Part I – Questions
How many people hate their jobs? In this country, which abounds with opportunities and even the worst available choices are better than those that exist for many in other lands, how many Americans live for the weekends, for their two weeks of vacation every year?
What does it say about a society in which so many are unhappy with the way they spend the majority of their productive hours? Most of us accept our situation in life as normal, and many consider ourselves lucky. We don’t think of ourselves as an oppressed people. We don’t question our political system, our economic structure, the shared values that affirm our way of life. It’s almost hard to believe that this country was born in a revolution.
The diverse range of talents and interests that exists among any dozen random people is staggering, and yet it might take a team of experts to uncover their very existence. For a society that extols individuality and self-reliance, we are very good at encouraging conformity, and each of us has learned very well how to hide our individuality.
Who remembers drawing with crayons? All of us did it as children. All of us at one time in our past were delighted to discover that we could create an image on paper. We could create art – all by ourselves. But over time, most of us gave it up when we couldn’t stay within the lines or when the picture we drew of a horse didn’t look very much like a horse. We accepted the judgment that we weren’t very good at art, and acquiesced to the “fact” that we were not artists. But why did we so willingly concede to the aesthetic values of others? Why did we disregard our own pleasure with creation and accept a value system that made our own assessment of our own work irrelevant?
All of the great accomplishments in human history have been made by people who refused to accept the judgment of others – who refused to accept that what everyone else was doing was all that was allowed. Inventive genius is born in the unshakeable belief in one’s own creative powers.
Why do so many people hate their jobs? It is because most of us have given up on the idea that we can do the things that make us happy. We have been funneled through a process of maturity that shears off the qualities that make us unique. We have been marched in formation through an educational system that teaches us to follow rules or else. Schools allow for certain kinds of exceptional performance that meet the narrow criteria of academic or athletic achievement, but even for the valedictorians and sports heroes, the standards of excellence are set by others. We need worker bees to make the offices and factories hum. But human potential offers so much more.
How can schools cultivate talent and individuality? Is it even possible for an institution like public education that is available to all to foster such unlimited potential? What would be the impact on society if we all felt our creative powers and used those powers to build a life that made us truly happy?
Some of these questions are impossible to answer. Any change in the status quo will give rise to new circumstances and new questions. But it is time now to examine how we arrived where we are today and begin to construct a vision of where we need to be in the 21st century.
Part II – That was then
One hundred years ago, public education was booming. The American population was growing, especially the urban population. There was an increasing concern about the assimilation of the swelling numbers of immigrants arriving on our shores. The days when a person could make a good living as a farmer, without needing to be able to read and write, were fading into the realm of memory – a relic of pioneer days, not a feature of an urban, industrial power.
American schools were built like factories – large structures with separate departments for constructing pieces of the finished product. Over here was the math department, over here was science, and over there history and English. Students moved from one workstation to another on a rigid schedule, assembling pieces of their education. The finished product: a high school diploma. That piece of paper meant something, and its value was accepted as currency because it represented the same set of experiences and the same body of knowledge for every student who earned one. High school graduates could apply for work in a real manufacturing plant, not the metaphorical one they had attended for four years, and could themselves become an interchangeable part in the labor force of modern industry.
That was then.
Through much of the 20th century, the economic opportunities for workers were in manufacturing, in rigidly controlled environments in which tasks were defined by a small number of decision-makers and work was carried out by teams of laborers. The system worked. American manufacturing became the envy of the world, producing increasing volumes of increasingly high-quality products. American workers were provided wages adequate to allow them to become consumers on a massive scale. We had constructed a treadmill – creating a labor force that would produce as well as consume the very products that would define, in material terms, our success.
And eventually we reached a saturation point. The marginal increase in our ability to produce more, better, and cheaper began to decline. Our employment base began to erode as other countries competed for our consumers by paying their workers lower wages and offering choices in goods U.S. manufacturers did not provide. American manufacturing began to diminish in terms of worldwide industrial production and as a sector of our own economy. As we shifted away from making goods, we suffered no shortage of material objects to mark the progress of our individual success.
The American economy began to revolve more around the provision of services. At the low end of the pay scale we have the food service industry, maintenance and repair of machines and facilities, and various types of personal services. At the upper end, we have financial services, an increasingly technological medical industry, and of course lawyers. This latter cluster requires a more specialized education than a typical factory job, but through a serendipitous set of circumstances, by the time the U.S. economy needed larger numbers of more highly educated workers, we had them. The G.I. Bill, enacted after World War II changed the expectations of Americans regarding higher education. By the 1960s, the presumption in middle class families was that children would go on to college after high school.
This is now.
But progress in the 21st century will be stymied if we continue to educate our citizens on a 20th century model, based on 20th century expectations. Mass production – whether of goods or of services – has reached the point of decreasing marginal returns. We need a more effective system for developing human potential. We need education that will foster innovation.
Part III – Standardizing the population
The United States made huge strides in the 20th century, but in recent years, it has become clear that we are experiencing a new set of circumstances with new challenges.
In the 20th century, the United States became the leading manufacturing power in the world. Now our relative position in manufacturing is in decline.
Since World War II, the U.S. has been the world’s the leading military power. But for all our might, we have been unable to prevent regional wars from spinning out of control, we are vulnerable to being incapacitated by a hacker with a vendetta, and we are at risk of having our way of life undone by a terrorist with a nuclear device in a suitcase.
Over the last century, our country evolved from one in which less than half of the young people could expect to earn a high school diploma, and a college education was available only to a tiny fraction of the population, to one in which a high school education was mandated by law and the expected result of a diploma was preparedness for college. College admissions skyrocketed, graduate degrees became a normal part of the resume of an upwardly-mobile professional.
In a little over a hundred years, we have gone from an environment in which books were a precious commodity, owned in large numbers only by the wealthy, to one in which knowledge is easily obtained and free. Many of us carry in the palm of our hands a device that can deliver more information than was dreamed possible one hundred years ago, let alone available to the masses.
But our public schools have not adapted to the new realities. We have a massive educational infrastructure in place, but we are focusing its efforts on the wrong outcomes. We think with a mass-production, interchangeable-parts mentality. We have a system in which we aspire to produce high school graduates with the same base of knowledge and the same sets of skills as every other high school graduate.
It is understandable that we would tend towards using public education as a tool to standardize our population. It is a big scary world with increasingly rapid changes happening all the time. Our country is already intrinsically diverse in terms of geography and cultural heritage. It is natural to wish to use public schools – the one institution that affects Americans nearly universally, and at an impressionable age – to bring us all together under a common banner.
The fact that it is understandable doesn’t make it a good idea.
We are distracted by our cultural diversity, which historically we have always sought to suppress. We do not give sufficient credit to the natural diversity of human talent, which has always been our greatest strength.
We are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information that is readily available in our digitally-integrated world. We react by defining more narrowly for our children the information that is acceptable for them to learn.
We should be empowering students to judge the value of information on their own. We should be helping them develop the critical thinking skills they will need to evaluate what they learn, and the ability to use information in productive and innovative ways.
We should abandon our fixation on standardized outcomes and cultivate the diversity of human potential.
This will take more than a shift in emphasis in how we teach our kids. Reforming public education for the 21st century will require a whole new paradigm.
Part IV – Envisioning a new paradigm
Education must prepare young people for the future. Now, more than at any time in human history, changes in technology, trade, and social institutions are occurring with disorienting rapidity. Looking ahead, it seems that the only prediction we could make with much certainty is that the future promises to bear little resemblance to the past. But how can we get our children ready for a world we can’t foresee? How can we construct an educational system that will produce a population that is ready for the challenges of a world yet to be created?
In this still-new century, two important truths have emerged.
Young people will need to learn new skills and acquire new bodies of information for their entire lives. Those who lack the ability or the willingness to improve their market value in the work force will be left behind, or pushed into menial labor or even unemployment.
The economy will continue to change. We have seen in the late 20th century a shift from a manufacturing base to a service economy. We have seen a slow-down of growth in mass-production and an increase in the production of specialized goods and services. We are experiencing an economy that has essentially peaked in its ability to produce the necessities of life for a large, geographically diverse population. The expanding opportunities are in products that have not yet been invented – that consumers don’t yet realize that they must have to secure their desired quality of life.
Public education will have to prepare students to be life-long learners and to be producers not only of goods and services, but also of ideas.
In order to accomplish this, schools will have to let go of some of the sacred tenets that have guided their mission for many generations.
Education will always be about the transmission of knowledge, but it can no longer afford to be about a set body of knowledge. It is no longer as important what students learn as it is that they become proficient, autonomous learners.
Education will always be about preparing young people for life as adults, but we should recognize that we can no longer predict with any precision what that life will be like. Instead of shaping children into the kinds of workers we need them to be in order to conform to our idea of a model citizen, we need to empower them to find their own ways to accomplish tasks and to solve problems.
The greatest challenge for public schools – those large, impersonal, state-funded factories of conformity – is to develop ways to foster innovation and creativity.
It will require a new paradigm – a whole new vision of the purpose of education. And it has never been more important to create that vision and to construct that new paradigm.
Some people aren’t waiting for the schools to get it right, they are creating a new paradigm on their own.
