Showing posts with label school system. Show all posts
Showing posts with label school system. Show all posts

Friday, December 5, 2014

On Education: Why Peter Thiel and Vivek Wadhwa Are Both Wrong.


“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Nelson Mandela 

You may have read an opinion piece by Peter Thiel that lambasts the traditional four year college (“Thinking too highly of higher ed”) calling it an elitist tournament that “bankrupts the losers and turns the winners into conformists.” Some years ago Mr. Thiel famously offered students $100,000 to drop out of college to start a company; since then he has been trying to hasten and also championing the demise of traditional education. On the other side of the argument, Vivek Wadhwa penned an Op-ed, also in the Washington Post, defending college education as we know it today (“In defense of college: What Peter Thiel gets wrong, once again”). He cites numerous studies about how college educated workers earn many times more than their peers without degrees. He purports that Mr. Thiel’s formula would lead us in a race to the bottom. 

The problem is that both men are completely wrong. 

The issue lies in this same absolutism that we seem to have generally embraced as a society. It comes in large part from a totally broken political system in Washington. One that has permeated into the media; with pundits from both sides having raucous debates on every issue, always with black and white viewpoints and never agreeing on anything at all. Sure, it is great for ratings because it is much more fun to watch but it is lousy for progress and keeping America competitive for the next century – which will require collaboration and ideas from all sides of the political and individual spectrum. The same seems to hold true for debates in the business world today. Whether it is the abhorrent behaviour of an Uber senior manager or the growing cacophony of women claiming that Bill Cosby drugged and raped them, we inevitably have two sides emerge, both firmly entrenched in their positions and refusing to budge. Both citing anecdotal and statistical evidence to make their individual cases. The end result is that we never reach consensus and most times the perpetrators walk away without facing any real consequences for their actions (other than a social media battering or outpouring of support). The net result is that we learn nothing and nothing changes. 

In fact, it feels like compromise has become a bad word. To suggest it is deemed as a sign of weakness rather than seen as a positive way to find a better solution - one that takes into account both viewpoints and finds the BEST path forward. Here, I stress the best path and not the one of least resistance or one that appeals to the lowest common denominator, by trying to satisfy all sides. The point is that nobody has a monopoly on great ideas – democrat, lesbian, republican, entrepreneur, African American, corporate executive, short, tall, illegal immigrant or college professor – we need to take the best ideas from across the spectrum to find the most innovative solutions to the problems we face today. Having a position, and getting entrenched without being able to listen to those who oppose our position will never allow us to make progress. Also, consider that many entrenched positions are driven by purely political ideology versus substantive data or genuine objectivity. 

In this instance I would suggest that each man has merits to his arguments, but neither is right on the merits of his alone. If we were to combine their contentions, we might start with the premise that the education system in the US is broken. Granted, pre-college education seems much more broken than higher education, but this is in large part due to the fact that it has received far more attention and been the focus of both political parties and many interest groups. However, when parents stop having a second child purely because of the cost of a private school and the ability to send a second kid to a top tier college would be cost-prohibitive, I would say we have a problem that needs to be fixed. 

Mr. Thiel is right when he states that the education system today designed to make us all conform. From the first time we step into a classroom we begin the process of removing creative, independent thought and courageous risk-taking behaviour from our wild and imaginative little minds. We are taught to act, speak and think in a certain way rather than to explore our imaginations in ways that expand our little boundaries without ever suppressing bold and unconventional thinking. On the other hand Mr. Wadhwa is also right when he argues that we learn invaluable real world skills in college, beyond what comes out of a textbook. It is in college that we are away from our parents and fending for ourselves for the first time. Sharing a room and learning to negotiate, resolve differences and get along with perfect strangers. It is the first time many of us have had to step outside our little bubble and deal with people with whom we may have nothing in common. We also taste untethered freedom for the first time, and need to learn how to balance it with studies. We learn to deal with professors, select classes, make a schedule and figure out how to be accepted into various social circles. Most importantly it gives us time to figure out how to become adults before we have to face big bad world of responsibilities and mortgages. 

I would also go further and say that college, in the traditional four year format is not for everyone, but we cannot simply write it off as completely redundant for this reason alone, as Mr. Thiel suggests we do. What I am saying is that the premise of pre-college education should be based on teaching us valuable inter-personal skills to help us survive, but also ensure that our curious little minds get the opportunity to explore a world we did not know existed and barely imagined; from mathematics to woodwork and Shakespeare to swimming – we should stop trying to box kids into neat little squares and expect them all to become monochromatic adults. Based on this premise, if we were to re-think higher education in the same vein then we would imagine a world where it consisted of various different types of courses based on passions that have peaked during the early school formative years. We could have some kids coming out of school wanting to become mechanics, woodworkers or electricians and they can attend a two or five year specialized skills based training program that would involve job placements. Equally, we may have a bunch passionate about law, engineering or business. And finally we may have another set of people who have no idea what they want to be and attend a newly designed curriculum that exposes them to everything from business to the arts, and a host of other things. 

