Toward a New Kind of Education

January 3rd, 2011

Marcelo Somers, in response to my post from last week that passionate people are the important ones now, writes that:

My primary concern with this is that you can’t train people to be passionate – a college degree won’t get you that.

Exactly right: graduating from high school and college won’t mean that you’re basically set anymore. It’s a piece, at best.

What people need more than anything is some understanding within themselves of what they love and what they want to achieve. That passion is what gives meaning to our work and direction to our studies and careers.

School, though, doesn’t create this passion. It can aid people in finding it, but there isn’t a class that takes in directionless students and pumps out people that know exactly what they love doing.

Even worse, from my experience, most schools don’t even help people find that passion—they work actively against it. High school students must complete a rigid curriculum, the same for everyone, and tend to treat knowledge as something solemn and staid, to be learned quietly and reverentially. Learning isn’t something exciting and world-opening, a key to understanding the world or doing all kinds of interesting and new things; learning is, in most high schools, all very serious and stuffy and irrelevant. Many students long ago decided that school and passion are two separate things, a world away. School is a burden to bear, something to suffer through but that must be done, while “passions” are fun diversions that serious people say is a waste of time.

As a result, students develop a split between what they’re passionate about—whether that’s music, sports, videogames, writing, whatever—and school, the serious part of their lives, and never shall the two meet. School, and after that, work, is a cross to bear to make a living, and “passions” are merely what you do in your spare time to make sure you don’t go crazy.

We can’t afford schools like this anymore. We need schools that, from the very beginning, encourage students to find something that they really love and allow them to run with it. It doesn’t particularly matter what it is that they’re obsessed with; merely having something that you’re obsessed with changes how people think. When you’re obsessed with something, and you have the tools to pursue it, you begin to own what you are doing and your education. You learn how to teach yourself, to proactively go out and learn.

That’s a very different approach. You’re taking responsibility for yourself, what you know and what you are doing with it. Learning is no longer the teacher’s job—it’s yours, and they’re just a resource. This breeds a different way of approaching work, too. Work isn’t just something for earning a paycheck, but something you own and that you can use to fulfill your goals.

This also changes the way you think. If learning is primarily your concern, then it—thinking—isn’t just something that’s done while in a classroom, and shut off while every where else. It’s something you can’t stop doing. Wherever you are, whatever you’re reading, you’re thinking about it, what it means, and how it’s connected to other things you know. That’s important: we need people who see connections between things that don’t seem to have any connection to each other.

We need an education that facilitates this. Early years of education should focus on developing obsessions with things and building that concept in kids, giving them some amount of freedom to tailor their education toward it. High school should, similarly, give students the freedom to connect their studies, and not treat them as separate silos. College, most importantly, must expand students’ ability to think. We need people completely focused on biology, engineering and other hard sciences, but we also need people who see connection between Chinese history, business and computer science. Students shouldn’t be discouraged from studying disparate fields; they should be lauded.

We’re now a decade into a new century and the U.S. is facing growing competition from the developing world. This competition will not level off and recede; China, Vietnam and Malaysia will not settle for being the world’s factory. They will move up the value chain and begin designing their own products and services. We can’t stop where we are.

The only way we are going to compete in the future with an expanded world is to think strategically, to see connections between things that no one else sees, and to bring the same passion to our work as an artist does theirs. Improving our education system is imperative for the continued success of our nation in this new century.