Today's students see education as a means to an end, the end being a respectable job with decent pay and benefits.
And who can blame them? With the national unemployment rate at 9.1 percent (a percentage that doesn't include part-timers seeking full-time employment and those unemployed who have simply given up looking for jobs), students are understandably worried about career prospects.
Many college students are also worried about paying back their student loans; operating under such financial pressure, a focus on salary and the possibility of pay raises and promotions is hardly surprising.
Combine these personal pressures with a stalled economy and a political realm that increasingly sees public service as wasteful and unnecessary, and it's no wonder that education is being reduced to another for-profit venture: another fungible commodity in a world driven by money and the bottom line.
But education is much more than a commodity. At its best, education is a transformative experience. It opens new horizons to us; it helps us to envision new possibilities even as it serves to sustain our freedoms.
How do we recapture education's idealism in an environment driven by parsimony and focused relentlessly on short-term issues of solvency and relevance?
How about redefining education as our true Homeland Security? A security based not on military power or intrusive surveillance but on creativity and critical thinking and informed citizenship? How about stimulating and facilitating a lifelong pursuit of fresh ideas and innovative solutions to national and global challenges?
There are, of course, sound and practical reasons for such a pursuit, such as maintaining our economic competitiveness. But learning how to learn is also a critical way to arm ourselves against propaganda and manipulation, a way to build one's very own BS detector, if you will. A critical and learned citizenry, after all, is the very foundation for an active, informed and humane democratic process: one that both celebrates and safeguards our constitutional rights and liberties. Homeland security, indeed.
As Americans, we love to invest in hardware, in tangible things, and the list of weapons and other technologies we've invested in after 9/11 is truly staggering. But even as we've dumped billions into hardware that supposedly makes us safer, we've neglected the software that truly makes us secure: the creative education of our young. Their bright ideas and their commitment to our liberties are the best guarantors of our future security.
As we solemnly mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11, much will be written about wars, weapons, defense budgets, Patriot Acts, and all the trillions of dollars America has dedicated to ensuring our safety and security. And much should be written – and debated.
But let's see education for what it truly is (or should be): foundational to our security and transformative to our lives, the true engine of personal liberty and democratic freedoms, and the most vital constituent of our nation's future security and well-being.