What is education for? People have debated this question for centuries. Different people define education differently.
Our current period in history is described as the information age, and we have access to more knowledge than we know what to do with. But something is still missing—wisdom.
In 1947, Martin Luther King, Jr wrote: “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the truth from the false, the real from the unreal and the facts from fiction.” King’s words remain relevant today. King added, “Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”
Artificial intelligence (AI) lacks the ability to reliably sort facts from fiction. School systems across the nation have filed lawsuits against Meta, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Google, WhatsApp, and YouTube regarding an alleged lack of controls surrounding student access and appropriate content.
These districts allege that "damages and growing mental health crisis among students." One area mentioned is the algorithms that target kids. We are all targeted by these sophisticated algorithms. Safiya Umoja Noble, a professor at UCLA, argues that search algorithms perpetuate societal problems because they reflect the negative biases that exist in society and the people who create them.
Children, like adults, lack discernment and understanding. We place greater value on acquiring knowledge and information. We know people can be knowledgeable without being wise. Without wisdom, we risk exacerbating existing biases and inequalities, thus promoting misinformation. Wisdom is the ability to discern or judge what is true and right. Wisdom acts on knowledge. Education must produce self-thinking individuals that as adults can evaluate the knowledge to which they have been exposed.
For King, one of the “chief aims of education” is to “save man from the morass of propaganda.” There is a needed discussion about guidelines and necessary regulations for digital education, data collection, social media, and AI for addressing new and evolving technology.
Our struggle is no different from the one we have debated for years. If we are not careful, King warned, we will produce “close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts.” As student discipline issues escalate, the cause and effect may be connected to the loss of the purpose of education.
Public education needs to frequently revisit our mission, vision, and priorities. Most importantly, we must listen to our educators doing the actual work and hear their voices. They have been telling us for years the workload and stress are becoming impossible. The stress even impacts our students and their parents.
Mental health issues continue to escalate post-pandemic. This impacts not just the students we serve, but all school employees who are struggling with issues on their own. Students pose new and increased behavioral and mental health challenges for educators.
Our schools must remain focused on reading, writing, and arithmetic. However, as we build the skills and knowledge necessary for students to be academically successful—we must also develop well-rounded students. Self-care is vital for all students and educators. State Representative Mike Sparks often discusses "the importance of connecting with students and the rise of mental health issues in our society."
Writer Doug Lemov identified an urgent need for schools to prioritize reconnecting with students post-pandemic, providing strategies for fostering a sense of belonging, resilience, and academic excellence. Lemov writes that the looming changes are less short-term and more permanent. Lemov said, “I don’t know of a single school leader who doesn’t think that kids came back from the pandemic differently. They appear to have shorter attention spans, they struggle in social interactions with peers, they have more behavioral issues, and they struggle to persist with tasks.”
Educators at every level from primary school through college are thrust into the debate to understand and redefine their role as they look at education’s purpose. We are not charged with just disseminating knowledge or teaching critical thinking, but also nurturing character. How then are we to evaluate such an education?
Years from now, when we will look back on the pandemic and post-pandemic recovery as a defining moment in education. Millions of students and educators deserve discussion on these issues. It is time for the debate to begin. What is education for?
JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee