Education for the 21st Century

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With dismal regularity, we return to efforts to improve K-12 education. These efforts usually fail because education is conceived narrowly as schooling. Yet improvements to schools do not necessarily correspond to an improvement in the education of children. Whether or not children will learn does not depend primarily on what happens in school, but on the experiences, habits, values, and ideas they acquire from the environment in which they live.

Whether or not children will learn does not depend primarily on what happens in school, but on the experiences, habits, values, and ideas they acquire from the environment in which they live.

Another limitation of schools is that they concern themselves almost exclusively with the development of cognitive skills, or the passing along of factual knowledge and—at best—critical-thinking abilities. Knowledge of facts and how to interpret them will not result in an educated population unless some wisdom—or the goals and priorities that justify the use of knowledge—is also acquired. Thus, instead of concentrating exclusively on schools as the sites for change, we must take into account the broader processes involved in formative education.

Formative education (what Germans call Bildung) is the result of a continuous process of interaction between individuals and the environment. Children are formed by their experiences with parents, teachers, peers, and even strangers on the street, and by the sport teams they play for, the shopping malls they frequent, the songs they hear, and the shows they watch. The citizens of the new century will be a product of these various social forces. Schools, while certainly important, contribute only a relatively modest fraction to the education of the young.

For instance, American adolescents (12 to 13 years of age) spend about 20 percent of their waking time studying in school or at home. They spend almost as much time (18 percent) just being with friends, 6 percent watching television, 4 percent playing games and sports, 2 percent listening to music, and 3 percent reading magazines and books. Each of these experiences contributes to the shaping of the young person's mind and character, sometimes vastly out of proportion to the time spent in the activity. One song heard on the radio or one conversation with a friend can have a more profound effect on a child's future than a thousand hours spent in school.

The social environment is perhaps even more crucial for a young person's future development. Most of the time, adolescents are either alone (26 percent) or with friends (34 percent) and classmates (19 percent). Very little time is spent in the company of adults. The typical American adolescent spends only about five minutes a day alone with his or her father—not nearly enough to transmit the wisdom and values that are necessary for the continuation of a civil society. Even less time is spent in a one-on-one interaction with a teacher or other adult.

These facts are particularly significant when considered in conjunction with the rapid technological changes and consequent changes in lifestyle of the past few centuries, and especially of the last few decades. During most of human evolution, life experiences remained stable. Human groups could observe which practices had positive consequences for the formation of the young and which had negative ones. This slowly accumulating knowledge could then be applied to education in a way that was relatively effective given the stage of development of the society. But since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, the life experience of young people has been transformed again and again, and we have not had a chance to evaluate and understand the impact of these changes on the formation of individuals.

Market forces direct those who provide for the needs of young people to produce goods and services that are clearly against the best interests of young consumers.

What are the effects of "age segregation" on young people? Do children and adolescents who spend their time primarily with their peers develop a less binding sense of responsibility than those who spend more time with adults? How do consumption patterns affect character development? Do young people with disciplined consumption habits have different values from those whose consumption is unrestrained? How does the amount and kind of television viewing affect the education of young people? How can we help young people lead lives that are full of energy, joy, and meaning, when their lifestyles encourage passivity, boredom, and alienation?

Of course, it is extremely difficult to answer such questions in a scientifically valid fashion. Because it is neither possible nor desirable to perform controlled experiments that may have drastic effects on the subject's life, the study of such issues must be restricted to observations and to naturally occurring experiments (such as recording the effects of the introduction of television in a community that had no access to it before). But without performing controlled experiments, it is very difficult to separate causes from effects. For example, restrained consumption is likely to be the result of family values, so if a child with disciplined habits has different values it may be impossible to say whether those values are caused by his consumption habits or by previously existing family values.

Despite such very real difficulties, it is becoming rather clear, even in the absence of controlled experiments, that many of the trends taking place are deleterious to the education of youth: Heavy television viewing and academic achievement do not mix. Spending too much time with peers does not bode well for later adjustment to productive adult roles. Gangs may fill the need for identity and discipline, but in the process they can destroy entire neighborhoods.

