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Education viewed through your lens of the world

August 8, 2022

Several years ago, the former governor of Wisconsin attempted to re-write the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin. His proposal, buried in a budget document, would have removed from UW’s mission “the search for truth” and “improving the human condition” in favour of “to meet the state’s workforce needs.” There’s no mistaking which lens he was looking through.

Scott Walker’s intent would very clearly relegate people to the role of instruments of production. Reducing education to the task of ‘meeting workforce needs’ and reducing the human condition through time-and-motion studies may have served well the short-term needs of transition from agrarian to industrial society. Viewing the world through this lens, however, has set the stage for what may ultimately be the collapse of western democratic society as many of us still imagine and hope it to be.

I (mostly) don’t believe that there is a conscious conspiracy to dumb down the population in order to retain and centralize power and wealth. At the same time, capitalism and democracy are not the same thing, as too many people have been led to believe. These are conflicting notions. In fact, unfettered capitalism, at its core, is antithetical to democracy. One leads naturally to the centralization of power and wealth. The other, in the best case, leads to broad participation across society.

Democratic participation hinges on the notion of equality among citizens. Proponents of unfettered capitalism have no interest in such notions.

If the mission of education is allowed to be reduced to workforce provision, such a mechanistic mission will entirely negate any possibility for optimal social and cultural connection among people, which in turn, negates any possibility for optimal economic outcomes. I cannot bring myself to believe that such a strategy reflects an intentional dismissal of societal cohesion by those in positions of influence. It’s hard to imagine policymakers and corporate leaders not understanding that their own children will need to find and forge a place within a system larger than themselves. It can’t be just, ‘live for yourself and let the rest be damned’. Or perhaps I’m more than a little naïve. Perhaps they have, indeed, adopted the credo, “it doesn’t matter how many people are in the line, as long as I’m at the front.”

I prefer to explain these disconnects in behaviour by a lack of understanding and by an inability to see, touch, and measure the social, relational, and cultural aspects of human life. On one hand, this lack of understanding is perfectly understandable. These are not simple issues. It’s also perfectly understandable that these issues will come back to bite us when we’re not looking. As I see it, the meal has already begun. In the absence of social, relational, and cultural cohesion, the implosion of the whole (including the economic) is inevitable.

Those who brush aside these key societal components do so with an eye on the very short term. Quarterly statements, taxes payable, profits before I die… these outweigh the quality of any life over the horizon for those who follow.

For policymakers, those who focus their lens on employees coming out from the other end of the funnel do a great disservice, both to students and to society. Focus on this outcome, at the expense of the whole student, is doomed to fail. It’s a classic case of trying to get from A to C without going through B. Of course, B is the development of the whole child, and transports us far beyond mere mechanistic consideration of technical skills.

In large part, our locomotive breath of education has chugged along unabated for almost 200 years. Tweaks have been added here and there, but at the heart of the matter, it’s just another brick in the wall and we’re still primarily focused on churning out employees, not informed citizens. The classics have a limited and increasingly threatened role to play in our current model. The 1830 factory school is, unfortunately, alive and well. Taking in the whole picture, these tweaks begin to resemble the rearrangement of deck chairs on a sinking ship.

Is our ship sinking? Well, if our system of education is, indeed, anachronistic, and I believe on the whole that it is, our ship of democracy is definitely sinking. While there is undeniable innovation in education, more often than not this effort is plagued by bureaucracy and politics.

Research and experimentation is essential to any hope for the overhaul of a system long past its ‘best before’ date.

The Mastery Transcript Consortium is just one excellent example of such efforts. I spent a good chunk of time this past weekend reading about the MTC and watching clips of my old friend, Scott Looney, and his colleagues talking about this exciting adventure. They’re definitely on to something. Re-create opportunity for a mentor/apprenticeship relationship to emerge and thrive. Focus on the individual, not in competition with others, not by standardized testing, but rather in the context of the development of their own personal potential… including formalized attention to the ‘character’ side of things. All of this is designed to better ‘enable’ students to both identify and work toward their own personal goals without being labeled by a mostly meaningless, and often counterproductive number.

Through my lens, enabling is among the greatest gifts we provide for our children and our students. How best to enable is the big question though, isn’t it? It’s a question being asked by many, including by our Making a Difference: Community and Belonging Student Survey, set for November. As I write this, we have more than 100 schools already signed up to participate in this project, at no cost, involving more than 44,000 students. I’m very excited. For more information about this project, just ask.

With respect,

Kevin Graham

I welcome your feedback. Feel free to contact me by e-mail.