So much is said about the process of educating young people that we tend to overlook the outcome of what education can bring to our society. We tend to measure the quality of education through test scores and performance indices that tell us more about the content and process by which we teach our children than all the ways a quality education can impact our future.
Year's end is a fitting time to step back and assess all the impacts education creates in our culture -- beyond preparing young people to be employable in the work force. Second only to providing for a common defense, education is the most important societal function we as a people do collectively. We spend billions of dollars in California in the public sector for our residents to attend pre-kindergarten through college, even more if you include private schools at all levels.
So education had better be more than a vocational preparation or mastering the "3 Rs." If basic reading, writing and arithmetic were all it takes to educate our society, we could -- and should -- be able to teach our youngsters to be successful well under the 13 years we now spend getting them through the elementary and middle grades, into and out of high school. That is not the case, however. To succeed as an educated society, its members need far more than basic literary and arithmetic skills.
Being an educated society means, in the words of the late American educator Ernest Boyer, "being guided by values and beliefs and connecting the lessons of the classroom to the realities of life."
What are those "realities of life" that Boyer and others refer to when they speak of the value of an educated society? Obviously, the first one that comes to mind is the capacity for people to engage in productive work and support themselves and their families. But that in itself is little more than survival thinking, limited to acquiring just enough education and training to sustain themselves. People who are limited to only being capable of supporting themselves cannot contribute to what's beyond their own economic campfire. Fending only for one's self is not how our institutions of learning, healing and the arts as well as our cities and other collective assets were built. As an educated society, we are a large and relatively singular group, not a cluster of small, individual survival circles.
How does education equip people to contribute beyond their individual economic livelihoods and, in doing so, contribute to the betterment of all?
An educated society provides individuals who are engaged in our democratic process. Educated people are better equipped to ask questions and express opinions on issues and political positions and are more inclined to vote.
Likewise, those who are better educated are also better equipped to serve in public office. We live in an increasingly complex society in which there are monumental problems in transportation, water quality and availability, housing, energy sufficiency, health care -- to name but a few. These and other issues require an educated ability to analyze and develop thoughtful solutions. Future leaders will need to have been taught to understand, analyze and debate our community, state and nation's issues of government.
What about innovation, taking risks and building value? Every one of us benefits from new technology, companies, employers, products and services that came about by people who were given the education to think beyond their own needs, outside the box. That trend needs to continue.
There are individuals in an advanced society who are willing and capable of supporting our society's many worthwhile performing and fine arts. A quality education must provide an appreciation of these invaluable cultural resources.
An educated society produces citizens who are engaged in charitable causes and philanthropy. That requires resources beyond one's own needs and desires. Not only does education equip people to amass surplus resources to help others, it's likely that today's philanthropists were inspired during their own education to become contributors to the public good through learning about others who have gone before them.
Preparing people for today's educated society is not an easy undertaking, and can't be replicated from how young people were educated a generation ago. Today, the knowledge explosion, along with drastic social, political, technological and economic changes make it impossible to look to yesterday or even today to determine what will comprise the educated society of the future.
The making of tomorrow's educated society requires the making of educated individuals today who will know how to use knowledge to effect dramatic, thoughtful changes and opportunities that will impact their society and the world as a whole. The obvious question: Are today's public schools using every opportunity to train tomorrow's educated society?
Hovenic 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. E-mail her at email@example.com.