsibilities of our shared national and global communities.
All signs point to our being in a transitional period in which the assumptions that have governed political life in recent years are in grave crisis. At the core of these assumptions has been the belief that the United States had a free and unopposed hand to make and reorganize the world according to the interests and inclinations of our governing elites. We can now see quite clearly that this arrogance of power has hit a resistant wall. The world cannot be re-made through our military muscle and economic power quite as easily as some may have wished. The lies and deceit that have brought us to this catastrophic moment have been laid bare. The view that this country could act unilaterally on the world stage without much broader international support has produced unparalleled anger and distrust towards the U.S. and a crisis of belief within the United States itself. Many now see that terrorism is only one of a number of serious threats that confront us: global warming and its catastrophic effects, lethal epidemics, poverty, violence and war, nuclear proliferation, racism, gender oppression, ethnic and religious hatred. All are part of the increasingly pressing agenda for action in the world. And the severity and complexity of human problems will demand from us, and especially our children, inclinations, dispositions, and knowledge quite different from those which have shaped, and continue to shape, our social identities and ideological outlooks, moral preferences, and attitudinal priorities. This is a time of crisis, but also of renewed possibility—one that offers us the opportunity to radically reconsider what the meaning of education is for a generation that will bear the brunt of grappling with these extraordinary challenges and dangers. What will it mean to be an educated human being in the twenty-first century, compelled to confront and address so much that threatens the very basis of a decent and hopeful human existence?
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