Above: An “emergency five-fold Yoda” my son made for this post.
I recently read Seth Godin’s education “Manifesto”, a 30,000 stream-of-consciousness style post called “Stop
Stealing Dreams: What Is School For?” More accurately, I devoured it – read it over my lunch hour and commute,
then over several hours the next morning. (Then I found the TED Talk where he summarizes the ideas in under 20
minutes, oops). Godin delivers a sharp analysis of the issues with public education in the U.S. – the problem,
he argues, is in the basic design of the system. Rather than merely flawed, it is completely outdated: the
original purpose of public education was to produce factory workers and mass consumers. More than anything
else, our current school system operates on and inculcates obedience and compliance. Our changing economy and
culture demand something entirely different: flexible, imaginative graduates who will use their skills to shape
the world around them. He posits that a school teaching these skills would allow students to use their existing
passions to drive their studies, a method resulting in better knowledge development and retention.
Coincidentally, I’ve also been wrapping up the final book in the Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger. If you
have a tween, you’ve probably heard of these books; if not, I highly recommend them. The series explores
questions similar to Godin’s “What is School For?” as it pits a group of bright middle-schoolers against the
school principal and administration in the era of No Child Left Behind. Throughout the series, the kids fold
origami finger puppets based on Star Wars characters and consult them for “Jedi wisdom” in the face of their
problems. Though the puppets are remarkably effective, perhaps a way of representing the kids’ moral compass in
their peer-pressure culture, using them lands the kids in detention for “disrupting the learning environment.”
In the fifth book in the series, the school has failed to meet state standards, and in response, the principal
cuts all elective classes (including music and LEGO robotics), then purchases an expensive (and
inane) video-and-worksheet curriculum for the “back-to-basics” classes that remain. The kids respond with an
“origami rebellion,” wielding their puppets as they brainstorm creative ways to eliminate the new curriculum
and get their favorite classes back. The books ask the question, “What really disrupts the learning
environment? Kids folding origami or standardized tests?” It’s clear that Seth Godin and Tom Angleberger would
answer this question the same way.
In the wake of reading these different (in form) yet similar (in message) treatises on American education, I felt
prompted to ask myself, when was the last time I felt free to be myself, pursue my passions without restraint,
and simply learn as much as I could in the process?
It was first grade. What a year! I won a gold medal in my school’s “Reading Olympics”. I
discovered my all-time favorite book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Along with other girls from my class,
I joined my Brownie troop and started ice-skating lessons (I had the Dorothy Hamill haircut, too). My
wonderful, amazing teacher, Mr. H, had us reciting classic poetry to our classmates and taught us
the basic concepts of algebra (I was fascinated, but wouldn’t return to it until 8th grade!). The highlight of
it all was that I starred in our class play. I played a “woman on the street” reporter (a role that had been
written for a boy – every time we had to change a line frome “he” to “she” I felt proud). I loved reading,
writing, acting, music, skating, and math. Everything just seemed so amazing! What happened?
A few things. When I think of second grade, I remember getting my name written on the board (for asking the kid
behind me for an eraser). I was so mortified – I’d never gotten in any kind of trouble! Right after Christmas, we moved from California to Washington and I was moved up to third grade. My memories of the rest of that year are almost all painful. My first day in class I had all the answers on my math paper marked wrong, because I
didn’t understand a concept the class had already learned. I had to catch up on a quarter’s worth of learning
cursive (I never did master penmanship). My classmates shunned me and I spent my recess periods roaming the
playground perimeter alone. One day I arrived at school to find my desk dumped out on the floor. I noticed that
another desk had been emptied, that of the only child shunned more than I, a boy with messy hair and dirty
clothes. I was starting to ask myself what bully would have done this to us, when my teacher explained to the
class that we had not met her standards of cleanliness and we would need to spend our recess period organizing
our desks. The only bright spot in the year was when that teacher took an extended leave and we had a pleasant
substitute who taught us songs and showed us pictures of Antartica.
It’s a sad story, but my husband’s is sadder: when I asked him the same question (in school, when did you feel
free to be your true self and just learn everything you could about your natural interests?), the answer was
never. He didn’t know his alphabet by age 6, and nearly had to repeat Kindergarten, despite the fact that his
teacher had been so impressed by his artwork that she phoned his parents.
I’m not trying to argue that it’s not important to learn the ABCs, but I think it’s clear that both of us were
taught from a very young age that compliance and obedience were far more important than whatever talents or
interests we might have. I am certain almost all of us can tell stories like this, if we went through American
formal education. By fifth grade, I was in a “gifted program” where we did advanced work and had a few fun
projects, but it was really clear that school was about figuring out what the teacher (foreman) wanted from you
and then completing that job on time, with high quality (and under budget?). As I read Seth Godin’s manifesto,
I had an “a-ha” moment, finally able to put words to the cognitive dissonance I had always felt in school.
After that rough third grade year, school once again came easily most of the time. I was praised for my work
and told I was bright. But at the same time, I felt like I needed to wait for someone to tell me what I should
do with the skills I had. I didn’t know how to reignite the passion I’d possessed as a young child; and anyway, it
seemed like that would interfere with the hours of schoolwork I needed to finish. As I approached graduation
(from high school, then college, then graduate school) I always felt lost. It was embarrassing, a “Reality
Bites” cliche of another aimless Generation Xer. For awhile, I trained myself to think it was because I was a
woman. I would marry and raise a family and that would be my calling. (I did, and I am, and it is. But that’s
not why I felt lost.)
For as long as I was at least dimly aware of the difference between what was taught in school and passion, my
pragmatic self argued that this was a necessary gap, that passion doesn’t pay for a roof over your head or
bread on the table. Passion is a luxury. And, as Godin points out, for much of the last century, it was true
that obedience and compliance did pay off financially for the average American. But the economy has changed,
and obedient, compliant workers can often be replaced by machines, or their work outsourced (and if it can be,
it will be). Godin points out that the old manufacturing economy in America is being replaced by a new
entrepreneurial economy, one that rewards creativity and individuality rather than obedience and compliance.
Even in the large global corporation I work for, there is a drive to increase passion (and hopefully
innovation) in our employees: The remarkably different corporate training class I recently took was designed to
help people reconnect with their passions and address their fears.
I asked my sixth-grade son, who is in a gifted program (and has had wonderful teachers and done some really
great projects and definitely learned useful skills), “What if you went to school and they told you you could
do anything you wanted?”
“I don’t think I’d like that,” he told me, his brow furrowed. “I like to know what I’m supposed to do.”
I have to agree with Godin that this system is no longer working for us. My son has 6 more years of public
education. 6 more years of doing as he is told, followed (maybe) by 4-6 years of the same (at exorbitant
prices). Will he emerge with the same listless feeling I did? The world will be such a different place in a
decade. Will he be ready? I’d love to try to change the system (passion ignited! yay!) but I fear it will be
too late for him (and for my daughter, now in first grade, and maybe even for my little guy, who hasn’t started
yet). I want to support them now. It occurs to me that as I’m going through my own process of growth and
change, that some of the questions I’m asking myself might be good questions to ask my kids too.
What are your interests? What do you want to know more about? Why? What makes you feel alive? Why?
What needs in the world could these things meet?
What do you think? When did you last feel free to be yourself in school or at work? Can we teach innovation?
How can we help young people connect with their passion to drive their education?
P.S. As I was writing this, I got a call from my boss, asking for help creating a web site for a company
volunteer program that has the purpose of drawing girls into STEM fields, and from there into our company. It’s
crazy how my job has been aligning itself to my passions, now that I am starting to own them. Coincidence??