People grow up in our society today largely with no sense of who they are, no real sense of what their interests are, little idea of what their skills are, no idea what they want out of life, and less of an idea of how to figure these things out and make them work together to produce a meaningful and fulfilling life. Increasingly, what most people do for the first quarter of their lives has little relevance thereafter. Though there are a few other breaks in one’s life, namely between the different levels of the education system, by far the starkest break seems to be between graduating from college and entering the real world. Even the concept of separating all earlier experiences and activities from the later “real” world shows how disjointed our lives are made to be.
People’s lives should be more or less fluid with at least a general arc of working towards something. This doesn’t mean working towards a specific position or salary, but working consciously towards a life that makes you happy. After all, what is the point of life if not to gain the skills you need to be productive in a way which allows you to feel fulfilled? The problem of our current education system and general outlook on life is that people view life in different sections or distinct time periods in which to do things. They view one section as gaining skills and the other as using those skills, and then the final section as being happy and fulfilled. And the obvious problem to viewing life in sections is that you lose sight of the whole. “You can’t see the forest for the trees” as the old adage goes.
You focus on the chapter so you can do the worksheet for the chapter, you do the worksheet for the chapter so you remember the facts for the test, you want to do well on the test because you want a good grade, you want a good grade so you GPA remains where you want it, you want a good GPA so that you can get into a good college, you want to get into a good college because someone somewhere said you need to in order to get a good job. You spend the better part of your time in school being taught that life is a check-off list. What they don’t teach you or really in any way guide you in figuring out, is what constitutes a good job for you.
The way you are productive in this world, i.e. what you do for work, defines you. But even if it’s not your livelihood, being productive in some way is only way to find joy in life. And yet, many of us spend the first 18 years of lives gaining (supposedly) general skills which may or may not in any way connect to our interests and goals, and then spend the next 4+ years spending tens of thousands of dollars to try and figure out your interests and skills and what makes you happy—things you should have been thinking about and working towards for at least the past eight years. Indeed, these should be the very things that direct your whole school career.
The problem is that we are not taught in lower education to work towards any large, over-arching goal. If there is any prescribed goal at all then it is undoubtedly focused solely upon getting in to a “good” college—because apparently it is there and only there where your dreams will be magically revealed to you. In any case, the majority of school is spent conditioning us to do short, disconnected tasks, and to have short, disconnected goals. Any talk or questionnaires that are aimed at helping you figure out your goals and dreams and interests are largely irrelevant because of this conditioning. And what’s more, the public school systems of most States offer little in terms of unique or personalized education to suit a student’s specific interests or goals if they are able to figure them out.
The structure of school as it is imagined and put into place now imparts on students the habits of doing things just to do them, listening to authority because they are authority, and conformity. You work in one subject for an hour, and then promptly forget about it with the bell. You work on one unit for a few weeks and then never need that information again, and so it is efficiently replaced by the knowledge required for the next test. Instead of fostering the ability to see connections between things, and see the opportunities and effects which result from those connections, school reinforces the idea that life is disjointed, consisting of remedial to do lists full of tasks whose ticking off is your sole purpose and whose completion is non-negotiable. And then you go to college and the situation is much the same.
Like high school you complete task after task for the sole purpose of receiving a grade. You do things like writing a paper then, not to produce value for anyone, nor because it produces some type of personal joy for you (in most cases at least), but in order to get the opinion of one or two people and then you probably throw it away. But then you graduate and unless you are some type of art or theater major with a portfolio or filmed performances, you probably have little tangible evidence of anything that you did the last four years except for your GPA.
So after having to endure 16-17 years in the education world, students enter the real world lacking the knowledge of what type of work gives them fulfillment and satisfaction, and often without any really marketable skills. And if by chance your degree or area of study did give you some marketable skills, then there is still a very good chance that you don’t know how to use them in an effective way because you lack experience in conscious and realistic goal setting, time-management (the fact that most college students procrastinate horribly and still do well is proof enough that the nature of college encourages such activity), and taking criticism.
