What Must Our Children Learn? Part Three of Series on Ben Sasse’s “The Vanishing American Adult”

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What Must Our Children Learn? Part Three of Series on Ben Sasse’s “The Vanishing American Adult”

The American experiment, which now seems so natural to us, is a thoroughly artificial device designed to counterbalance the natural impulses of group suspicions and hatreds. . . . This vast, artificial, trans-tribal construct is what our Founders aimed to achieve. And they understood that it can be achieved effectively only by intelligent schooling. (From E. D. Hirsch, The Making of Americans)

Is there a “center” of America that, regardless of political party, labels, race, and economic status, can agree on the question, “why school?”  Can education help to successfully preserve or reinvent the Great American Experiment? In this third of three blog posts prompted by Sen. Ben Sasse’s book, The Vanishing American Adult, I add to Sasse’s list of ways that education can help ensure that the American dreams continue. I would also suggest that the topics raised by Sasse, and over which I am commenting, are relevant not just to America and American education, but increasingly so to those in other democratic nations.

In his book, Sasse sets out five learning pathways that our current generation of students are missing, that have led to what he believes is a failure of their education.  They are:

  • Overcoming peer culture
  • Working hard
  • Resisting consumption
  • Travel to experience the difference between “need” and “want”
  • Becoming truly literate

While I disagree with some of the detail with which he scaffolds each of these, I applaud the topics, the reasoning behind the list, and the idea of creating this kind of list in the first place: “what is it that we actually want our students to learn?” If we took Sasse’s list and started from there, we would fundamentally reimagine and redesign K-12 education, which is what many in K-12 are trying to do.  I would add at least four more big, critical themese, and while people from across the education and political spectrum will find plenty to discuss with respect to the details, I think there is a great deal of agreement in principle:

Great Learning

 I have gathered thousands of words and phrases from parents, teachers, and students, across ethnic, racial, and economic groups that describe what they think “great learning” is, how it takes place, and what they want their schools to exude every day. There is tremendous agreement: deep learning is better than shallow; long-term retention is better than short; asking questions is often more important than remembering an answer; finding and and solving an unknown problem is more important than filling out a worksheet; intrinsic motivation leads to better learning than extrinsic motivation.

Sasse agrees. He says that, “We need to affirm and refine their (students’ ) agency”, that  “human beings aren’t commodities; they aren’t cogs. Teachers cultivate habits of thinking and doing in their students. They don’t assemble them; they nurture them. Students are not passive, but active. They are not manufactured; they are molded.” Sasse clearly is a believer in what we are now calling deeper learning, which has tremendous overlap with both “progressive” and “21st century” learning models.

Let’s not get hung up on terms. Let’s start with the profound agreement that the reason for school is NOT to prepare students for college entrance exams, but for life, in which college is a next step for many students. Sasse argues that three critical elements in this preparation are grammar (basic facts and skills, which would include math, language, reading, and science), dialectic (logic and the interplay of facts), and rhetoric (communicating a logically effective case persuasively).  This is a great starting point; it is a very different starting point than creating a curriculum that is aimed at high SAT scores, good grades on subject-specific exams, or the acquisition of massive amounts of content knowledge that most students will quickly forget.

Fact, Fiction, and Expertise

The very concept of America was a product of enlightened, rational thinking. Democratic society is built on a foundation that certain things are objectively true; lacking this we lose the basis for the rule of law and default back to the pernicious whims of a single ruler or oligarchy. Given a set of objective truths, we believe that our citizens are capable of making informed decisions about how to govern themselves.  This does not mean that we all believe the same things. We learn and understand the difference between objective truths to which we all must hold ourselves accountable, and beliefs and faith, which all are free to develop for themselves.

Our system simply cannot survive if our citizens do not have both the motivation and the intellectual tools to discern fact from fiction.  As Sasse says, how can people “be expected to self-govern or to navigate an advertising-saturated market economy full of propaganda and untruths? How can they determine fact from opinion or what’s been proven from what might be possible?”

With the rise of social media and instantaneous communication, which have enormous power and positive potential to democratize the flow of information, we face the challenge of knowing who and what to believe.  Anyone with an internet following can brand themselves as an “expert”, when this is simply, objectively, not true.  Teaching our young people how to parse fact from fiction, and who to believe, without this scaffold descending into political, regional, or philosophical tribalism, is a tremendous challenge.  But if we don’t get this right, all of the math, language, science, and history that we teach out of textbooks will be for naught.