Part V – Pursuing passions
My friend Doug did okay in high school, but like a lot of kids he wasn’t particularly turned on by the experience, and was irritated by the strict rules about incidental issues like chewing gum. He was a smart kid, made respectable grades, was friends with other good students who were on the conventional path through high school and on to college. But after turning 16, he transferred to the Open Campus high school to finish his diploma requirements in a place that had few rules about behavior, but serious consequences if students failed to take care of their own responsibilities. For perhaps the first time, Doug truly enjoyed the school environment in which he found himself. He never had any problem accepting the natural consequences for his choices in life, and he never chose to go on to college.
But Doug loved rock climbing. As a teenager, he discovered the sport, and it quickly became a driving passion in his life. He practiced climbing the outcroppings that are found scattered around the Georgia piedmont region where he grew up, read about climbers and climbs in exotic locations, made himself an expert in ropes and the equipment climbers use, moved to the mountains of North Carolina for a few years to be closer to more challenging climbs. Over the years, Doug made excursions around the country to climb in the Appalachians, in the Rockies, in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Doug never earned a college degree, but he never stopped learning, and never lost his intellectual curiosity. He married a woman with a Ph.D. and continued friendships with the “good students” who had become doctors, lawyers, and professors, as well as other good people who might not have as many years of formal education, but who were energetic and ambitious.
To finance his own passion, Doug worked in restaurants, as a surveyor, in construction. He devised a business plan for leading expeditions to climb the Andes in Peru, and in order to make this feasible, Doug learned Spanish and earned certification as a paramedic. He worked for many years in a mountaineering shop owned by a local climbing enthusiast and businessman. Eventually, Doug purchased the business and provided high quality equipment as well as expert advice. Doug became well-known among the tight-knit community of serious rock climbers in the metro Atlanta area.
In 1996, the year the Olympics were held in Atlanta, organizers for the games contacted Doug, who had been recommended as an expert in the use of ropes and climbing gear. He was hired to hang cameras and other equipment from the ceiling of the basketball coliseum that served as the venue for many of the Olympic events. In taking this job, Doug entered an elite fraternity of some two dozen men in the world who do this kind of work. Every Olympics since 1996 and for several other large international sporting events, Doug has jetted to different parts of the world, often taking his wife and two kids.
When my friend Doug told me he was not going to go to college, I thought he was missing out on a great opportunity. I don’t think so any more. Doug has built an interesting and rewarding career by listening to his desires, and arranging his life to enable him to pursue his passion for rock climbing. It is hard to imagine how spending several years in the cloister of higher education would have added to his success or happiness.
Schools need to encourage students to pursue their passions. A curriculum should not be a narrow path to a predetermined end. It should expose doors that students can open. It should help to release human potential.
Part V – Marking out the future
I began this essay by asking, “How many people hate their jobs?” and by questioning the way schools encourage conformity over individuality. Doug’s story stands as an illustration of how one person who never accepted the narrow role marked out for him by others found success on his own terms. In fact, it was only because he insisted on pursuing his passion, and was willing to do whatever it took to make sure his life provided the rewards he wanted, that he was in a position to encounter the opportunities, and have the success he has enjoyed.
Not that there haven’t been setbacks, and not that the path was always clear from the beginning. There were many, many hours spent on jobs that offered a paycheck, but little personal satisfaction. But Doug never worked for an employer that wouldn’t take him back in a heartbeat. No matter what the job, Doug always approached his work with energy, professionalism, and a positive attitude. It was this optimism and willingness to do whatever it took, combined with commitment to his calling, that enabled Doug to persevere and finally to prevail.
So how can this kind of life, this kind of success based in personal satisfaction, be replicated? Any parent, teacher, or education policymaker has to wonder – wouldn’t it be great if every child entered adulthood prepared to succeed on his or her own terms?
Doug did not know as a young man how his life would turn out. He started out with aspirations and a willingness to improvise a determination to learn and do whatever it took to achieve his goals. There is no way to have predicted Doug’s path in life, and no accurate way to measure his success against the success of others.
If we could identify every variable that contributed to his choices and to the outcome of those choices, perhaps we could create a program that would teach people how to maximize the potential yield of all of their choices as well.
If we could quantify life experience and personal satisfaction the way we are able to count money, perhaps we could rate and rank his accomplishments.
But the kind of success Doug discovered is not of the one-size-fits-all variety. That is in fact what makes it so sweet. There is no program that could have given him all the information he needed to pursue his goals. Integral to his expertise is the fact that he discovered this information on his own.
There is no way to have determined with mathematical certainty that Doug was prepared when he finished high school to build the kind of life he wanted to live.
Public schools don’t test for these things, and if they teach these things, it is outside of the curriculum and most likely the result of the efforts of some devoted and inspirational teacher.
But aren’t these exactly the qualities that we would like to see developed in every young person?
We have to start doing things differently. We have to capture the potential of the human race and empower young people to discover their own true calling – and their enormous capabilities.