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Education Isn’t What it Used to be

In the next thirty years, according to UNESCO, more people worldwide will be graduating through education since the beginning of history.  And it’s the combination of … technology and its transformation effect of work, and demography and the huge explosion in population.  Suddenly, degrees aren’t worth anything.

– Sir Ken Robinson

To be frank, this is going to be a very touchy subject with some people.  There are those who will disagree and be upset with the information and opinions presented here, but it is a topic very close to my heart and something that I believe does not get nearly enough attention from any form of media.

This article is about education.  It is about what education used to achieve, what it currently achieves, how it should be changed and how absolutely critical that change is.  On its most base level, this article is about why if you don’t fit within the confines of the formal education system you are not doomed to failure.

Creativity

Creativity is, in many ways, what makes us human.  It is what spurs on the innovations in technology, medicine, everyday conveniences and all other aspects of our existence.  Very simply, creativity is what makes the world run.  It is the most important asset we have.

Aside from what creativity does for humans on a macro scale, it also does for us on a micro scale.  Those who are the most succesful in their jobs, in business and in life are the ones who are the most creative.  The very wealthy and the very succesful are all people who thought beyond the borders of their field, or who were brave enough to go into a field in which there was a low chance for success.  Actors, musicians, writers, dancers, artists–  people who took the dangerous path, or at least what was labeled the dangerous path through their schooling.  When they succeed in their field they surpass anything you could even hope to earn in a traditional position.

Creativity is important.  And yet, despite its importance– despite its many uses, in school it is beaten out of us.  You are not rewarded in school for being creative or for thinking up new ideas or ways of doing something– you’re rewarded for following instructions.  You’re rewarded for doing what you’re told and following in the footsteps of those creative souls before you who discovered the information you are now learning.

I know that not all schools are the same, but in the public education system, there is a great deal that is similar from place to place.  Some people are lucky enough to have great teachers and administration at their school and others get teachers who are only there to earn a pay-cheque and administrators who care more about what the rules say in their many books and profit than they do about actual education.

I was in one of the latter schools and I can tell you that after 12 years of attending the most basic level of schooling that I was ready to give up.  Any idea I had beyond what I was told to do was unacceptable.  Any alternate method I had of learning the same information on my own terms was rejected and punished.  I was to fit within the machine that was public education or I would be expelled from it.

My school took the easy route for themselves.  They followed the rules to the T and anyone who did not work within those rules did not get to attend school, thereby (Or so we were all told.) ruining any hope they had of a career or a future.  The schools would have you believe that you would be a bum on the street if you did not play their game.

And to an extent they were right.  You do need a basic education– a high school diploma –if you want to do absolutely anything.  In an age where a Bachelor’s degree is now holding the same weight as a high school diploma did thirty years ago, the high-school diploma has become an almost worthless piece of paper.  And if you don’t even had said almost-worthless-piece of paper, where does that put you?

But this is not the purpose of education.  It is not the purpose of education to kill humanities most valuable asset.  Rather, it is the purpose of education to endow knowledge to be used in conjunction with creativity so that new innovations and revolutions can take place.  As much as we need the knowledge education provides, we also need the creativity we were all born with, no matter what field we decide to go into.  There has to be a balance struck between the two.  Right now formal education tries to do without creativity and it is failing, but conversely creativity without knowledge is also useless.  We need both.

The Many Misconceptions About Having a Degree

When I was a kid my parents drilled into my head that if I were to be successful, I had to go to school.  School, they said, was the key to everything.  It was the key to having a good career, which guaranteed me a good job with good benefits and a good income.  And good benefits and a good income meant a comfortable, safe life.  It sounded like a pretty good deal to me at the time.

And when I was going through school I heard the same thing repeated by all my teachers and principals.  School was necessary to having a good life.  Period.  There was no alternative.