The point is that if we can get Mr. Wadhwa and Mr. Thiel to sit down and start to envision new ideas and ways to get kids ready for this brave new world then we will likely end up with an amazing starting roadmap to fix our broken system. But as long as they refuse to acknowledge the realities, positive and negative, and remain invested in protecting or tearing down their status quo, our kids will continue to suffer and nothing will change.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

An Education: Part 1

"One of the few things a person is willing to pay for and not get.”
William Lowe Bryan

“Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a snake, In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting, Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
“Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”

I can still remember those words and vividly picture Ms. Malti acting out this scene from Macbeth. She would be hunched, knock-kneed and deliver it with her best witch's voice and a chilling cackle. It was my first foray into Shakespeare and it moved me in a way no teacher or subject ever had before. I was in the 5th grade, all of ten years old, and decided that day that I wanted to and needed to write. That single moment changed the way I viewed school forever. The passion, delight and energy, with which she brought the words off those pages to life, inspired me in a way that I had always sought but never knew I was missing. 

This to me is the single most important purpose of an education – to lead to that single, solitary moment when a spark is ignited, a connection made, in a way that lights up a child’s brain activity to open their mind and engage their senses with sheer delight. 

It is not about text books, subjects, grades and exams. It is about finding that unique passion within each child, and shaping and nurturing it once discovered. 

Some must be inspired to dance, some to fix cars, some to write, some to bank and some to rogue but that is the journey we must all make through childhood, and the breakthrough that helps us become the adults we are passionate about becoming. 

So I ask where have the teachers like Ms. Malti gone?  Those who teach because it a passion they want to impart and share for Shakespeare’s words or Vernier’s Callipers.

I look at the education system today in America and India and wonder what happened. I hear of the horror stories from parents paying $30,000 a year in fees, for a 3 year old child’s pre-school in New York. Or read about thousands of Engineering graduates in India, whose prospective employers say they don’t even have the basic proficiency to string together one coherent thought. And once hired, have to be re-trained for months to address "inherent inadequacies" in their education (“India Graduates Millions, but Too Few Are Fit to Hire” – Wall Street Journal). 

In fact, many graduates are finding that they need to supplement their degrees with further education because the skills they possess are not adequate to get a job. Another report published by Pratham, a child-focused nonprofit, paints a dire picture on rural education. In their 2010 report they state “as things stand, more than half the children in Standard 5 [10-11yrs old] will be incapable of completing even elementary education except by blind promotion without regard to the actual learning levels.” 

Much is said about India having the greatest advantage in the global economy in the next 20 years because they will have the youngest population in the world; with half its 1.2 billion people below the age of 25 years. But to my mind this advantage over US, Europe and China will be totally negated if we are unable to provide them with an education.

Meanwhile, in America, once known for its great school system credited with providing the US with its greatest competitive advantage over the last two generations, things are also desperately and completely broken. I defer to a brilliant 2009 documentary called “Waiting for Superman” to sum up the current state of US education system; “In America right now, a kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds. These drop-outs are 8 times more likely to go to prison, 50% less likely to vote, more likely to need social welfare assistance, not eligible for 90% of jobs, are being paid 40 cents to the dollar earned by a college graduate, and continuing the cycle of poverty.” 

According to the 2010 OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) report, the United States ranked 14th out of 34 developed nations for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics. What is startling is that a mere twenty years ago it was on top. 

There are many neighborhoods in the country where children know more people who are in prison than graduated college. Multiple social and community experiments have produced more than disappointing results and even though the average amount spent per student has increased dramatically from $393 in 1960-61 to $9,683 in 2006-7 (source: U.S. Department of Education, 2010). We have learned that throwing money at the problem does not solve anything. 

In fact, it seems to have actually made the school system worse and accelerated its decline. This, while creating a bureaucracy so vast and so complex that it makes India’s stifling bureaucratic mess look like child’s play to navigate. 

The last but most important part of this broken puzzle is the teachers union who seem to have a stranglehold on the system with iron-clad teacher’s contracts that protect teachers blindly while doing nothing for school children. A school principal in America today is unable to fire a non-performing teacher who has tenure. All they can do is shuffle him around the system by passing him off to other schools (and accepting their non-performers in return) or until last year send them to the infamous rubber room that existed in New York. This was a room where teachers awaiting disciplinary action were sent to sit around idly, while receiving full pay, as their grievances went through the union-designed system which could take years; of course as long as the teacher gets paid, the union get its monthly dues.

Ultimately, I look to America and India not only to drive the future success of our increasingly inter-connected global economy but also to remain the two greatest beacons of democracy in an increasingly turbulent and uncertain world. Failure is not an option. 

However, imagine for a moment a world where people no longer have basic reading, writing or math skills. Or worse yet, one where the small percentage still privy to a stellar and frighteningly expensive private education all grow up aspiring to become investment bankers and hedge fund managers. 

One where kids no longer dream about being astronauts or veterinarians or firemen. Consider a world without literature, doctors, inventors, policemen, laughter and leadership. 

If we don't allow our children to dream, or stifle their thinking by depriving them of the spark a great teacher can provide, we will be clipping their wings before we ever let their imaginations take flight, and limit their reality forever.