Long ago (150 years, give or take), education started at home. Mothers and older siblings taught young children to read (mostly the Bible) and do basic math (mostly simple accounting). At the same time, they taught children how to do homework and write letters. They prepared children to be a productive part of the household, ready to help with the family finances and business, and part of the community.
When children began working in the factories, they were removed from this home learning environment, often coming to the factories with wildly varying levels of education. It was felt that these children’s education should be continued and that all children should have the same base knowledge, so in the mid-late nineteenth century, we started down the slippery slope of public education.
There’s nothing wrong with public education. The idea that society should make sure the next generation has the basic knowledge to succeed once they’re beyond school is a noble one. The problem comes in defining “basic common knowledge”. It’s an issue we’ve been wrestling with ever since the first school opened its doors. Even now, our most recent stab at defining what’s most important to us in education, the No Child Left Behind Act, has schools crying, “Uncle!”
So, why is a basic common knowledge important? Well, while education mainly concerns itself with building knowledge and skills, it’s really about building enabling communication. Having a basic common knowledge allows those beyond school to make certain assumptions about their audience so they don’t have to go back and explain. It encourages and supports discussions among community members, and it enables our metaphorical tendencies.
If we give everyone this basic common knowledge, it’s a good start. But we need to develop higher-level skills to be ready to function in society, and we need the specialized skills needed for our future careers. What shape should that level take?