Contemporary education offers a cacophony of approaches that go beyond academic knowledge—social and emotional learning, 21st century skills, well-being, whole child education, civic education, character education, formative education, and others. Everyone believes that young people should learn some academic knowledge and that education should help prepare them for work. But the proliferation of alternatives reveals a widespread hunger to treat children as whole human beings whose development cannot be reduced to narrow academic competencies or measured through even narrower assessments. Contemporary education’s focus on knowledge and skills does not prepare young people to lead worthwhile lives. But how should education be expanded beyond academic knowledge and vocational skills? I offer a simple taxonomy for navigating the many alternatives.
First, does the approach treat education as an instrumental means to a narrow end? Social, emotional and problem-solving skills are important. We would all like young people to recognize their own and others’ emotional reactions, build productive relationships with others, and become collaborative, creative problem solvers. But why should they have these skills? Most answer: these skills will help them get better jobs, earn more money, and be happier. Money, jobs and happiness are often good things, but education must be more than an instrument to reach ends like these. “Social and emotional learning” and “21st century skills” are salutary, but they will not satisfy our hunger for a deeper education.
Second, does the approach focus on fragments of human beings or does it integrate multiple dimensions of human development? Our mainstream educational system overemphasizes the cognitive and vocational. Critics correctly point out that civic life is important because we want respectful, just, humane communities. Bodily health is important. Character is important, as are interpersonal relationships and emotional stability. But we do not want to replace a narrow focus on academic knowledge with a narrow focus on civic, bodily, interpersonal, moral, emotional or other functions. It is crucial to attend to other aspects of young people’s development, but not as a set of discrete competencies disconnected from each other. Our emotions, politics, morals and relationships are connected. If young people are to flourish, we must help them integrate these aspects of themselves.
Third, does the approach imagine developing individuals in social and natural contexts? Some approaches envision either integrated individual functioning or more just, integrated social systems. Some approaches to virtue and character, for instance, provide compelling visions of how young people can flourish by developing and integrating intellectual, emotional, relational and other dispositions. But humans inevitably function within societies and the natural world—depending on them for sustenance, shelter, language, norms, and technologies. Educating individuals requires a normative account of the social and natural contexts that make individual development possible. On the other hand, many educational approaches that focus on a more just social world fail to understand the heterogeneity and developmental needs of the people who constitute society, treating individuals as mere precipitates of social “structure.” More adequate approaches must facilitate the development of heterogeneous individuals within changing social and natural contexts.
Finally, does the approach help young people imagine themselves within an ethical or spiritual world? Whether religious or not, humans are called to participate in a larger ethical order. Life becomes meaningful when we can imagine our efforts contributing to some larger good. At Boston College we practice “formative education,” guiding young people to become more whole human beings living purposeful lives with others in community. This does not involve indoctrination. It is not our place as educators in a heterogeneous society to tell young people what vision of the ethical order they should adopt. But we demand that they ask the questions: what will give my life meaning and purpose? what does the world need me to do?
The proliferation of educational approaches that move beyond academic knowledge and skills is a good sign. But we must not settle for approaches that are instrumental, proposing a broader set of knowledge and skills merely as means to pursue jobs, status or momentary happiness. We must not settle for fragmented visions of human development that aim to develop admirable but separate competencies. We must not settle for integrated visions of human development that ignore the social contexts that partly constitute individuals, nor for visions of just society that treat individuals as mere instantiations of social categories. We must educate so that young people become more integrated human beings who create purposeful lives together with others.
Stanton E.F. Wortham, Ph.D., is the Charles F. Donovan, S.J., Dean of the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College