Had I liked school– had I worked well within the bounds of school this wouldn’t have been a problem.  I would’ve put my nose down and studied hard, and today I likely wouldn’t be running this website, writing novels or composing this post for you to read.  I’d probably be studying to become a doctor or a lawyer or a business man.  Things would’ve been different, and a lot smoother.

But I hated school.  I still do, if I’m honest.  Not because I don’t learn anything, because I do.  I have learned and continue to learn a great deal from education.  But because, as I said before, school sets out to kill any kind of flexibility or creativity on the individual’s part.  If you wanted to do something different involving an assignment– present it in a different way, or complete a different task that still has the same end result, that wasn’t allowed in any school I ever attended. (To date I have attended five.)  And if I did it anyway, I was outright punished.

I’ll give you an example that will probably stick with me until the day I die.  When I was in the fifth grade my class was given an assignment during the third or forth day of school.  We were to find an object at home that related to whatever we wanted to do with our lives (Being ten already, we were simply expected to know exactly what we wanted to do.) and bring it in to present it in front of the class, with an explanation of what we wanted to do for a living.

At the time I loved to do two things in my spare time–  I loved to draw, and I loved computer games.  Worlds of fantasy and visions of the future were things that I loved to explore as a kid.  As such, as a child my dream job was becoming an inventor.  I didn’t know what I wanted to invent, but I thought it would be something cool.  I wanted to invent something big, something important– something that would make the world into something closer to the fantastic computer games I played rather than the dull place I thought it to be at ten.

So, having these as my two hobbies, I drew a picture of a MechWarrior.  For those not familiar with MechWarrior, it was a computer game back in the 90′s about piloting big walking tanks and blowing other big walking tanks up.  It was very futuristic and very entrertaining for a ten year old boy, I assure you.  Anyway, here was what I drew a pencil sketch of: here and I brought it into class and presented it.

I said that I wanted to be an inventor, so I drew a picture of something I wanted to invent.  My teacher was not impressed and pressed me for specifics.  Why had I drawn that in particular?  I told her that it was a big machine with guns and whatnot and that I would invent such a thing for military use, to defend our country.  The truth was that I had no intention of building a MechWarrior, it was just something that I was into and I liked to draw, so that’s what I did.

My teacher reamed me for it in front of the whole class, while I stood up there holding my picture.  She told me that to want to invent such a thing was terrible and told me to sit down.  So, being extremely embarassed I sat down and that was that.

I’ll admit that a lot of what made that experience bad was the fact that my teacher was a short-sighted foolish woman who did not know how to handle children, and who I later found out really got off on power (She used to keep the entire class late after school to practice whistling because according to her ‘At ten years old, you should all be able to whistle.’) but the ‘lesson’ if you will call it that, stuck with me for the rest of my time in school.  What I took from it was that doing something creative– something not quite within the bounds of what was asked for was punished quite severely.  I can’t think of anything worse she could have done to a ten year old other than to embarass them in front of 28 of their peers whom they had to sit and work with every day.  I would’ve preferred it if she had said nothing and failed me.

So when I learned this lesson about the inflexibility of school I really began to dislike it.  I nearly failed grade 5 because I hated it so much, which was ironic to both myself and my parents because in the previous year I had been in an advanced section of my class for bright students.  The difference was that my teacher in the previous year had been flexible and knew how to work with kids.  From grade 5 onwards, my teachers just didn’t care.  And neither did those above them.

You might be wondering what this has to do with getting a degree, and I do apologize for digressing to such an extent but it was a point I felt important to demonstrate.  You either do exactly what you’re told and succeed or you don’t and you fail.  In fact, not only do you fail but you’ll be humiliated as well– something for many people that is arguable worse than failure.

So what does it have to do with a degree?  When I made it through high-school many years later I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  And the reason for that is because everyone I ever talked to who was an adult or a teacher or an administrator told me that if I wanted to do something I loved to do, like write novels for a living, or draw, that I would be poor and that I would waste my time and my money in a post-secondary school studying such a thing.  So instead of doing what I knew I wanted to do, I tried looking elsewhere and couldn’t find anything I really loved.

