Education leader asks: “What does America want an education to do?”

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Saybrook University president Mark Schulman publishes provocative essay suggesting that the most pressing crisis in American education is not low test scores, but our inability to come to terms with what “education” can accomplish.

Mark Schulman

Significant numbers of college graduates gain little to nothing of value from their education, and many of the jobs that now "require" a college degree were once jobs that people held, with perfect competence, instead of going to college.

The real crisis in American education has nothing to do with test scores: it is the fact that America has no clear sense of what “an education” ought to accomplish.

That’s according to Mark Schulman, a noted expert on progressive education. Schulman is the President of Saybrook University in San Francisco and the past president of Goddard College in Vermont and Antioch University Southern California, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

“(L)et’s say the reformers get what they want,” Schulman wrote in a recent column on the Huffington Post. “Even if we get test scores to go up, are we any closer to where we want to be? And where is that exactly?”

In a time of economic uncertainty, most Americans see an education as being, first and foremost, about connecting to a good job. But if that’s what they want, the system we have now is not set up to accommodate them. It may even be pushing many jobs farther away.

“Not only do significant numbers of college graduates (as per Arum and Roksa) gain little to nothing of value from their education, but many of the jobs that now "require" a college degree were once jobs that people held, with perfect competence, instead of going to college,” Schulman notes.

Improving test scores and graduation rates won’t fix that. Nor is the current educational system set up to address other key goals that many Americans have when they think of the purpose of an education, such as: to teach students how to learn, or to develop critical thinking skills, or to prepare students to be citizens of the future.

None of the reforms on the table will help align what an education is with what we want it to do.

“The humanistic tradition, which Saybrook University champions, has an answer,” Schulman writes, “but it is one that is not likely to satisfy any of the partisans in the war over education reform.

This tradition, heralded in the 20th century by psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Rollo May, holds that "education" is not an object that can be given to someone like a diploma ("Here, you're educated"), but a process in which the student must be personally engaged. Far from being a cookie cutter, with each educated graduate becoming more alike, an education is a process of individuation -- with each student becoming more unique, and more capable of pursuing their own unique life's calling.”

We can have that system, Schulman says – we can take that approach – but we have to do it consciously. It won’t happen by focusing on test scores or class size alone.

Located in San Francisco, California and Seattle, Washington, Saybrook University is the world’s premier institution for humanistic scholarship and research. Saybrook offers advanced degrees in psychology, mind-body medicine, organizational systems, leadership, and human science. For 40 years, Saybrook has empowered students to find their life’s work and achieve their full potential. Saybrook’s programs are deeply rooted in the humanistic tradition and a commitment to help students develop as whole people – mind, body, and spirit. Saybrook University is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). It is also authorized by the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board and meets the requirements and minimum educational standards established for degree-granting institutions under the Degree Authorization Act.

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Benjamin Wachs
Saybrook University
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