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What Does It Mean to Be an Educated Person Today?

The debate we are now carrying on about the Common Core is very odd.  Putatively a debate about what the standards should be, it is really about what level of government should be setting the standards.  Only at the margins are we arguing about what should be taught.  And, even then, the debate is confined to mathematics and English literacy.

No one I know would argue that mathematics and English literacy (which does not include literature) are all that should be taught in our schools, or even that they constitute a core curriculum.  There is no serious debate about the core curriculum.  Is that because we have carefully considered the issue and are in agreement on the answer? To the contrary, I suspect we've concluded it's just too tough to answer.

Years ago, I was a member of one of the expert panels assembled by the National Governors Association and the George H. W. Bush administration to develop education goals for the United States.  I assumed then that it would be a logical occasion to talk about what it might mean to be an educated person, but I recall no such conversation.  The goals of education, at least in the realm of the core subjects in the school curriculum, were largely assumed to be the goals of the consensus high school curriculum and so the panel's focus was instead on indicators, measures and accountability.

In a way, I suppose, the goals of elementary and secondary education at the time seemed obvious.  They were to sort and assign students into bins at the high school level labeled college bound, trades and technical and general education.  And, at least in big high schools, there were further divisions within each of these categories. What it meant to be an educated person was largely defined by the labor market destination of the student and appeared to go more or less without saying.  We took care of the general civic dimension with history and civics.  We addressed the aesthetic side with courses in art appreciation and band after school, and we did our character education on the playing field.  What more was there to talk about? 

The curriculum for the college bound was largely set by the college entrance requirements. One of the most influential--and, I think it is fair to say, thoughtful--statements on what it might mean to be an educated person to come from the colleges and universities in the 20th century was the Harvard University report on General Education in a Free Society, released in 1945.  It addressed both the schools and higher education, offering the view that social and moral development is no less important than academic learning. It argued that everyone is capable of serious intellectual accomplishment at some level and that the accumulation of expert knowledge in one arena is positively dangerous if it is not grounded in a broad, deep and humane understanding of the human condition and a well-grounded moral sensibility, that a democracy likes ours cannot survive if serious learning is monopolized only by our elites. For all these reasons, it said, the modern university had an obligation to require all students to take at least a third of their course selections from courses specially designed by teams of top faculty not to advance students in their march toward specialization but rather to involve them in the study of complex issues, systems, big ideas from the full realm of human experience which, when taken together, would expose them to that experience in a way that would serve to help them lead the good life as the Greeks would have understood that phrase--to be decent, capable, concerned, involved contributors and thoughtful citizens.  They proposed, in other words, what amounted to a common curriculum, with some choice, that would be designed to enable all students to achieve goals that the Harvard task force had thought long and hard about.

Just a few years ago, another Harvard president called a subsequent Harvard task force together to update General Education in a Free Society.  It failed to come to a consensus on a common, coherent undergraduate curriculum.  Little wonder.  In the intervening years, the university had become a vast holding company of faculty entrepreneurs and specialists and the student body had come to build and hone the specialist skills and faculty and student connections that would give them an edge in a highly competitive job market.


There are a few, but not very many, higher education institutions that have given serious thought to what it might mean to be an educated person in this day and age and then fashioned, as a collegium, a serious integrated, coherent curriculum in response to that analysis.  The modern university, with some notable exceptions, has given up trying to define what it means to be an educated person.

I must quickly note that I do not regard distribution requirements—so many science courses, so many math courses, and so on—as a serious response to the question as to what an educated person is.  All too often, students find themselves choosing courses from which to meet their distribution that provide either a deadly dull and superficial general survey of a very broad field or, in contrast, exposure to the latest musing of a faculty member concerning a tiny recess among the special topics in the field or an entertaining romp in another corner of the field.  Such things do not add up to an education by any serious definition.

But, if colleges and universities have given up on defining what it might mean to be an educated person, then what is the high school to do?  For the high school, for more than a century, took its cue from the colleges and universities.  Not to worry.  There are plenty of guideposts.  The first is the state requirement for graduation, which says the student will take so many credits in English, so many in mathematics, so many in science, and so forth.  The state colleges have similar requirements.  More selective institutions will, in addition, sort students on ACT and SAT scores, and those that are even more selective will sort as well on AP courses and scores, not least because these institutions are themselves partly ranked on their success on attracting such students.

But note that none of this requires the college or university to think about what it might mean to be an educated person. 

In Europe, until recently, high school students finished the common school at age 16.  Those headed for university then went to gymnasium for three years of advanced general education.  Then they went to university for three years of specialized education, the rough equivalent of the American major.  Then some went on to graduate school.

In that system, it was very clearly the gymnasium that was responsible for general education.  It was the gymnasium, or those responsible for the gymnasium's curriculum, that had to answer the question, what does it mean to be an educated person?  In the United States, students headed for selective higher education institutions took advanced courses (Honors classes or AP courses, or, frequently, both) and then went to college, where the first two years consisted of more general education, before the student, at the end of the sophomore year, selected a major and began to specialize.

Not anymore.  With every passing year, our college and university programs are more vocational in nature.  So, whereas, for college and university students the last two years of high school and the first two years of college were typically focused on general education, as a prelude to specialization, and the high school program was framed by a more or less coherent ideal of what it might mean to be an educated person, that is simply not true anymore for most students.

Economic change, social change, new scientific knowledge, technological change and political developments have quite literally transformed the globe in the last few decades.  It is absurd to imagine that these changes have no implications for what it might mean to be an educated person. 

We need to turn off the autopilot.  We need to examine the technological, political, social and moral challenges we face and ask ourselves how and for what purpose we should be educating--not training--our young adults.  If it were ever the case that the unexamined life is not worth living, it is the case now. 

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