Education

From Cultural Maturity: A guidebook for the Future:

Essential leadership tasks: Educators have front-line responsibility in Cultural Maturity’s changes. They must teach the capacities necessary to life in a culturally mature world. They must also inspire the courage and commitment required for taking on the tasks of this needed greater maturity. In effect, they must work to make us all futurists.

With Chapter Five’s examination of the crux aspect of truth, I described how there is a sense in which education’s purpose has always been the same: to teach the skills and sensibilities needed to live aware and productive lives. But I also emphasized that what an aware and productive life requires has evolved, how with each stage in culture what such a life entails—and thus what effective education entails—becomes different.

Today, this has become the case in particularly consequential ways. Because education has essential implications for every other domain, bringing culturally mature perspective to understanding education’s place in culture’s story—and in particular, its future place—has special significance. Education’s necessary new bottom-line purpose follows directly from this book’s thesis. Education’s referent going forward must be to foster the capacities needed to live in—and create—a culturally mature world.
As with other domains, developmental/evolutionary perspective helps put education’s new defining task in context. Education’s cultural beginnings emphasized the body-centered learnings of nature and tribal ritual. Imagine a father, spear raised in his hand, hunting a lizard, his son behind him mimicking his movements (with no words spoken). From civilizations early rise to medieval times, education became increasingly moral and philosophical, for example, with monastic education. Education of a more specifically academic sort, with its emphasis on verbal/rational understanding and logical problem solving, is more recent. I’ve described how modern Western education derived its power through providing the literacy needed for democratic governance and the skills required for an industrial age.

Culturally mature education—education that educates for the capacities a culturally mature future will require—represents a further essential step. It is beyond our scope to go into great detail about the specifics of what such education might involve, but we can readily identify important pieces. Some of these pieces most concern the content of educations. With others, changes in how we approach education—education as process—have greatest significance

As far as education’s content, we should first note that such education appropriately includes some very traditional educational curriculun. Learning that focuses on established knowledge in diverse fields—history, science, literature, mathematics, and more—should have no less a place in times ahead. Future curriculum must also address essential abilities such as the skills needed to maneuver in a digital age that, while new, may often be largely technical in nature.

But there are also needed new learnings more particular to Cultural Maturity’s changes. Many follow directly from reflections in this book. If nothing else, the concept of Cultural Maturity argues for bringing the future more fully into education. Until now, education has emphasized what is and what has been. The present and the past continue to be just as important in a culturally mature reality, but arguably what most defines culturally mature education is the greater awareness and responsibility it brings to future concerns. Some of the best education I’ve observed uses grappling with particularly thorny future challenges as the starting point for more specific kinds of learning.
One of the most defining necessary changes in education follows from the pivotal recognition that the larger portion of challenges before us require systemic solutions. Education that can support a culturally mature future must be multidisciplinary. Not long ago, education that spanned disciplines was thought of as lacking rigor. Today we are better appreciating how education that does not span disciplines tends to be irrelevant.

If Cultural Maturity’s argument holds, we should also find each of our three threshold tasks increasingly informing the content of education. Better recognizing when ideological beliefs leave us short will be necessary to education’s ability to provide the needed completeness of perspective. Emphasizing the deep importance of limits will be essential to education that reflects not just knowledge, but mature—wise—understanding. And appreciating the need to bring both new responsibility and greater attention to nuance and contingency when it comes to the truths we apply will provide a necessary foundation for more specific learning.

And certainly something like the concept of Cultural Maturity—whatever language and characteristics we use to describe needed changes—must in some way infuse curriculum. Culturally mature education must be able not just to bring perspective to the larger human story, but also to help us understand the particular significance of our current time in that story. It must help us appreciate what is involved with being newly conscious in writing culture’s story and making culturally mature choices in all parts of our lives. The best of education will inspire because it effectively shines light on the profound importance of the times in which we live and the immense promise that successfully addressing today’s challenges holds for the future.

Much that will be most important for culturally mature education will have to do with educational process as much as the content of education. For example, we should find education focusing increasingly not just on the accumulation of information, but more and more on what we are able to do with it—on critiquing information and discerning where meaning lies, on applying information in ways that support collaboration, and on learning to use information wisely. In part, this shift will come from the simple fact that with the digital revolution makes information of all sorts more widely available—information has stopped being a scarcity. But it will also be driven by a growing need (and growing capacity) to engage information creatively—essential to a world in which change is ever-present and in which solutions must be not just multi-disciplinary and systemic, but also dynamic in their conception.

