There’s a question I’ve been mulling lately. If the people who say that AI and related technologies are going to put most people out of work, and that a successful human future requires the decoupling of employment from income, are right, what kind of education system best serves the people of that future?
I think what would be best for them would also be best for us, now. It would be one in which “college and career readiness”, if it even exists as a concept, is a byproduct of a good education, not the purpose of it. It would be one in which students learn how to learn, how to evaluate information, and how to coexist with other people. They would learn that human beings created civilization in its many forms, and that they, as human beings, share in the ability and the responsibility to maintain or to change it.
It would also be one in which the STEM subjects, the arts, athletics, and the humanities are all considered equally important, and not necessarily separate from each other. All of them expand our capabilities. All of them build neural connections. All of them can benefit society in different ways.
I would like to stand up particularly for the humanities. With the exception of what has come to be called Language Arts, they seem to be considered expendable. I understand why STEM has become so glorified, and I fervently believe every child should learn to create art and music and should participate in some kind of sport, but understanding ourselves as humans is of at least equal importance.
Many people who choose to study math or science say they did so because of the clarity, or objectivity, or the definitive right answers. Of course, when you advance in those subjects you realize those things are illusions, but they seem real to a beginner, and they are beautiful, in their way. Those were the exact reasons I chose not to focus on those subjects. They seemed sterile, too perfect, lifeless.
I did not struggle with math in school. In fact, I was very good at it. It is a testament to the cultural perception of the humanities as lesser that I feel compelled to say that. The easiest thing I ever did in my life was high school geometry. I was the bane of my teacher’s existence because I rarely paid attention in class (I was definitely not “engaged”), and yet I had something like a 105% average. I more or less enjoyed learning calculus in high school. I thought it was kind of cool, but also kind of boring.
I chose the humanities because they are messy, and imperfect, and subjective. I love the fact that there is never a definitive answer. I find it fascinating that people can have such different perceptions of the world, and that they can find it so difficult to understand each other. I love languages, cultures, religions and philosophies because they are expressions of human beings in all our diversity. I love literature because stories are so quintessentially human, and history because it is a collection of stories. I love the humanities because I love humans, individually and as a species, and I will never completely understand them. They (I suppose I should say we) provide a challenge that will never end.
Recently, I came across this article about a study showing that learning philosophy improved the math and reading skills of elementary school students. By philosophy I don’t mean learning about philosophers, but considering existential and ethical questions about truth, justice, loyalty, etc. I am not surprised at these results. This kind of questioning is the basis of critical thinking, which is fundamental to deep learning.
I am not attempting to discount the importance of STEM. By all means our kids should learn to code. I am learning a little myself. I am just suggesting that in a world in which technology is advancing at such a rapid rate, and changes on the scale of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions are happening on fast forward, consideration of who we are and what kind of society we want to have matters as much as what roles we will have in the new economy.
If we didn’t need our education system to sort our children into jobs, what would we want it to do? What would an educated person look like? Might she be able to distinguish truth from fiction? Might he be able to consider points of view other than his own? Would she know what’s actually in the Constitution and what isn’t? Would he know how the three branches of our government are supposed to interact, and understand why?
We wouldn’t all agree on the answers to these questions. The process of creating and maintaining a public education system is necessarily messy and political (calls to keep politics out of education are foolhardy; what is more politically charged than decisions about what and how to teach our children?) and difficult. It will never stop being so, but isn’t that all the more reason to take the challenge seriously?
There is a lot of talk these days about moonshots, and references to JFK’s speech in which he said we do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” a sentiment I certainly appreciate. Have you ever read or listened to the whole speech?
He said that America needed to be the leader in the space race, but not just for military or economic superiority. He said, “there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man,” but that part seems to have been forgotten, or at least confined to a quiet corner.
Keeping up with technology and making sure our kids will have sources of income are obviously matters of survival, so of course they should be at the top of our priority list, but so should making sure our world and our society are worth surviving in. The purpose of learning about what people have done and thought before is not to glorify them, or to dwell on the past, but to understand how we got here, and to learn from their good and bad decisions. One of the clearer lessons of history is that as the percentage of people with power and luxury shrinks, and the percentage of people in frustration and misery grows, violence and chaos and danger for everyone become more and more inevitable. Making our society functional and fair is, in the long run, necessary for our survival. The sooner we come to understand that, the safer we will be.
Another thing JFK said in that speech is, “I think that we must pay what needs to be paid. I don’t think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job.” Trying to find ways to make our education system work on less and less money is a false economy. There are ways money is grievously wasted in our current system, and that needs to be changed, but a good education always has and probably always will require investment. I know, I know. People don’t want their taxes to go to educating other people’s children, especially if they don’t agree with the way they are being educated. It’s a problem. It’s hard.
So what should the purpose of our education system be? I think it should be to help us create the best, most sustainably prosperous human civilization we can. That means working hard to make sure no one’s talents go to waste, and that all children are prepared, not just for colleges or jobs that may or may not exist, but for life as adult human beings. Creating such a system will be very, very difficult, and the process will never be complete, and that is exactly why we should pull ourselves together and do it.