By Dr. Harry Tennant


by Harry Tennant
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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Do We Trust Ourselves?

Dan's recent post of Sir Ken Robinson's talk about reforming education raises a big question:

What is the purpose of public education?

Two ends of the spectrum are

  • Purpose #1: Informed citizens and skilled workers. We provide public funds for education for the benefit of society. The benefit was originally to ensure that citizens could read so they could be informed members of a democracy. Later, the benefit was to provide a skilled workforce for the growing industrial economy.
  • Purpose #2: Fulfilled people. We provide public funds for education as part of the mission to "promote the general Welfare" as stated in the preamble to the Constitution as well as an important enabler for the "pursuit of happiness" mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. In other words, we educate our children so they can lead happier lives.

The problem is that many people see these two purposes as opposites. Many equate happiness with pleasure and entertainment, watching TV, playing games and reading novels. An individual's life of pleasure offers little to the general welfare, only to their own. Why should you pay for me to sit around for my own pleasure?

This is why we have prescribed learning standards and assessments of reading and math skills. As a society we are heavily biased toward Purpose #1 and want to be assured that our public education money is an investment in a skilled workforce.

But "pleasure" is a poor synonym for "happiness." A better synonym is the one that Robinson used, "flourishing." Flourishing evokes the notion of a far better life than a life of pleasure. Yes, we want to experience pleasure as part of flourishing but we also want to enjoy the experience of being deeply engaged in challenging activities. Another part of flourishing is doing the kinds of things that give us a feeling that our efforts are of value beyond ourselves, that we have a higher purpose than personal pleasure.

Wouldn't it be ideal if you and everyone around you felt like you were flourishing in your life? Wouldn't that be a better society than one where so many are thought to live lives of "quiet desparation?" If pursuing Purpose #2 lead to a "rate of flourishing" that was as high as our rate of literacy, wouldn't that be well worth the public investment?

The argument against democracy was that the people cannot be trusted to make the right decisions and do the right things. The people need the benevolent control of wiser elites (in those days, the monarchies).

Do wiser elites need to prescribe the education we each need to contribute to society? Or, if we educate with the goal of flourishing, would we find that as each does what's best for himself we find that the best is also done for society?

It seems that the question comes down to this:

Do we trust ourselves?

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