Almost any debate about the need for improvements to America’s public education system, k-12 as well as community college and university, will include a comment along the lines of, “We need to do a better job of preparing our young people for the jobs of tomorrow,” or “Having a high school diploma alone is no longer enough,” or “The strength of our economy depends on there being an educated workforce.” Now, I’m not going to argue that this is not true; it undoubtedly is. Instead, my argument is that thinking about education as a strategy for economic development–and using this thinking to make policy and funding decisions–is horrifying.
When I was in middle and high school I felt, without knowing why or having undue pressure exerted upon me by my parents or anyone else, as though I were on a conveyor belt that was to lead from middle school to high school to college to grad school to a job to marriage to kids to retirement and then to death. I looked around me–at my classmates obsessing over grades, at adults at various stages of life and experiencing varying levels of desperation, at the elderly ruing what could have been–and saw that convey belt shuttling people along their lives, their one brief moment on Earth, as though they were helpless to do anything about it.
I did not want to be on a conveyor belt. I wanted, as Thoreau, whose Walden and other writings I found deeply inspiring in middle and high school, to “…live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
The problem is that stepping of the well-trodden path creates conflicts with teachers, parents, peers, and academic advisors, all of whom, well-intentioned and caring, encourage the path of least resistance because it is what one does. Not knowing what to do, knowing only that I did not want the options presented to me, I rebelled by retreating into the world of poetry, of literature, of art, where I found countless examples of great men and women who found their own way, albeit often at the cost of their sanity and resulting in their being ostracized.
I first decided to drop out of high school to become a pro tennis player, but when that failed, and having graduated, I had no choice but to grudgingly go to college, where, just as with my high school days, I spent my time reading and writing instead of paying attention in class and studying for exams. After graduation, and still without an idea of what to do, I went to graduate school at Brown University, only to then finally stumble upon my calling: the path of the social entrepreneur. Eight years later I am still running Capital Good Fund, a successfull and fast-growing nonprofit lender.
But let’s rewind, back through graduate school and undergraduate school and high school and even middle school, all the way back to my first years in the educational system. Why, if no one made an obvious move to do so, did I feel so strongly that my future had already been rigidly laid out for me? And why, most importantly, did I have to seek out my own sources of inspiration and creativity as opposed to finding them in the classroom, in the very system meant to educate me?
The answer, simply, is that the system we have created is not meant to inspire and educate; instead, it is designed to prepare, prepare for adulthood, for participation in our consumerist society, and for a lifetime of employment that can pay the mortgage, feed the kids, and allow for a vacation or two per year. For shame! We are sucking the curiosity and vitality out of the souls of our young people before it is even given a chance to take root. And while the wealthy can afford to put their kids in private schools that have specially-designed programs to foster that creativity–and ironically, who can afford it if their kids do not find lucrative jobs in adulthood–the average person pays taxes that pay for public schools for their children, and public schools are, in general, more akin to animal feedlots than to temples of knowledge. One quick look at most school buildings, which resemble prisons more than playhouses for young minds, is enough to make you wonder with what purpose the builders of these schools undertook their jobs: to be as efficient as possible? To save money? To keep things orderly and clear?
Clearly, a good education is essential to upward mobility and to an electorate that can make informed decisions (the election of Donald Trump proves the danger of a populace that is easily swayed by lies, half-truths, and empty promises, a populace that struggles to think critically and for itself). But if the end goal of education is employability, then we are fucked, for being good at work requires a specific set of skills–understanding a financial statement, writing computer code, writing basic reports–that has little to do with joy, creativity, poetry, or art. Which means that, under a regime ruled by the need for the acquisition of skills, the cultivation of curiosity is, at best, an ancillary benefit.
After all, if what we need are people who can program robots, then what does it matter if those people are robotic themselves? So long as they know how to program, how to write basic reports, how to read manuals and other people’s reports, what else is needed? Taken to its logical extreme, the idea of education for economic development turns young minds into tools for wealth creation and young bodies into cogs in a giant, faceless, nameless machine. And you know what? I guarantee you that most young people feel this, even if they cannot put it into words, and it scares the shit out of them. It sure as hell scared me.
No! The goal of education has to be to instill a sense of wonder and joy, to give children a chance to play and laugh and cry and explore and question and answer. Yes, giving children this sort of education will mean that they will be great employees and entrepreneurs, but that’s beside the point; the point is that it will make them happy and productive members of society who, apart from their labor, contribute their ideas, hopes, dreams, inventions, and love to us all. Let’s not forget, moreover, that our Founding Fathers spoke of the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That pursuit begins with a wonderful education and continues throughout an examined life. If we don’t change our thinking, if we don’t recognize Americans as humans instead of consumers, employees, or voters, then we will continue to fail to encourage Americans to realize their full, human, potential. And finally, let’s not forget also that our current system is failing even to prepare people for employment, so even if we do not accept my premise, we can’t avoid the conclusion that something has to change, yet I fear that, instead of changing, as a society we are doubling down on the status quo.