A 21st Century Education?

For obvious reasons, a major topic in education-public and private, secondary and in higher ed-is what it means to prepare students for the 21st century. I don’t know how far into the 21st century we have to get before we reframe the question but I’m guessing (and kind of hoping) that 15 years will be enough. Not that it’s an unimportant question. But the answers are fairly well worn by now. If there’s not an app for it, there are certainly lots of other places to explore possible answers. (http://www.p21.org/ or http://www.21stcenturyschools.com/what_is_21st_century_education.htm) Many of the initiatives under this moniker are great-they reflect sound pedagogy and purpose and get students actively excited about learning. I loved my 20th century “maker space” (mandatory shop class at Buckley-I still have the monkey I made that climbs the string and I have all of my fingers too-and Buckley boys continue the longstanding tradition of carving their own wooden bas-relief plaque at the end of their tenure that then hangs on a school wall in perpetuity-we moved from New York to New Orleans well before I had the chance to create one) and computer programming (DOS) and really wish we’d had robotics.

However, as the centennial of the start of World War I came and went this summer, it struck me that at the very least; 21st century skills must include equipping students to understand thoroughly the causes of major conflicts of the 20th century. It will be tragic if we equip our students to be innovators without the historical presence of mind to inform their innovation. It’s not just that “those who don’t know their history are bound to repeat it” (I think, human nature being what it is, we’re bound to repeat it to a degree anyway), though there is that too. We forget at our peril that the 20th century was both the century of the world’s greatest technological advancement and of the largest loss of human life to war and man-made famine and disease (15-17 million military and civilian deaths in WWI, at least 60 million in WWII, tens of millions more under various despotic regimes throughout the century).

Moreover, we will fail our students if in the rush to adopt technology and ride the STE[A]M train we don’t help them learn to think carefully about the technology at their fingertips. Doing so, of course, begins with thinking effectively about technology and its impact ourselves, as adults. There’s little point to having a rule that says you can’t have your cell phone out at the dinner table or in class if the student doesn’t understand why having the phone out is a problem—and about where and when it isn’t a problem. It’s easy, in this area, to play whack-a-mole to the end of winning a battle here and a battle there only to lose the war, namely equipping students with the inclination to reflect on their behavior and choices and how those choices may, unwittingly, shape them over the long term.

It was to this end that I asked the faculty to read one of three books this summer: Mediated by Thomas de Zengotita, Alone Together by Sherry Terkle, or The Circle by Dave Eggers (all of these books are available for order through Washington’s terrific independent bookstore, The Hickory Stick Bookshop). I may comment on them further in a future post. I also commend a 2011 article by Jonathan Franzen on the topic of the uses and abuses of personal technology (“Liking Is for Cowards. Go For What Hurts”). There is so much more to say on all of these topics. How do you help a sixteen year old to care about what is happening in the world around them today let alone a hundred years ago? More on that anon, but you have to begin with a commitment to do so. You have to believe it matters.

What Does It Mean to Be Human and Why Should Schools (and Students) Care?

One topic that I don’t think we can think about enough, but that we typically aren’t inclined to think about is the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Huh?

The available answers to this question can take you in a number of different directions that span just about every available discipline—anthropology and biology, obviously, but in a certain sense every discipline (economics, politics, literature, theology, philosophy, sociology, history) has a stake in the answer.

Computers, computing, robotics, artificial intelligence, and the futurist movement are interrelated topics that highlight the importance of this central question. At this point I just encourage you to explore the following three resources and consider the questions, “What do you think it means to be human?” and “What do you want the future to look like?”

First, an article from The Atlantic ​entitled “The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think.”

Second, a recent On the Media show entitled “Robots! (And Artificial Intelligence)”. I commend in particular the interview with Jay Kaplan of Stanford and the piece on Google’s efforts with robots.

(Both of these pieces include an important debate among people in the field of artificial intelligence about exactly what that phrase means.)

Third, the book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, and a Ted Talk by its author, Sherry Terkle. Terkle began her career and the book exploring robots but the implications and her work extend far beyond that.

There are people, like Ray Kurzweil, who think it would be a good thing, and really just a matter of processing power and data, to replace, or at least augment, humans with computers. I don’t. But the difference is that futurists like Kurzweil have Google and cultural and economic momentum behind them to create the world in their own image—in other words, to answer for the rest of us the question, “What does it mean to be human?”

What does this have to do with schools? Though it can take a little while to help students understand why this question—and others like it—matter, I think it is our responsibility to make sure they are aware of them and equip them to figure out how to answer them over the course of their lives. If students go in the same direction Kurzweil, great. I just want them to know that that’s what they are doing rather than blindly follow cultural momentum, wherever it leads. Equipping them to lead an examined life, in all respects, is our most important responsibility.

(And for those who prefer a novel that explores these topics, I commend to you The Circle by Dave Eggers.)

And, as always, though I’ve provided links to these book titles on Amazon, I encourage you to shell out a few extra bucks to purchase them via a person-to-person encounter at your local bookstore or wait until you’re in Washington and pick them up at The Hickory Stick Bookshop.