Schools have traditionally been far too focused on the past. Alfred North Whitehead referred to the “insistent present”, and he reminded us that the present world we are living in is all that exists. The primary purpose of school is to prepare young people to live in the current age and the near future, which they will have to survive in. This does not mean that history or classic literature are not valuable; they are. But they derive their fundamental worth from how they prepare us to understand and thrive in the modern world. Educators, including those responsible for creating educational policy as well as administrators, have not sufficiently understood this fundamental truth. All students should be afforded the opportunity to study current events, global challenges such as the climate crisis and socioeconomic inequality, and modern movements and societal and technological trends such as AI and automation that promise to profoundly impact their lives in the very near future. To reiterate: this should be considered a basic human and generational right of young people, not to be infringed upon for any reason.
Schools should work on instilling values and character first, which leads to positive dispositions and attitudes, which produce good learning habits, which in turn result in the desired knowledge and skills. To begin later in the process is to skip the deepest, most generative aspect of schooling. Both moral and intellectual character traits must be fostered. By intellectual character is meant such qualities as integrity, curiosity, open mindedness, intellectual courage, persistence, belief in reason, etc.
Although a considerable degree of uniformity in what is taught and how it is taught is both necessary and good, our children do not give up all of their intellectual or human rights when they enter the formal school system. Learners should always be respected as unique individuals who deserve some measure of autonomy. The intellectual, aesthetic, emotional and social fulfillment of every child must absolutely be held as a core responsibility of everyone involved in the educational enterprise. As J. Zaccharias wrote, “Children come to school different and it is our job to make them more different.” This can absolutely be accomplished while at the same time ensuring that our schools provide a challenging, high-quality and coherent curriculum that will provide a focusing and integrating force in society. To press this point, schools should be about human development and not selection. It is regrettably true that a truly equal, democratic society in which all students have received the same life chances doesn’t exist and perhaps never shall. Yet I strongly feel it should be our goal as a society to attempt to at least ameliorate existing inequalities. Schools should never exacerbate social and economic divides. Look at the current situation across the nation and ask yourself if we are on the right path.
The fundamental mission of schools is twofold: to allow civilization perpetuate itself, and to maximize the life chances of every young individual who darkens a school door. These two aims are not always perfectly in alignment, and the former goal has often been emphasized at the expense of the latter.