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Education for Tomorrow: What Citizens Need to Know

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 

We can never underestimate the high price we pay for ignorance, and when we think of the issues that may well dominate the next century-profound ethical issues in medicine and the application of new technologies, the growing environmental crisis, the widening gap between "developed" and 'developing' nations, ongoing and perhaps heightened ethnic and racial conflicts-we gain new insight into what ought to comprise our notion of 'cultural literacy.'


The posting below is a speech given by James F. Verninga on the importance of the humanities in preparing students for our new century. It appeared in: THE HUMANITIES AND THE CIVIC IMAGINATION, Collected Addresses and Essays 1978-1998, by James F. Veninga, University of North Texas Press, Denton, Texas. (c) 1999 James F. Veninga, printed in the United States of America, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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I spoke before the El Paso Rotary Club on November 14, 1985. Remarks given on the importance of the humanities to the development of well-educated citizens solidified into a short, all-purpose speech on education, which I used on a number of occasions in the 1980s.

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I have been invited to talk about the role of the humanities in education, about what the humanities might do for today's youth who will be dealing with the challenges of the twenty-first century.

The emerging field of future studies brings us diverse scenarios of life in the next century, many of which focus on continued breakthroughs in technology. We are told of the possibility of increased longevity through new drugs and genetic engineering. There are predictions for new breakthroughs in telecommunications, bringing people closer together, and the continued development of an information society as computer technology grows in sophistication. Future studies scholars tell us that more and more people will be able to work at home, freeing many to live where they want to.

But there is, of course, a dark side in these studies. We are told that the world of tomorrow will be far more complex than that of today. The application of many of these technologies, generate serious value questions, which as yet have received little public scrutiny. We also know that citizens of the twenty-first century may have to deal with catastrophic environmental problems. They may be forced to wrestle with an increasingly divided world between the "haves" and the "have nots." Overpopulation may pose another serious threat, with the world's sustainable resources disappearing. We are told that defined borders, geographic and cultural, will break down, as the global village becomes a reality. And the continued development of biological and chemical weapons, as well as the continued development of nuclear weapons, will undoubtedly pose serious threats to people everywhere.

What is it that citizens of tomorrow may need to know in order to cope with a world of increasing promise and peril? And how might our children and youth be prepared to do more than "cope," to interact with the world of tomorrow, to be able to define this world, to understand it, to make it work for them rather than against them?

These questions are of critical importance for us in part because we live in a democracy where ultimate authority for dealing with these challenges rests with the citizenry. However much we may depend upon "experts" for guidance, democratic society rests or falls on the knowledge and involvement of its citizens. To capitulate in favor of the experts is to rid us of political and moral responsibility, opening the gates to non-democratic forms of governance. We are called, therefore, to think deeply about what it is that our children and youth ought to know, what it is that they ought to value, and what we might do now to help prepare them for active, responsible citizenship in the century ahead. 12:20i

Some Trends in Education

There are several positive developments concerning education that give us hope. Among these are two that I consider to be especially important. First, there is growing concern about the quality of education in America, a concern that leads me to believe that we may finally be prepared to address in serious ways current deficiencies. There is more discussion in Washington, in state capitols, and in local communities. Numerous agencies have issued reports on education, among them the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and, here in Texas, the Perot Commission. These and many other reports respond to heighten public awareness that our education system does not measure up to what it ought to be. A gallop Poll documents the dramatic loss of public confidence in our schools. For the past seventeen years, average scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, taken by one million college-bound seniors, have declined. All these reports speak to particular problems and offer ideas that are now gaining public circulation.

Second, we are breathing new life into Robert Hutchin's idea of America as a Learning Society (1). The quest for life-long education is growing, and education institutions are responding to the adult public's interest in continued learning. We see industry providing more educational programs for their employees. Colleges and Universities are expanding continuing education programs, developing innovative programs and structures that appeal to busy adults. More established programs are reaching out to adult learners in new ways, as evidenced, for example, by the number of middle-aged homemakers who are now entering professional schools. Cultural institutions-libraries, museums, historical societies-are developing extended opportunities for learning for citizens of all ages, becoming educational institutions in their own right.

Unfortunately, there are negative trends as well, and these trends tend to lower optimism over the long-range consequences of such positive developments.

First, vocational and professional careerism dominate this learning society, with scant recognition given to the liberal arts, especially the humanities. Students are taught that a career is nothing more than a succession of jobs in which success is determined by the rate of promotion and the rate of income. Career education and the liberal arts have gone separate ways.

