January 27, 2012
A recent conversation with a colleague got me thinking yet again about the role of education in society. In making his point and explaining why a particular approach was being undertaken, he said that it wasn’t his preference, but it was the culture, and one had to accept that. While on a certain level I could not disagree with him, I knew that the norms to which he was readily acceding had not always been so widely accepted but were, in fact, the product of major societal change, and thus not immutable truths.
Not surprisingly, I walked away from the conversation, as I had from similar conversations on few previous occasions, pondering the role, extent, and responsibility of education in shaping the culture that so often informs our actions and decisions. I found myself wondering at what point it was no longer appropriate to simply accept things as they are, but that instead the appropriate response was to challenge the existing culture and try to shape its future direction. If the world of education cannot serve as a forum for such debates and discussion, where will they be held? Indeed, while our School mission is to prepare students for a complex and interdependent world, surely such marching orders do not preclude our trying to shape that world. Too, it seems to me that inherent in a commitment to developing leaders and engaged citizens is the development of a mindset that does not accept things as they are but rather one that seeks to question and test, poke and prod, all with an eye to developing something even better. Active and engaged citizens do not, at least in my view, readily accept the status quo nor does a true leader. A simple bureaucrat or administrator, perhaps, but at least to my mind, leadership requires something more.
That being said, anyone with even the slightest sense of history must be aware of the degree to which many of our cultural norms have shifted over the years, a fact that only reinforces the importance of asking the which ones should guide our future and which ones have become outdated? When should we proceed in a counter-cultural direction as a first step in an effort to move things in a different direction? Making that effort is no small thing, for history also reveals that such endeavors are seldom met, at least initially, with unanimity or acclaim. Americans need look no further than their founding to be reminded that it took a war to secure the independence and the resulting equality-based, republican system of government, both of which represented a marked departure from the cultural norms of the time. And of course it took a bloody civil war to end the cultural norm of slavery. Indeed, many of the things we now take for granted ─ equal rights, universal suffrage, freedom of religion, the list is long ─ are in fact things that represent major changes from previous approaches or conditions and reflect societal and social changes that were achieved only after often bitter and hard fought battles.
In the end these are not easy questions, but they are ones with which we, as individuals and educators, must wrestle. Interestingly, regardless of where one lands on the question, the discussion also highlights the importance of developing critical thinking as a skill for the next generation. And yet, ironically, and no less also interestingly, while critical thinking is regularly mentioned as a central component of 21st century learning, again, anyone with even a cursory understanding of history recognizes that for all its rightful inclusion as a necessary skill for the future, critical thinking has been central to the efforts of people to engage as citizens and leaders in shaping their society for as long as people have been engaged in the process of self-governing, which is itself arguably one of the best vehicles for achieving change.