Want to Get America Back on Track? Realize the True Purpose of Schools

As a society, we aren't realizing the true purpose of school—becoming lifelong learners and active, engaged citizens in democracy.

Historian Vincent Harding quoted a West African poet and said, "I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist." He went on to assert that this is a country that we still must create—a country "that cares about itself and about the world, that cares about what the earth needs as well as what individual people need."

Harding hit the nail on the head. Creating a country starts in our schools.

Our current learning culture is stale and reeking of industrialism. We educate children like they are blank slates and passive vessels. We pry out their talents and gifts until there are none left. And we cage them up like livestock for at least twelve years of their lives. And then we throw them into the scary and uncomfortable world of the unknown.

As a society, we aren't realizing the true purpose of school—becoming lifelong learners and active, engaged citizens in democracy. Conformity and sticking in your shell is no longer the shortcut to success. What separates the best from the average in the world is grit, uniqueness, drive, and resilience.

Is it an accident that learning environments are contrary to the natural process of learning? Absolutely not.

One of the purposes for building a public school system a century ago was to ensure that millions of children weren't roaming the streets and causing mayhem. School was there to civilize them into meek members of the population. It has worked perfectly, even to this date.

What's more, the very dogmas that guide our schools go awry when stood up against the principles of basic cognition. Human beings learn best by doing and experience, not by ingesting and swallowing facts and figures. Look at young children: they laugh, they cry, they sing, they dance.

Suddenly, at age five, it's as if they get arrested and thrown into an Alcatraz-like system called formal schooling. Most unstructured play vanishes. Days of freewheeling laughter, exploring, and creating get replaced by bubble filling content. What industrial-age institutions are engaging in is a crime, one that continues to cheat generations.

For all the chit-chat on education reform, very few are asking the question: What is the purpose of school? Ask yourself that. And then define what is "good" education. I suspect that far too many people will say that the end result should be high grades and test scores and prestigious college acceptance letters. That would confirm that curiosity, happiness, and creativity are second-string in schools and that America has lost its way. Instead, we need to recognize the fruits of American ingenuity.

That's why we are desperately craving a learning renaissance where the old order of education is shattered and institutions adapt and reinvent or go extinct. Public education may be the only institution that has largely remained the same as it was a century ago.

Imagine if we transformed schools into French salons of the 17th century, social engines, and public spaces for tinkering, hacking, and disrupting. Imagine if everyone in the community engaged with one another and the barriers that divide us came crashing down. Imagine if kids loved going to school each and every day. A transformation on this scale entails setting people free to "unlock the code of their souls."

Is this even possible? It is if we're committed to shifting our industrial gears into a disruptive mindset and diverting trillions of dollars that we frivolously spend on standardized testing and "Race to the Top" circuses into making these radical changes a reality.

As Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown writes in their book, A New Culture of Learning, "The goal is for each of us to take the world in and make it part of ourselves. In doing so, it turns out, we can re-create it."

It takes a village to raise a lifelong learner. If we follow the lead of schools which treat children like artists, creators, and empathizers, then we are on the stepping stones to creating a truly United States of America.

A version of this post first appeared on

Empty classroom with chairs and desks image via Shutterstock