Barack Obama proclaimed what could be a defining goal for public education, in his speech the other day, when he said that U.S. citizens should be guaranteed “an education for your children that will allow them to fulfill their God-given potential.” This phrase might just be rhetoric, but, if not, it indicates a truly stunning goal. A system of public education centered on understanding and fulfilling individual potential would require a revolution in our system of public education.

Obama’s youth and idealism is sometimes compared to John Kennedy’s. Kennedy inspired his generation with a big goal: go to the moon before the end of the decade. I’m wondering, if elected president, Obama might similarly seek to inspire this generation with a big goal. I think a good “go to the moon” goal for Obama, that could define a lot of his presidency, should center on education. Obama’s stunning and inspirational goal for this generation could be this: transform our educational system so that every child has the opportunity to understand and fulfill his or her potential.

The goal in 2008 to transform public education, at first glance, might seem far from stunning — particularly when compared to the 1961 goal to go to the moon. A vision of a transformed educational system is hard to imagine; it is a much murkier idea than the vision of astronauts on the moon. What, really, would it mean to pursue such a goal? Kennedy’s vision of going to the moon was easy to envision, therefore it was a vision of instant inspiration. But, we’ve already been worn out by political talk about school reform — A Nation At Risk, No Child Left Behind — we’ve already been worn out by a lot of political speech about education.

Our collective imaginations have been dulled as to what, at best, we could hope that public education might ever accomplish. The issue of public education has been framed in terms of curriculum, test scores, college admissions, technical training. By common agreement, and through the efficacy of relentless propaganda, we think we know what a first class education amounts to. But our common agreement is wrong.

Compared to education, say, in 2060, our current view of education will seem primitive and limiting. Certainly, if human progress continues, future generations will react with both horror and amusement to today’s understanding of what constitutes quality education. When machines will mimic, and convincingly outdo, all human cognition, what will human education consist of? What, in that future time, will be the goals of human education? What will be the role of human teachers? Obama’s insight that education should center on understanding and developing individual human potential is an insight that anticipates the future.

For Kennedy, the urgency to go to the moon, in part, was the urgency of meeting the Soviet challenge. The Soviet threat was the transcendent challenge in 1961, and, Kennedy’s moon goal condensed that challenge into an inspirational response. For our time, the urgency of now is not to meet an outside threat, it is to meet our internal threat.

I’ve been thinking about John McCain’s great phrase: “transcendent challenge.” According to McCain, as I wrote in this post, “the transcendent challenge of the 21st century is radical Islamic extremists.” But, the transcendent challenge for our nation today, unlike the Soviet threat in 1961, is not that Islamic terrorism will annihilate us, the biggest threat to our future is that our citizenry will be degraded to the point that our democracy will disintegrate, our ideals will disappear. Our chance to enjoy a prosperous, expanding, vital and peaceful future, our chance to fulfill the potential of our democracy, rests in the desires, thinking, attitudes, values, and the capabilities of our citizenry. Our nation’s chance for a good future rests on the quality, capacity and preparedness of our citizenry.

Obama should engage McCain in a comprehensive discussion of what strategy makes most sense to best deal with the Islamic extremist threat, and Obama should articulate his own plan for dealing with the Islamic extremist threat. Our democracy needs mature discussion on real topics.

But Obama should not allow McCain to frame the issue; Obama should present his own view of what constitutes the biggest challenge to our future, and, like Kennedy, he should offer an inspirational response. He should argue, I believe, that the biggest challenge to our future originates from within our country, not from outside of our country. The challenge of our future is that as a nation we grow into our potential, that we fulfill our ideals. We are still the city set on a hill, we are still the hope of much of the world. Meeting the challenge of our potential will require that greater and greater numbers of citizens reach new levels of their individual potentials, new depths of their humanity. Meeting this challenge will require a transformation of all levels of education.

At the core of the infrastructure of our country is our educational system. This infrastructure is badly in need of improvement. Popular culture, media, TV, churches, neighborhoods, families are all aspects of the educational infrastructure. These are often negative and destructive in their educational impact, and to a great degree outside of the influence of public policy. Often the public have given up on the possibility that public education can really make much positive impact. But public education is still a big part of the overall educational infrastructure and public education has a huge untapped potential.

Here is a thought, here is a goal: Via public education, the insight that has guided the development of children in the most loving homes of the wisest parents, the wisdom that has guided the development of children in the most inspired and prepared schools, should be available to all children. I’m sure the overwhelming response to such a thought is emphatic: Impossible.

But is this dream of what is possible in education more absurd in 2008 than the idea of walking on the moon seemed in 1961? Isn’t this idea of transforming public education into unheard of levels of quality doable, even as Kennedy’s moon idea was doable, isn’t the question one of whether or not there is sufficient political will to make it happen? I’m thinking that, if Obama becomes President, he will seek to inspire major improvements in our nation. He will seek to lead, not simply manage. If elected, I think Obama might present to the nation a “go to the moon” challenge — one that looks to the future. What better challenge could he offer than the challenge to transform public education?

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