A Socially-Conscious Orientation in Education

No matter our ideology, education will always be closely linked with a nation’s economy. We saw a ramping up of science and math education during the Sputnik era in the 1950s-1960s, another call for rigorous standards when fears emerged about international competition from Japan (and Germany) in the 1980s. Of course, the past decade has been all about meeting the demands of the global 21st century knowledge-based economy under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the call for more STEM education.

Too bad. The “excellence” march will always trump the “equity” one when a nation’s economy is at stake. Such initiatives might make us economically and militarily powerful, but not necessarily a better nation. Once countries reach “maturity,” (i.e., industrialization or advanced development stage), they need a more post-modern approach that considers its people and its responsibility to the world. And that requires a socially-conscious approach to education.

Countries that are rapidly developing in order to catch up the the U.S., such as China, India, and Brazil, will generally forgo social/environmental progress in order to reach economic ones, which is exactly what we did in the middle of the 20th century. Environmental concerns and civil rights didn’t come about until after World War II, when the world recognized this period as “the American Century.” We can afford to be more socially and ecologically aware when we’re at the top, while other countries will probably follow our footsteps as they progress. Yet the gini coefficient indicates an economic inequality not seen since the Great Depression (not to mention social and political polarity). Nothing exemplifies this zeitgist more than Occupy Wall Street.

Do other countries want to follow this American Dream? Maybe not.

As nation’s are seeking to define their place in the world, they may not necessarily want what we have; some in fact resent it. Thomas Friedman’s recent article in the New York Times, entitled China Needs Its Own Dream, pointed to the conscious change that many Chinese citizens are making in shaping their 21st century identity. Peggy Liu, the founder of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, argues that the Chinese today are yearning to create a new national identity, one that merges traditional Chinese values like balance, respect, and flow, with its new modern urban reality.

China’s latest five-year plan is based on sustainability for its burgeoning middle class that seeks to counter the growing conspicuous consumerism. The younger generation does not necessarily want to follow the typical growth path–the rising consumption, “now it’s our turn” kind of mentality–that Americans went through.

Instead, the creation of a “Chinese Dream” that redefines personal prosperity by merging the unique traditional Chinese values with the burgeoning urbanization to create more access to better products and servicesnot necessarily owning them–so everyone gets a piece of the pie. This includes better public transportation, spaces, housing, e-learning, and e-commerce. For a society, isn’t “better access for all” preferable to “exclusive ownership”? It’s certainly greener and infinitely more egalitarian.

This socially conscious mindset amongst its students appears to be more prevalent as well. One student Friedman interviewed, Zhou Lin, said that it was in China’s best interest to find a “cleaner” growth path.

Part of this change, I believe is that they spend a lot of time reflecting on what other nations have done as a blueprint for success (such as America’s innovation and higher education) and on what dangers to avoid (e.g., American social values). No doubt they want to define their own path to trumpet as a 21st model to emulate. A lot will be riding on the new leadership’s ability to address increasing prosperity and inequality.

For the U.S., the current education culture is exclusively focused on maintaining economic hegemony and STEM competitiveness. Where is the socially conscious models that George Counts and Nel Noddings advocated for? Despite the calls to close the achievement gap, it seems far too much is placed on standards and testing in the interest of economic expediency. Perhaps excellence in education for the 21st century should consider more of the socially-conscious and heterogeneous model that values individual growth and global collaboration.

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