The Purpose of Education in a Time of Quiet Crisis

This week will mark the 20th anniversary of Mr. Fitz, the comic strip. I won’t be having a party.

It goes without saying that we are living through a strange and historic time right now – including in education. My spring break ends tonight, and tomorrow I take the first steps into the world of online teaching and learning. My school district is tentatively set to reopen on April 15th – but I have to wonder if I have seen the last of my students, face-to-face, for this school year.

My teaching year in 9th grade English is focused around one major inquiry question for the year: What is the purpose of education? It’s a question I don’t think we as adults ask often enough. I want my students to think about it, not only to frame our reading and writing and discussion, but because I think really thinking about the question and finding their own answers to it might just make some of them more motivated to learn, and some of them less obsessed with grades and more obsessed with learning itself.

But the question has taken on new urgency. All of the usual purposes that motivate everyone – most of them fear and punishment based – are vanishing in a puff of virus. No state testing. No end-of-course exams. Diplomas will be granted without such requirements. Without those end-goals, why are we teaching? To teach the standards? In Florida we are in a very particular Twilight Zone: We have just adopted our new B.E.S.T. Standards to take the place of the old Florida Standards (Common Core Standards tweaked and renamed). Because of the need to come up with a new test (The B.E.S.T. Test!, I’ll assume), we won’t actually be adopting our new standards for at least three more years. So our current students have to suffer through three more years of standards that our legislators say are terrible just so we can get a test ready? Well – at least this year’s students won’t have to take the test…

So the questions persist. What is our purpose when there are no tests to prep for? We are moving instruction online. How will we ensure equity? If students feel like they have enough credits to graduate or move to the next grade, how motivated will they feel to do the online work?

As educational institutions, we tend to talk about tests and scores, grades and credits, graduation rates and diplomas. We are here, ultimately, to help students get a credential – a diploma – that supposedly shows they are educated. Here’s what we talk less about: why does that credential matter? Why does an education matter? What does it do for you?

This is an important moment. Our usual purposes for education have been swept away for the rest of the school year. We have a teachable moment before us. A pandemic is a chance to talk about real purposes for education, both practical and philosophical.

Doesn’t Math gain new relevance when we are talking about exponential growth and flattening the curve? Doesn’t history matter when we compare this pandemic to pandemics of the past, like the flu of 1918? Isn’t science more important than ever right now, especially when much of our current culture, right up to the highest levels of government, tries to sideline science with conspiracy theories? Don’t the messages and questions raised by literature offer us lenses for viewing how we treat other people in a time of stress and scarcity? Doesn’t writing offer us a way to try to make sense of what is happening?

We have a teachable moment where we can make education, learning itself, the most important thing in the world. Not grades, not tests, not scores, not gains, not diplomas, not credentials, not data and statistics. These things take on a life of their own and become the defacto purposes for education. But now we have a chance to open a discussion about what education is for – and who it’s for. Not for legislators and textbook and testing companies. Education is for students – for future citizens of the world.

Will we use this opportunity to talk about the real purposes of education, or will we give students ready-made online lessons designed by a vendor and squander this opportunity?

Sadly, I suspect I know the answer.