In The Smartest Kids in the World, journalist Amanda Ripley’s new book about effective educational systems around the globe, there’s a scene in which Kim, an American high school student spending a year in Finland, asks her classmates a searching question. “Why do you guys care so much?” Kim inquires of two Finnish girls. “I mean, what makes you work hard in school?” The students give her a puzzled look. “It’s school,” one of them says. “How else will I graduate and go to university and get a good job?” When I reviewed Ripley’s book for the New York Times last month, I highlighted this exchange, writing: “It’s the only sensible answer, of course, but its irrefutable logic still eludes many American students, a quarter of whom fail to graduate from high school.”
I still think the Finnish student’s reply is pretty sensible, but I’ve been prompted to think more deeply about it by Alfie Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve and The Homework Myth, who took me to task in a commentary posted on the website of the Washington Post. Along with other journalists who cover education, Kohn wrote, I mistakenly assume that “the primary objective of schools is to transmit to children the knowledge and skills to compete in the global economy”; I also erroneously suppose that “from the individual student’s point of view, the main reason to learn is that doing so is a prerequisite to making more money after one graduates.”
“There’s something deeply disturbing about regarding children mostly as future employees and reducing education to an attempt to increase the profitability of corporations — or, worse, the probability that ‘our’ corporations will defeat ‘theirs,’” Kohn continued. “Some of the least inspiring approaches to schooling, and the least meaningful ways of assessing its success, follow logically from thinking of education not in terms of its intrinsic worth, or its contribution to a truly democratic society, but in the context of the ‘21st-century global economy.’”
I still don’t think that it’s wrong to want our kids to go to college and get good jobs and have the knowledge and skills to compete in the global economy. Schools, like all of society’s institutions, serve a multitude of purposes (at least, they do when they’re working well — but that’s another issue). They open up worlds of literature and history and science. They cultivate the habits of clear thinking and balanced judgment so important to the functioning of a democracy. And yes, they prepare students for their lives after graduation, much of which will be spent in the workplace.
Despite Kohn’s high dudgeon, I doubt he’d deny that this is one among several functions of an education. And here’s where things get interesting because in an era of shrinking school budgets, rising college tuition and fierce competition for jobs, Americans face some hard choices about what and how our students learn. These choices, I’d argue, ought to be informed in part — in part! — by our sense of what they’ll need once they leave home and school behind. Should undergraduates choose their majors based on how much money they’ll make, as this new report enables them to do? I’d say that’s far too mercenary. Should they — and we — be thinking about the kinds of skills and knowledge they’ll require in their adult lives? I’d say that’s dealing with reality.
The good news is that research in the science of learning suggests that one choice we don’t need to make is between a rich, rigorous, engaging education and an education that prepares students for flourishing careers: these things are one and the same. Determining how to deliver this kind of education to every student is the challenge. It’s awfully easy to spout platitudes about the “intrinsic worth” of education. It’s harder to try and figure out what’s going right in school systems that are succeeding in all their many missions: school systems like the one in our own Massachusetts and the one across the ocean in Finland.
I’m a die-hard defender of the liberal arts. I have a degree in American studies: try finding a job listing seeking that credential. Following graduation I became a journalist, a profession not known for its lucrative returns (even less so after the implosion of the newspaper and magazine industries). I want my two sons to love learning and to follow their interests. I also want them to be able to earn a living. As educated people, I expect they’ll be able to hold both those ideas in mind at once.