Second, the "two cultures" phenomenon as described by C.P. Snow, the separation of sciences and technology from the arts and the humanities, dominates secondary and post-secondary learning. We have done little to bring these fields together. Indeed, these "cultures" seem to have gone their own way, with the result that our society finds itself increasingly split by these differing pursuits.

Third, the increasing professionalization of modern society brings with it a narrowness that threatens ideas associated with the well-rounded and well-educated person. Specialization runs rampant, first in scientific, technological, and professional pursuits, butt now in the humanities as well. Our ability to pull diverse experiences together, to approach the problems of our society in multidisciplinary ways, to communicate easily across fields and professions, has eroded.

Finally, let me note that we may not be making enough progress in ensuring equal educational opportunity, with the result that we run the risk that successful entrance into tomorrow's information society may be restricted to those of privilege, those who can afford private schooling, have computers in the home, and have access to advanced educational opportunities. At times it almost seems as though we are regressing, especially in regard to public schooling, as we abandon hope for our inner city schools and, in many places, for poor rural schools as well.

New Directions

These trends-positive and negative-require a strong, substantive, and far-reaching response from those who care deeply about the humanities. Obviously, we must raise questions about the aims and purposes of our society, and we must take the lead in talking about the necessary role of the arts and humanities in a culture dominated by scientific and technological pursuits.

Most importantly, however, we must say, over and over, wherever and whenever we can, that there is more to education than mastery of skills that will lead to successful vocations and professions. No one can disagree with the notion that public schooling should help educate students for future jobs, providing them the technical skills needed for a constantly changing economy. But if this is our only goal, at secondary and post-secondary levels, we are in deep trouble, leaving our children and youth poorly prepared for the challenges of tomorrow.

There is a new buzzword in education circles that provides focus for what we ought to be talking about: cultural literacy. Properly defined, this term provides a framework for thinking about elementary, secondary, and post-secodary schooling in a rapidly changing world. It implies literacy itself, the ability to read, to think, to communicate, but, more importantly, it also points to the kind of curriculum that will help prepare citizens for the changes of the twenty-first century. It leads to the question: What must students understand about their world that will allow them to live out their citizenship in productive ways? That is the question we-the public-now need to ask.

We cannot adequately answer that question without talking about the importance of the study of history, literature, politics-all those fields that encompass the humanities. Citizens of the next century will not be able to wrestle satisfactorily with the profound challenges facing our nation and the world community without these disciplines. Will they be prepared to confront these challenges without the benefit of the history and cultures of other nations, knowing exposure to the fundamental questions of value that emerge through the study of history and literature?

It can be argued that the two major foreign policy failures of our lifetime, Vietnam and Iran, were made in the context of nearly total lack of knowledge of the cultures and societies of those nations. We can never underestimate the high price we pay for ignorance, and when we think of the issues that may well dominate the next century-profound ethical issues in medicine and the application of new technologies, the growing environmental crisis, the widening gap between "developed" and "developing" nations, ongoing and perhaps heightened ethnic and racial conflicts-we gain new insight into what ought to comprise our notion of "cultural literacy."

Age-old questions of the humanities, questions about the nature of truth, beauty, honesty, and justice, come alive when we think about these challenges. We need an educational system, from primary to secondary to post-secondary to adult education, wherein these humanistic questions are front and center. Perhaps the most important question of all is this: For what do we hope? This question concerns human ends, what life is all about, and if we keep this question before us, we will be in a better position to talk about means, about what is necessary to help us achieve the most fundamental aims of civilization.

Thus we end up with a focus that is so very basic, so very human, one that has the potential of uniting rather than dividing, of inspiring rather than deadening. The challenges of the next century require a return to the humanities as the means to ensure citizens who have the background, temperament, and ability to live full, productive, and happy lives. Education in the humanities doesn't guarantee survivability and success, but without the humanities, the odds against us become overwhelming. With the humanities, we increase the odds that tomorrow's citizens will have the capacity to be constructively engaged with the challenges that await them.

Our task, then, and our opportunity, is to counter the negative trends in education and to build on positive developments, by returning to the importance of the humanities to education at all levels and for all ages. The humanities ought to be at the very center of a learning society. The challenges of tomorrow require nothing less.

Works Cited

- Hirsh, E.D., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

- Hutchins, Robert: A Learning Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. - Snow, C.P.: The Two Cultures. Reprint. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993

1) Hutchins, one of this century's great American educators, argued persuasively that American democracy will not be realized until its citizens are liberally educated. Co-editor, with Mortimer J. Adler of the fifty-four volume set of classics, Great Books of the Western World, Hutchins promoted "shared inquiry," a method of learning through the structured group discussion of great literature. The Great Books Foundation continues to promote Hutchin's goals. There are some important parallels between these goals and those of the state humanities councils.