It's Time to Debate Our Mission
What is education for?
Rebecca Johns, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Geography
University of Southern Florida

This article originally appeared in Advocate, a newsletter of the National Education Association. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author. The article was originally addressed to college and university professors, but it is of equal value to students.

    An educational system increasingly driven by technological imperatives, and ever more closely linked to meeting the needs of the corporate market-place in the information age, demands that we ask, debate, and answer a critical question about our mission: What is education for?

    The peril in leaving this question unaddressed lies, I fear, not so much in the danger to our faculty jobs as we have known them, but to the outcome of our lifelong endeavors.

    The danger lies in the restructuring of higher education itself that accompanies the trumpeting of new technologies.  For the virtual classroom accentuates the focus on the ability of higher education institutions to produce graduates that claim the best jobs in the information economy.

    Education driven by the imperative to provide employees for the Information Age will, I fear, find scant place for philosophy, ethics, art, or courses that provocatively delve into amyriad of social issues.

    If higher education is judged on its ability to produce the workers corporations need at the turn of the century, who will produce students who dare to ask hard questions about the merits of mass consumption, global inequities, the skeletons in our historical closet such as genocide against native Americans, or to ponder whether each and every technology we are capable of developing should, indeed, be created?

    I believe that education does not mean catering to a corporate agenda or running universities like businesses.  It is not our job to please the stockholders, meet the bottom line, or keep the customer happy.

    Education, to me, means graduating students who will contribute in a myriad of ways to creating a global society that is more just, equitable, and sustainable than ever before. Global citizens need a firm grounding in world history, geopolitics, cultural diversity, and environmental and social change. Global citizenship demands strong analytical skills, the ability to learn and communicate ideas, and critical thinking skills.

    It is imperative that we debate this issue now, for the answer to the question, "What is education for?  "underlies all the challenges we face as we enter the 21st century.

Rebecca Johns, Ph.D.
University of South Florida

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Revised: March 9, 2000.