As we move down the road toward big change in our energy and healthcare policies, there is an increasing number of calls for change in our education system. And I’m not referring to the cliched change we hear from every politician running for an office. I’m talking about actual, systemic change that many might consider radical.

Harry C. Boyte from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Democracy and Citizenship, housed in the university’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, wrote a post on Wednesday which referenced a few other works that, one by one, challenged integral parts of our education system, including our core philosophy as a country. Boyte rightly laments the increased specialization of our education system, in which students, once pursuing what they wish to pursue, are trained to silo themselves off from the rest of the academy. Boyte wants to return to “civic education.”

How do we develop citizens and citizen leaders who work with others to solve problems and build a flourishing democratic society? This question, the heart of civic education, was once at the center of American schooling, from kindergarten through higher education. In recent decades it has been increasingly neglected. We are faced with the challenge of breaking out of gated communities of our minds and work identities that are as sharply drawn as those of our neighborhoods. In recent months, a growing number of leaders in higher education have called for far ranging change in our institutions to address this.

One of the pieces Boyte uses to support his argument is written by Mark Taylor, the chair of the religion department at Columbia University. Taylor trashes today’s system of higher education in the United States, noting that the gap between today’s academic specialists and the tools and knowledge needed to solve our largest problems is expanding at an alarming rate. Taylor calls for tenure to be abolished and for an end to the organization of academia by discipline. Instead, Taylor believes that we should produce a list of problems to conquer. Not afraid of generalities, Taylor offers his own example of a list: “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.” Taylor envisions these problems as opportunities forcing academic disciplines to converge and use their special knowledge in collaborative actions as opposed to exclusive ones.

The reason I like this idea so much is why Boyte seems to dig it. Our capacity for solving large problems in this country is diluted because of the deterioration of civic thought. Developing citizenship and citizen leaders, as Boyte labels it above, seems to have flown under the radar of those formulating the curriculum and solidifying the structure of American education. Months into Obama’s presidency, buzz surrounds the importance of service-learning and political engagement in the media. Fortunately, there are examples of the service piece of citizenship being taught and practiced within the classroom. But unfortunately, you’ll notice that many of the examples journalists use of young people engaging in political activity cite college students who had to take time off school in order to participate. Young people had to be politically involved despite their education. Furthermore, there’s a missed opportunity when service is not connected to politics: to serve is a political act. What’s needed is the solidification of a link between education and patriotism/citizenship: to be educated is to be a problem-solver. This is why Barack Obama’s line comparing dropping out of school to dropping out on one’s country in his joint congressional speech in February was both effective and encouraging. By dropping out, someone is resigning themselves to allowing problems to overwhelm the country.

Education should be seen for what it is — a public good. Education is not merely our supertrain to be used to catch up with China and India. Before we even entertain the thought of that, perhaps we need to know who we are as a people and how we can use the knowledge we gain to solve the gargantuan problems we face. Those designing our education system would be well-served to keep JFK’s advice in their heads — the education system should help us recognize and pursue what we can do for our country. It’s common sense, but that is the change in higher education we need to see.

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