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Are We Obsessed By A “21st Century” Education?

Students should be active and informed citizens of a democracy, no matter the century

By David Greene

What if the mayhem going on presently in the United States was not in 2017? What if this was actually 1968 or 2087? Would we keep labeling our educational needs “21st century”? Maybe this is actually the 58th century, as it is in the Hebrew Calendar, or the 48th, as it is in the Chinese? Do we need a “58th Century” or “48th Century” education? Why do we have to label change as such?

Humans evolve. Institutions evolve. Technology evolves. Schools are institutions where pre-adult humans are socialized to successfully evolve into adult humans. No calendar governs this process. Only evolution does. However, as these evolutions take place there are some things that must remain constant.

One of those is the goal of an American education.

“The original function of American public schools was not only to produce skilled workers for a market economy, but also intelligent participants in America’s experiment in self-governance. In the 1930s, when dangerous demagogues were taking power throughout the world, Franklin D. Roosevelt noted that “democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” -Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation

Roosevelt was not referring to a 20th century education. The ancient Athenians didn’t refer to Plato, Socrates, or Aristotle as leaders of 4th or 3rd century learning (BC of course).

Better yet, let’s look at what a modern “18th century education” was to our founders.

“Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country.” -Noah Webster

“Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance on the preservation of our liberty.”

“[T]he tax which will be paid for this purpose [education] is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.” -Thomas Jefferson

“What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of liberty and learning, each leaning on each other for their mutual and surest support.”  -James Madison

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.” “There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.” -John Adams


The “21st Century” education that has “college and career readiness” as its goals shortchanges both our students and our nation. Education should not be about getting the highest paying job possible, or simply being technologically astute. Our education in 2017 must do what education has always done: prepare our youngest to be active and informed citizens of a democracy.  

Further Reading
  1. openDemocracy – “Democracy and Equality: Does Education Matter ?”
  2. The Fresno Bee – Democracy can be in danger without virtue and education
  3. The Grand Island Independent – Election process, civic education vital in democracy
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