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on Leading the Next Generation


The Drift We’ve Witnessed in Education

By: Tim Elmore



When I spoke to Mr. Dunn, an English teacher of high school seniors, he told me he had one job: to teach language arts to teenagers. My first response was to agree. He had but one task each day, and he was doing a good job of it.

When I reflected on the history of education in America, I recognized we’ve drifted. If you care about education, this blog post is for you. 

Today, we have narrowed the task of education to a purely cognitive exercise. This has not always been the case. Let me illustrate by reminding you of two dictionary definitions for the word education.


What’s Your Definition?

A modern definition of education from the Merriam-Webster dictionary is, “The action or process of educating or of being educated; the knowledge and development resulting from the process of being educated.” From this definition, we surmise that education is simply a matter of knowledge and development. What constitutes either is uncertain.

An older definition sheds light on the issue. Noah Webster’s 1928 dictionary definition of education is, “The bringing up of a child through instruction; the formation of manners. Education comprehends all series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper and form the manners and habits of youth and to fit them for usefulness in their future stations.” 

Believe it or not, Noah Webster actually continued by saying to give children a good education means developing them in manners, the arts and the sciences; and to give them a religious education is an indispensable responsibility which rests on parents and guardians.

Education, in this definition, is broadened from accumulating knowledge to enabling students to gain understanding so that it changes the way they manage their lives. Education includes:

  • Correcting their tempers
  • Practicing habits and manners
  • Developing reason.


Noah Webster’s definition implies that the learner is capable of reason but is also flawed and thereby prone to the irrational. Educators and parents are to equip their students to exercise their will in a moral and reasonable manner so they can become generative adults.

If we embrace this definition, it is apparent we discarded it decades ago.


The Drift We’ve Experienced

There is little doubt teachers feel this quandary. They know that student development is about more than academic progress, grade point averages, and SAT scores. This is why many schools now include social and emotional learning in their weekly coursework, especially because it’s not happening in millions of homes. Teachers must not only focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also on helping students manage their emotions, build disciplined habits, and empathize with others. These have commonly been called soft skills.

In James Baldwin’s A Talk to Teachers” in 1963 he reminds us of this charge: “Our obligation as educators is to entrust in our students the abilities to create conscious citizens who are vocal about reexamining their society.” In other words, our job is to create active problem-solvers. Research suggests that problem-solving skills help buffer against distress when people are experiencing stressful events in life. 

Let me offer one vivid illustration of how our drift from this charge is costing us.


We Are in a Perfect Storm

America is experiencing a perfect storm of elements at this moment. For more than two decades, we’ve been telling our kids to go to college so they can get a great job. Most educators I talk to, however, acknowledge that not every K-12 student is cut out for a four-year liberal arts university. Many would be more suited for a trade school, learning to be an electrician, a builder, a plumber, a mechanic, or even a truck driver.

When we got ambushed by a pandemic, we suffered the consequences of our advice.

As people stayed home in quarantine, we all got comfortable ordering products and services online.  In fact, many people didn’t want to go back to work. There is a labor shortage, not because there aren’t enough jobs but because there are not enough workers for those jobs. Most high school students where I live don’t want to work jobs that feel “below them.” Prior to the pandemic, college graduates had been conditioned by society to wait for the perfect job. In December, we heard on the news that there was a backup of shipping boxes off the coast of California and trucking companies couldn’t find people to drive delivery trucks. Consumers are waiting longer to receive what they purchased. Prices are up, and efficiency is down. At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, I think we told too many kids those jobs aren’t worthwhile, that they should have a white-collar job. In reality, many of the plumbing, electrical, or truck driving jobs pay very well and would be perfect for millions of students who were forced into a narrow window of what success looks like. If millennials and Generation Z are underemployed, is it possible many of them are because they got a college degree they didn’t need? And is it because we neglected to teach basic job skills or soft skills to them?

My Conclusion

It’s time we return to practicality. What if we embrace the earlier definition of education and form great problem-solvers who practice disciplines and address challenges in society? This will not only entail social and emotional learning but also character and leadership. Don’t get me wrong. Academics are clearly important, but not at the expense of practical skill sets that improve the way we live our lives.

