As an educator, my first response to the State of the Union was delight because the president focused so much of his discussion on the importance of education to our economy, present and future. We can only "win the future," he told us, "if we improve our educational system and make it function better for its consumers. Absolutely right on, I thought.
But then I noticed something about the president's repeated references to "education" and what the term seemed to mean to him. Without exception, when he specified what "education" was about, it was the new trinity: mathematics, science and technology. If education imparted these forms of knowledge to students, we were assured, this country's tradition of innovation would return and save us -- economically and even socially.
That, it seemed, was what education was and what it was for: vocational advancement, economic and lifestyle advantage, global competitiveness and higher prestige for our country and its citizens. Period.
I applaud those motives and I agree that excellence in those areas is a crucial aspect of education and a strong justification for it. But is that the only reason to get an education -- or even the major one?
As a social scientist-cum-humanist, rather than a mathematician, physical scientist or technocrat, I have to argue with the president's implicit definitions. To define the goals of education so narrowly is to restrict its value and, I would say, to sell ourselves short as individuals, as a society and as a nation. Education, properly conceived and developed, can and should do much more.
The discourse of Sarah Palin and her friends is appalling on its own, but worse is the way in which their readings of the Constitution and American history in general have been accepted as uncontroversially true by so many voters. There is a reason why this nation's founders, especially Thomas Jefferson, were concerned with making education available to all prospective voters and the Tea Party's success demonstrates the validity of their concern. There is a reason why Abraham Lincoln signed the law establishing land-grant colleges in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Voters who have been exposed to critical thinking, especially in the areas of the social sciences, including of course political science, history and civics, are better voters than ignoramuses: better in discerning their own interests and voting to support them and better for the nation's continued well-being as a nation.
So even if we persist in valuing education only in terms of its practical value, that value must go beyond the holy three sanctified by President Obama. To be economically competitive, Americans must be conversant with science and technology (which imply mathematics). But in order to be politically intelligent and make important decisions at the ballot box, we must be equally familiar with history and politics.
But as important as it is to recognize the practical values of education, to me it seems even more important to recognize its less practical (but equally vital) functions. Education exposes us to ourselves and one another, to people seemingly very unlike ourselves (but not so different after all, if we get to know them), as well as to our own habits of thought. If we cannot achieve this understanding of ourselves, our virtues and shortcomings, we cannot be compassionate and we cannot be thoughtful. We cannot be fully human. What's more, and probably more important, is that we will be denied important sources of pleasure and for this reason we will also be less able to function fully in all our capacities.
Understanding how human beings work -- through literature, music, art and the social sciences such as psychology, anthropology and (dare I say) linguistics -- has no immediate practical value. Except for a few of us, it doesn't translate directly into jobs (though for many more, it certainly translates into getting a job done well). It doesn't make this country more "competitive": it does not, in any direct sense, enable us to "win the future" (though it might enable us to fully appreciate that complex metaphor).
It's the very "impracticality" of the humanities that makes them valuable to human beings and their societies. Education is invaluable not only in its ability to help people and societies get ahead, but equally in helping them develop the perspectives that make them fully human.