Today's letter is in response to the question posed by the White House to the public, What does 21st century education mean to you?
Dear Mr. President,
As the 21st century was beginning, I was only starting High School. Sadly, I feel my own education was more a product of the previous century, and I think this has impacted not only my ability to compete for jobs, but also to feel comfortable moving in circles with those who have been properly prepared for the current educational demands. Education in the 21st century must, of course, include competency and even fluency with modern technology; it must expose students to cultures, languages, and lifestyles other than their own; the educational experience ought to include strong emphasis on science and math, without sacrificing any of the liberal arts foundation.
Computers are such an integral part of our daily lives that no student educated in this country ought to leave school without being familiar, comfortable, and confident using computers, the internet, word processing and document presentation, and even basic programming. Ideally, this would occur well before college and high school. I don't feel that my own educational experience failed to prepare me for a world that requires computer literacy, but I owe that almost entirely to the Gates foundation, as my school benefited from the generosity of Mr. Gates's commitment to his home state. I'm not sure that this is true for all of my generation, especially those who come from families unable to afford computers in their own home, or who lived in school districts unable to afford new computers or the instructors to properly utilize them.
One area where I was not so fortunate was exposure to foreign languages. Most students have the option of taking Spanish, French or German in High School. If they are very lucky, Japanese or Russian are also options. Mr. President, we may be lucky enough to live in a time where the entirety of the rest of the world clamors to learn English, but this does us more harm than good if we allow it to make us complacent about educating our children in other languages. Spanish ought to be taught from a much earlier age, along side English in elementary and middle schools. In high school, students should have a wider variety of languages to choose from, and an incentive should be offered to encourage schools to offer languages more relevant to the modern economy. (While it is impossible, even incorrect, to argue the merits of one language over another, it is difficult to deny that the modern student would have a wider variety of career options with a working knowledge of Arabic, Hindi, or Chinese, rather than German.) Multilingual students will not only be better able to communicate with and understand non- Americans, they will posses the skills to more easily learn new languages in the future, making them more adaptable.
Education in the 21st Century must be about more than just learning about other cultures and lifestyles, it must include practical exposure. I feel a greater emphasis should be put on travel and exchange programs, as well as service learning. Students should be required to do service work in their communities as a part of their education. Volunteer work is a great way to gain experience for later careers, but it also fosters a sense of responsibility for one's community. Tying volunteer work closely to education can illuminate areas of study in ways that classroom learning alone cannot.
Math and science are another area in which early exposure- well before high school- will help our schools produce more competent graduates. Liberal Arts educations provide essential critical thinking skills and ought not to be devalued, but practicality demands that we increase our emphasis on math and science if Americans are to remain competitive in the Modern economy.
In my view, education in the 21st century must be about connectivity. Our world is getting smaller and we must eager and enthusiastic about the things that allow us to connect to others- common languages like math, science and technology, as well as empathy and understanding, a willingness to learn new languages, to experience and adapt to the cultures of those who are not like us, wherever they may be found.