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  1. Deborah on March 19, 2022 at 9:49 am

    I appreciate the education definition relook but the problem is not too many heading toward college. Only 66 percent of high school students start college and 57% finish in six years. The problem is the other almost half of that percentage who qualify for any non degreed job. They need to be responsible contributors who are not struggling with addictions. Reality is that there are less manual labor jobs due to increasing technology. One of the most valuable skills learned in college is problem solving which is why many employers prefer a college degreed employee, any degree. We need to better prepare and motivate the average American scholar for college.

    • RC Scott on March 19, 2022 at 1:24 pm

      Deborah, Not sure where you got your stats but they do not seem totally accurate. 66% of those who graduate or just attend HS? 57% of HS graduates or those who start college? Half of those who graduate or those who attend college? Qualify for what? Fast food? Landscaping? Retail? or Electrician, plumber, etc. There is more technology but there are NOT LESS manual labor jobs as our population continues to increase. Ask any of these employers. There is more need for all these jobs. Now we know many have been filled by new immigrants (legal and illegal) but there are plenty of opportunities for those going to trade schools and through tech training Some of the most successful men and women in history, and even most recently in the computer world, were not college graduates. I have employed many over the years, both college and non-college educated, and honestly would first prefer someone with a good work ethic and discipline regardless of their college education. No question. Overrated (and of course over-priced) college is not the answer for many to have a totally successful career in whatever they might feel lead to choose. And certainly not worthy of the debt they are burdened with for years. Much agree with your thoughts Tim.

  2. Laura on March 19, 2022 at 8:23 pm

    I agree with what you wrote in this post. Unfortunately, in my state of Oklahoma, we have legislators drafting legislation that would prevent educators like myself from teaching Social Emotional Learning. It is disheartening because I went into teaching to do just what Noah Webster defined as education. I want to help my students be better humans and equipped to face the challenges they will encounter. Thank you for your curriculum and passion to help build the next generation of leaders!

  3. Jackie Martin on March 19, 2022 at 9:05 pm

    I’ve been an adult educator for years in the corporate training realm. Increasingly over the last 10 years employers I worked with were more and more frustrated with the essential skills missing as young professionals entered their workplace. We were trying to deal with it by updating orientation and onboarding training to address some of these skill issues, but it wasn’t working. It was then the idea to teach these skills sooner started to form. That’s when we built a curriculum and then became a new nonprofit in North Georgia that helps provide that very kind of training to teens. We provide hands-on workshops of both social/emotional skills like resiliency, problem-solving, and strong communication AND tactical/practical skills like interviewing, self-care strategies, car care, civic duty, budgeting and many more. We are just making inroads in the schools, but many parents are already concerned for their students, so they are thrilled to have something to sign their students up for. And, speaking of parents, they need love and support too, so we just started offering workshops for parents too. We live in a very competitive world and parents don’t talk about the issues or fears they have for their teens, so we want to give them a chance to learn from each other and from educators and parenting experts. Just trying to make a difference!

  4. Nick on March 27, 2022 at 9:30 am

    Thanks for the helpful article. Fully agree with the ideas expressed. I remember during the years of university life I spent all my free time writing essays, although this skill was not useful later in life. It is good that now students have the opportunity to transfer such tasks to services such as

  5. MilaSmith on March 30, 2022 at 10:33 am

    Everyone who cares about future should care about education. It remains me a Greek tragedy in Antigone that reflects society problems of those days. I’m sure, if people had had critical thinking, education, it wouldn’t have happened. We should learn every day and follow education progress.

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    안전한놀이터 The Japanese media reported in unison that Lee Bo-mi could not continue her withering. In an interview, he said, “I tested a lot of swings and I’m glad I didn’t give up.” “If you’re thinking about retiring, you can’

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  14. book writer on April 13, 2022 at 4:02 am

    In a world that is continually developing and advancing, our educational system has faltered. Students are dropping out at record numbers and falling behind among the nations of the world.

  15. Adam on April 21, 2022 at 1:01 am

    This is a good approach, thanks for the ideas. I think that many teachers could even run their YouTube like or a blog that would help other people get more knowledge

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The Drift We’ve Witnessed in Education