“At its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living.” –Neil Postman
Despite almost universal agreement that education is broken, nobody seems to agree on how to fix it. Peter Thiel says drop out. Vivek Wadhwa says stay in. Meanwhile, test scores are stagnant; colleges are overcrowded; students are buried in debt; and everyone thinks the Internet is going to magically fix everything.
Many of those addressing the challenges in education are friends of mine and I know they have the best intentions, but to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, they are hacking at the leaves of the problem while nobody strikes at the root.
While efforts have targeted higher education because of the spiraling costs, the most important part of the learning process happens at the grade school level. Here is where students are taught to learn, or at least they should be. But unfortunately K-12 education has become mired in an imprudent curriculum that drives most students away from intellectual curiosity.
Notice I said “taught to learn” and not “learn.” This is an important distinction because what happens during these developmental years is what sets us on our paths for the rest of our lives. Instead of teaching students what to learn, students and society would both be better served if we taught them why they should learn. A child who is instilled with the tools of critical thinking and an appreciation for learning will become an adult who seeks knowledge as a lifelong pursuit, regardless of the specific mechanics of how it’s found.
In many ways, technology in education, especially the Internet, has been more myth than results. Educators and entrepreneurs both speak of technology as a panacea that will solve all of the ills that have stricken the schooling system and envision a world where the Internet will make learning ubiquitous. Their folly is confusing the availability of knowledge with actual learning. Just because the Internet makes the lessons available does not mean that people will partake in them. To make this assumption is the equivalent of assuming that children will, of their own volition, choose to read books in the library instead of playing Angry Birds. No reasonable person would expect a child to choose books over play and yet somehow we expect people who have no proclivity for learning to choose online education over entertaining diversions.
However this does not mean the Internet is useless. As a resource, it is the greatest library ever created. But just as libraries are often unappreciated and underutilized because people don’t want to put in the effort to read or simply don’t care about the knowledge contained within their walls, most of the valuable information available online is ignored in favor of distractions from social media and celebrity gossip.
Again, we see the problem isn’t the lack of learning opportunities, but the lack of intellectual curiosity. Building more online schools for a populace that has no appreciation for learning is like building more gyms in a city that has embraced obesity as the status quo. Even if the gyms are free and of Olympic quality, they will continue to stand empty and the people will continue getting fatter if they have no appreciation for fitness.
There is a scene in the movie “Good Will Hunting” where Matt Damon’s character mocks a Harvard student for spending $150,000 on an education he could have received for $1.50 in library late charges. The Internet makes this concept of a quality, free (or nearly free) education more true than Will could have ever imagined. However, for it to work as a practical matter, we must let go of our policies of rote developmental learning and stop believing the fantasy that technology alone will provide the solution.
Fixing education requires us to teach our children how to think. We must instill in them a thirst for learning and a hunger for knowledge. If we fix our schools at this level, the result will be a truly educated populace who will seek out learning opportunities wherever they may be found. All other debates about the value of college, standardized testing, even the effort to increase STEM graduates, will become obvious as pedestrian attempts at hacking at the leaves when the root of the problem has already been stricken.
[Footnote: Neil Postman addresses similar ideas in much greater depth in his 1996 book, "The End of Education".]
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]