There are a lot of misconceptions about higher education, secondary education, and primary education. The K-12 system is where I’m going to restrict my comments for this discussion, and especially the public education system. That being said only a little over a hundred years ago there were exactly two degrees offered at the bachelors level. A bachelor of arts degree (law, philosophy, etc..), and bachelor of sciences degrees (medical, chemistry, etc..). Education from pre-k to post doctoral is effected much the same as the military can trace it’s roots to the centurion of the republic.
We can trace much of the requirement for public education to the door of Thomas Jefferson. His feeling to be succinct if not exact was that public education was required for a democracy. Public and free education was not synonymous with universal education. That would take nearly 70 more years, and still was fractured by gender and race lines. The industrial revolution brought a requirement for a trained work force in numeracy and literacy. These requirements also beget the standardized school year and the clocking into school at a particular time and place.
Some educational historians will tell you this build up in education was to build the work force for the factories. I would suggest that business cared less with the methods and more about how education and k-12 competed for their workforce. It wasn’t until child labor laws came into effect first in 1924 and then again 1938 that public education even really got started as universal in the United States. The romance and memory rarely reflects the reality of what made up public education.
Through out the 1940s and 1950s some specific goals were floated to the top for American education and I’ll paraphrase a lot of contested debate as follows.
1) A goal for American education is to provide the soldiers and sailors for the military to serve in a variety of capacities able to do simple arithmetic, read, follow directions, and understand basic moral and ethical requirements (civics).
2) A goal for American education is to provide for a citizenry able to compete in the global market place and provide substantive support for future primacy.
3) A goal for American education is to create a path to higher education and develop the skills of future scholars and scientists.
These varied goals however compete in a fairly misunderstood system. Some math might help the discussion. In a standard school year there are between 180 and 190 days of school work and in general a 5.5 to 6 hour day. Writing, reading, math, physical education, music, and civics all slice the day up. With a total of around 1100 hours of instruction per year every added component to the training cycle dilutes another component. For example the simple number of words considered to be a good vocabulary is easily 10 times that of 100 years ago. Concepts in physics and math we might consider simplistic didn’t even EXIST 20 years ago (Quanta particles anyone?). People could quit school in the 9th, 7th, 5th grade and work in agrarian industry and survive and even thrive. Today a car mechanic is part computer scientist and a farmer is as much chemist as engineer.
It is a romantic if misguided thought to think that the x-box and myspace generation are terrible at any of the required elements of a public/universal education when everything they do re-enforces the skill sets needed to survive. I am sure that those from the stick and hoop generation might not understand but their forebears likely didn’t understand their escapades either. That isn’ the fault of the education system and comparing leisure activities to school neither informs nor educates us on the debate of education. Solitaire may help us understand probability but nobody says you’re an idiot for playing it rather than something else.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960s a change in education began with the idea of outcome based models presented in 1956 by Benjamin Bloom (Blooms Taxonomy). There had been others such as Gagne (1965) but Bloom held sway (though debated) and was the defining model to follow. At issue during that time was the prophetic concept that education had to be able to provide metrics and measurable assessments of education techniques. That was the goal not the more maligned “outcome based education” as seen is “No Child Left Behind”. The unexpected consequence in recent years was the near abandonment of experiential learning, and more importantly the Socratic method. Both of these methods were difficult to assess and provide feedback mechanisms within the confines of semester or school year.
The 1970s exposed some of the basic and more troubling issues of teaching quarter to quarter or semester to semester. Though assessment for a particular semester was easier using learning objective and assessment models the over all understanding of a topic was relatively difficult to assess. It appeared that the swelling requirements in the education sphere would be overwhelmed as public education systems found themselves also required to address social problems.
Drug interdiction, welfare reform, teen pregnancy though found through out history in the teen population began to be formally legislated and addressed by the education system. Into the morass of legislation President Jimmy Carter started the Department of Education aided by the National Education Association and teacher unions. The stated goal was not to over-throw the local school boards but standardize curriculum nationwide. Those goals such as creating standardized science curriculum created havoc with religious groups who had since the 1950s been pushing back on Darwin. We see those same issues reflected today in various local school boards. DOE and NEA as causing the problems are non-sequiturs as the issues are much larger and haven’t been substantially addressed in any regards.
Though outside the scope of this discussion the 1980s and 1990s saw a series of Supreme Court decisions that basically removed all civil rights of high school students in the name of good order. It is an interesting dichotomy that we have a requirement for critical thinking and philosophical reasoning in a group that labors under totalitarian rule with zero tolerance punishment, restrictions on freedom of speech that stretch to the home, and search and seizure rules that violate every one of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. Is it a bit sanctimonious to take with one hand removing the vital tools to learning and expect a student to learn with none of the tools of freedom?
The Internet changed more than peoples dating habits. There was no associated increase in hours of the day but computer literacy was added to some public school student’s education requirements. As computer usage neared universal levels at the turn of the 20th century most public schools stopped teaching computer technology and simply expected students to have access to the technology much the same as students were expected to have a pencil and paper generations earlier. This created a social class disconnect in schools where the expectation didn’t meet the reality. The average high school student today is exposed to 100 times more information daily than most people were exposed to in a year centuries earlier and that creates a return to critical thinking and philosophical reasoning that isn’t a 100 times better now.
In an education system designed to create factory workers the expectations of a knowledge based society are not going to be served. Most of us have a predilection to foist our expectations and experiences of our education off on the future generations. That is most assuredly a substantial and egregious risk. We should be looking at the current situation and the projected future to engineer the current education for the future student. Every major discipline generates documents every decade or so looking at these topics such as “Educating the engineer of 2020” and other similar documents. Considering the five or so hottest jobs on the market didn’t exist 10 years ago (Nano technology, bio-technology, bio-informatics, genomic computing) we have to think about where we are going very carefully.
Within that framework we can open a discussion on what does the military need. Where is the future of conflict and what are the educational requirements? Some of these topics have been the part of a larger body of literature looking at the disenfranchisement of ROTC and JROTC in the educational institution. But, that is a specific ancillary program of study that is layered on a much more fundamental system. What does that fundamental system need to accomplish to insure that the military receives recruits who are ready for training and able to succeed in formal military schools.
I would suggest that the goals are fairly specific on what the military needs. The list is neither exhaustive nor without some amount of social commentary but it is specific enough to be measured and is implicit in the current education system. What would need to be added is the future requirements.
1) The education system should provide numeracy through trigonometry to assist in everything from land navigation to accounting.
2) The education system should provide writing and reading skills capable of providing narrative and understanding of doctrinal materials.
3) The education system needs to expose students to citizenship and the American system of government and international relations from a holistic perspective.
4) The education system should prepare students with an understanding of utilitarian ethics (those that can be taught and used in daily life).
When expectations and reality are disentangled the conclusion will likely be that the education system is doing exactly what it was designed to do. The lingering question will be is it designed to do what it ought to do, and if not who is going to pay for changing it? Those are questions best left to a different entry.