What Kids Should Know

JOHN ADAMS, AMERICAN PRESIDENT, 1797-1801

Mr. Adams had rosy hopes for the progress of knowledge in his young nation, what with his sons tackling Plato and planting, and his grandchildren graduating to verse and vases. Ten generations on, he'd doubtless be surprised at the cultural landscape. The dazzling diversity of the nation he helped to found has splintered old notions of what it means to be an educated person. The shrinking world and waves of migrants continually re-educate America, reinventing its culture and its sense of what it means to be a refined person.

The white Anglo-Saxon Protestant's cultural bedrock of Shakespeare and the Bible has eroded: grad students today are as likely to be writing on 12th-century Sufi saints or Mario Vargas Llosa novels as they are on the Western canon. Postmodernity--that trixy, trendy pseudo-philosophy that questioned hidden prejudices and preconceptions underpinning knowledge--managed, for a time, to shrink the space between high and low culture. During its vogue in the 1980s, Yale literature students were taught to "read" Ralph Lauren perfume ads with the same solemnity they applied to the Iliad.

Though the po-mo rage has faded, scholars are still waging fierce debates over whether students are vessels to be filled with facts or souls to be stretched with perceptions. For the IT generation, many of whom can Web-surf as soon as they can read, the quicksilver possibilities of cyberspace dazzle more than the slow-burn pleasures of a sonnet. Many teachers now emphasize attitudes like risk taking and compassion over knowledge. Mushy as this might sound, the stress on learning how to learn is actually rather honest in an age when the notion of mastering a field of knowledge is, frankly, impossible. "A person who claims they've read all the basic scientific papers?" says Arie Rip, secretary of the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities. "Nonsense."

Given our fast-changing, globalized and info-saturated world, what will the cultured person of the future look like? In the past, being educated meant knowing lots about the past. In the 21st century, it will increasingly mean looking to the future. We live in an age when professionals are increasingly specialized. The truly educated person--whether a Milton scholar, a Web-solutions designer or a brain surgeon--will be someone who can communicate with those outside her profession. A shrunken world latticed with interconnections will need translators--across borders, disciplines and cultures. "All the parts of the world are interacting in such complex ways that the cultured person will be someone open to other cultures," notes Ronald Barnett, of the University of London's Institute of Education. "They'll have to be able to transcend their own culture, language and outlook."

It would be hubris to assume our generation invented this notion. In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson aimed to "survey the world from China to Peru." Curiosity, counseled Enlightenment philosopher Montaigne, was key. One should "seek the contagion of an unknown air." Particularly in the United States that quest has been forsaken for the familiar. In the 1920s an American high-school senior could parse Virgil. A recent poll found that only one in seven Americans between 18 and 24 could find Iraq on a map. "A lot of American education focuses on making kids feel comfortable," observes sociologist Richard Sennett, whose books include "The Fall of Public Man." "It interprets the everyday. That's not a good recipe for broadening your horizons."

Perhaps not, but it may be the danger of a democratic age. In a sense, John Adams's successful studies of "Politicks and War" have worked only too well, producing a nation of dainty, over refined minds. We've graduated from "Tapestry and Porcelaine" to navel-gazing. More than a century ago, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that democracies bred self-obsession: "In democratic communities," he wrote in "Democracy in America," "each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object: namely, himself." The era of the Blogger, the personal Web site and the call-in cable show provides a marketplace of opportunities to listen to oneself or the like-minded. The trick, for coming generations, will be to stop contemplating the self, and to spend more time breathing Montaigne's unknown air.