The Nature of College by James Farrell


The Dangers of Education

In his 1992 book Earth in Mind, David Orr lamented that

We are currently preparing to launch yet another of our periodic national crusades to improve education. I am in favor of improving education, but what does it mean to improve education and what great ends will that improved education serve? The answer now offered from high places is that we must equip our youths to compete in the world economy. The great fear is that we will not be able to produce as many automobiles, VCRs, digital TVs, or supercomputers as the Japanese or Europeans. In contrast, I worry that we will compete all too effectively on an earth already seriously overstressed by the production of things economists count and too little production of things that are not easily countable such as well-loved children, good cities, healthy forests, stable climate, healthy rural communities, sustainable family farms, and diversity of all sorts. Many of the educational reforms now being proposed have little to do with the goals of personal wholeness, or the pursuit of truth and understanding, and even less to do with the great issues of how we might live within the limits of the earth.  The reformers aim to produce people whose purposes and outlook are narrowly economic, not to educate citizens and certainly not “citizens of the biotic community.”

Twenty years later, the rhetoric of education is much the same. President Obama asks for innovative education to “win the future” for the United States. The President knows, of course, that the future includes green technology and ecological design, and his administration is nudging the American people, including resistant Republicans, in the direction of a sustainable society. But what’s notable, as Orr suggests, how little we address the deeper issues of culture, including the critical question of “how much is too much?” What about the things that really count (but aren’t counted) like healthy children and families, cities with pedestrian neighborhoods, a healthy rural economy, and the personal fulfillment that comes from sacrifice for something larger than the self and the nuclear family? What about civic engagement, and the practice of citizenship, which presumes that “we, the people” can use our government not just to reduce taxes but to nudge us toward a better world? And what about educating students who know how to live within the limits of the earth? That would be educational reform worth working for.