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Perspective | Shocks of 2020 point to an education agenda for 2021

As it declared independence in the summer of 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a three-person committee, consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, to design a “seal for the United States of America.”  From that committee emerged the aspirational motto, E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One).

From its beginning, America has exhibited a tension, a pull-and-tug, between individualism and community, between protecting personal rights and promoting domestic tranquility and welfare — between I-me-mine and we-us-our. The shocks of 2020 — a contagious virus, a contentious presidential election, a staggered economy, police killings of Black people, and even an excess of tropical storms — illuminated and exacerbated the nation’s historic tension and its contemporary divisions, which were on wrenching display at the nation’s Capitol this week.

Schools, colleges, and universities occupy a distinctive space in the interplay of assertive individualism and yearning for unity. Education arms individuals with knowledge and skills to thrive in a complex society. Simultaneously, educational institutions serve as community anchors and creative hubs that bring diverse individuals onto a common ground.

America has entered 2021 a nation sorely divided, and yet 2020 offers key lessons. A basic lesson is that meeting the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, of recovery from storms, of healing racial wounds, and of economic distress cannot be met simply individual by individual, acting in isolation. Americans need each other, in both public and private enterprises.

Democratic norms matter. Creative and cultural enterprises that have absorbed hard blows matter. Schools, colleges, and universities that produce smart people who treat the ill and discover new medicines matter.

For education in North Carolina, the year 2020 left much unfinished business for 2021: for example, extending digital connectivity, overcoming learning loss, resolving a lingering impasse over teacher pay. As educators strive to have their schools reemerge with confidence from their lockdowns, an opportunity arises for the state to refresh and refocus on a “purpose-driven education.”

That concept came from a long conversation and an exchange of emails I had this week with Charles Coble, former dean of the East Carolina University School of Education and former vice president of the UNC system. As Coble pointed out, the “purpose” of education has shifted over the course of  American history — from creating an informed electorate in the early Republic, to providing workers for the industrial era, and more recently to producing more citizens with problem-solving, information-literary skills. 

“The response by public and private education has lagged, sometimes considerably, behind societal change,” said Coble. So how should schools respond purposefully to issues arising from the debates and divisions of 2020 over science, race, and constitutional structures?

It takes an appreciation for the role and methods of science to make sense of how a contagion spreads and how medicines are developed. It takes more than a passing familiarity with history and governance to comprehend the dangers to democracy.  

“Science should no longer be taught in the layer cake of biology, then chemistry, physics and Earth science — that is not how science occurs in the world,” said Coble. “Nor should we continue to separate and teach the social sciences and humanities as discreet and unrelated courses.”

Redefining a “purpose-driven education” will require a shift in both state and national educational dynamics. Still, there are immediate steps for North Carolina policymakers to take in 2021: restoring the legislative-driven cutback in American history enacted a year ago; attacking learning loss by lengthening the school day and extending schooling into the summer; and committing to a massive initiative in professional development for teachers and principals to strengthen capacity in schools to address the challenges confronting 21st Century society.

More broadly, as the results of the presidential election and its aftermath make clear, polarization will linger in a fractured nation divided by race, place, economics and sources of information and disinformation. As daunting as the task may seem, 2021 is a year to launch a repurposing of schools to renew the spirit of E Pluribus Unum.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.