One of my biggest personal pet peeves is that the American education system is basically useless in terms of preparing students for life.
One of the cliches about the value of a liberal arts college education is that it’s supposed to teach you to “learn how to think”, as opposed to the rote memorization of knowledge. Okay, so my first problem with that: what is the twelve years of education leading up to college supposed to teach? How to hold your pen? And then my second problem is that once you actually get to college, you’re taught how to think a little bit, but as measured by volume, that’s only a tiny fraction of the contents.
There are various cynical theories about how public schools are basically glorified daycare centers to keep children out of the way of adults. Whether or not that’s true, the net result is that the primary things schools teach are: a) a level of basic literacy in language, mathematics, science, and culture that’s woefully un-competitive with the rest of the world, b) how to anticipate what authority figures want, and c) how to sit still, shut up, and raise your hand when you have something to say.
Seth Godin recently wrote a really great blog post that sums up a major trend: the era where you could guarantee yourself a comfortable economic future by coloring within the lines is basically over. The rise of the internet is wiping out a lot of career paths, and the new opportunities that are opening up are ones that require creativity and entrepreneurialism, attributes that are completely un-correlated with getting a 2400 on your SATs. (This is probably related to why a lot of top graduates from Ivy League schools take jobs in finance: investment banking is one of the rare lucrative pockets of the economy where this trend hasn’t taken over yet).
Speaking personally, the thing that’s gotten me the most job opportunities — my ability to develop software — is something that I learned almost entirely outside the classroom. I did learn valuable things in school (how to write, for instance), but on an hour-for-hour basis, when I look at the time I spent in class and doing assignments, and when I look at the lessons I’ve learned that I consider important, the whole thing has been criminally wasteful.
There’s a lot of innovation going on in the education space — the charter school movement, for instance — but I’m worried that most of it is oriented at doing a better job against our current goals: getting more kids into better colleges with higher test scores. What I really think we should be doing is changing the yardstick. What we need are graduates who know how to think for themselves, set and achieve goals, and engage with the changing world flexibly and creatively. Happy, healthy, and sane would be good too. Right now those are all peripheral to what education focuses on, which is tragic.
I have a question for everyone: if you got to be a substitute teacher in a middle or high school for a few days, and got to teach whatever you wanted, what would you teach? What one lesson is the most important thing you could convey? I’ll share what I would do over the next few days…