While education is on every politician's agenda as an item of serious importance, it is astonishing that the notion of what it means to be educated never seems to come up. Our society, which is undergoing massive transformations almost on a daily basis never seems to transform its notion of what it means to be educated. We all seem to agree that an educated mind certainly entails knowing literature and poetry, appreciating history and social issues, being able to deal with matters of economics, being versatile in more than one language, understanding scientific principles and the basics of mathematics.
What I was doing in my last sentence was detailing the high school curriculum set down in 1892 by a committee chaired by the President of Harvard that was mandated for anyone who might want to enter a university. The curriculum they decided upon has not changed at all since then. Our implicit notions of an educated mind are the same as they were in the nineteenth century. No need to teach anything new, no need to reconsider how a world where a university education was offered solely to the elite might be different from a world in which a university degree is commonplace.
For a few years, in the early 90's, I was on the Board of Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Most everyone else on the board were octogenarians the foremost of these, since he seemed to have everyone's great respect, was Clifton Fadiman, a literary icon of the 40's. When I tried to explain to this board the technological changes that were about to come that would threaten the very existence of the Encyclopedia, there was a general belief that technology would not really matter much. There would always be a need for the encyclopedia and the job of the board would always be to determine what knowledge was the most important to have. Only Clifton Fadiman seemed to realize that my predictions about the internet might have some effect on the institution they guarded. He concluded sadly, saying: "I guess we will just have to accept the fact that minds less well educated than our own will soon be in charge."
Note that he didn't say "differently educated," but "less well educated." For some years the literati have held sway over the commonly accepted definition of education. No matter how important science and technology seem to industry or government or indeed to the daily life of the people, as a society we believe that those educated in literature and history and other humanities are in some way better informed, more knowing, and somehow more worthy of the descriptor "well educated."
Now if this were an issue confined to those who run the elite universities and prep schools or those whose bible is the New York Review of Books, this really wouldn't matter all that much to anybody. But this nineteenth century conception of the educated mind weighs heavily on our notions of how we educate our young. We are not educating our young to work or to live in the nineteenth century, or at least we ought not be doing so. Yet, when universities graduate thousands of English and history majors because it can only be because we imagine that such fields form the basis of the educated mind. When we choose to teach our high schoolers trigonometry instead of say basic medicine or business skills, it can only be because we think that trigonometry is somehow more important to an educated mind or that education is really not about preparation for the real world. When we focus on intellectual and scholarly issues in high school as opposed to more human issues like communications, or basic psychology, or child raising, we are continuing to rely upon out dated notions of the educated mind that come from elitist notions of who is to be educated.
While we argue that an educated mind can reason, but curiously there are no courses in our schools that teach reasoning. When we say that an educated mind can see more than one side of an argument we go against the school system which holds that there are right answers to be learned and that tests can reveal who knows them and who doesn't.
Now obviously telecommunications is more important than basic chemistry and HTML is more significant than French in today's world. These are choices that have to be made, but they never will be made until our fundamental conception of erudition changes or until we realize that the schools of today must try to educate the students who actually attend them as opposed to the students who attended them in 1892.
The 21st century conception of an educated mind is based upon old notions of erudition and scholarship not germane to this century. The curriculum of the school system bears no relation to the finished products we seek. We need to rethink what it means to be educated and begin to focus on a new conception of the very idea of education.
Roger Schank is Distinguished Career Professor, School of Computer Science, Carnegie-Mellon University and author of Virtual Learning: A Revolutionary Approach to Building a Highly Skilled Workforce.