I would like to start a conversation around the purpose of education. What is the purpose of education? Has it changed over time? And, are our schools configured to achieve that purpose in the 21st century?
When our country was in its infancy, as a mostly agrarian society, laborers had little need for specialized or classical knowledge to survive. What, then, was the original purpose of public education in America? The Jeffersonian principal of education was to create an informed citizenry capable of preserving civil liberties. Heavily influenced by the Age of Enlightenment, Jefferson believed that the preservation of the nation depended on citizens capable of reasoning for themselves. The expansion of the intellect became a primary purpose of education for the learned.
With the industrial age, knowledge and skill became more intertwined. The British theorist Herbert Spencer wrote: "the great aim of education is not knowledge, but action." The industrial revolution in manufacturing, mining, construction, utilities and transportation ushered in the need for a large pool of skilled workers. Unfortunately, factory owners hired young children as a source of cheap labor. Many children entered the workforce instead of the classroom.
By the 20th century, the nation adopted child labor and mandatory school attendance laws. This nod toward more universal public education saw the expansion of one-room school houses and a curriculum focused on core fundamentals. The purpose of education became to teach all children the 3 Rs — reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, providing the foundational skills to lead a productive life.
After World War II, America prospered. Many parents wanted their children to attend college and to find employment in professional and highly-skilled jobs. School systems adopted a system of differentiated instruction to meet these expectations. An inextricable bond between education and business was beginning to emerge. Unfortunately, the full potential inherent in this bond was never realized.
In the 1960s many institutions of higher education branded themselves as "liberal arts colleges." These institutions offered students a wide array of course content. High schools followed suit. The purpose of education became about creating "well-rounded, creative thinkers." Unfortunately, employers were not overly impressed with students who graduated with content that was a mile wide, but an inch deep; who had a diploma, but couldn't do anything.
Similarly, many high schools began offering students more vocational-technical programs to provide entry into the skilled trades. Unfortunately the students in these programs were often stigmatized and tracked as academically inferior, and these programs never achieved perceived parity with their academic counterparts.
By the 21st century, our nation had moved into a new age focused on the "industries of the mind." Computers, the Internet and social media are having a significant and lasting impact on the way students learn and teachers teach. Will this technological explosion require educators to once again repurpose education?
Most agree that the purpose of education today is for students to acquire the knowledge and skills to be successful in the global marketplace. Highly qualified educators using a wide array of technology can deliver academic content as well as create pathways for solving real world problems though the application of knowledge. Schools today have the ability to make it possible for students to pursue both an academic and a career track simultaneously, and to incorporate both as part of their life-long learning experience. If anything, I believe that the education and business communities, in this age of technology, have the potential to hasten the yet unrealized bond between knowledge and skill.
The landscape of modern careers and employment opportunities is constantly and rapidly changing. The elementary students of today will pursue careers that have yet to be imagined. Knowledge will quickly become outdated and skills obsolete. In the past, the education community has been frustratingly slow to respond to change. Our goal should be for the education community to work hand-in-hand with businesses to deliver "personalized" learning opportunities that take into consideration the needs and preferences of each child while also stressing the "non-cognitive competencies," such as time management, persistence and teamwork so essential to success.
It is past time for the education and business communities to come together as full partners in achieving the contemporary purpose of education. Let the conversation begin.
Nancy S. Grasmick is a presidential scholar at Towson University and a former Maryland superintendent of schools. Her email is email@example.com.