John KitchensDear President Obama:

I believe the most important, the most difficult and the most easily overlooked task for you is to redefine the purposes of education in the United States. Such a rearticulation must be very different from previous and present motives of education. Your inauguration on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day was an inspirational reminder of the historical significance of the event, and thus I begin this essay with advice from King.

He wrote that the purposes of education should go beyond critical thinking and toward objectives of social altruism. King warned that education that “stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society,” going on to suggest that the gifted criminal may have superb powers of reason and intelligence, but no morals.

This analogy was similarly employed by the American philosopher and educational theorist John Dewey (1859-1952). Both of these men were making a distinction between using reason and intelligence toward destructive self-interest versus education that leads to beneficial social contributions. However, we do not need extreme examples of criminality to differentiate between self-interested education that is deleterious to society and that which contributes to social amelioration.

Although there were differences, both King and Dewey thought that the purposes of education should transcend self-interest to serve larger goals of community development. But these have not been the predominant ideas guiding education over the last century. Instead, the spirit of competition and efficiency has prevailed. It would be too easy to paint these features as inherently inimical, but when social objectives are not attached to educative goals, then the accomplishment of these goals can materialize in any form, however positive or negative to society. That is, while competition and efficiency may be valuable characteristics, they should not be the ends of education. Too often efficiency eclipses broader social purposes, especially as emphases on accountability and standardization reduce learning to test-taking and numerical assessments of intelligence.

My advice is to rearticulate the purposes of education emphasizing social altruism and service to community, not as a symbolic gesture reserved for only a few days out of the year, but as a continuing commitment to our nation and all of humanity.

Furthermore, widely held beliefs of education as the great equalizer and peoples’ faith in the meritocracy have often served to demonize those who get left behind in the race of efficiency. But perhaps most pernicious is the emphases on individual achievement and competitiveness as one’s ability to keep up with (or do better than) the Joneses. Many will argue that not only is such acquisitive me-ism unsustainable, but it also deflects energy from other possible goals of education, particularly those built on cooperation and community.

Or as King put it, “We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles, rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity.” My advice, President Obama, is to rearticulate the purposes of education emphasizing social altruism and service to community, not as a symbolic gesture reserved for only a few days out of the year, but as a continuing commitment to our nation and all of humanity.

Schools should not only be the catalyst for such ideological change, but also the location for its material germination. As such, equality in education must be a priority for the new administration, and national standards should have less to do with performance on tests and more to do with minimal standards regarding resources and support. As Dewey said, what any parent would want for their own child, so should we want for all children.

President Obama, you must understand that mandating standards without equitable funding creates punitive systems of education, and current forms of high-stakes testing too often pit student against student, and eventually citizen against citizen. The struggling economy will likely renew the sense of competition and education for the sake of occupational gain, while a sober look at the number of jobs available in the near future will reveal the futility of these motivations. However entrenched these ideas about education are in the minds of Americans, it diminishes the creative spirit of humanity to think that our ingenuity is dependent upon competition. It also tends to marginalize other important human resources that aren’t definitely valued by efficiency or occupational practicality, for example the arts.

In addition to ensuring the necessary funding, your most difficult challenge regarding schools will be to rearticulate the values of education in contrast to individual economic gain and toward cooperative learning and service.

In doing so, schools could become centers of communities, providing services such as health care, social work and adult education. They could become sites of artistic production and civic discourse as well as building networks within neighborhoods, cities and states, and otherwise help to sustain community in the tough economic times ahead.