The Hope for Education
Ernest L. Boyer, 1984
Ernest L. Boyer is president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Previous significant positions he has held include United States Commissioner of Education and chancellor of the state university system of New York. A recent poll of educators identified him as the most influential educator in the United States. A long time advocate of humane learning, Dr. Boyer's most recent book, High School, has provoked a searching examination of the problems and purposes of secondary education in America.
Whiteley: Dr. Boyer, in reflecting on the search for peace in the world, you've indicated that no issue is more important than the search for greater human understanding. What are you trying to share?
Boyer: I'm suggesting that beyond education there is the discovery that we share a common agenda, and that while we've organized education around narrow little boxes we call disciplines, in the end, education matters only when it is made useful in very human terms. It's not an irrelevant exercise that we engage in for the satisfaction intellectually alone. Knowledge is to be used, but it has to be used in the day-to-day encounters we have with others. And I'm confident that the urgent agenda for education for the future is to relate our knowledge to the overwhelmingly important consequential issues of our time.
Whiteley: In one of your books on education you quoted the late Jacob Bronowski, recounting his visit to Nagasaki Harbor in 1945. And after observing the desolation and the destruction, he said it was one of those moments when one has encountered the ultimate horror. And as you reflected on that in your own writings, that was a triumph of trained intelligence. What should we do differently to prevent that from ever happening again?
Boyer: It's urgently important that we understand that we need to devote as much time and energy and thoughtful inquiry into the applications and uses of knowledge as we do in the discovery of knowledge. That education is not only opening the mysteries of life, but taking the next important step and exploring how those mysteries apply to us and how they can be used responsibly.
Whiteley: You've quoted the late German philosopher, Jaspers, Karl Jaspers, to the effect that we should really have education for culture. What does that mean?
Boyer: Well, that's perhaps a bit dated term - culture. But it means defining the connectedness among individuals. I've said occasionally that the important objective for all students is to gain perspective, that that should be the final goal of our purposes in formal education: to see their relationships to each other, to other forms of life, and eventually to see how those connections play back on their own conscience and in their own behavior morally as well. So it's that perspective, that is to take knowledge and discover the connectedness of it. Unfortunately, in the way we've organized the curriculum, the way we've established our classrooms, in the way we've made our assignments and even given our tests, we've taken knowledge and its application and organized it in pieces so that in the end students are less informed rather than more informed about the totality, and how the reality is greater than the sum of the parts. But we are often in the thick of thin things, and we're learning more and more about less and less. And that's not acceptable at a time in which our - the dimensions of our agenda become interdependent, both in a nationalistic way and then internationally, but also in a very personal way as we relate to other forms of life.
Whiteley: A theme that's been recurrent in your writings is a search for a better integration of knowledge and wisdom, of knowledge and human conduct. How would you have people think differently about the mission of education in our society?
Boyer: Well, I can only say that the issue of connections is at the heart of the search; that is to discover not only how the various fields are connected, but how in the end, they apply to my day to day decision-making. I think we lost the balance of education perhaps several decades ago. We felt that it was for strictly personal terms, and we forgot the fact that we were also in an interdependent world. And while I see education having its uses for the individual advancement, it also has its uses for social advancement as well. But we have been so preoccupied in saying to students, you use education so 'you can get ahead, and you can develop your own individual aptitudes and interests.' Now that's important. No one denies what - almost the spiritual vitality of the individual. But the other half of the reality is that we're all connected, that education also has to be used to strengthen our common quest as well.
I remember during the decade of the 60s in discussions with students, there was a mood abroad that said we have nothing in common. We could all live as isolated islands. I remember an editorial in the student newspaper at Stanford on one occasion where it read 'how dare they impose uniform standards on non-uniform people.' That is, we rejoiced in our non-uniformity, in our individualism. And that's as it should be. None of us would insist that we become cookie cutter imitations of others. On the other hand we have to also teach another truth about our existence and that is, while we're all alone we're also all together. While we live in isolation, we also live interdependently with each other, and that reality must be affirmed through what we teach and how we apply the knowledge. ...I believe the only condition more frightening than ignorance, for me, is a condition of intellectual advancement but moral bankruptcy.
Whiteley: It's hard to find a more sophisticated triumph of human intelligence than the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs and their successful application at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You can also see the application of a perverted intelligence at Dachau, Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Those issues of human conduct and human nature, and the fact that they are changeable by education is one that's been recurrent in the literature since, but we have yet to find a way to make learning concrete and vivid, what Bronowski described in that quote you had in your book that you ultimately find that our imaginations are dwarfed, both by the power of the human mind and by its potential for evil. How do you create a more powerful educational environment to help people see those consequences before action is taken?
