In 1905, Elwood Cubberly, the eventual Dean of Education at Stanford University had this to say in his dissertation for Columbia Teachers’ College:
Schools should be factories in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products … manufactured like nails, and the specifications for manufacturing will come from government and industry.
In all our incessant talk, in contemporary education, about the need to give students “21st century learning skills” -- design-thinking, communication, collaboration, etc. -- I sometimes wonder if we are repeating the sins of the fathers, only this time by replacing the imperative to create industrial workers with a new vision of shaping and forming tech-savvy entrepreneurs to compete in a global economy.
Now don’t get me wrong: I think there is value to having students engage in design-thinking, communications, and collaboration exercises. I am just wary of a school system that would seem to imply that this is all, or even the most important part, of what might constitute a person’s education. I worry that we might give the impression that “21st century learning” is simply a matter of acquiring a handy set of “problem-solving skills” that can effectively be deployed to produce better widgets.
Again, it’s not the teaching of the “skills” themselves that I object to -- who could begrudge learning how to communicate? -- but instead the underlying premise that what we do in schools must necessarily be tightly tied to the political economy of the time.
Social critic Ivan Illich once said that “schools are the advertising agency which make you believe that you need society as it is”. I wonder if this is necessarily so -- whether schools must inevitably reinforce and replicate the political economies they inhabit, or whether they might take up an entirely different project.
The classical ideal of a liberal education -- even if imperfectly met -- was that it would provide the means to free a person from “the present and the particular” of their contemporary world. Might not this be the more appropriate purpose of schools? Might we not strive to give students the kind of foundation that would enable them to define the next world for themselves in a way that overcomes our present mistakes and limitations? If so, then we will need to offer them something more substantial than a lightweight menu of “21st century learning skills”.
Dr. Ted Spear is the founding Principal of two independent schools in British Columbia, Canada. Using research on contemporary educational innovation, and drawing on 25 years of teaching and administrative experience in public and independent schools, he is currently writing a book on the future of grade school education.