on educating citizens


This post has been simmering on the backburner for nearly a month. It's about time I gave it some attention. The problem is, I'm not really in the mood to finish it. But I will make my best attempt.

Certain things alarm me. One such thing is ignorance, another is bone-headed attempts to save money at the risk of significant cultural and cognitive change (so I guess there is really only one thing). This rant is inspired by my being alarmed... alarmed by the news of the Terminator's plan to phase out school text books in favour of internet aids and by the passing of Bill 44 (a topic I've avoided discussing until now because it depresses me so). All this on the heels on my attempts to write a more positively flavoured post about some of the more encouraging stories I've read lately (The Equity Project, A New Liberal Arts). But since I have to start somewhere I'll start with the good news (and perhaps even just end there too).

Somewhere, buried under a series of useless status updates and vanity posts on facebook and twitter, there exists a link to TED lecture given by Bennington College President Elizabeth Coleman about reforming higher education, moving away from increasingly narrow areas of study to a truly cross-disciplinary education, one that dynamically combines all areas of study to address the great problems of our day. Is this just a lofty goal or much needed radical rethinking of education?

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It seems forever ago that I watched this particular video, but at the time I was mindful enough to write down some of Liz Coleman's comments that I found most thought provoking, particularly what she had to say about civic consciousness. Perhaps it has been my recent immersion in the world of municipal politics, but I've been thinking recently about what makes a good citizen and the role that education plays in shaping that good citizen.
Civic consciousness and behavior are formed at the intersection of study and engagement - reflection and action - and in public settings where difference and conflict are plentiful and treated as assets, instead of liabilities.
Although Coleman later related these comments to a post-secondary context, I don't see the harm in looking at them in the more general terms, for example the public school system. After all, what should public school be other than the ultimate form of general studies preparing us for life. I don't think it's far fetched to wish that education be used as a way to develop good citizens. And I don't just mean devoting a small portion of the social studies curriculum to civics. Being a good citizen is more than just understanding how decisions are made - it's also about being able to deal with conflict and difference and still being able to make society function. And dealing with these issues does not include segregating ourselves or escaping into a cocoon of ignorance. But isn't that exactly what Bill 44 allows? What is wrong with a little bit of controversy? And who determines what is controversial? Why do we have no trust in our educators?

I had more planned for this post, but it's getting late and I think the topic of Schwarzenegger and the textbook ban is deserving of its own rant. I have more to say about the plan for a new liberal arts too, but this topic is almost a bit too intellectual for me to process at the moment. I have other things on my mind. But as always, the benefit of this blog is that I can stop and start writing about things as I please.