In the United States, the current purpose of schooling is expressed in the mission statement at the U.S. Department of Education website: to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access. Is this mission sufficient and appropriate for students whose future is threatened by global problems they will be required to address? Might they be better served by a more meaningful and comprehensive mission that includes learning to solve the challenges they will face?
Climate change is not a future possibility; it is happening now, with catastrophic impacts on humans and nonhumans alike. The human population continues to grow, and of the nearly 8 billion people in the world, more than 700 million live in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 per day and approximately 40 million are living in slavery. While disenfranchised groups have gained critical legal rights and protections, racism, sexism, homophobia/transphobia and other forms of oppression and prejudice persist not only in the hearts and minds of individuals but within institutional structures. Animals, too, are facing horrific exploitation and cruelty. Tens of billions of land animals and trillions of sea animals suffer and die each year as part of an unsustainable and inhumane global food system. Meanwhile, misinformation, disinformation, and polarization impact our ability to accurately identify and collaboratively address these and other challenges.
Change is Possible
Despite the grim realities above, we’ve seen real progress and have ever-expanding opportunities to solve our problems. For example, people in countries around the globe are living longer and more materially secure lives, and (media reports notwithstanding) there is less violence toward people than ever before in recorded human history. Only in this century have we had the capacity to communicate and collaborate instantaneously with so many across the globe. Even in many countries where poverty is pervasive, mobile phone access is enabling millions to connect with others worldwide and to access the growing body of knowledge humans are creating and disseminating. There are also exciting innovations occurring in green technology, architecture, construction, and production. Clean energy systems and regenerative farming practices are expanding, and people in every country are devising solutions to what have been seemingly intractable problems. And thanks in large part to positive changes within the education system, young people are growing consistently less racist, sexist, homophobic/transphobic, and more philanthropic and environmentally conscious.
In other words, today’s world presents our children with unprecedented challenges as well as unprecedented opportunities. Our ability to acquire pertinent information, share our knowledge, work together to solve our challenges, and create a more just and healthy world is real and growing. Yes, we face potential disasters, systemic injustices, and widespread cruelties, and yes, through the right kind of education, we can solve these problems. Given all these factors, doesn’t it make sense for schools to ensure that students understand the formidable challenges before them; to prepare young people to address these challenges; and to engage youth in cultivating their ability and desire to create meaningful solutions to potentially calamitous global problems?
The Future of Education
Henry David Thoreau once said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Because the education of children is the root system underlying other societal systems, it is critical that we reexamine and shift the purpose of schooling. If schools were actually successful at achieving the current U.S. Department of Education’s mission — so that graduates were all able to compete effectively in the global economy — these young people would likely perpetuate and perhaps even escalate the global challenges we face. However, if we embrace a mission more worthy of our children and their future — to prepare them to be engaged and knowledgeable solutionaries for an equitable, humane, and sustainable world — we will have a purpose that propels us toward a deeply meaningful and relevant education that benefits both youth and all on Earth. Our children are far more likely to be successful and happy if they have the knowledge, skills, and motivation to effectively address and solve the problems they will face through whatever careers and jobs they choose to pursue. Just as what harms our world harms our children, what benefits our world benefits our children. This is why we must commit to educating a generation of solutionaries.
This post is excerpted from the new edition of The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries