Common knowledge, skills, and values present important educational problems and opportunities. Currently, these problems and opportunities are confounding established practices, particularly in an era of global and historical transition.
Through their educative experience persons become both socialized and individuated. By common learning, let us understand those elements of a culture — its knowledge, skills, and values — that all or some members come to acquire in common with each other. Acquiring knowledge, skills, and values in common with others is the socializing engine in educative experience, and the irony is, of course, that acquiring common learning is also the individuating engine. No one can acquire the complete pool of potentially shared culture, with the result that the individuation of each person through educative experience takes place, not by acquiring paticular qualities that are unique and idiosyncratic in a positive sense, but because each acquires a distinctive selection of common learning. Individuality consists in the distinctive selection that each makes from what is held in common by all.
As some knowledge, skills, and values educate people in common, civic effects emerge — polities form, cultures take effect, economies produce and distribute, communication spreads. Common knowledge, skills, and values educate largely through spontaneous, informal interactions. Yet they educate as well through formal efforts. Historic frustration, contraction, and decline occur as incoherence and cross-purposes undercut the net commonalities resulting from the sum of spontaneous and intentional effort. Historic advance emerges as the spontaneous and the intentional converge in spreading new or renewed commonalities. Effective educational leadership consists in discerning what potential commonalities have most worth and bringing them to fulfillment. Such considerations suggest that the question of how common learning educates has substantial import to the quality of the lives people lead.
Does common learning educate? Knowledge, skills, and values that no one shares with others are idiosyncrasies, quirks and tics that set one person off from others. Let us start with the idea that learning held in common with others may educate in important ways. That idea leads to a host of questions.
- Might some learning, when held in common, have greater power to educate than other common learning? If so, what learning is it that has these special powers??
- How does the holding of learning in common educate?
- When might it miseducate?
- How does common learning educate at different levels of sophistication — at a person's initial encounter with things that educate, at more advanced levels, and within different domains of specialization?
These and related questions drive the Common Learning Project.
What is the historical situation of common learning?
Material constraints on educative interactions are changing significantly. Peoples around the world are moving from an elitist cultural condition to a democratic one, not in a normative or ideological sense, but in an empirical, experiential situation. Up until roughly the year 2000, the material constraints of mechanical reproduction limited access to a full set of cultural resources to a relatively small minority of people who engaged in the sustained use of well-stocked libraries and other cultural institutions or had sufficient wealth to acquire such resources for their personal use. In a regime of scarcity, the question of common learning had two forms — 'What least common denominator should all share?' and 'Given all the possibilities, what has most interest and worth?' The first question leads to a popular mass culture and the second to a critical "high" culture. Under a regime of scarcity, most people can only opt for the first yet the most advantaged find themselves confronted by the second. The cultural situation was riven between mass and elite by the material conditions of cultural production. The normative descriptor "high," because only members of elites could engage it. These underlying material constraints are changing profoundly.
A deeply unprecedented cultural situation is coming about. Anyone, now, with a simple computer and a phone line has immediate access to extraordinary cultural resources. This change potentially alters the way common learning educates, transforming who it might educate, how, why, when and where.
Only the few possessed high culture, which the rest naturally resented, for they found it, given the circumstances, beyond their means. Is an unprecedented situation arising in which nearly all are gaining the material possibility of defining themselves through the conscious choice among an extensive array of cultural options, hitherto confined to elites? What are the educational possibilities and problems embedded in this development?