Public Education Needs to Radically Change Its Primary Focus in Order to Save Our Nation

The farther down our current path we travel, the more convinced I become that it’s going to take public education to turn us around. And that, I’m afraid, can’t happen unless we totally revamp everything we do. Although we’ve made some positive strides in the methods we use to teach children, the fact remains that our education system is still operating on a foundation that was built to create factory workers. We need to blow it up and rebuild it from scratch. That means completely rewriting our standards and reformatting our pedagogy in ways that are designed to send graduates out into society and make it better. Too often, our standards and our methods are focused on minutiae. I’m not claiming that the little details are not important but, let’s face it, a lot of what we are required to spend our precious instructional time teaching can now be quickly and easily Googled. The world has changed much more rapidly than our public schools have. We are now utilizing the tools of the 21st century to better engage our students, but we are still assessing their mastery of 20th century standards. And more importantly, we aren’t doing nearly enough to empower students to deal with their own anxieties and trauma that so many kids are suffering from in our current climate. I was listening to a podcast the other day and someone said something that really hit home with me. They said, “how ridiculous is it that I learned more in school about igneous rocks than how to deal with my own anxieties and fears about how depressing our world is?” Wow! That’s a heavy dose of reality right there and it really got me to thinking. If we could radically change our approach, our students would be much better equipped to enter their adulthoods with skills that are sorely lacking in our nation right now. Allow me to lay out a framework for what I think is way overdue.

First, let me clarify one point. When I say blow up our foundation and start from scratch, I’m really talking about the content in the humanities. There’s only so much we can do to revamp mathematics, for instance. Sometimes facts are just facts. But with most other content, there is a lot of room for change.

Our nation has almost completely lost the ability to have civil discourse. The Right and the Left are equally guilty in this shameful de-evolution. Most of that comes from a fear of the “other”; a lack of understanding; a lack of the ability to empathize with those who see things differently. Our children are not yet so afflicted with this ailment, they slowly learn it from watching us. This is where public education could hold the keys. How might a new approach look in different content areas? Let’s examine this for a bit…

Science:

Science is crucially important in our modern world. We are living in scary times with a worldwide pandemic and climate change, among other things, threatening our very existence. And out in society, people are at one another’s throats arguing about the validity and seriousness of such crucial topics. Maybe we do spend too much time on igneous rocks and plate tectonics when we should be having kids dive deep into the current science debates, learning the facts and theories from the perspectives of all sides of the debates so that they can truly understand the fears and apprehensions that are driving the disagreements. Let’s arm our students with science-based facts AND with empathy, so that when they get out in the real world, they’ll be able to discuss intelligently without demeaning others and forcing them to dig in deeper in self-defense. I firmly believe that science classes should be focused almost completely on current events. Not only does that kind of relevance prepare kids for the world they are entering, it also makes the content much more engaging and applicable, two words that aren’t necessarily associated with igneous rock.

Language Arts:

Reading, writing, and communication skills have never been more important. Time and again, surveys show that those are high on the list of skills that employers are looking for in candidates. Language Arts teachers could also have a tremendous impact in the creation of a more civil America if we made that a bedrock goal of our language arts standards. Care should be taken to educate students on the different philosophies and world views about which they see adults screaming at each other. This means carefully selecting readings from people who can intelligently and passionately defend their perspectives. Comparing and contrasting such diverse thought would be an excellent exercise in critical thinking, reading, and writing, while at the same time deepening students’ understanding of the core values of the people they see fighting all around them. It would also present an excellent cross-curricular opportunity if such topics were coordinated between language arts and social studies teachers. When you understand both sides of a debate, empathy can grow. Where there is empathy, hatred has a hard time taking root and civil discourse can flourish. 

 Social Studies: 

 (Portions of this section come from another recent article I wrote.)

Social Studies teachers haven’t had this kind of volatile national atmosphere in which to do our jobs for over 50 years. Not since at least the late 60s has our nation been so divided and so ripe for hatred and violence in the streets. The question becomes; what is our responsibility as educators when it comes to caring for students in times like these? Do we ignore the outside world, keep our nose to the grindstone, and push forward with business as usual or do we seize the opportunity to bring real life into the classroom and face our national demons head on? I believe that to act like nothing is happening and forging ahead with our normal practices would be all but criminal negligence. I believe we need to change our social studies standards to include an intense focus on the patterns of history that repeat in our modern times. Truly understanding how history drives current events makes our content come alive in a crucially powerful way. For example, when students see angry protests and sporadic rioting in the streets of their cities, they should know the long history of the people doing the rioting and be able to empathize with their cause, even if they don’t approve of their actions. Although our nation feels like it’s in big trouble and things are pretty unsettling right now, this should actually be an exciting time to be a social studies teacher. If we claim to be any good at our craft whatsoever, now is the time to show it. It’s the bottom of the 9th, the bases are loaded, and we are up to bat. 

It isn’t our responsibility to indoctrinate our students with our particular take on what’s going on. That should never happen. Rather, if we do our jobs right, we should do the opposite of indoctrination; we should free our students from indoctrination, open their minds and hearts, and arm them with multiple layers of perspective to allow them to navigate these choppy waters we’re sailing in with all the tools they need to find their way. If we do our jobs right, our students should come out of our classes much more empathetic and understanding of all sides of our national debates. With empathy and understanding, hatred melts away. If we are going to last as these United States, empathy and understanding are absolutely essential elements of survival. Too many of the adults in our national room have, I’m afraid, hopelessly lost sight of that. It is our current students who are going to have it within their power to right the ship, and it is our responsibility as teachers to help equip them to do just that. 

We don’t do that by pushing whichever side of a cause we personally support, we do that by teaching the scope and purpose of all the sides involved and then letting students sort through all of them and ultimately come to their own conclusions. 

We don’t let our own biases dictate the narrative, we let facts—all the facts from all perspectives—drive the discussion and then we stand back and let our students struggle—really struggle—with all of it. In that struggle, empathy and understanding should be cultivated and when the student emerges with a fully informed opinion, they will hopefully do so with the ability to discuss our national problems without hate and vitriol. We’ve all but lost our national penchant for civil discourse, perhaps our current students’ generation can resuscitate it. 

If we can manage to radically change the core purpose of education, we can produce students who can go out and save this nation. 

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