A recent New York Times Op-Ed article titled “Learning as Freedom,” reiterated the necessity for education reform in the United States. I realize the dialog surrounding the subject matter has become trite and acrimonious, but this opinion piece critiques a novel twist to the seemingly pedestrian debate: the reframing of education reform as a national security problem. According to the author, Michael S. Roth, “large, undereducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy” (Roth 2012).
Superficially, the quoted argument might appear somewhat plausible. But the problem is not in its conceptualization, it is in the interpretation of education and its associated purpose. According to Mr. Roth the initial report espouses a more narrowly tailored education system for Americans – especially the underprivileged.
From this parochial perspective, students are rendered mere instruments to be forged and deployed into socio-economically predetermined niches. This is a gross distortion of education. Learning should not be treated as a means to an end, but as an end in and of itself. Mr. Roth affirms by citing John Dewey, a prominent philosopher on education within the United States:
Given the pace of change, it is impossible to know what the world will be like in a couple of decades, so schools first and foremost should teach habits of learning… these habits included awareness of our interdependence; nobody is an expert at everything. He emphasized “plasticity,” an openness to be shaped by experience: “The inclination to learn from life itself and to make conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling” (Roth 2012).
This is the true and forgotten purpose of education, which was once conceived as a viable mode of social mobility. More importantly, though, is the notion that education allows individuals to cultivate a more holistic self.
There are surely dystopian evangelists that oppose the idea of universal education, because of the potential for underclass revolution due to an epiphany regarding aristocratic subjugation. And there are also those utopian ideologues that believe universal education is the elixir to our civilization’s myriad of cataclysmic issues. But the greatest philosophical stance may be a more moderate and impartial one, espousing the pragmatic advantages to be reaped from a highly educated society.
The ramifications of such a maneuver would be immense, but the projections anent its actualization are purely speculative. Universal education is an entirely hypothetical notion, and considering the contemporary sociopolitical ecosystem, it is reasonable to believe it shall remain imaginary for quite some time to come. However, this is no excuse to subvert the education system or withdraw from the discussion. If progressive education reform is to transpire in the future, people must engage in their civic duties and attend the conversation in earnest.
This sentiment has not gone unnoticed by some of the most prominent politicians. Consider Bill Clinton, who spoke of America’s declining educational excellence among global competitors at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Investment in educational reform is tantamount, but rarely do our civil servants qualify the philosophical motivations behind such endeavors. The arguments tend to be presented as self-explanatory. And in an increasingly technocratic age, it is hard to reconcile the development of promising new instructional devices and techniques with the perpetually static educational system.
Given the potential benefits of interactional learning methods and dynamic classroom experiences, the idea of a teacher scribbling definitions on a chalkboard is increasingly antiquated. In an age of space-rovers on Mars, the iPhone, Google, Facebook, and instantaneous access to a plethora of information, it seems prudent to begin reassessing our sacrosanct educational system and its associated instructional practices.
Roth, Michael S. (2012). “Learning as Freedom.” The New York Times (05/12).