Editor’s note: Scottie Seawell is Vice-President of Leading and Governing Associates, a governance education and consulting practice specializing in public engagement, problem solving and decision making.
Last week on this site, Marc Waxman ended his first blog post stating that he thinks about the question “What is education?” constantly. It pleased me to know that I am not the only person constantly turning this question over in my head. Many people I pose this question to have a well thought-out answer, but on more than one occasion, I have argued that their answer is incomplete. Then I pose a somewhat more nuanced question, “What is the purpose of public education?”
Since the day my first child started third grade in the fall of 2003, I started to fear that as a nation we might be dumbing-down our system of public education with the increasingly narrow focus on data and student achievement. Tangible measurements of student achievement are easy to obtain – especially in the short run or over two- and four-year political cycles. However, it is the intangible outcomes of an education – the ones that are hardest to measure – that I believe are critical components to the answers of “What is education?” and “What is the purpose of public education?”
Contrary to what many pundits and politicians may state, neither the strength of our military nor the intelligence of our intellectuals make our nation more likely to endure. It is also not the rise and fall of our economy, the housing market or the stock market that will be our saving grace or ultimate ruin. Rather, our nation’s future hangs in the balance of we, the people: you and I and our readiness and willingness to take on the mantle of our citizenship. It always has been this way, and it always will be this way until the day comes when the American Dream slips from our collective reach. But in order to take on this mantle and breathe renewed life, generation after generation, into the American Dream, we must first be educated and socialized to do so.
In a June 2010 report from Public Agenda entitled “Are we beginning to see the light?” 1,406 people from across the nation (including parents of high school students) were randomly selected and surveyed on the importance of math and science education to our nation’s future. The survey also asked respondents questions about other educational topics including one regarding the most pressing problems facing high schools in their local communities. Fifty-six percent of all respondents (63 percent of parents) felt the most pressing problems facing their public schools came from “social problems and kids who misbehave” compared to 31 percent (27 percent of parents) who felt the most pressing problems came from “low academic standards and outdated curricula.”
In the same survey, when asked what “do you think is absolutely essential or important but not essential or not important (for schools to teach students)?” Eighty percent of parents and 74 percent of all respondents agreed “being able to work well as part of a team” is essential. Nineteen percent of parents and 24 percent of all respondents ranked it as “important, but not essential,” and only 1 percent of parents and 2 percent of all respondents ranked it as “not important.” That says to me that we, the citizens of the United States, get the importance of being able to work together to the success of our children and our nation.
Last week, Retired Admiral Steve Allen in an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, talked about some of the important lessons learned from his involvement in the response efforts following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the earthquake in Haiti and most recently the Gulf oil spill. “You have to generate unity of effort,” Allen, “and it is very different when you do it outside of the military ….the ability to create unity of effort has to be the number one priority because there are overlapping roles, jurisdictions, competencies, authorities, capabilities and capacities and what you want to do is bring that together and focus it on the effects that you are trying to achieve. I would say that’s the single most important common denominator in any emergency response.”
He went on to say, “We will never have another major event in this country that does not involve major public participation….We have to figure out a way to better integrate all of those resources, passion and commitment that exists out there, because if you don’t they will be disaffected and you are going to break down that unity of effort you are trying to achieve…you are either going to involve them or they are going to involve themselves.”
I think the take-away for me, from Allen’s lessons learned, is that all of us – average citizens, elected officials, civil servants and military personnel alike — need to understand how to work together, need to have learned what is meant by “unity of effort.” Unfortunately, it often seems to me that we haven’t been doing a very good job of teaching this lesson for at least the last few generations. Perhaps not since the “Greatest Generation,” as Tom Brokaw described them, have we adequately understood the importance of education in creating citizens who know how to work together to find public solutions to public problems.
So I ask, “What do we, the people, need public education to be?” And I come back to my belief that having well-educated and capable citizens is the only way we can ensure our future as a nation and perhaps the future of the human race. Certainly, our ability to respond to our collective challenges, be they of our own making or Mother Nature’s, depends on it.
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