Educating for Democracy: Awakening From the American Dream

There have been several recent reports on the future condition of the planet, including the impending water crisis in which the lack of drinkable water may well be an issue confronting the entire world in the next generation. Yet many of the basic issues of the kind of world our young learners will have adapt to are either avoided or completely ignored in the present focus on educational "reform." It seems to me that "magical thinking" dominates the words of the easy promisers who present the "American Dream" of the future as if it were a reality today. But this "magical thinking" is readily revealed by the direction in which the public schools are being governed.

Despite evidence to the contrary cited in this blog and other articles by true educational reformers such as Linda Darling-Hammond on the myths of standardized testing, Leonie Haimson on the importance of limiting class size and Diane Ravitch on debunking the idea of charter schools as a panacea for improving young learners' education, standardized testing seems to be increasing as a very flawed method of measuring student progress and teacher competence, class sizes continue to increase as budget cuts take their toll of the schools, and the number of public schools being converted into charter schools continues unabated.

Yet, real experts like Darling-Hammond, Haimson and Ravitch seem to be summarily dismissed by politicians, school officials and a significant segment of the public. And although most of the "reformers''" schemes to improve children's learning have produced no significant results in the ten years since "No Child Left Behind" was made public policy, (followed up by "Race to the Top") the "reforms" persist. My view, shared by many other educators, is that the most significant element in developing young learners into ready learners and enthusiastic learners is either ignored or minimalized: economic security.

But even in the more educationally enlightened schools, both public and private, that still give good quality schooling to their young learners, there seem to be little discussion of a world that can be anticipated as most likely in their future lives: a world of increasing scarcity of natural resources, regardless of the ingenuity of science to come up with ways of maximizing them. It will be a world significantly different from our own, either to the benefit of a new society or the detriment of the vast majority who will be unable to adapt to this world. It might be a world controlled by the few who would be willing, if they have the power to do so, to rule largely for their own benefit. There seems to be, both in the rhetoric of the school "reformers" and the analysis of the truly wise educators, the continued promise of an "American Dream" that is based less on realistic expectations and more on the "good life" of material comfort and abundance for all.

What is needed, I believe, is an educational program that will balance out the probable changes in lifestyle that could well disappoint the expectations of the young -- who are continually being showered with promises that are unlikely to be realized -- with more realistic ways of enjoying life without being addicted to consumerism. A warning of the consequences of ignoring the probabilities of a "different" lifestyle is reflected in the disappointment that is already evident in the present cohort of college graduates who have been burdened with school debt instead of rewarded with the lucrative jobs they had been promised.

Rather than routinely emphasizing the wonders of technology and the need to adopt and readopt to relatively pointless advances in what is becoming innovation for its own sake, what should be the primary focus of the best and brightest are advances in ways of preserving and balancing our basic needs with what will be left of our environment. Young learners should be shown through instruction in the arts, in personal communication, in an appreciation of the natural environment, that there are rewarding experiences that can enrich their lives without despoiling our planet for future generations: "stewardship," not ownership.

I expect that there are many educators who have what they believe is a more optimistic view of the "Dream" compared to the environmental nightmare I fear. But I believe I am more optimistic in proposing that educators take a hard look at what they are promising as the rewards of education compared to what future generations will value in a very different way of life. Precisely what that will be is impossible to know for certain, but it is not difficult to imagine it will not be a "Dream" come true for a society that refuses to wake up.