At the heart of the debate over education in the United States and elsewhere in the modern world is a debate over the nature of a human being. On the one hand, there are those who deny that there is any such thing or assert, at least, that if such a thing exists it is malleable. The purpose of an education from this perspective, then, must be to shape the raw human material into the desired mold. In the 20th century, this model became the dominant model in American public education. The education system has seen its task as one of making the human being into the desired product: a worker, a consumer, and a “good citizen.” On the other hand, however, is the traditional approach to education, which sees the task of the educator not in making the person, but in leading the person along the path of discovery of self and world. As Russell Kirk points out in his essay “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education,” the purpose of a liberal education is “not to indoctrinate a young person in civics, but rather to teach what it is to be a true human being, living within a moral order. The person has primacy in liberal education.”
The disappearance of the classics from public school curriculums and even from institutions of higher education across the United States is both a symptom and, in turn, a reinforcing cause of the current crisis in education. If human nature is malleable, the classics can safely be ignored. What does Socrates have to do with the modern world? In addition, with the theory that human nature is amorphous necessarily comes the elimination of any notion of an ideal human. If there is no human nature, there can be none who represent the greatest embodiments of or elucidations upon that nature. As a result, the very notion of classics can safely be discarded.
The irony here is markedly obvious, however. Faculty members of university humanities departments across the nation bewail the decline of majors in the humanities, while obstinately remaining blind to the causes of the destruction within themselves. By undermining the criteria by which certain books can be held up as the greatest literary achievements of mankind and extolled as classics of enduring value and significance, these professors have undermined their own existence as employed teachers of literature.
The result is that an ever increasing number of students are coming from public schools where the emphasis is on, as the newest curriculum fade phrases, it “college and career readiness.” These students then enter colleges and universities to seek degrees in fields which are seen as the most promising for a future career. They are trained, not educated, to enter the workforce and become “productive.” The means by which this can be achieved are twofold. There is, first, ignoring the question of human nature altogether. The student is instead distracted with a focus on technology and vocational training. The second is to indoctrinate the student along the way with a desire to be a “good citizen,” a person who fits into the mold of whatever ideal the state currently espouses.
All of this is, of course, a distortion and, often, a destruction of the human being. Man is not primarily and merely the producer, the wage-earner, or the voter. Each of these is, in fact, a perversion of some aspect of authentic human nature. Man is not merely a producer, but a creator, an entity with curiously and imagination. He is not a wage-earner and a voter, but a political animal, a creature made for social cooperation and communion with his fellow creatures.
If true liberal education is to be revived in the United States, the first step in the process is a restoration of a traditional understanding of human nature. It must be understood first that human nature is immutable. It must first be understood that Plato was the same sort of thing we today are. We must realize, as Russell Kirk says, that “Aristophanes and Socrates retain high significance for us” and that “Thucydides and Plutarch” have can teach us “much about our present time of troubles.” Only after the immutability of human nature has been established and accepted as fact can man at least fulfill the dictum at the heart of human life: “know thyself.”
It is only from this stance that the proper means and ends of education can be pursued. The educator, and the institution of which he is a part, must acknowledge and celebrate the immensity and permanence of the thing before them: the individual human being. It is then that the educator may set about discovering this thing rather than haphazardly and brutally attempting to force it into a mold into which it will not fit.
Note that disciplinary understanding is not the same as the mere accrual of facts (sometimes termed subject-matter knowledge). Facts are fine but they do not in themselves involve any disciplinary understanding. Moreover, in this day of handheld devices, there is little point in memorizing facts that are instantly available at one’s fingertips. Rather, educators should help students to understand the ways in which disciplinary specialists establish and confirm knowledge. This acquisition necessarily involves immersion in the kinds of activities in which specialists are regularly engaged — carrying out proofs in mathematics, making systematic observations and conducting experiments in science, or poring over documents and graphic materials in history.
Howard Gardner, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed, p. 125
There are few issues more important to the future of the United States than the issue of education. It is through the nation’s educational systems that its future is being built. The boys and girls who are studying and learning in American schools today will be the men and women who will lead this country and even the world tomorrow. And yet, American students have been steadily falling behind their international counterparts in standardized test scores and overall academic performance. If we are going to do the right thing for our children and save the future for the United States, this nation needs to reorient its priorities, stop throwing money at the problem, and be willing to work hard and take the necessary steps to drastically overhaul American education.