Boyer: Well I have no easy formula, no quick fix. Let me simply say in another way what I've heard you say, that I believe the only condition more frightening than ignorance, for me, is a condition of intellectual advancement but moral bankruptcy. The prospect of providing more knowledge without more conscience, of more technical advancement without an equivalent understanding of its application and its uses, it seems to me is a perilous and ultimately a destructive road to follow. So when I concern myself with education, I have to urgently say that not only means more information, it means helping students understand how to use that knowledge wisely for their own betterment and for the common good. Now there's a big debate about what the moral implications of that are, and certainly considerable ignorance about how you achieve it. I mean, dating from the Greeks there's been an endless inquiry on whether virtue can be taught. I'm not sure precisely how that's achieved. I only know the failing of the current education system is the failure to ask that question, the failure to inquire responsibly into its uses, and back to Bronowski - what is the moral equivalent to the atomic bomb? I mean, if that's an example of intelligence used for destruction, where are the centers of inquiry in which we would pursue with equal urgency? Where's the Manhattan Project for Peace? Where are the centers where our best minds are brought together to inquire around the infinitely more difficult, but in the end ultimately more important question of the uses of knowledge toward human advancement? And one would think, if we turn our imagination to that there would be exciting breakthroughs, but we seem frozen within the traditions of nationalism, within the traditions of self-centeredness, and even, if I might say, within the traditions of confrontation, where it's unsafe, and even almost unseemly to stretch our imaginations there, while on the other side we allow entrepreneurial interest and imagination to run unlimited in figuring out Star Wars arrangements around the tensions and conflict. So I'm really urgently concerned that education be as intensely concerned about not only the discovery of knowledge and its applications for defense - in this case, in security terms - but the applications of knowledge and its application for human welfare and greater human understanding too.
Whiteley: You've articulated one of the key purposes of education in America is education for citizenship and social responsibility. What experiences would you have young people engage in to improve the relationship between their thinking about issues and their understanding of the action components?
Boyer: Wonderful question. Well, it does begin with information. I start with knowledge. I do think that all students should be expected during their formal years to spend time inquiring into a non-western culture. Learn more about a people that seems strangely different from our own; in the process, not only discover their own uniquenesses, but also discover the points of common experience that are shared globally, which is my conviction. Indeed, I was intrigued several weeks ago when I read that a world commission had identified 165 sites around the world that were human treasures that had been created over time, in different cultures on all continents, where the human genius had developed great monuments and great traditions. And they were arguing they should be preserved internationally in the same way that we have the National Historic Trust to preserve our monuments and traditions here at home. And you know, something suddenly occurred to me. They have just identified an international university. Wouldn't it be exciting if those 165 sites that represent the greatest human treasures and traditions could be defined as a campus. And students, during their formal education, would learn more about those 165 sites, why they were created, why they're so remarkable, what of the human spirit is honored there. And then perhaps as a final assignment, become a specialist on one of those.
My dream would be that every student sometime in his or her schooling would actually be able to travel abroad and spend time at that site. And what if through the United Nations or world commitment, we'd actually have a little campus center with residence halls and the like, and the best faculty would act as lecturers. My point is how - the first point is to expand perspective and understand the human tradition in global terms. And when I say civic education and civic literacy as we do in our report, I'm not talking about national literacy; I'm talking about civic in the full understanding of that term.
Whiteley: So this is really a redefinition, however, of some of the traditional scope of American education.
Boyer: Well, sure. It's defining at a more fundamental level. What are human institutions and traditions? What are the heritages, not just in a narrow sense, but globally? And even how can our use of language be extended so that through other languages we might become familiar with other traditions. So I would start with a curriculum that introduces students to other cultures, with perhaps more travel, if we could arrange it (federally perhaps), perhaps bring the Fulbright program down to the college level, and not letting it only to the scholars. Because I do believe that the more the human encounters are extended, the more the human understanding is extended too. So I believe somehow we have to open our windows to other cultures, both in a formal sense, as well as in a human encounter as well.
Whiteley: What about experiences within our own society - education for civic and social responsibility begins with a democracy where most people don't vote.
Boyer: Well, certainly it begins at home, and you can argue that the differences I'm talking about we could experience in this great melting pot we call America. I mean we have in America great diversity, but we live unfortunately along too narrow boundaries. There is a suggestion that comes to mind that maybe borders on this issue of can virtue be taught. We recommend in our report, High School, that all students engage in a term of voluntary service: A time in which they're asked to move outside the formal classroom and spend time engaging with other human beings in a very direct, and a very personal, and if you will, maybe even a compassionate level. We found some high schools, many of them are private, I might add, but some public, in which students did spend time in the summer, the weekends, engaging with older people, with poor people, providing - giving some of themselves to others.
Now that may sound sentimental, but I do worry very much about a pathology among our young in America in which they are, I think, quite isolated, unconnected to the larger community. So I think the steps of moving knowledge from narrow information to its application and conscientious use might involve becoming better informed about other peoples, might involve actually encountering them face to face, and finally might involve through one's life trying to find a way to apply knowledge in a way that has some usefulness as well. Ideally then, if you've been engaged in a service program, you could come back into the classroom and discuss the implications of trying to apply what you know and what you believe to a real life situation as you're encountering other people. So I guess I would urge that both schools and colleges think more carefully about the role that service can play in trying to somehow build the gap between knowledge and its uses.
Whiteley: As you've thought about education for global interdependence and education for greater human understanding, which is a theme that runs throughout what you've talked about so far, and the relationship of knowledge and human conduct, you've also written that the educational system of our country and its national security are interlocked. How should that - what is the proper relationship between those two?