But I thought I knew the two things you needed to succeed based on what I had been told:

1. You need a degree to be successful

2. Even with a degree, you cannot be succesful in the arts unless you are exceptionally lucky

Put very simply, that is not true.

My parents, my teachers and my administrators all told me that I needed a degree to be succesful because that’s how it was after they came out of school.  When my parents were children, having a degree was like having the golden ticket.  As Ken Robinson says in his talk on education, (Which I’ll link at the end of this article.) if you had a degree you had a job, and if you didn’t have a job it was because you didn’t want one.

The thing is, it wasn’t just my parents telling me that I had to get a degree to be succesful– It was everyone’s parents.  Everyone from the previous generation was drilling into the current generation that to be successful and lead a comfortable life, you had to get a degree and you had to get it in something other than the arts.

So everyone got a degree.

Suddenly, degrees aren’t worth anything

Everyone got a degree.  Banks handed out student loans like they were handing out candy on Halloween and they still do.  No matter what your financial circumstances are, you can get a degree so long as you study hard enough because a bank will lend you anywhere from sixty to a hundred thousand dollars to do it.  And you’ll be paying off that debt for the next ten years once you’re out of school.

Which was fine, for the most part, since getting that degree guaranteed a nice job with good benefits and a good income.  You would be able to pay it off in no time.

Except that now you can’t.  I’m sure I’m not the first person to tell you that a Bachelor’s degree is now the equivalent of what a high-school diploma was thirty years ago.  It seems like that’s the common advice given nowadays.  Certainly, towards the end of my educational career in high-school that’s what I was being told.

Except, paradoxically the advice I was given to go along with it was not: ‘Look for some other way of making a living– some creative solution to solve this new challenge.’  It was: ‘You better get that degree or you’ll be really screwed.  In fact, once you have the degree, you better continue on to get an MA or a PhD because those are the only guarantees there are for a job now.’

But that’s not even true anymore.  My father worked as the Physics Coordinator at one of the best Universities in Canada for 38 years and the one thing that he found again and again when he met ex-students after they had graduated disturbed him.  It disturbed me, too, because it flew in the face of everything I had been told.  You see, these students who had graduated with a degree or a masters or sometimes even a doctorate in physics who my father met after they had graduated– it wasn’t what they said that disturbed him, it was where he met them.

They were packing his groceries for him at the supermarket.

They were handing him his movie rentals.

They were serving him his dinner at a restaurant.

Because what none of these graduates had when they got out of school was any experience.  And when companies were getting hundreds of thousands of applicants all with degrees, they had to have a way to prune through them in order to pick the best candidate.  And they way they now do that is with experience.  Along with a degree, they want five years of experience doing the exact job that they’re hiring for.  It’s a very specific set of criteria that not many will fit into, which is exactly why they do it.  It makes their job of picking someone much easier.

And it means that all those students coming out of university with no experience in the job of their choice are being passed over for those who have both the degree and the experience– those who had the good fortune of being born five or ten years earlier when educational inflation was only starting to become a problem.

Case in point, my father retired last year.  He worked at a University for 38 years with, ironically, nothing but a college diploma.  When he left he was making good money and was at the top of the ladder for his job title.

The University replaced him with a man who had a PhD in physics, and they pay him nearly $20,000 less per year.  He is also lower down the rung than my father was.  That’s right.  A man with a doctorate today is making less than someone with a college diploma was 40 years ago.

There is, astonishingly, a lot more I would like to say on this subject but I won’t cram it all into this post as it is already twice the length of what I normally write.

On Thursday I’ll post the conclusion to this article.  I hope you’ll join me.

In the meantime, if you’re still looking for more information on the topic, you’ll probably be interested in hearing Ken Robinson’s speech on TED.com, which is what originally inspired me to write this article.  You can find it right here.

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