The only convincing argument is the one made by example. It is for this reason that the isolation of young people from adults has such tragic consequences.

We do have many bits and pieces of knowledge about the forces that shape children's lives. But we lack a total picture, a workable blueprint that could serve for a societal intervention that is more than a local, partial solution. For this latter purpose, it is essential to lay down the foundations of a comprehensive study of the various forces that shape the hearts and minds of our children. Of course, much money has been spent already on research on children without great visible benefits, so it is understandable that one might be skeptical about the usefulness of spending any more. But scattered attempts at solving the problem will not work. What we need now is an approach that is interdisciplinary, combining all the perspectives bearing on the study of children's lives in their actual context, from anthropology and economics to psychology and sociology, and that is closely tied to community and business initiatives for change, so that the findings can inform action. Only such an approach can generate understanding.

Without such understanding, the formation of future generations will be left to chance. Given the highly unnatural environment in which we now live, such a laissez-faire attitude is very dangerous. With the best of intentions we might create conditions that would hinder the psychological development of our children. Past wisdom, which might have been adequate when the conditions of life were relatively stable, is no longer adequate to give a sensible direction to our educational efforts.

One of the central dogmas of our times is that market forces, left to themselves, will eventually correct most social problems. In the present case, this approach would suggest that sooner or later children will choose the environments and conditions most suitable to their needs. They will live in the healthiest communities, read the most useful books, study what teachers expect them to study, listen to the best music, buy the commodities that will make them happiest now and in the future.

The invisible hand may direct the convergence of supply and demand in the marketplace, but it is helpless as an effective educational force. No matter how full of intuition and enthusiasm young people are, they lack the experience and the knowledge to choose among the options presented to them in such a way as to optimize present and future well-being.

Conversely, market forces direct those who provide for the needs of young people to produce goods and services that are clearly against the best interests of young consumers. It is easier and cheaper to sell "junk food" than healthy food. It is easier and cheaper to make movies based on sex and violence than to make movies portraying more complex thoughts and emotions. It is easier and cheaper to build houses and neighborhoods that provide basic needs for comfort and security, but leave out the equally important needs for social interaction, adventure, beauty, and awe. Naturally, the easier and the cheaper options will be chosen, and they will shape the experiences of the next generation.

How can we help young people lead lives that are full of energy, joy, and meaning, when their lifestyles encourage passivity, boredom, and alienation?

Since the end of World War II, adults in Western societies have, in effect, declined the educational role, with the exception of intellectual training and instruction. A widespread sense of impotence and guilt has led to the belief that children might in fact know better than their elders what values are important and how they should live. Many parents, teachers, clergymen, and politicians have concluded that they have nothing to teach young people in terms of beliefs and values.

Such humility is in part appropriate because the lifestyles of many parents, and the values on which they were founded, were severely flawed. This does not mean that we can give up the responsibility for educating the young. For better or worse, we must clarify what we believe is best for those who depend on us, and then try to implement it without hypocrisy and subterfuge.

While it is imperative that our understanding of the forces involved in the formation of the next generation be comprehensive and systemic, so that we do not miss the potentially important interaction between different conditions, prudence dictates that we should focus on the most promising questions first. A possible approach would consist of three distinct steps.

Mapping the field of forces. A group of eminent scholars could be commissioned to prepare a document describing the major conditions involved in the formation of the young. These would include such institutions as the family, the neighborhood, the community, the schools, the voluntary associations, the media, and the economy, as well as such physical influences of the environment as the purity of the air, the water, the diet, and health in general. The report might also include evaluations of interviews and focus groups with children and adolescents.

Choosing targets for research and intervention. On the basis of the document described above, those interested in helping with this problem could select for further study one or more factors that may be amenable to change. For example, the role of the media in the formation of the young or the impact of the living environment on the life experiences of young people.

Purposeless activity and passive entertainment are experienced as relaxing but rarely produce happiness.

