What is the value of our current education system in preparing our children for a future that will be dominated by the impact of peak-oil, global warming and climate change, and other global disasters on the near-term horizon?

Our society tends to take for granted the availability of universal public education. We also tend to believe that the role of that public education system is to prepare and optimally develop our children for success in the world in which they will live their adult lives. It is a core part of the means by which we try to ensure that our children have the best possible chance of living the dream of having the most successful life possible in the wealthiest and most advanced society in the world. Few realize that universal public education is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. The first surviving system was developed in Prussia only in 1819 and the rise of public education system in America was modelled on that system and came later[(3)]. Historian Bernard Bailyn, twice the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, wrote in Education in the Forming of American Society: “The modern conception of public education, the very idea of a clean line of separation between “private” and “public,” was unknown before the end of the eighteenth century.”[(2)]
More important, however, is the misinterpretation of the objectives of that public education system. The purpose of that system is not to achieve the optimum development of our children’s abilities but rather to standardize their thinking patterns to socially accepted norms and to prepare them to be complient and authority-following workers in the industrial, business and financial institutions around which our society is oriented and in which the majority of our children will find employment after graduation [(2) (3) (5) (6)]. This role of public education was at the core of its development during the industrial revolution in Europe and America. It was meant to transform the flood of “undisciplined” agrarian masses flowing into industrializing cities into law-abiding and rule-following workers for the burgeoning industries and businesses [(4)]. That responsibility of the public education system to turn out cogs for the wheels of industry has been even further pursued in recent years with the advent and growth of globalization [(1) (7) (10)].

In a rapidly changing and developing society, however, an essentially reactive public school system is faced with pressures to adapt that the lethargic monolithic bureaucracy cannot possibly respond to[(8) (9)]. Our reactive public education system does not prepare students for the future but rather for a world already in the past. By the time anything new makes its way into the school curricula that new is already old. This is a hard lesson that school systems are learning in trying to incorporate technology training (computers) into the school curriculum. One high level educator complained that: “We get computers in here and before we know it they’re outdated. The technological revolution is a money pit. You never have enough money to buy more hardware or software.”[(8)]

Business and industry, indirectly through government departments and directly in many jurisdictions, are already partners in design, administration and running of public education systems and in curriculum development [(6) (7) (10)]. The corporation and the corporate logo are becoming ubiquitous in our schools, from the computer lab to the caffeteria [(6)]. However that does not seem to be enough to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the corporate world for controlling our lives. Throughout the world but most particularly in highly industrialized countries like the US, UK and Canada, corporations are seeking to take over the public schools [(1) (6) (7) (9)]. These “EMOs” (Education Management Organizations) are using and exagerating the weaknesses in the school system in the face of a rapidly changing world as the foundation of their pitch and argument, coercing teachers, students and parents alike. In the process they paint a picture of a school system much worse than reality. But they have good reason. Education is a half trillion dollar industry in the US alone. In the same way that HMOs stepped in to save the health system, EMOs are putting themselves forward as the saviors of the beleaguered education system.

What has this to do with peak oil and preparing our children for an uncertain, possibly disaster-prone future? From the outset the public education system has been designed to turn out compliant workers for business and industry who have been partners in developing the curricula that schools will follow. Very little curriculum flexibility has ever been tolerated and then only when it fits within the tight boundaries of that role of serving business and industry. That education system, however, has never been proactive, nor can it be. It always lags slightly behind the current state of evolution of the society in which it operates. In a rapidly or dramatically chaging environment that system lags ever further behind the current societal reality. It gets locked into an ongoing battle just trying to keep pace. A system that can’t even keep pace with the changes going on around it cannot possibly be expected to gear its efforts towards turning out students prepared for the realities that will exist twenty, thirty or fifty years in the future, especially when such preparation would be outside of the primary role of serving business and industry and turning out workers for them.

But that is exactly what is needed at this time. Peak oil is no longer debateable, even if the timing is. Global warming is no longer debateable, though the timing may be. Our children are going to have to cope with the dramatic impact of one or both of them, and a plethora of other global disasters waiting in the wings, during their lifetime. Yes, they need to be able to make their way in the current world until those realities begin to dominate their lives and world affairs. But for the public education system, whose role includes the development of the mindset and worldview of the students in its charge, to do nothing to prepare those students for these emerging realities simply continues to produce graduating classes trained to perpetuate the very unsustainable world that is about to fail. How can we ever produce a generation prepared to examine our place in this world, to question our destruction of the environment, to challenge our continued depletion of finite resources, if we continue to build in them the same societal mindset that has brought us to this sad and dangerous point in human history? How will we ever break away from our destructive interaction with this planet? We don’t need periodic tweaks of the education system. And we certainly do not need to turn it over to the TLC of the corporate world. We need to take it in a whole new direction focused on stewardship and sustainability, on learning to live with the natural world that sustains us rather than destroying it.

1) A short angry history of American forced schooling
2) Puritanism: The Origin of Public Education
3) The “Real” School Is Not Free by Thom Hartmann
4) History of education England
5) Public Education: Remaking A Public
6) The Education Industry: The Corporate Takeover of Public Schools
7) Molding Human Resources for the Global Workforce
8) A retiring University educator looks at the state of education
9) Is American Education Obsolete
10) Towards the Interculturally Proactive School