This year’s university forum, entitled “Reimagining School: To Nurture the Soul of a Nation,” sought to “explore the profound and challenging questions that shaped the national debate about K-12 education, which has a dramatic impact on the future of American civil society.”
University President Father John Jenkins, CSC, initiated the Forum in 2005 as a way to engage the entire campus, faculty and student body, in conversation about one issue for the academic year. Since that time the university has discussed sustainability, global health, and immigration, among other topics.
Now it may be a personal bias – I am a senior who recently finished the Education, Schooling, and Society (ESS) minor which explores these very issues – but I have found this year’s forum far more successful than any of the others in the past 4 years at shaping a yearlong discussion.
The university hosted or was involved with 17 events related to this year’s conversation. These events ranged in content and voice. The university hosted big names in the national scene of education policy like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and noted academics and authors like Pauline Lipman and Suzanne Wilson.
The campus heard controversial figures like current president of American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, and Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp. Mixed with these individuals who steer education from offices and advocacy work were others who gave the “in the trenches,” or at least “in the classroom,” perspective. Offering this viewpoint were local South Bend teachers, the superintendent of the Palo Alto Unified School District, and the documentary American Teacher.
I certainly did not attend every event, but a consensus emerged from those that I did: America’s children do deserve a quality education. The differences evident confirmed what I had begun to realize over my three years of ESS classes.
This first point may seem obvious, but people do not always agree about the means of delivering a quality education. Public schools, private, charters, vouchers, mandates, accountability, more testing, less testing, merit pay, breakfast programs, magnet schools, technology, alternative teacher certification programs, smaller classrooms, administration…the issues are endless.
The second difference is less apparent. A trace of this disagreement lies within the very title of this year’s forum: “To Nurture the Soul of a Nation.” Is that what the goal of education is? Do we educate for the country’s sake? Or do we educate, perhaps, for the individual’s sake? What about the economy? What is the purpose of education, and what end are we hoping to achieve?
During the first semester of my sophomore year, still fairly bright-eyed, I took a class for the ESS minor called “Introduction to Education, Schooling, and Society.” Our professor handed out the syllabus on the first day, and we learned for our final paper of the semester, we must answer the question, “What is the purpose of education?”
When I first read the question, I thought the answer to the question was obvious. I quickly realized, however, that I had no idea what the purpose of education was. Having spent a significant portion of the last three years thinking about that question, while listening to and reading the thoughts of others, like educational philosopher John Dewey, St. Augustine, and theologian Bernard Lonergan, I do have an answer.
Education provides the tools for questioning and reflection that allow a person to live a full human life—both in the material and spiritual sense—that a person may have greater opportunity to choose a career, and to choose how to spend his time. Education also initiates the individual into the quest for seeking that naturally culminates in recognition of the divine.
Acknowledging disagreement does not make it disappear, but it allows for productive and collaborative conversation. We saw attempts at this during one of the very first forum events, a panel discussion with Randi Weingarten, Wendy Kopp, Bishop Gerald Kicanas, chair of Catholic Relief Services and longtime advocate in education, and Juan Rangel, CEO of the United Neighborhood Organization, which runs numerous charter schools in Chicago. Although perfect agreement on this question is almost inconceivable, new discussion and cooperation will allow America to progress towards the one thing we agree upon—that all children deserve a high-quality education.
Contact Kelsey Clemson at email@example.com.