In the United States the current purpose of schooling is expressed in the mission statement at the U.S. Department of Education website: to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access. Is this mission sufficient and appropriate for students whose future is threatened by global problems they will be required to address? Might they be better served by a more meaningful and comprehensive mission that includes learning to solve the challenges they will face?
Climate change is not a future possibility; it is happening now, with catastrophic impacts on humans and nonhumans alike. Human population continues to grow, and of the nearly 8 billion people in the world, more than 700 million live in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 per day and approximately 40 million are living in slavery. While disenfranchised groups have gained critical legal rights and protections, racism, sexism, homophobia/transphobia and other forms of oppression and prejudice persist not only in the hearts and minds of individuals but within institutional structures. Animals, too, are facing horrific exploitation and cruelty. Tens of billions of land animals and trillions of sea animals suffer and die each year as part of an unsustainable and inhumane global food system. Meanwhile, misinformation, disinformation, and polarization impact our ability to accurately identify and collaboratively address these and other challenges.
Henry David Thoreau once said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Because the education of children is the root system underlying other societal systems, it is critical that we reexamine and shift the purpose of schooling. If schools were actually successful at achieving the current U.S. Department of Education’s mission – so that graduates were all able to compete effectively in the global economy – these young people would likely perpetuate and perhaps even escalate the global challenges we face. However, if we embrace a mission more worthy of our children and their future – to prepare them to be engaged and knowledgeable solutionaries for an equitable, humane, and sustainable world – we will have a purpose that propels us toward a deeply meaningful and relevant education that benefits both youth and all on Earth. Our children are far more likely to be successful and happy if they have the knowledge, skills, and motivation to effectively address and solve the problems they will face through whatever careers and jobs they choose to pursue. Just as what harms our world harms our children, what benefits our world benefits our children. This is why we must commit to educating a generation of solutionaries.