In a 1935 novel, American novelist Sinclair Lewis described how a populist political candidate came to be elected as president of the United States, and then proceeded to install a fascist government. Amazingly, Lewis wrote the novel before Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler.
The novel is largely forgotten, but the threat of which it speaks should not be. Ultra-extremist politicians are on the rise everywhere, including the United States. Why, in 2016, are so many people falling for the siren call of ultra-extremists? Much of the blame should, indeed must be placed on the way schools today educate young people.
Many educators tend to see their role merely as stuffing their students head with “facts.” There are three problems with this approach. First, what we believe today to be fact often turns out tomorrow to be fiction. Second, many of the facts of today become irrelevant as new knowledge crowds out old knowledge. Third, what students need most of all to learn is not just facts, but also how to use those facts to make their lives and the lives of others better and more satisfying.
Put another way, students need to learn to be wise and ethical, not just knowledgeable and intelligent. What the world lacks today is not intelligent citizens and leaders, but rather, wise and ethical ones. When one tries to think of wise leaders, it’s hard to come up with even a handful of names. This suggests that our educational systems are doing something very wrong.
What we are doing wrong is educating students to be knowledgeable but not to be wise and ethical. Hardly a day goes by that one reads or listens to news reports without learning of some fresh major ethical scandal.
What, then, should schools be doing differently?
First, schools need more to emphasize the use of knowledge for good ends, rather than merely the acquisition of knowledge. In today’s world –with problems of terrorism, global warming, pollution, disintegrating governments, and the like– we need knowledge being used to improve the world, not to diminish or even harm it.
Second, schools need more to emphasize the use of knowledge to benefit a common good, not just the good of the individual, or the individual’s family, or people who think like or look like the individual.
Ethical use of knowledge.
Third, schools should focus on the ethical use of knowledge –doing the right thing rather than the expedient thing. In the United States, for example, two failed presidential candidates, including one who graduate from prestigious Yale University, have endorsed a candidate who shows signs of a neo-fascist agenda. They simply were unwilling to put the common good above their own crass personal opportunism, despite having claimed to run on platforms of ethical principles. In teaching the ethical use of knowledge, it is not enough to present a dry, abstract set of ethical principles or morals. Students need to see how to apply ethical reasoning to problems taken from everyday life –the kinds of problems they and their leaders face.
Finally, schools need to provide role models for the kinds of behavior they want from their students. If teachers want students to behave wisely and ethically, they have to role-model that behavior, not just teach about it. Teachers must be wise and ethical mentors for their students, at all levels of instructions.
Sinclair Lewis was right. It can happen here and it can happen there and it can happen anywhere. Unless we teach our students better, we will continue to choose toxic leaders, and to watch, as we have in the United States, a presidential candidate ask his followers to raise their arms in a Nazi salute, and to watch the followers enthusiastically do so.
Wrote by Robert J. Sternberg Professor of Human Development, Cornell University.