School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Stop Stealing Dreams (What is school for?)

Entrepreneur Seth Godin likes to “poke the box.” As a writer with degrees in computer science and philosophy, he is grounded in both technology and the liberal arts. Within this framework he implores us to reject preconceived notions of how the world works, and question every assumption we’ve ever held.

In his latest effort, Stop Stealing Dreams (What is school for?), Godin tackles my favorite subject, education. But this 30,000 word manifesto is far more intriguing than typical education policy conversations.

Godin describes it as “a series of provocations, ones that might resonate and that I hope will provoke conversation.” Because according to Godin, “one thing is certain: if we keep doing what we’ve been doing [in education], we’re going to keep getting what we’ve been getting. Our kids are too important to sacrifice to the status quo.”

The e-book is divided into numbered “manifestos” that read more like individual blog posts. Through these polemics, Godin speaks of the epic failure that is our current education system. According to Godin, this failure by definition can never improve until we disrupt it to the point of radical transformation, because our system was designed for a society that no longer exists, and as such meets educational needs that are no longer relevant.

I’ll spend the next few blog posts sharing some of his more compelling and less-obvious manifestos (which I think makes me a “sneezer” in Godin’s view of the universe). Be warned. He does not tread lightly, and his view of the world can at times be deflating, but to the extent his message makes us ask hard questions it is ultimately serving a useful purpose (even when we disagree with him).

In Manifesto 3 “Back to the (wrong) School” Godin returns to the origins of compulsory public education, and how that system hasn’t really changed much since 1925.

A hundred and fifty years ago, adults were incensed about child labor. Low-wage kids were taking jobs away from hard-working adults.

Sure, there was some moral outrage about seven-year-olds losing fingers and being abused at work, but the economic rationale was paramount. Factory owners insisted that losing child workers would be catastrophic to their industries and fought hard to keep the kids at work—they said they couldn’t afford to hire adults. It wasn’t until 1918 that nationwide compulsory education was in place.

Part of the rationale used to sell this major transformation to industrialists was the idea that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence—it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child-labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they’re told.

Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.

Of course, it worked. Several generations of productive, fully employed workers followed. But now?

Nobel prize–winning economist Michael Spence makes this really clear: there are tradable jobs (doing things that could be done somewhere else, like building cars, designing chairs, and answering the phone) and non-tradable jobs (like mowing the lawn or cooking burgers). Is there any question that the first kind of job is worth keeping in our economy?

Alas, Spence reports that from 1990 to 2008, the U.S. economy added only 600,000 tradable jobs.

If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, he will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.

Do you see the disconnect here? Every year, we churn out millions of workers who are trained to do 1925-style labor.

The bargain (take kids out of work so we can teach them to become better factory workers as adults) has set us on a race to the bottom. Some people argue that we ought to become the cheaper, easier country for sourcing cheap, compliant workers who do what they’re told. Even if we could win that race, we’d lose. The bottom is not a good place to be, even if you’re capable of getting there.

As we get ready for the ninety-third year of universal public education, here’s the question every parent and taxpayer needs to wrestle with: Are we going to applaud, push, or even permit our schools (including most of the private ones) to continue the safe but ultimately doomed strategy of churning out predictable, testable, and mediocre factory workers?

As long as we embrace (or even accept) standardized testing, fear of science, little attempt at teaching leadership, and most of all, the bureaucratic imperative to turn education into a factory itself, we’re in big trouble.

The post-industrial revolution is here. Do you care enough to teach your kids to take advantage of it?”

My take: This manifesto forces us to ask a question that seems largely missing from today’s debates: what is the purpose of education? Because until we know the answer to that (and there probably isn’t a single answer) we’ll never figure out how to solve the problem. As Godin describes it, historically the aim of education was to train workers for Industrial Age factory jobs awaiting them at the end of high school. Clearly that isn’t the case anymore. In subsequent manifestos, Godin poses several possible “purposes” that our education system could serve, and ones that it absolutely should not serve.

Beth T. Sigall

February 28, 2012

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