Some of the most import process-related changes in education follow from observations in these pages about the more here-and-now “multiplicity” aspects of truth. I’ve emphasized the importance of better bringing the whole of intelligence, not just our rationality, into both what we learn and how we learn. Multi-disciplinary learning of the depth we have interest in is impossible without it, as is ultimately addressing any question that requires systemic perspective. Appreciating that intelligence has multiple aspects challenges many of the most basic assumptions of modern academic education. Certainly it challenges how we think about what makes the answer to any question right. It also encourages the application of more dynamic and exploratory educational methods.

We also once again confront the critical importance of better appreciating individual differences—of all sorts. Education needs to be cognizant of how different people’s worlds of experience can be depending on their ethnicity, gender, or socio-economic background. And education represents the sphere where the particular significance of appreciating personality style diversity comes into highest relief. Education has made a start with regard to this specific sort of diversity by acknowledging that we don’t all learn in the same ways. But education has a very long way to go in recognizing how deeply we can be different at the level of temperament. Greater sensitivity to differences of all these sorts will be important both to better supporting each student’s unique contribution and to more deeply appreciating how differences can add to who we are together. (I’ve noted how learning that brings attention to the power of difference can start on day one.)

Cultural Maturity’s new picture inherently brings into question beliefs that with Transitional times have become commonplace in educational circles. One is the assumption that uniformity of instruction and “setting a high bar” will result in educational excellence. The use of uniform standards, with universal testing to demonstrate proficiency, has a place as a safety net for students and for identifying failing schools. But too great a use of such methods too easily translates into one-size-fits-all education that can undermine the depth and creativity in learning that the future will require. Education that successfully supports learning to take responsibility for the truths we apply and thinking in more complete ways must be able to tap into each learner’s passion for life and also be responsive to the very different ways a passion for life may manifests in different situations and with different students. Too often, in “setting a high bar,” we fail to apply the foresight and complexity of perspective needed to understand excellence in ways that can ultimately serve us.
Beyond these changes in educational content and teaching approach, I predict we will also witness dramatic changes in the basic structures in which education takes place in years ahead. We should see such changes both with higher education and with education for younger students, but for different reasons.

With higher education, the need for structural changes will come in part from developmental/evolutionary changes I’ve described. The lecture halls of times past tend not to be a good fit with highly interdisciplinary learning and with education that emphasizes process as much as content—education that is more hands-on and two-way. But structural changes in higher education will come as much from broader social and technological changes, in particular from spiraling costs and from the digital revolution. These factors should combine to drive us toward a very different kind of higher education picture, certainly a more multifaceted picture with multiple options available to different people depending on their needs.
It is likely that online education will, with time, make higher education as we have known it for most purposes seem simply antiquated. I am not at all suggesting that online education is somehow “the answer.” But even with fairly traditional content, 400 students and a professor in a university classroom is rarely a good use of resources. (The most common critique of online education is that it lacks personal contact. In fact, personal contact of any significant sort was lost years ago.) In my experience, approaches that in some way combine digital content with opportunities for face-face exchange will for most purposes provide the best results—for example, combining the best instructors in the world teaching electronically, with the use of small groups that meet together for more personal and in-depth inquiry.

In the far-off future, large universities will likely stop being the primary places where higher education takes place. Universities will also likely stop being the primary place where we certify learning. This additional shift has the potential to be even more transformative. It will benefit learning, certainly. When education and credentialing becomes separate processes, learning can be acquired in varied ways without penalty. It will also support society deriving the greatest benefiting from learning. When employers draw on more diverse measures than simply degrees, the result ultimately is a more multi-faceted and dynamic—and in potential more educated—workforce.

Changes ahead with education for life’s earlier years should be just as dramatic. Here the needed new picture is more specifically dependant on Cultural Maturity’s changes. It starts with the recognition that education that prepares young people for the future will often be costly. I’ve proposed that just “ raising the bar” does not produce higher-quality education. Countries with the best educational systems give teachers high status and spend generously on education. Additional ingredients important to the culturally mature education of young people do not come cheap—for example, making education more dynamic and exploratory; engaging learning at the level of purpose; and being more deeply responsive to human differences. Culturally mature education for young people will requires making education a very high societal priority—a significantly higher priority than we do currently, at least in the United States.

We legitimately ask how we can afford this new picture. The answer necessarily lies in the larger question of how we view children and their importance. I find it striking how blind we can be to the gap that exists between the idealized way we often speak about children and our behavior when it comes to creating environments that really serve them. I think of this gap as an important further example of Transitional Absurdity. Transitional dynamics inherently distance us from childhood experience and what makes it particular.
If this is an accurate way of understanding what we see, then there is also good news. We should expect the cognitive changes that come with Cultural Maturity to help us better appreciate both the sensibilities that make childhood unique, and the unique contributions that young people bring to our lives. The needed priorities should follow.