07/17/2012 10:41 am ET Updated Sep 16, 2012

What Students Are Really Being Taught

Do you ever yearn to travel to the Great Pyramids at Giza? How about standing in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican? Maybe the remnants of the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States? These landmarks represent not only the epitome of design, art, and engineering, they also help illuminate the human obsession with greed, wealth, and power.

History, as is often taught to us from elementary school through college, shows us the great markers of the past -- and of "success." We learn about pharaohs and popes, emperors and entrepreneurs, but what is often lurking in the shadows -- and being neglected -- in curricula across the country is the teaching of how these great achievements of Western and Eastern culture truly came to be. Our discussions on discourse tend to neglect to mention the numerous slaves who were forced to commit their lives -- and deaths -- to build Khufu's "great" pyramid, or the conquered peoples that helped Caligula lay the foundation of what would eventually become Vatican City, or that the famous "Last Spike" of the Transcontinental Railroad really represented underpaid Irish and Chinese immigrants.

The great pillars of achievement and advancement in both the world and in the United States are often taught as laudatory feats rather than social abhorrences, and it seems more and more that education is currently being fought over in a similar way. In a blog post in the New York Times, Catherine Rampell argues that because study-time has fallen in recent decades and that fewer students are pursuing good-paying jobs that:

Generally speaking, the students who study engineering are willing to work hard and abide by higher standards -- traits that are useful in the labor market. Additionally, because these students worked harder in college, they also learned more, about engineering or any other subject. That would imply that humanities majors could have similar earnings potential if only they studied more, which may or may not be true.

What Rampell implies -- and writes off -- is that students who study humanities, as a whole, do not work hard. Her quick write-off and unwillingness to provide a solution has become commonplace in the American mentality of complaining about a situation without offering to help work towards change. Rampell comes up close to a discussion that has not explicitly been addressed by the media, politicians, and America at large: What is the purpose of education? Numerous books, articles, blogs, and video programs have devoted time and energy to arguing how to make the most money from a college degree -- but is education meant to bring monetary means? Or is education meant to help encourage critical thinking in an ever-changing and ever-confusing world and market system?

Training engineers is important, and so is training dancers, musicians, English teachers, and artists of every kind. As David Orr puts it:

The plain fact is that the world does not need more successful people. but it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.

So, does it become important to prepare students for a specialized path that narrows their focus and provides limited skills, or is it imperative to teach skills that help students re-envision what it means to be successful? Should education teach students to accept the systems that are in place because of large corporations, or help teach them to help systematically change the "facts" of life into creating cultures where we care for each other and the environment?

We no longer live in a world where working hard guarantees financial success, but we do still live in a world where people live in need. And what is needed in education is a radical shift away from systematically educating for success to educating on how best to help others and create sustainable civilizations on our finite planet.

It has been the nature of the American Dream to nurture the need for monetary wealth and stability, but more and more we are seeing that our poorly designed systems are overturned by the greedy few. The New American Dream, one the pushes to fight for the rights of fellow citizens, reinvests in small business, and helps us think creatively and sustainably, needs to start being discussed in education, not only for the sake of students, but for the success of the planet.