Diffusion and implementation of the findings. Once the results of the various studies of the impact of the environment on the formation of young people are collected and integrated, the next logical step is to find practical ways to use the information. All too often, useful psychosocial research fails to be implemented because there is no connection between the generation of information and its application. In this case—provided important new facts actually emerge as a result of the preceding steps—as much effort should be devoted to the application of the findings as was devoted to the collection of the information.

Efforts should be made to inform systematically—and dramatically—the media, political and educational leaders, and philanthropic organizations of the issues involved. And the relevant parties should be challenged to implement some of the conclusions of the studies.

What should be the main result of the intervention in formative education? It could be argued that the most important outcome is the health and longevity of young people; or their intellectual training, which will make them affluent and competitive in a rapidly changing technological future; or the development of their moral behavior. These are certainly important goals to strive for, but perhaps they are not the most essential ones.

I would suggest that the guiding principle for a successful education is helping young people to be happy now, as well as in the future. Of course, this is not a revolutionary idea: Aristotle had already noted 25 centuries ago that health, knowledge, power, and wealth are good only insofar as they make us happy. We want to be healthy and rich because we expect that these things will make us happy, but we want happiness for its own sake. The founders of the great American experiment in democracy considered the pursuit of happiness to be one of the most basic of human rights, which it was the government's responsibility to protect. It is the legacy of the Enlightenment that we are now in danger of losing forever.

Plato wrote that the most important task of educators is to teach young people to find pleasure in the right things.

But contemporary research on subjective well-being and life satisfaction confirms what Plato and Aristotle already realized: Young people (and many adults as well) are not very well-informed about what leads to happiness. Often we take shortcuts to save energy and settle for small and momentary pleasures. Or we engage in pleasurable activities that lead to dead ends or sour into addictions. It is for this reason that Plato wrote that the most important task of educators is to teach young people to find pleasure in the right things.

The most enjoyable experiences do, in fact, tend to come from the "right things." That is, from activities that require skill, concentration, involvement: the arts, sports, music, a well-designed science experiment, the solution of an intriguing math problem, a good conversation, a job well done. These are activities that lead to formative education, to personal growth, and to a lasting sense of happiness. In contrast, purposeless activity and passive entertainment are experienced as relaxing but rarely produce happiness.

We certainly cannot change this situation by simply telling the young that purpose and discipline will make them happy. The only convincing argument is the one made by example. It is for this reason that the isolation of young people from adults has such tragic consequences. If parents spent more time with their children, introducing them to the things they love—whether music or fishing, computers or volunteer work—the problems would surely diminish. But not every parent can do this. In such cases, the community must pick up the slack. Not because this is its moral duty, but because if the community cannot convince the great majority of its members that life can be enjoyable and meaningful, it will be destroyed by a generation of desperate people.

The problem is that in our current environment, opportunities for passive and purposeless behavior seem to far outnumber opportunities for experiencing active, growth-producing happiness. The lifestyles of even our most fortunate children, while providing comfort, physical health, and material objects, rarely offer possibilities for excellence. And because schools conceive their task to be to pass on information rather than to foster the love of learning, children tend to forgo the serious pursuit of formal education. As a result, they are enticed instead into habits that promise happiness, but soon produce bitterness and a sense of failure, eventually leading to either resignation or rebellion.

The central purpose of educational policy should be to understand better the dynamics of happiness and to find ways to increase its occurrence in the lives of the next generation. More than any other goal, this one is most likely to lead to a future worth hoping for.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a professor emeritus of human development in the departments of psychology and education at the University of Chicago. This essay is reprinted by permission of Daedalus, from the issue titled "American Education: Still Separate, Still Unequal," Fall 1995 (Vol. 124, No. 4).

Vol. 19, Issue 32, Pages 46-47, 64

Published in Print: April 19, 2000, as Education for the 21st Century
Web Resources
  • Read another essay by Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi, perhaps best known for his book Flow (Harper & Row 1990), "Creating the Future: Thoughts About Education," from New Horizons for Learning.
  • Read an interview on creativity with Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi, from New Dimensions Broadcasting Network.
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