Gallup Polls conducted in the month before each of the United States’ most recent presidential elections have found that the percentage of American voters who name education as their primary concern in the election has decreased dramatically over the last decade (Saad, “Economy is Dominant Issue for Americans as Election Nears”). Before the 2000 presidential election, 17% of voters stated that education was their number one concern. Before the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential elections, however, a mere 5%, 3%, and 4%, respectively, statistically even numbers, said that education was their primary concern. Instead, a majority of Americans have designated issues such as defense, healthcare, and the economy as their central concerns.
While these are valid and important things to be concerned about, education is the more important issue as it forms the baseline and background for these others. To take one example, those Americans primarily concerned with defense should also be equally concerned about education as the United States requires well-educated people, especially people who can become experts in technology, science, and mathematics, fields the United States is falling behind in, if it is to maintain its global military superiority. In a recent speech, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made this point clear, saying “Just as DoD developed the world’s finest counterterrorism force over the past decade, we need to build and maintain the finest cyber force and operations. We’re recruiting, we’re training, we’re retaining the best and the brightest in order to stay ahead of other nations” (Panetta, “Remarks”). Without an educational system that adequately prepares young people to enter fields such as cyber operations, the United States will lose its military dominance in the next generation.
Some might wonder, in response to all of this, whether the American school systems really are all that bad. Are education systems in the United States really failing that badly to prepare students for the future and are they really falling that far behind their peers in other nations? A recent study by Public Agenda, for instance, found that most American parents “say the amount of science and math their child studies now is sufficient” (“Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Workforce”).
The reality, however, is that the education American students are receiving is far from sufficient. “Scores from the 2009 Programme for International Student,” for instance, found tat “out of 34 countries” ranked in a recent study of standardized test scores, “the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math” (Armario, “Wake-up call”). This places the United States “far behind the highest scoring countries, including South Korea, Finland and Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai in China and Canada” (ibid.). What this means for the next generation in terms of military and economic superiority is both obvious and alarming.
There is no simple solution to this problem. Americans have tried for years to merely throw money at the issue and have seen little in terms of lasting results. What is necessary is a complete overhaul of the American public education system. While holding teachers accountable, raising budgets, and other popularly proposed solutions are all part of the fabric of what it will take to made a real and lasting change for the better, they are not the underlying issue. The underlying issue and what ultimately needs the most reform is the current approach to education in America; the United States needs a revamped and updated perspective and curriculum that is able to provide the education the modern world demands. The old system, based on the ideas of philosophers of education such as John Dewey focused essentially on providing just enough learning to allow the average student to enter a workforce of laborers and servers. The future demands that we provide more than “just enough” learning, that we strive for an above average education for above average children, and that education be focused on molding innovators, creators, and thinkers (Hutchins, The Great Conversation). This overhaul will no doubt be an expensive and often painful effort that will require a great deal of sacrifice for all of us, but we are speaking about our future, our children, and I believe we can all agree no price is too high to pay to do the very best we can do for future generations of Americans.
Armario, Christine. “’Wake-up call’: U.S. students trail global leaders.” MSNBC.com. 7 December 2010. Web. 9 December 2012.
Hutchins, Robert M. The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education. New York: William Benton, 1952. Print.
Panetta, Leon E. “Remarks by Secretary Panetta on Cybersecurity to the Business Executives for National Security, New York City.” U.S. Department of Defense. 11 October 2012. Web. 9 December 2012.
“Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Workforce. (cover story).” NSTA Reports! Jan. 2007: 1+. Education Research Complete. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.
Saad, Lydia. “Economy is Dominant Issue for Americans as Elction Nears.” Gallup Politics. 22 October 2012. Web. 9 December 2012.
Diplomacy and international relations dominated the daily lives of average people more in the 20th century than in perhaps any previous century. Whereas it had been possible for earlier generations to live their lives free of such concerns, escaping the state of international relations in the 20th century was a near impossibility for the majority of the world’s population. The state of international relations and diplomacy was instead their ever-present concern and interest. This heightened importance for diplomacy and international relations to nearly all people in the 20th century is largely attributable to two phenomena that arose essentially side-by-side, namely the rise of modern republican and democratic nation-states in which every citizen plays a part in determining the policies of the government and the increase in technology, especially the technology used for warfare, that, in a sense, made the world simultaneously a “smaller” place as well as a more dangerous one.
Earlier generations of people had had the ability to live lives largely independent of any concern with diplomacy, international relations, or even politics in a more general sense. This was true of the ancient and medieval worlds as well as of the early modern period, essentially right up to the beginning of the 19th century. Although, of course, warfare has existed throughout human history and various peoples have no doubt been subject to the vicissitudes of politics, the whims of rulers, war, and diplomacy, any change was generally gradual and, given the limitations in communication and travel, generations could pass their lives with little or no knowledge of the political situation of the kingdom of which they were ostensibly subjects. Historian William Chester Jordan notes in his history of Europe in the High Middle Ages, for instance, that in that time period few in France outside of Paris would have considered themselves “French.”1
The change from this situation to the one that predominated in the 20th century largely occurred in the 19th century. As with so much that distinguishes the 20th century from previous eras in history, the 19th century was the transition point. It was during this period, under the influence of such events as the American Revolution and the French Revolution, both of which occurred near the close of the 18th century, that the subjects of the various kingdoms of the world began the transition to becoming citizens of the nations of the world, a very important difference in terminology. Individuals of all ranks, races, and economic statuses had a greater say in the policies of their governments than ever before in history. As a result, politics became a greater concern for the average person than it had been at any previous point in history. Political decisions were now in the hands of the people as a whole rather than in being the purview of only kings and the various aristocrats and nobles who surrounded these monarchs. As a result, politics was a greater concern for the private individual than it had ever been before in history.
The 19th century was also in large part the transition point for the second and equally affective major change that brought about the differences in regards to diplomacy and international relations in the 20th century in contrast with previous centuries, namely the advent of a great deal of new technology, especially travel, communications, and military technology.
New technology in travel that arose in the 19th century and advanced significantly in the 20th century includes trains, airplanes, and motor vehicles. Railroad travel enabled materials and men to travel greater distances at greater speeds than ever before. Airplanes also increased the ability to move people and materials quickly and effectively, as well as to bring the war behind enemy lines in combat and reconnaissance. The reconnaissance balloons of the American Civil War in the 1860s led to the stealth craft used by the opposing powers of the Cold War to spy on each other and also led to the omnipresent danger of bombs falling suddenly and unexpectedly from the sky in any given place, making the matters of diplomacy an ever-present reality for all people.2 Similarly, motor vehicles made people all over the world more mobile than ever before.
In addition to these abilities to move people and things faster than ever before over great distances, messages also moved with greater speed than ever before. The telegraph changed the nature of warfare in the 19th century and in the 20th century the advent of telephones, radios, and, later, computers and the internet made it possible to communicate around the world in a matter of seconds. Allied radio messages sent behind Nazi lines during World War II demonstrate the effectiveness of these new communication tools in shaping ideas, diplomacy, and warfare.3
Military technology is perhaps the greatest inventive force in shaping the realities of diplomacy and international relations in the 20th century and bringing these subjects into the homes of otherwise average people all over the world. The Cold War was largely the product of a mutual fear between the Soviet Union and the United States that the other would use nuclear weapons to advance their side in the conflict of ideas. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the threat of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Islamic terrorist groups or rogue nations with bizarre ideologies such as Iran and North Korea continued to shape diplomacy at the highest levels as well as to bring the concerns of international relations to the minds of average people.
As a result of these two factors, the rise of individual concern in politics and the increase in technology that brought the realities of international relations into homes all over the world, a further element that defined diplomacy in the 20th century emerged, specifically the focus on nearly all-encompassing conflicts in ideology between large blocs of nations. Though it may seem ironic at first glance, the reality is that individual participation in politics, through spreading the concern in these issues wider than ever before, forced a situation in which international relations took on larger proportions than ever before. This can be seen in cases like World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, three conflicts which arguably defined international relations in the 20th century and all of which involved formations of alliances by dozens of nations arranged against an “equal and opposite” alliance of other nations, and all nations participating ostensibly out of a conflict of ideology coupled with a perceived existential threat from the other side.
The defining feature of diplomacy and international relations in the 20th century, as with so much of what makes the 20th century distinctive, is ultimately the allegorical shrinking of the world. The concerns of the government became the concerns of the average person. Simultaneously, the realities and concerns of far off lands came into the purview of people far away. These new advances in the political participation of individuals and technology created the unique diplomatic situation of the 20th century.
3 Robert Rowen, “Gray and Black Radio Propaganda against Nazi Germany,” New York Military Affairs Symposium, 18 April 2003 (accessed 2 December 2012), http://bobrowen.com/nymas/radioproppaper.htm.