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Teaching for America? Teaching for the World

Tom Friedman’s op-ed in The New York Times, “Teaching for America,” is yet another cry for major reform of our education system, but this time with a twist: for the sake of national security. As Friedman writes: “When I came to Washington in 1988, the cold war was ending and the hot beat was national security and the State Department. If I were a cub reporter today, I’d still want to be covering the epicenter of national security – but that would be the Education Department.”

Why national security? Because, as President Obama says, whoever “out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow.” But not only do we need to reform education for economic national security, apparently we also need to reform education for military national security. Friedman quotes Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who said, “One of the more unusual and sobering press conferences I participated in last year was the release of a report by a group of top retired generals and admirals. Here was the stunning conclusion of their report: 75 percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit.” Later in the essay, Friedman quotes Duncan again when he points out that in South Korea “they refer to their teachers as ‘nation builders.’”

Another expert Friedman quotes is Tony Wagner, author of “The Global Achievement Gap,” who explains it this way. “There are three basic skills that students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate.”

I basically agree with this last statement, though I wouldn’t limit those three skills as essentials for thriving in the “knowledge economy.” To me they are essentials in the most important work each one of us needs to embrace: contributing to innovative solutions for a world in crisis. These skills must be taught in part to enable the next generation to thrive in the knowledge economy, but more importantly to be solutionaries for a healthy, just and thriving world.

I was with Wagner until Friedman quoted him again. Apparently Wagner thinks we should create a West Point for teachers: “We need a new National Education Academy, modeled after our military academies, to raise the status of the profession and to support the R.& D. that is essential for reinventing teaching, learning and assessment in the 21st century.”

The military analogy threw me, because the grave threats we face are global, not national. Our economies are inextricably entwined. Our environments are interconnected and interdependent. “Nation-building” and “competing for jobs” are ultimately going to be outmoded schemas in a world in which collaboration and mutual problem-solving are required to avert catastrophes. A military analogy is exactly the wrong one for our educational crisis. Nation-building is a 20th, not a 21st century vision for educational goals.

But Friedman is right when he focuses much of his essay on teachers. It is teachers who will prepare a generation of solutionaries, or not. It is teachers who will instill critical and creative thinking skills among their students, or not. It is teachers who will find ways to infuse their curricula with meaning, importance, and relevancy (despite the standardized tests their students must pass that largely lack these attributes), or not. And Arne Duncan is right to seek to emulate those countries whose teachers were all in the top third of their colleges and who are paid good salaries for their high-status professions. This, more than anything, will help.

But until we decide what we’re educating the next generation for, we will still flounder. Are we educating a generation simply to compete in the global economy or to build our nation? Or are we educating a generation of solutionaries who collaborate, communicate, and think critically and creatively to solve the grave challenges of our world?

Let’s not just cover the new and exciting “education beat.” Let’s define what it’s for.

Zoe Weil
Author of Most Good, Least Harm and The Power and Promise of Humane Education

Image courtesy of marcokalmann via Creative Commons.

Teachers & Community Educators: inspire your students to become leaders & change agents for a healthy, peaceful, sustainable world. Sign up for the next session of IHE’s 30-day online course, Teaching for a Positive Future (February 7-March 14, 2011). Special rates for groups of teachers.


About zoeweil

I'm the co-founder and President of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE). IHE works to create a world in which we all live humanely, sustainably, and peaceably. We do this by training people to be humane educators who teach about the pressing issues of our time and inspire people to work for change while making healthy, humane, and restorative choices in their daily lives. We also work to advance the field of humane education, and to provide tools and inspiration to people everywhere so that they can live examined, meaningful lives. I'm also a writer. So far I've written six books and several articles.


8 thoughts on “Teaching for America? Teaching for the World

  1. You’ve hit the crux of the problem between what we view as education reform and what some other groups view as education reform. The first place we differ is in what we consider our goals for education.

    I think that our goal should be to save our world in crisis and education is an excellent vehicle to do this. We face problems in multiple areas (water & food shortages, pollution, ideology conflicts, climate change), any one of which could topple our system, and all of which will require creative and innovative solutions.

    Posted by dwees | November 24, 2010, 11:34 am
  2. I’ve been trying to figure out what value could education offer to our kids for quite some time … watching a film on the “efforts” to school the world ( by well-meaning volunteers and charities that don’t realize you can’t export Western-style education to every culture without causing damage opened my eyes on some important questions

    Right now, I am getting convinced that schools should focus on inspiring kids for lifelong learning … this way they won’t clog the creativity and curiosity they already carry with them when entering the education system for the first time, but offer them more food for thought to keep the curiosity growing and creativity explore

    I like how you framed the tension between building a nation vs. competing in global economy vs. engaging in a world community to solve the problem putting our very future at risk!

    Great post!


    Posted by kima | November 24, 2010, 11:47 am
  3. We need to start teaching our kids practical skills, not esoteric things. Our country is very short on real leaders and managers. These are the people who will run our governments and corporations.
    A site that helps develop students’ project management skills is:
    Enter The Group
    This is a free site for online group project management.

    Posted by Sal | November 25, 2010, 5:57 pm
  4. What if we took learning as seriously as we do economic supremacy? Military capacity?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | December 3, 2010, 11:59 am


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