It is satisfying to read a book that examines education without claiming to be an education book. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered feels fresh and inspiring, despite having been around since the early 1970s. In it, British economist E.F. Schumacher attempts to address fundamental questions, as opposed to dwelling on the politics around nonessential issues, even the politics around the politics.
Schumacher argues that education will only help society if it helps that society become wiser. And we get wiser by thinking first about where we want to go (i.e., know-what), not how to get there. Today, the education world seems focused on the latter. Science, technology, engineering, all teach know-how. But who is concerned with the know-what? In my view, efforts like the Albert Shanker Institute’s "Call for Common Content" are a step in this direction.
Schumacher points out that we often look at education as the answer to all kinds of problems. "[A]ll history – as well as all current experience – points to the fact that it is man, not nature, who provides the primary resource: that the key factor of all economic development comes out of the mind of man." If our civilization is in a state of crisis "it is not far-fetched to suggest that there may be something wrong with its education." We believe that for every new challenge ahead there ought to be a scientific and technological solution: more and better education will solve all problems to come. Yet, with all of our scientific and technological advances, our social problems still seem intractable. Why is that?
According to Schumacher, science and engineering produce know-how, but the task of education should lie first and foremost with the know-what – the transmission of ideas of value so that we know what to do (with the know-how). Thus, Schumacher argues that a science and technology-focused education system can be like a dead-end street – "know-how is nothing by itself; it is a means without an end."
In the Shanker Institute’s "Call for Common Content," the signatories urge the nation to answer the question "it has avoided for generations: what is it, precisely, that we expect all educated citizens to have learned?" In other words, we need an open conversation about what matters to us substantively.
We live in a time of information overload, data-driven, evidence-based, measurement frenzy. We have become so lost in a web of technicalities that central questions often fly way below the radar. It is not so much overspecialization that is the problem; it is a failure to question and clarify our fundamental convictions and assumptions.
Without an agreement on what matters – and a curriculum based on a common core is, in essence, just that – we will continue to focus all of our education on questions of know-how. But isn’t it time to arrive at a core vision for who we are as a nation and where we want to go as a society – then to set about organizing our school systems in a manner that reflects and transmits these values and aspirations? Without this, I fear that the ideal of a quality education for all will forever remain a vague and unrealized dream.
- Esther Quintero