Education from preschool to graduate school is rapidly changing. Some changes are common, like timing of semesters and days or consolidation. Some change education for students and teachers fundamentally. This column focuses on four that will continue to provide challenges and opportunities.
Our reservoir of knowledge is huge and expanding exponentially. When I started teaching, the knowledge base was much smaller. Now it as a like a huge expanding balloon. Students and teachers stretch out toward the frontiers of knowledge to preserve our heritage, save us from ignorance and mediocrity, and keep the balloon from collapsing into echo chambers of ideology. Learning more helps us realize what we do not know, which is the beginning of wisdom. Good learning gives us identity, place, and voice, freeing students from any tyrannical yoke, in a relay race of generations. As Bob Petty, Wabash professor of biology, described: “… batons passed desperately from one generation to another. At the least it is the transfer of a tool, a skill, a craft. At its grandest and most dangerous because most the most vulnerable, it is a way of seeing the world — a world that goes on and on, seen from a life that is once and only.”
Interwoven connections between subjects taught in our schools emerge, leading to knowledge — an intricate tapestry of truth. Each discipline tells a different story depending upon the company it keeps. Teachers used to teach biology and chemistry, or computers and car mechanics separately. Now, courses and majors in biochemistry are common; or try to repair your car. For generations we have forced students to move hour by hour between rooms, buildings, courses, disciplines and teachers. Now, expanding, interrelated knowledge forces teachers to move with students in order to guide them. Moreover, the spirit demands that the mind unify its knowledge.
New technology forces rapid changes in education — not easy changes like how to use the electronic devices to communicate with students and record grades. No. Instead, more fundamental changes in how knowledge is shaped, transmitted and learned. Our enlarged, unmediated world is described by Jacob Neusner, “where anyone who wants to teaches anything at all to whom it may concern.” Unmediated information, even errors, are cunningly packaged as knowledge and wisdom that mislead us. Influencers with the biggest megaphones spout the trivial, exotic, outlandish and obscene. How does one teach when students are prisoners of facts and factoid, even fabrications in what some call the post-truth age? All that while, facing a shrinking half-life of knowledge? Students at every level have answers, right or wrong, from A.I. or ChatBPT before teachers complete the questions. However, they don’t yet know how to think critically and distinguish between truth and falsehood. So, they desperately need education.
Which brings us to students. Students in our schools are changing rapidly, more diverse, different life experiences, subcultures, visions for the future, and little shared reality. An increasing number experience fractured families, communities, churches, schools, wobbling moral compasses and fragmentary worldviews. Society’s challenges are deposited at the school house door.
The goals of education remain the same. Students learn to govern themselves as free individuals and lead a free democratic society. Students learn how to establish for themselves what is true to affirm and what is good to do — a worldview and ethics. The aspiration stretches out high as the universe and as deep as volcanic depths, and as far as the eye can see! Good people doing good and living abundant lives!
What about those no longer students or teachers? ‘Old dogs can learn new tricks,’ so try to keep up. Teachers need support, including continuing education. Students must receive encouragement and resources from family and community to reach their highest potential. New global competition requires us to forge ahead in creating talent. Good education is the key because education is the international passport.
Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.