A study done a couple years ago by Chegg, the Student Hub, and the Harris Interactive found that of the over 2,000 recent graduates and 1,000 hiring managers surveyed, nearly half of the students considered themselves ready for the working world, but less than 2 in 5 hiring managers thought the same. The fact is you leave your 12 years of forced education and your four to five years of socially-pressured education, and more often than not come out on the other end with few connections, bad habits, questionable skills, and a mountain of debt. Assuming you can find a job, you probably will learn 90-95% (my personal estimation) of the skills necessary for it on site and from the company itself. And because most of us rarely gain the tools during our education that we need to figure out what we want out of life as well as which skills and paths are most conducive to achieving that want, we end up in a job we hate or only tolerate, or it takes a few different jobs to figure it out. Now the latter is fine, but it just seems to me that if you are going to be in school for around 17 years of your life and spend thousands of dollars then you should be closer to knowing what you want and how you can get it.
So how do we fix this? How do we make education less about disjointed tasks and facts and more about how to gain the skills and drive to build yourself a productive, fulfilling, and happy life? Though the answer is probably far from the simple, the way to find it is as mind numbingly easy as it is obvious. Allow for experimentation, open up education to competition, innovation, invention, creative destruction. In other words, expose it to the market. Remove this critical decision making power from the hegemony of superintendents and school boards and put it in the hands of individuals.
Let entrepreneurs develop new ways to educate and let parents or, in the case of higher education, students decide for themselves what is best. Elected officials or boards have no incentive to try new or seemingly crazy approaches because a failure loses them their job and status quo keeps them in office. They keep their jobs as long as things don’t get worse, whereas entrepreneurs survive by making things better. In the end we should remove all funding, all compulsory school laws, all government subsidizing of higher education—essentially have complete separation of education and state.
I don’t know the best way to educate people so they can have happy lives, the chances are you don’t either, but if you introduce the profit motive to the system, make schools compete for students by offering unique and imaginative ways to address students with different needs or skills or goals, and remove the power of school boards and superintendents to decide what’s best for thousands of people, then the people who do have ideas will have the incentive and ability to try them out with anyone who they can convince to buy their service or product. It would be impossible to predict what new forms education would take, but in an environment where people are free to choose what works for them (or their children) and what doesn’t, then the bad ideas get weeded out and the good ideas get built upon further.
Now it would be unfair of me to write about all this as if there were no innovations occurring at all. School of choice and voucher systems have been and are being tried out (though the voucher system has met legal resistance in some areas) and both of those at least allow parents to have some say in where their kids go to school with the latter even allowing parents to direct their funding to the school of their choice. There are also magnet programs for advanced students or those with specific talents as well as charter schools which sometimes offer specialized or unique forms of education. And then of course there are private schools and homeschooling, but both of those fight up hill battles due to both curriculum requirements enforced by the State and due to the fact that parents still have to pay for public schools in their taxes. It’s a huge disincentive to have to pay both for public school and for homeschool materials or artificially inflated private school tuition.
Now the former set of options—the ones which still receive at least some public funding—show at least some signs of improvement over the traditional public school option. But they are on far too small of a scale and still hopelessly unavailable to the majority of people. And on top of that, the decision of methods and curriculum is still largely concentrated in the hands of public officials and bureaucrats who for the most part are faced with incentives which restrict their openness to innovation. Now I am sure some do fight for new and good ideas but the point is that it should not be their choice. Parents should be able to direct their money towards any education they want for their children, and educators and innovators should be able to offer any type of education system or method that they think will attract parents (customers).
Higher education is similar with new and unique alternative education methods having to battle against the incentives the state offers for people to attend a typical four year university as well as the virtual brain washing that occurs during lower education that convinces everyone that they must attend a university to be successful—even when that may not be the case. The few innovations that do occur at all levels happen in spite of government education, not because of it. Remove the state from the picture, make public institutions compete on a level playing field with other types, and you will have infinitely more education opportunities.
Competition and having your business’s (in this case school’s) survival based on the purchasing decisions of individuals lead to innovation and invention which in turn lead to increasing value and decreasing costs. This will fix the problems with education. It will give you a myriad of different types of options which, due to creative destruction, will only get better and better for more and more people over time. It will undoubtedly result in some things similar to what we have today for people whom that suits, but it will certainly also yield an abundant variety of specialty education systems which will allow students to focus on streamlining and improving their strengths (not all too much different from comparative advantage in trade) and, in doing so, will truly give them the tools to lead successful lives while at the same time providing businesses with better suited and highly skilled employees. Let’s end the one size fits all form of education and everyone will reap the benefits.