Boyer: Well, one can't be naive. I don't deny national boundaries and the importance they serve in place and identify. This is the world we're in. And I certainly understand that education has a utility in trying to sustain the traditions and the interests and the integrity of this country. That's true of every national system. In fact, that's why it was called the common school in America, and every nation tries to define its educational institution in terms of not only personal but national interest. Now I don't think there's an absolute conflict between national interest and international perspective too. If I did, then I guess I would be enormously depressed at the trade-off. I'd have to believe that just as individuals also can live comfortably in community, so an individual nation-state can find a way to live compatibly in a larger world community. Now there are points where trade-offs have to be made and compromises and inevitable tensions. But I can't believe that the only solution to that is the destruction of one and the triumph of the other, anymore than I'd have to believe that you and I are so incompatible that in the end, if we live together close enough and long enough, I'd have to win over you and you'd have to be subservient to me, or even worse still, I'd live and you'd succumb.
No, I guess I do believe that there is an element of self-interest in which the nations are served through education, but the thing that discourages me at the moment is - or at least gives me a sense of added urgency - we haven't taken the added step to see that beyond transcendental to that interest, there is an international agenda, a global agenda. Now the irony is that that's also very much in our own self-interest. I can't think of an issue today that can be defined narrowly within national terms alone, just as I find it hard to believe to find in my own life an issue that I can resolve satisfactorily unrelated to those with whom I live. But neither the curriculum nor the application of our knowledge is sufficiently focused on what I would call the "interconnections" that go beyond these arbitrary boundaries of knowledge, the arbitrary boundaries of personal self-interest, and the arbitrary boundaries of the nation-states.
Whiteley: In defining that as a problem that needs to be taken on, you've indicated for you it's a problem of real urgency.
Whiteley: In beginning your book, The High School, you said the time in your view for the reform of education has arrived, but you then took a very hopeful note and said that there is absolutely no time in the 20th Century that was more opportune to begin that work of reform than now. What did you have in mind in stating that?
Boyer: Well, I think those were not contradictory. We began with a sense of urgency, and in the prologue of our report we tried to draw a quick portrait of where we are now compared to where we were at Sputnik, the last big moment when reform washed across this nation. Absolutely startling what 25 years have brought. I mean, at that time television was just a beginning influence, and now it's pervasive in our culture. At that time one little basketball was orbiting in space; now we have thousands, almost a junkyard out there. And I could go on and on. The world has changed profoundly. That was the theme that began our report on high school. And our vision of education has to somehow be brought up to date with the realities of the future. Now the reason I remain - I said this is the best moment we've had in a decade, or in 25 years, and perhaps the best moment in this century, because the nation is now asking the right questions. Why do we have schools? What are their purposes? How can we strengthen them? So I think the opportunity, as they say, a window of opportunity - I don't pretend to suggest that we have yet found the right formula, the right strategy by which we can bring a dramatic change to the system, to the schools that I think match in fact, the dramatic agenda that we describe, but I think the opportunity is there.
Whiteley: Reflecting on the need for education, and indeed its obligation to think about how its mission in society can contribute to human betterment, what vision do you have for education for the 21st Century?
Boyer: First, it would be a process in which individuals would, with confidence, feel they had the ability to guide their own lives. But also with objectivity, to understand their responsibility to guide the future of the world as well, becoming less concerned about the narrow interests that we've inherited and more committed to the shaping of a future with security for all. And that education would be seen as the developing of a power toward common good, because in the end, through education one does become empowered. In fact, looking to the future of knowledge more than ever before will become the sources of power and authority. Whiteley: And the uses to which that knowledge is put is for you, the critical challenge...
Boyer: To me that's the big unexplored issue of the past decade or so, perhaps this century. and the sadness is that in the earlier days there was enormously careful attention paid to not only the acquiring of knowledge, but to its uses. Without being sentimental about it, the capstone of the college curriculum a hundred years ago, was a course called 'moral philosophy.' Now that may have been an attempt to indoctrinate, but the vision was that in the end, you need to be reminded that you've been given a tremendous weapon, that you are now able to influence and shape, not only your other - your life alone - but you can perhaps help shape the destiny of us all. That was the vision of a democracy that said to each individual, you become empowered to search for common good. On the other hand, the moral philosophy course was trying to say you have to do that within limits, because if you have this power, unrestrained by conscience or by moral directive, it could unleash enormous destruction.
On the other hand, if you care about its application toward common good, it can indeed lead to betterment. Now, if knowledge was dangerous in the last century unrestrained; the difference in the 20th, 21st Century is that we've taken expedential leaps in terms of its danger because we've discovered, through our brilliance, the capacity not only to destroy our own lives by misusing knowledge, but destroy human life. Therefore, the urgent need for what I guess I'd call a capstone in moral philosophy is profoundly more important because the stakes are so high today. The ante has been raised, and therefore, the quality of our education and the moral authority that's behind it must be improved as well.
Whiteley: Dr. Boyer, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the role of education in the quest for peace.