How many times have you as a parent been faced with your child’s question, “Why do I have to learn this?” Some times it comes in the midst of a late night homework assignment. Or if you are a teacher, the question may be, “Why do I have to know this?” Or even a more pointed question is, “Do I have to know this for the test?”

How many times have you as a parent been faced with your child’s question, “Why do I have to learn this?” Some times it comes in the midst of a late night homework assignment. Or if you are a teacher, the question may be, “Why do I have to know this?” Or even a more pointed question is, “Do I have to know this for the test?”
Many times the student and the teacher become exasperated in trying  to navigate their own ideas of American education in today’s world.
What are the essential elements of education in society today? Why is education so very important in American life? Since the beginning of our history, Americans have believed education was the great equalizer. Education had the ability to put a person on par with the elite of society. If one was not born into wealth and prestige, at least education could provide the avenue where one could ascend to such levels. The great guru who espoused this philosophy was Horace Mann.
In his words, “Educating the poor masses would elevate their lot in life.” Since Mann is such an esteemed leader in public education, I tried to see if he could cast some light on today’s education challenges.
Mann believed acquiring practical knowledge was to gain power. I was somewhat surprised to know that the first responsibility of schooling was to provide for a moral education. Education fails if it does not see how this information can be used to help human beings.
Mann said this, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
Now will any of this rationale for education help satisfy your young student who is just trying to complete his homework assignment? Probably not. In other words, what is absolutely essential for a modern education today?
Several generations ago it was deemed necessary to have knowledge of the classics. Good penmanship also was critical to being an educated person. Were any of these notions imperative to acquiring a job? Was this the way to climb up the social ladder? Or was this the best way to learn the skills of citizenship?
Could democracy survive unless each generation was taught the basics of a representative form of government? These are questions that educators are still wrestling with. How much classical education is needed by someone who will become an accomplished auto mechanic, a construction worker, or a home builder? Does our educational system provide for a multitude of diverse talents and creative energies? So often it seems that we have been intent on turning out an assembly line of students who have the same credentials. I believe educators are recognizing these differences today. It appears that schools must always face this challenge.
You might be surprised to know that Horace Mann set some requirements for a well-rounded education. They included the study of spelling, arithmetic, music, and physical education. The essentials for an education today may not be the same as in the beginning of our country. Or are they similar? In other words, are there some requirements in education which remain the same throughout history? How can we know what society will need in the future? How can the past guide us to solving the future needs of our society?
In a recent publication of Time magazine, the editors explored the subject of what the class of 2025 will need to know. What will be their methods of learning? Technology will continue to be the driving force in our culture. It was stated how graduates today have not acquired some of the information we always thought was very important. The knowledge of the Constitution, the Classics, and critical thinking skills were woefully lacking. Those specific pieces of knowledge may not be necessary for a well- paying job in today’s world, but is that knowledge necessary for a free and democratic society? We have many examples throughout history where the lack of such information has led to a gross violation of individual rights and abuses of justice. It is a sobering thought that every generation must be taught about the strengths of its civilization. There are no guarantees when it comes to passing down our cultural values.
Education is the means by which we can transmit the values we hold dear.
The more effective means would be the strength of our families. On top of that many families are in crisis now. Preparing our young people for the next set of challenges is no easy task. The responsibility of such a goal rests with all of us. It becomes an even greater obligation when none of us knows exactly what the future will require. Working together as a community will help us prepare each other for the future needs of our society.