Old Missions, New Realities

As we digest feedback into our latest framework proposal, we've had to respond to a perceived tension between the time-honored mission of American public education and the realities of the 21st century. We find, however, that this isn't a tension at all.

The basic goals of public education in America come to us through the writings of John Dewey. Indeed, some have called Dewey's philosophy the first uniquely American philosophy in history. In his writings, Dewey calls for schools to assume a role as architects of solutions to the problems of tomorrow. He proposed schools that were designed to project academic activities into the community, and to reflect community realities and needs into the school. The science wing of Dewey's school would, for example, face upon a forest in which students could observe natural processes and problems, and consider and even enact solutions that would benefit the community.

The language of missions reflecting this kind of philosophy can seem anachronistic and old fashioned. Such missions are studded with "participation," "citizenship," and "empowerment." Time-honored words, to be sure.

We cannot, however, move from such words. We can qualify them by describing 21st century communities and global contexts, but American public schools still have the mission that Dewey proposed at the turn of the 20th century. That American philosophy, that a republic must educate all of its youth in order for them to assume the rights and responsibilities that the republic's charters confer, has not changed. The problems may be sharper, more urgent, or reaching from farther afield, but they still require solutions that we leave the next generation to design.

Dewey would be astounded by the world in which we live, only 60-some years after the end of his long life. But we believe that he would continue to insist upon the original mission--that we prepare students to solve the problems that we leave to them. Education, then, becomes an investment in national security. Its goals revolve around strong communities, around cooperation instead of competition.

And they still speak in terms like "citizenship" and "participation," for these are the vehicles in which uniquely American philosophy moves.

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