Building Education from Scratch

Educators have spent a good deal of time over the past few years thinking about (and wringing their hands over) the future of schools and education. We’ve focused mostly on technology, on the distribution of scarce economic resources, and on the changes wrought by an increasingly strategic and business-like approach to teaching and learning. We now have innumerable educational startups, alternative funding models, and methods of supporting or subverting (depending on your point of view) corporate interests. We’ve wrangled with these issues online, in our communities of scholarship, and in the public sphere. And we all agree on one thing: education is due for serious renewal and reinvigoration. But what that looks like is anyone’s guess. We just don’t know how the changes that lie before us will play themselves out, and this fundamental uncertainty has us either grappling toward a vision of total transformation or reaching back toward vanishing modes and practices (depending on your point of view). We are well and truly at sea.

What we have not done — at least not in any widely-supported or deliberate manner — is to ask ourselves the simplest question of all: how would we build the educational enterprise from scratch? If we removed our legacies and biases, if we dismantled our assumptions and judgements, what would education look like? What would the forms of teaching and learning be if we did not try to build them atop crumbling structures that embody the values and norms of a diminishing age? What does it mean, in the world of today, for someone to be educated? Beyond employment strategies and economic aims, what is the purpose of an educational environment? What is the meaning and role of the learner, student, and teacher? What beliefs, bodies of knowledge, and learning approaches do we view as foundational? Is anything foundational to teaching and learning? What is the role of institutions in this turbulent atmosphere? Where is it all headed? What should we do?

All of these questions flow from the first: how would we build the educational enterprise from scratch? To my mind, this is the only important question. It’s more important than questions about preserving heritage, more crucial than questions about the roles of teachers and institutions, more fundamental than all the economic and strategic arguments.

I’m interested in the whole person. Our basic lack of attention to the whole person, in our educational environments, is the main reason that the educational juggernaut is in so much trouble. By and large we have not built educational environments that support integrative, purposeful development for individuals and groups. We’ve allowed our penchant for creating models, domains, and disciplines to devolve into a fragmented landscape in which the whole person is neither acknowledged nor discussed nor facilitated. And, consequently, challenges to the whole person — depression, anxiety, addiction — are on the rise and will continue to rise until we figure this out.

How would we build the educational enterprise from scratch? This is what we need to ask, and we need to ask it now, during the moments in which transformation and renewal are most possible. The path forward for education lies not only in technology, nor in economic robustness, nor in the integration of education with market values and forces. No, the path forward involves breaking the whole enterprise down, rebuilding it with attentiveness to the essential qualities required for personal development, and starting again.

The vast majority of educational institutions will not choose this path. Some will fail. Some will stumble along. Some will thrive by way of niche markets or legacy reputations or sheer bloody-mindedness. But some will rebuild from scratch. And new players will build fresh offerings. And, finally, we will know the strength or frailty of our vision for what education can be.

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