The will to learn in an intrinsic motive, one that finds both its source and its reward in its own exercise. The will to learn becomes a “problem” only under specialized circumstances like those of a school, where a curriculum is set, students confined, and a path fixed. The problem exists not so much in learning itself, but in the fact that what the school imposes often fails to enlist the natural energies that sustain spontaneous learning–curiosity, a desire for competence, inspiration to emulate a model, and a deep sense of commitment to the web of social reciprocity. Our concern has been with how those energies may be cultivated in support of school learning.
–Jerome Bruner, Toward A Theory of Instruction (1966)
The aims and purposes of education demonstrate our most deeply cherished values, as well as our collective understanding of what it means to be human. Such values and understandings are no less powerful for being largely tacit. When we design our schools, however, we inevitably find that these values and understandings lead to conflicting ideas of how best to proceed, and with what ends in mind.
No single vision can decide these inevitable conflicts. Nevertheless, the guiding vision of a participatory democracy, our nation’s flawed and uneven and inspiring experiment in self-government, may at least suggest that maximizing human potential within a framework of tolerance and civic commitment can guide our many efforts to build the best educational experiences we can imagine. In The Culture Of Education (Harvard University Press, 1996), Jerome Bruner describes “mutual learning cultures” organized around principles of community and freedom, liberal learning and the specific competencies required to participate in the world of work:
Such classroom cultures are organized to model how the broader culture should work if it were operating at its best and liveliest and if it were concentrating on the task of education. There is mutual sharing of knowledge and ideas, mutual aid in mastering material, division of labor and exchange or roles, opportunity to reflect on the group’s activities. That, in any case, is one possible version of “culture at its best.” School, in such a dispensation, is conceived of both as an exercise in consciousness raising about the possibilities of communal mental activity, and as a means for acquiring knowledge and skill. The teacher is the enabler, primus inter pares.
Such a vision of “culture at its best” informs the founding of this nation at a very deep level.
One of the most important participants in that vision was Benjamin Franklin. A printer, publisher, artisan, scientist, writer, diplomat, and politician, Franklin was also, in biographer Walter Isaacson’s words, ““a consummate networker with an inventive curiosity” who “would have felt right at home in the information revolution.” Franklin also stands for the fascinating blend of worldly success and innovative genius that our schools seek to empower among our citizens. To have “Benjamins” on hand is a necessary part of American life. Work and success are important, to be sure.
As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, to be a “franklin” is to be a freeholder, a liberal host, a citizen with the freedom of the domain. The digital age offers opportunities of unprecedented depth and reach for participation in global innovation and conversation, for employing and weaving a World Wide Web of “social reciprocity,” to use Bruner’s term in the epigraph above. We owe it to our faculty, staff, and students to empower them all with the concepts, skills, and experiences that will make them free and full citizens of the digital age.