Readers of Solutions do not need to be told that we are faced with monumental problems. At the center of our many challenges is the fact that the poorest billion of the earth’s inhabitants live on less than the equivalent of $U.S.1 per day, while the richest 1 billion live in luxury based on depleting and despoiling nature, including overloading the atmosphere with carbon. What can we do to convince the privileged, Americans not least among them, to reduce their environmental footprint and share their good fortune with those who are less endowed? Coercion is morally and practically not an option, so the solution depends on the citizens of free and democratic societies choosing to do so. This situation is complicated by the fact that we know most people act on the basis of emotion and irrational biases, not reason, evidence, and logic. Consequently, central to any viable solution to any major problem is an education that prepares young people for the responsibilities of citizenship.
Unfortunately, the education we have now not only fails pitifully, but reinforces inequality and fosters ignorance of science, economics, politics, and government. That is why, when a book appears with a title like Learning in Depth (University of Chicago Press, 2011), it demands our attention, especially when it receives as much praise from education luminaries as this one has. However, author Kieran Egan’s solution for the deficits of the current educational system does not fully live up to its billing.
Egan’s remedy for the shallowness of current education is “Learning in Depth” (LiD). The plan is undeniably innovative and has some merit. Specifically, Egan proposes that each student, as early as first grade, be randomly assigned a topic selected from a predetermined list. The student would stay with the assigned topic for twelve years, thereby gaining a broad, deep engagement with the subject. Each year, a teacher would supervise the student’s work. All of the student’s cumulative learning would be documented and maintained in a portfolio. None of it would be graded, nor would it in any way interfere with the existing school curriculum. As the student advanced in grade level, different teachers would supervise the project. Egan devotes considerable space to how knowledge develops through different levels of schooling.
The author offers several reasons for why LiD is desirable and frames it in terms of what deep knowledge does for the mind. Among these reasons are the following: It fosters an understanding of what knowledge is and how it works. It makes learning pleasurable. It stimulates the imagination. And it encourages humility. All are worthwhile goals.
What are the criteria for a topic worthy of LiD? It should have sufficient breadth and depth, contain potential connections to the student, and be acceptable to parents. The topic must not be overly technical, too general, or focused on (too) depressing features of human existence. Local resources for study of the topic must be available.
What topics meet these criteria and are worthy of LiD? A full chapter is devoted to examples, how they unfold over the course of twelve years of study, and why they promote LiD. Among the proposed topics (not exhaustive) are dust, apples, the wheel, mollusks, railways, leaves, ships, the circus, water, the rings of Saturn, animals, footwear, teeth, musical instruments, water, cooking, tools, maps, and trees. I hope the reader of this review gets the point.
At a time when schooling is bogged down and going nowhere, Egan brings much needed ideas and energy. The proposal is innovative and courageous. Daring to advocate learning in depth at a time when current law forbids it (just a slight exaggeration) and the emphasis is on high-stakes standardized testing takes substantial chutzpah. Egan anticipates objections and responds. And, perhaps anticipating the inertia one encounters when trying to make substantive changes in education, Egan strategically offers his proposal as an addition to the curriculum and suggests noncontroversial topics. If it were enough to get students to learn something deeply, he would have made a significant contribution.
But it isn’t enough. Nor would be learning traditional subjects in depth, nor even topics such as global climate change, war and peace, equality and justice. At a time when change is ever accelerating and humans make significant and lasting alterations to the environment that remain for all forthcoming generations, the goal of education has to be preparing all students for their role as empowered citizens whose major responsibility is the invention of the future. No longer can the goal be preparing students to compete as workers in a global economy. Rather, students must be educated to be designers of a postglobal economy. The learning in depth for such responsibility can be reduced to just three topics: vision, diagnosis, and remedy.
Vision means imagining a world as good as it can be, while making a case for that world’s desirability and feasibility. Such imagining would begin with the study of past utopias, starting with Plato’s Republic, followed by More’s Utopia, Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, and H. G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia. All serve to develop ways of thinking that stimulate the student into a serious contemplation of an imagined future and, thereby, invigorate a schooling that now has students passively submitting to a future imposed upon them. As students advance in grade, the visions would require applications of science, mathematics, philosophy, history, literature, economics, politics, psychology, nutrition, ecology, and all of the arts. Such study would also require understanding of democratic theory sufficient to assess and make sense out of governance.
Diagnosis entails an in-depth study of existing society and the nature of its ever-growing challenges. That, too, would require an ever more thorough understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the existing world, an understanding sufficient to determine how to provide a sustainable, equitable, and fulfilling life to all who inhabit the planet.
Remedy involves devising strategies for how to go from where we are to where we would like to be. Such an education would necessarily feature discussion and debate in all three topics as students deliberate and assess the current situation, its future possibilities, and the various means to get there. Students will acquire ever-greater depth of knowledge as they struggle to reach a consensus.
This is a call for a total transformation of education, a transformation suited for the twenty-first century. It will likely be dismissed as utopian, which of course it is. However, anything less ambitious will only add to the miseries of a world already plagued with economic collapse, unending war, injustice, and ever more horrific environmental devastation. And the longer we wait for such an education, the more tragic will be the consequences. Nothing like this is present in Learning in Depth and that is why Egan’s proposal—as good as it is when measured against both current practice and accepted remedies—is inadequate.