21st Century Skills vs. Core Knowledge and Classical Education

by Robert Pondiscio
March 15th, 2009

Dr. Florian Hild, principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado, posted the following remarks yesterday in the discussion thread of P21 Still Doesn’t Get It.  It’s well worth posting and reading his remarks in full.  Ridgeview uses the Core Knowledge curriculum from K-8,  and an advanced liberal arts curriculum in its high school.  US News and World Report recently ranked Ridgeview Classical Schools’ High School #15 in the country, as well as the #4 open-enrollment school and the #4 charter school. His comments are an eloquent call for resisting the lure of the new and seemingly urgent for the sake of the tried, true and timeless. 

“One of the flavors du jour of the current education debate is “21st century skills.” Websites and bestsellers are devoted to it, our district creates one 21st century skills committee after another, and no conversation about education can take place without addressing the seemingly new and pressing needs of the “flat world” in the 21st century.

“Should primary and secondary education in the 21st century really change because the world economy seems to have changed? Doesn’t the world economy always change? Does our century not need women as eloquent as Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen, men as resourceful and civic-minded as Aeneas and Benjamin Franklin, creative forces like Beethoven and Da Vinci, men and women with the wisdom of a Jesus or Socrates? Has human nature itself undergone a change on Y2K? Are we suggesting that standing on the shoulders of a Newton or Darwin is not good enough for today’s young scientists? Would we reject a young person applying for a job or college today if he had the political acumen of James Madison, the integrity of Abraham Lincoln, the passion and commitment of Jane Goodall? I am certain that business owners and colleges would not turn down this applicant. I am equally certain that what we primarily need from our graduates in 2009 is the same that we always needed: intelligence and character.

“Maybe this latter claim suggests the difference between classical and so-called 21st century education. I’d submit that Core Knowledge and Classical Education alike are trying to prepare students for any century: we think that being intelligent and of good character is the best preparation for life, regardless of when and where we live. We don’t doubt that the challenges of today’s world are different than those of the 17th century. However, the erudition, eloquence, and integrity of a John Milton will still serve us well today. The ability to outmaneuver others on one’s Blackberry, though, will ultimately not provide a lasting competitive advantage, not to speak of a happy and good life. If we are afraid of the challenges of a new century, I’d say that the best way to prepare us for them is to face them standing on the shoulders of giants. Then even gigantic problems can be confronted and dealt with.”