Legacy and Responsibility of Americans

Conservatives and liberals agree that America was founded on a set of principles that were unique in the world of the 18th century, a template that much of the world has followed ever since.  It is indeed, the Great Experiment of democratic government, the thesis that humans best achieve their universal natural desires of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” when they are allowed to live with certain basic freedoms.  Knowing how such a system works, and both the rights and responsibilities of citizens, is a fundamental cog in the engine of a successful America.  Sasse and I agree that the system will not function as an effective, participatory, democratic republic, if the people within the system are ignorant of how it is supposed to work.  As Sasse says, “Adult-citizenship presumes a substantial level of self-awareness and impulse control; it knows both rights and duties. Sadly, the United States today suffers from widespread collective amnesia.”

“According to one survey, only one-third of U.S. adults know the three branches of the federal government. More than 30 percent couldn’t name even one branch of our government. Another survey found that only two-thirds of university respondents could pass the civics portion of the U.S. naturalization test—an embarrassing contrast to the 98 percent of immigrants seeking citizenship who pass.”

Some modern form of “Civics” simply must be part of K-12 education.  Schools are increasingly breaking the boundaries that separate students from their communities as younger generations express interest in understanding and helping “others”.  Civics does not have to just be about laws and the three arms of the American government. It should be an opportunity for students to deeply engage in both the ethos and the modern working framework of the Great American Experiment.

Discourse and Compromise

The intentions, understandings, and remarkable work of “the Founding Fathers” are not the property of one party, one movement, or a particular philosophical agenda.  They are the birthright of all Americans.  At the core of America’s founding were not, in fact, a key set of principles around which a group of visionary men coalesced in passionate agreement.  Nothing could be further from the historical truth.  At the core of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was both the practice, and the need to enshrine in perpetuity, compromise.  Our nation came into being by the slimmest of democratic margins only because, through lengthy, hot, tireless discourse, men with widely disparate belief systems understood that compromise is necessary in a democracy.

We have lost, and must re-find in our next generation, the skills and art of both civil discourse and compromise.  Our national government has not, since the Civil War era, been more lacking in compromise than it is today.  The lofty, lengthy, thoughtful debates of the 19th and even 20th centuries have given way to news media sound bites and Tweets that tend to push us apart, rather than helping us to find common ground.  Whether it is debating policy or in picking reading lists, as Sasse says, “it’s essential that we have some common ground, some starting points, for remembering—and for debating.”

Our schools should teach the skills of civil, reasoned discourse. Students who graduate from high school in America should know the critical historic role that compromise played in forming our nation, and continues to play in successful human interactions, from team-work to marriage to business relationships.

What Else?

These are by no means the only points around which conservatives and liberals might start to agree when it comes to transforming K-12 education; they are not even the only points on which Ben Sasse and I agree.  But we have to start somewhere.  Let’s agree on a “starter list”, or let’s agree to try to develop a “starter list” and build from there.  What would you add?

This blog series took me longer to write than I had expected. To be honest, the sheer weight of both the challenge and the consequences of failure in finding common ground upon which to transform education are like chunks of gravity that keep us from pushing through to solutions.  But then I come back to the powerful positive jolt I got from reading Sasse’s book, not because there were new insights about education, but because they were written by a person with whom, were we to all fall into the partisan trap of America today, I would find little overlap.  Yet the overlap is profound.  We don’t have to agree on everything; we never will.  But education has been crushed by inertia because we have collectively failed to find, reimagine, and leverage the really important stuff that we DO agree on, and go from there.

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  1. Garreth Heidt January 4, 2018 at 8:51 pm - Reply


    These are great posts. I like the break down here, especially. Closest to my heart is the need for civil discourse. I’d like to recommend you check out the work of The Touchstones Discussion Project (www.touchstones.org) and the work of the thousands of students and teachers who compete in the National Speech and Debate Association. I’ve used the project for 20 years and I coached for far more. And both endeavors were always undertaken with a deep and abiding belief in the necessity of developing students capable of civil discourse. Let us not forget, however, the discourse is not merely about speaking. We were given two ears and one mouth for a reason: We need to listen more than we talk. Thus, I’d urge a focus on developing keen listening skills

    As a way to suggest an even deeper reading of this book, I’d point you to an essay by Prof. William Cronon, “Only Connect: the Goals of a Liberal Education,” because, in the end, that’s what you and Sen. Sasse are really talking about, a liberal education. Cronon parses the thing in such a beautiful way. It is one of three essays I cite as foundations of who I am as a teacher and a learner. (See also, William James, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings”, Emerson’s “American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance”, and a long form essay…of sorts…by Thomas Armstrong, “Awakening Genius in the Classroom.”

    • Grant Lichtman January 4, 2018 at 9:16 pm - Reply

      Thanks! Will access that work by Cronon right now!

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