Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tuesday Mailbag 6-28-2011

I bet you all thought no one would send me mail this week, and I’d be forced to concede defeat in my quest to get this mailbag off the ground.  Well, you were wrong.  Though it doesn’t matter—even if there wasn’t an e-mail this week, I’d do something stupid like make up letters or go through my spam folder to come up with the questions. 

As always, if you have a question for next week’s mailbag, e-mail me at djssuperblog@gmail.com.

This week’s question is from Alex W., and was sent with regard to the Retirement post I wrote last week:

Why not also address the issue of needing a decent education?  In order to find that well-paying job that makes you want to get out of bed in the morning, you need to be exposed to it in your education.  I feel that the beauty of our system, at least when it's done correctly, is that everyone gets educated and the brightest have the opportunity to succeed even if they're poor as dirt.

-Alex W.

I think being educated is probably more important than it has been at any time in the past.  However, our current formal educational system isn’t nearly able to provide the level of education necessary for modern life.

Right now, elementary and high schools are still geared toward educating the masses for manufacturing jobs.  Showing up on time, following directions, completing assignments, minimizing risk, and receiving approval for doing so are the fundamental tent poles around which this system is built.  Sure, there are some things, like discipline, that are certainly necessary that are taught well through this paradigm, but on balance, the current system of education may be doing more harm than good.

College is better, but not much.  Too many kids are still “catching up” from substandard high school educations in college, even at some of the most elite institutions in the country.  Others fuck around for too long in college while doing literally no work.  The smart ones are able to balance fucking around with putting in just enough work to do well, but even then the vast majority of the students are left with little practical experience and poor job prospects.

The problem is, we’re squeezing all of the creativity out of our kids by following this formula even when it has become hopelessly outdated.  As we continue to cut the “non-core” elements of education, like the arts and P.E., we’re automatically limiting what these people are exposed to as kids, and ensuring that the conformance factory will continue to push out good little workers that are content to work in similar jobs because “that’s the way it’s always been done.”

I was fortunate enough to attend a high school in the St. Louis area (John Burroughs) that takes a more holistic approach to the development of the individual.  JBS makes everyone play a sport every season of the year, in addition to requiring a certain amount of fine and performing arts electives, as well as more “practical arts” like computer-aided drawing and woodworking.  This formula actually exposed kids to a variety of different professions, while also providing the flexibility to allow students to pursue what they wanted to do.  JBS produces plenty of businesspeople, attorneys, and soldiers, as well as more creative-types like writers, artists, and even working actors, the most famous of whom are Jon  Hamm and Elie Kemper.  I have no problem saying that it was easily the most mentally challenging stop in my educational career—college and law school were actually kind of easy by comparison, because at JBS, you were always doing something, and had to manage your time accordingly.  As you can tell, I think this is the direction we should be looking as far as secondary education is concerned.

Unfortunately, many of our public schools are taking the opposite approach, cutting art and P.E. classes, ratcheting up test-taking prep to comply with the horrific “no child left behind” regime, and teaching more memorization of concepts that are going to be featured on tests precisely when these memorization skills are becoming less of an asset in today’s world.  This system doesn’t create thinkers and leaders; it forges cogs and sprockets, replaceable parts to be used in repetitive jobs forty hours at a time.

So, how do we fix it?  First of all, either through school-sponsored programs or extracurricular programs, kids need to be exposed to the arts, phys ed, and other off-the-beaten-path options that society has to offer.  This used to be the job of schools, but unfortunately, declining revenue is forcing them to cut these programs, so we may have to go outside of the official school channels to do so.  Kids need these creative outlets to experiment and enjoy themselves so that, when the time comes to pick a vocation, they know what they want to do.

Secondly, basics like reading, writing, and to some extent arithmetic need to be taught better at lower levels, and more quickly.  Don’t get me wrong, these things aren’t being taught particularly well now, but that’s why we need to ramp things up and get kids on the right path earlier.  Once they have the fundamentals at their disposal, they can move more quickly onto topics that interest them and exploring those options.   Let’s stop babying these kids and get their writing skills in order so that there aren’t so many shitty pieces of writing floating around the world like so many turds.

Third, the college experience needs to be drastically rethought.  My college roommate and sometimes commenter Matt and I spitballed a more project-driven approach to at least higher education a number of years ago.  Basically, after touching on “the basics” through high school, you’d be able to focus on major projects in college that would interest you while also benefitting the world in some way.  You’d have to complete four of these projects, approved by the school, before graduating, and one of these would have to involve proficiency in a foreign language in some regard.  These projects could be anything ranging from starting a non-profit and running it for a year, to experimenting to create a formula for a new patent, ownership of which would be split between the university and the student.  Heck, students could pitch their ideas to corporations to see if they’d be interested in a partnership, which would give the students more experience in the field, and more real, hands-on experience that didn’t involve fetching coffee, and position them better to get a job coming out of school.

Another upside of this system would be that since you just needed four projects to graduate, you could do these concurrently, and graduate more quickly with less educational debt.  Let’s face it: student loans are probably the single most limiting obstacle for young graduates in our society, often forcing them into jobs that they don’t want to do just to make the minimum payments to lenders.  By reducing the impact of these loans, or by entering into some kind of partnership with a company whereby the company pays for the student’s education in exchange for three years of work or whatever upon graduation, the effect that these crippling loans have on people would be reduced, and they could get on with their lives more quickly.

Of course, the schools would probably fuck it up, as they would go to a “per project” method of payment, claiming that a motivated student working on three projects at once would be using three times the resources of the bum slow-burning his way through one project over the entire year, but this is only true to a point, especially if corporations were willing to bankroll especially promising students through the program.

There would still be the need for faculty in an advisory capacity, and perhaps to teach lectures that were necessary for certain projects, but I imagine most of this could be accomplished by recording current lectures and making them available to students online.  Before you go nuts telling me off about how “people won’t learn the same things online—they have to be in the classroom!” , I’ve found that some of the most interesting, thought-provoking stuff that I’ve learned the most from have been the short, yet incredibly effective talks off of the TED site.  It would at least be interesting to see if the results could approximate the system we have in place now at a fraction of the cost.

All of this has been a long-winded way of saying that I agree with you, Alex, that education is of the utmost importance in today’s world, but in a much different way than the current system is set up.  Education should focus on expanding the mind, self-improvement, and results of projects that matter to both the student and society as a whole.  It should boost the idea of ownership in a project, and develop leaders instead of followers.  But as long as we focus on testing, teaching to that test, and making sure that these kids always take the safe path in life, we’re not doing our kids, or our society, any favors.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at djssuperblog@gmail.com. Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

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