This spring, roughly 20,000 young people are graduating from our county's high schools, community colleges and universities, having been awarded diplomas and degrees that pronounce them educated. The obvious question becomes: What is the definition of an educated person? Does this degree pronounce these students as educated persons?
So much time is spent talking by our school boards, administrators, teachers and community members, civilly and otherwise, about the process of educating young people that we tend to lose focus on what we should expect from the system that spends roughly 40 percent of the state's general fund budget, as well as billions of other dollars from the federal government, private foundations and companies tuition, and other sources.
We speak in very general terms about how or whether schools are preparing young people to become successful adults, as if that construct by itself provides a clear focus. It doesn't. Beyond the assumption that successful adults should know how to read, express themselves and do basic mathematics, educators, employers, and parents often falter when asked to be more specific and demanding about what it takes to be successful in the early years of the 21st Century. If basic reading, writing and arithmetic were all it takes to succeed, we should be able to prepare youngsters to be successful adults well before they reach their teens, well under the 13 years we now spend getting them through high school.
That is not the case, however. To succeed today, our young people need far more than basic literacy and arithmetic skills.
The late American educator Ernest Boyer who, among his many career distinctions, headed the Carnegie Foundation, once wrote that "above all, being an educated person means being guided by values and beliefs and connecting the lessons of the classroom to the realities of life." His vision of education extended far beyond the process of accumulating knowledge and learning basic academic skills.
Along with learning the values and ethics that are fundamental to our society, it is the ability to connect those principles with reality that makes the educated person.
Many reform measures now taking place in our public schools today place considerable attention on literacy, certainly a necessary emphasis considering the high numbers of young people graduating from our high schools who can barely read and write. Nothing happens in the making of an educated person until he or she is basically literate. However, the question is: Are we doing enough beyond inculcating those basic skills into minds of our students to, in reality, truly educate them?
Educating people to be successful in tomorrow's world is not an easy undertaking and certainly not one that we can replicate from how young people were educated in the past. In earlier times, when change was less rapid, it was possible to predict with reasonable accuracy the knowledge, skills and aptitudes students would need. That has not been the case for some time now. Today, the knowledge explosion, along with drastic social, political, and economic changes taking place worldwide, make it impossible to predict exactly what knowledge future generations will need to function effectively.
As a result, education that prepares young people to be "successful" is far more than the accumulation of a static base of knowledge. It has become a much more fluid process. And, it needs to become even more so. We already know that not all students learn the same way and in the same period of time. There is no singular teaching strategy that works for all students. To lay the proper basis for educating all students to be successful adults, schools will need to become much more flexible in developing tailored programs to teach students with different aptitudes and needs.
Formal education as it is presently constructed has not guaranteed that its graduates will live successful and productive lives. There are so many college graduates, even those with post-graduate degrees, who are working in positions where their knowledge far exceeds the qualifications of the job because they lack the skills to help them connect this education to real-life circumstances. One can only wonder if many of these young people would have found effective ways to apply their classroom learning had there been more arts, music, drama, science, languages, vocational arts and project-based learning in their earlier educational experiences.
Truly educated persons will emerge from the initial phase of their education much more flexible and adaptable than their predecessors. They will have learned that they will need to continue to gain additional knowledge after they graduate and are involved in their careers. And, they will know how to do so, using intuitive, discovery, and analytical skills that are connected to their basic skill learning. Schools and other educational centers will have to become innovative through designing and presenting courses and bodies of knowledge that are interesting, connected, relevant, and appropriate. And, it should go without saying that students will have to be able to apply and communicate effectively what they have learned.
Today and tomorrow's educated young person is not going to approach his or her work or tasks the same way people have done in the past. The making of an educated person is the making of a person with a fresh approach who uses their knowledge to effect dramatic, thoughtful changes and opportunities in our world. So let's take a moment and think, are we teaching our young people in our schools today to become an "educated" person?
Hovenic, Ed.D is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org