09/11/2012 03:18 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

No Adult Left Behind

Over a century after his death, Mark Twain's assessment of educational policymakers remains popular: "In the first place, God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made School Boards." As the children go back to school, it is time to think about whether Twain's acerbic assessment is accurate: Are schools educating for twenty-first century needs?

No. Too much of the national and global education debate continues to focus on schooling for children and young adults. The years from kindergarten to college are undoubtedly critical, and no shortcuts should be taken with younger generations, even as we face severe budget restrictions. But if the primary goal of school is "educate and prepare tomorrow's leaders," then teachers, school boards, policymakers and others need to recognize the extent to which education has a new target audience: older adults.

Civic Ventures got the memo. With Encore Careers, they're on the front-lines of adult education, giving older adults the resources they need to stay active, engaged and productive into later life. But if we're going to keep two billion over-60s contributing to growth and wealth creation, a larger culture shift is necessary. "Back to school" needs to become a social imperative, not just a gimmick to sell more Dora the Explorer lunchboxes.

With more people over 60 than under 14 by mid-century, the notion that school is just for the young has become dangerously obsolete. Both public and private pensions are running short on cash, and people are saving far too little to retire in their 60's. Boomers and other "seniors" need to be given opportunities to continue with their educations so they can remain relevant, but, right now, those opportunities are too scarce.

Simply put, education needs to be re-imagined for twenty-first century society -- a society in which, for the first time ever, the old outnumber the young. But what would this education look like? And how might it differ from the education invented for a younger world?

First, there's the where of education. In the twentieth century, learning took place in schools, whether in humble elementary schools down the block or on college campuses lined with giant elms. In other words, there has traditionally been a full separation between education and work. Education was something you did before you went to work, or -- in rare cases -- something you did in addition to work.

Looking ahead, these two separate pursuits need to be merged. As Cathy Benko and Molly Anderson have argued, if we replace the "corporate ladder" with the "corporate lattice," new opportunities emerge for schools to work with businesses, non-profits, social institutions, governmental agencies and more. These new sites of education will, of course, be largely enabled by new technologies. A few creative solutions can be found in Joe Coughlin's MIT AgeLab, but these innovations need to be brought to practical use. TED has showed some of the possibility.

Second, there's the what of education. While Art History and Paleolithic Anthropology may be fine pursuits for expanding young minds and cultivating the next generation of museum curators, schools need to seriously re-examine their curricula to assess whether they are appropriate for both younger and older students. And businesses, non-profits and other potential employers could consult with schools to advise on the topics of education that will help older workers remain at the heart of economic production. What the aging adult needs to learn to remain an asset to the economy is very different than what the 19-year-old needs to learn, and all parties ought to collaborate to figure out what this education will look like.

For universities, this means living up to their mission statements that pronounce their intention to create "public good" and "community service." With adult learners, universities have the opportunity to show there's some substance behind the platitudes.

If universities and other higher educational institutions could create a new where and what of education that meets the needs of our 21st century aging society, they'd have the rare opportunity to prove Mark Twain wrong. For years, businesses and educational institutes have been partnering on all sorts of initiatives -- from building technology centers to creating programs for community outreach. Now, it's time to forge a new partnership, one that can re-invent how and where education is delivered to prepare the older adults who will become tomorrow's leaders. And in the process, we can give a more profound and lasting meaning to the term, "Back to School."