by Erin Park Cohn, Senior Partner
I love Carla’s challenge for all of us to think about what it means to be “educated” in 2019. I am as highly educated, in a traditional sense of that word, as they come: I played the game of school well as a child and graduated near the top of my class at a large public high school, then attended a well-regarded small New England liberal arts college, followed by the completion of a PhD in history at an Ivy League university. I have yet to read Tara Westover’s book (although it’s on my list) and yet I’m certain that my many years of formal education (all of which brought me great joy) give me no greater claim to being a well-informed, functional, “educated” adult than anyone else. This question of what education is for - what it should be for in our changing world - is necessarily at the center of the work we do at Leadership+Design. Schools need to lift their heads up and ask themselves this question, approaching it with a sincere willingness to let go of assumptions and traditions.
The question is often pitched as a “content vs. skills” question, but I think that is a false dichotomy and it obscures the larger issue of the true purpose of education. It is true that technology has rendered rote information more accessible than ever before, and the teaching of content for content’s sake is no longer a good use of precious learning time. I remember the day my daughter brought home a spelling list of all of the states in the union. As she struggled to recall the extra c in Connecticut, I asked her where Connecticut even was and she had no idea. This sort of learning, divorced from real-world applications, devoid of meaning, has very little use. But I’m not certain it ever did. Rote learning, content for content’s sake, memorization of facts and dates - these have always been lackluster educational strategies.
As a historian, though, I balk at the idea that because all content is findable on the internet it means content doesn’t matter at all. I believe that a key part of education should be coming to know some things, and know them well. For example, I’m grateful to be able to hold the historical context of the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party from the 1840s and 50s, as well as the larger history of anti-immigrant sentiment in America, in the back of my mind on this day after the President went on television to make a case for building a wall on our southern border. This knowledge helps me question motives and see patterns and systems that span centuries in present-day current events. The problem, in my mind, arises when we become so rigid about what we expect students to know that we lose sight of what really matters: what can they do with whatever knowledge they do gain? Can they take whatever they’ve learned and formulate good questions? Can they see the world unfolding around them, make connections, and generate creative solutions to big problems?
Being able to do those things (skills!) requires them to know some stuff, but they don’t necessarily all need to even know all of the same stuff. If I with my interest and knowledge about the history of anti-immigrant sentiment and you, with all of your understanding of budgeting and finance, and another engineer friend who holds deep knowledge on the logistics of wall-building all came together in a summit, we could learn a lot from each other and create our own response to the current administration’s efforts. Together, we might be able to identify what we understand and what we don’t, what questions we still need to ask, what voices are not being heard.
The biggest problem with how we define being educated, then, might be that we expect ALL students to pass Algebra 2, or to score at a certain level on math and reading tests, or to be conversant in the “canon.” We create Portraits of a Graduate of our schools with uniform contours, as though we are aiming to produce a single, similarly formed student with all the same skills, strengths, and content knowledge. What if to be truly educated was instead to be T-shaped in one’s own unique way: deeply knowledgeable about 1-2 things that really matter to a person - whether that’s math, or dance, or public speaking, or in the case of my stepson, metal forging and weapons, or in my case, history - and endowed with the skills to apply that knowledge across domains, ask good questions, and communicate creative ideas and collaborate with a variety of other minds? Such a focus might allow us to stop understanding skills-vs.-content as an either/or question. If we do it right, it could be a great big “Yes, and…”
Carla writes that “Two decades into the 21st century, school still seems trapped in the 20th century,” and I think she’s right. I also think school was “trapped” in the 20th century itself, in many ways. The best experiences of my 20th-century education were the ones that nurtured the creative and the critic in me, that helped me identify what made me tick, what I wanted to know more about, and how it all connected to ideas and current events and social systems that mattered. A lot of my educational experiences did not fit that description. The relentless, exponential march toward automation, AI, and other technologies have only heightened the need for education to provide those kinds of experiences for our kids, in order to make sure they’re meaningfully, powerfully educated.