I was born into a family where the value of education was never questioned. My mother told stories of how her Swedish-speaking father taught her to read using a matchstick to point out each word as he read it aloud. While my grandmother clung to the old country, my grandfather emphasized that all the children should speak English at home so they would learn faster in school. For an immigrant family in the grips of the Great Depression, a good education was a ray of hope for a better future.
In my generation, we were expected to apply ourselves in school so that we would have more opportunities than our parents did. When I went off to college, it was assumed by my parents that I would get a job after graduation. But the emphasis was always on getting an education. What an extraordinary gift that was.
Today, so many young students I know feel pressured to articulate their career goals before they even apply to college. And many, facing the staggering cost of higher education, are also pressured to fit into science, technology, engineering, mathematic, or healthcare career programs that will most certainly lead to “a good job.” Society needs expertise and good professionals in all these areas, of course, but it also needs creative problem solvers, effective communicators, thoughtful humanists, and citizens with a breadth of knowledge as well as a depth.
In 2017 the American Academy of Arts & Sciences released The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America, a report that clearly outlines the challenges of our times: “As we grapple with persistent social inequities, widening political divisions, prolonged international conflict, and intensifying environmental challenges, we often seem more concerned with the limits of our present capabilities than in the realization of our dreams.” The report offers a way “to regain our momentum” by re-committing to the promise of education. “Education is not the solution to every problem,” notes AAAS president Jonathan F. Fanton in the introduction to the report, “but it is often the best tool we have at our disposal, and there is reason to believe it has been the primary source of our greatest achievements over the past century.” At a presentation on the report, a speaker summarized what a re-commitment to the promise of education might actually look like: An undergraduate education that “prepare[s] students for career success, active, effective citizenship, and a richer cultural and personal life.”
Education and knowledge are about more than a great job. An educated citizenry is one of the foundations of a healthy democracy, and a richer cultural and personal life is one of the ways we achieve that elusive pursuit of happiness. For these reasons alone, the report deserves attention.
This year, the Academy is exploring the promise of education in two Academy Talks and a spring conference that examine the ways in which higher education can help us reach higher and farther as individuals—and as a society. We hope you’ll join us in re-committing to the promise of education, and share your ideas with us over the coming year.