The primary purpose of a liberal education is to make one's mind a pleasant place in which to spend one's leisure. ~ Sydney J. Harris
What is education's relationship to cultural change?
- To bring about cultural change?
- To transmit culture?
- To prevent cultural change?
- All of the above
While much attention has been given to the first two roles of education, the last role - preventing or delaying social change - is usually ignored.
When my daughter returned from her first semester at the University of Minnesota, she complained that her classes lacked relevance to her intended vocational goals. Well, in so many words anyway. While the U would probably say those "core" courses are there to make sure a student is well-rounded and culturally literate, I suggested to Carrie that this is simply society using education as a means of slowing cultural change by only allowing students who are willing to conform and delay gratification to gain positions of responsibility in society. "You play by our rules or you don't play at all." And it works very nicely, thank you.
Ask yourself if graduating from high school depends more on a student's IQ or EQ? And how much of EQ is knowing when to simply shut up and go with the flow?
Education is also a means of keeping the rich, rich and the poor, poor. As Jonathan Kozol wrote in Savage Inequalities, in the US there are schools for the governors and schools for the governed. And my guess is that vouchers would exacerbate the rich school/poor school division, setting more firmly in place the current haves and have nots in society. There are always the remarkable few that escape poverty through education, but they are remarkable ... and few.
I have argued before that schools will not change through internal motivation. In fact, I would argue that teachers and administrators are among the most reactionary factors in any educational change model.(Blue Skunk blog readers excepted, of course.) I would add that local communities want little change as well, based on initiatives involving year round school, the importance of high school athletics in the budget, and local reaction major curricular changes (like Everyday Math). Businesses claim they need better educated graduates, but do not support longer school years or higher funding for education. Do they really want employees who think outside the cubicle?
Major cultural shifts are about transfers in power, and nobody gives up power without a fight.
Were it not for institutions applying the breaks to change, I'd guess many of us would experience cultural whiplash. For many of us the societal changes brought about by technology are already creating stress in our lives. So this is not necessarily all bad.
As I think about change in education and about education as a cultural change agent, I can make the argument that only the federal government that has been able to change schools enough that they in turn create true cultural change. Over the past 50 years, I would suggest that these laws not only impacted K-12 schools, but changed society as well:
- Desegregation laws
- ADA and special education laws (This may be the single area our selfish boomer generation may be looked on favorably about from a historical perspective!)
- Title IX
- E-rate funding
I know of no state or local initiatives that have had the broad and lasting impact of these federal requirements. Could it be because federal lawmakers are NOT educators so don't know why a thing CAN'T be done?
I take away two things from the list above. First it is federal policy rather than federal funding that has the greatest impact on education. Compare the changes wrought by NCLB compared to E-rate. So as our national associations lobby, I want them to concentrate on policy, not funding.
Second, federal legislation is a two-edged sword. While I am politically aligned with desegregation, ADA, Title IX, and E-rate, the implementation (not the goal) of NCLB works against what I feel best serves students and society. In other words, everyone must pay attention to what is happening in Washington DC and be involved in national politics. Or am I stating the obvious?
Can education effectively be used to change society? What and who actually has the power to change education? Am I missing big changes that started at a local level?
Inquiring minds want to know...