Because we live in a participatory democracy that depends on its people to accept the responsibilities of citizenship, the overriding purpose of public education is to prepare children to understand and accept their civic duties when they reach maturity.
Democracy exists on a precipice that represents a delicate balance between the rights of individuals to choose how they wish to live while accepting the responsibilities of citizenship. Implicit in those responsibilities are expectations that individuals will:
• Abide by the laws of their communities, state, and nation;
• Share the burden of government by paying their taxes; and,
• Participate in their government through prudent exercise of their right to vote.
The ability to participate in one’s governance and to have choices in life requires a sufficient level of literacy, numeracy, cultural awareness and tolerance, and common sense. Providing the populace with that knowledge, skill, and wisdom is the shared responsibility of parents and our systems of public education.
How we respond to the economic, political, ecological, and socio-cultural challenges of this ever-more-complicated Twenty-First Century is totally dependent upon the quality of our systems of education and the efficacy of the educational process that drives it.
There are some educators who seem to resent the inference that at least part of their purpose is to prepare young people for the workforce. Given the rampant greed with which so many corporate leaders seem consumed there is a sense that the corporate world wants a workforce of unthinking, unimaginative, uncultured worker bees.
As a former business leader, I can assure the reader that automatons are the last thing the vast majority of employers want and there is a real frustration among employers that young people entering the workforce, today, cannot think creatively; lack literacy and the ability to do basic math; are unwilling to work hard; and, are selfish and unmotivated.
The community is the customer of our systems of public education and if the customer is unhappy with the quality of the product, educators must respond or the customer will take its business elsewhere. In that sense, public schools are no different than any other producer of goods and services. When we become dissatisfied with our meal at what was once our favorite restaurant, we start exploring alternatives. Providing alternatives to public schools would seem to be exactly what reformers are striving to do.
Dissatisfied customers are the driving force behind the educational reforms that are sweeping the nation. That the reform efforts of the corporate and government leaders are misguided is a result of their arrogance and ignorance regarding the real challenges in our public schools. They do not understand the challenges because they have not taken the time to walk in the shoes of public school teachers.
The only people who can fix what is broken in American public education are the educators themselves. Because public school teachers are being pummeled with blame for the problems of which they are, themselves, victims, they struggle to separate themselves from the problems. It is also natural that when we are immersed in our daily activities and challenges that we forget to step back to review our purpose and challenge our assumptions about what it is that we do. As professionals, however, this is exactly what educators must do.
Our teachers are in a perfect position to fix what is wrong in our schools and the answers are right there in front of them. It is like a painting with a design hidden within its content and texture. We know it is there but it is not until we step back and view the work from alternate perspectives that the embedded image begins to reveal itself to us.
Educators must have the strength of character and faith in one another, as members of an honorable profession, to acknowledge the things that do not work. They must then accept responsibility for addressing them. Only then can we begin to work together to resolve them.
It is vital that we all work together to maintain the equilibrium between rights and responsibilities and that we assess, unapologetically, the challenges we face as a society in the Twenty-First Century. What we have is a cherished thing but it is jeopardized when we live and interact on the basis of our biases and prejudices rather than the wisdom of an educated populace.
The reader is invited to read my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, in which I offer a blueprint for a solution to the challenges of public education with a focus on teachers, students, and success.