CONSERVATIVES PROPERLY BEMOAN the state of education in America. Our K-12 system exists to benefit teachers, not students, who perform poorly next to their peers from comparable first world countries. Higher ed isn’t in any better shape. But just when you think things can’t get any worse, they don’t. We’re on the cusp of a revolution that will blow up the education system in America, top to bottom.
It’s going to be a revolution that puts students in charge. Today, thanks to the incredible resources of the Internet. TED talks—keynote speeches by some of today’s most brilliant minds—are available for anyone to watch online. Sal Khan, the founder of the interactive, game-based Khan Academy, has 10 million students per month using his lessons and hopes to increase that to 50 million. With all of these new resources, we can deliver a transformational education for a fraction of the cost, and equip students to take charge of their own learning. It’s beginning to happen here, and it’s happening elsewhere. Right now, in Mongolia, some child in a hut is taking the first steps towards a Nobel Prize.
All that will disrupt K-12 education, and higher education too. Stanford is betting its brand on high quality distance learning through online courses. The school knows that there are millions of students bright enough to benefit from a Palo Alto education, and the college wants them all to be wearing a Stanford sweatshirt.
The revolution will not leave online education untouched. Online 1.0 was no better than a fax machine: download a reading list, upload a book report. That’s no worse (and a lot cheaper) than sitting in the 35th row of a lecture hall with 500 other students, listening to a teaching assistant drone through endless PowerPoint slides. Online 2.0 is interactive and features real exchanges amongst students and teachers. And what’s beginning to happen now is Online 3.0, with students around the world signing on to deeply immersive learning experiences, with real time seminars and virtual reality platforms.
THE TSUNAMI ISN’T just coming, it’s here. Wikipedia and a volunteer army of writers and editors wiped out Microsoft’s Encarta and the Encyclopedia Britannica; Ebay and the Huffington Post are bankrupting newspapers and magazines, Jeff Bezos of Amazon just bought the Washington Post for pocket change. Education is next. Those who defend the broken status quo often claim to do so out of concern for minorities or the poor. Sure, this might work for privileged kids, they say, but what about everyone else?
Since government funding began, an educational establishment has protected its turf by fear-mongering, whether against Catholics in the 1850’s; Southern Europeans in the early 1900’s or African-Americans and the poor today. The twisted truth is that these ostensibly progressive educators are harming those most in need of an alternative. No escape from government schools? Tell that to the low-income parents who wait in line for the chance for their kids to win a charter school lottery. Tell that to Sugata Mitra, who installed Internet terminals in villages all across India and Africa, and found that children in the slums could teach themselves English and mathematics. A free education for the masses—crazy, right? Tell that to James Tooley, whose book The Beautiful Tree documents private schools in the developing world serving parents at an affordable price. Delivering an education to the poor without government schools—crazy, right?
The poor are about to get the chance they so richly deserve. And the chance will prepare them for a calling, rather than a job or a career. A job is what you do to make money to survive. A career is a series of jobs, each moving up the corporate ladder, to a higher level of responsibility, money and power. Not very joyful, but that kind of a rat race made a degree of sense in the 1950s and 1960s, when it offered the promise of security in a bureaucratic morass. That’s not today’s world, however. Layoffs and pension defaults have broken the unspoken social contract between corporations and workers. Kids today know that they’ll be more like free agents than ever before. That’s why finding a calling in life, always important, is even more critical today.
So what’s a calling? It means discovering your greatest God-given gifts, finding a way to use them that brings great joy, so you can solve a deep burning need in the world.
Contrast that with an education designed to prepare students for a career. You’re taught to obey the rules, to respect authority, to seek uniformity. If that’s the model, it’s no wonder that our educational institutions are lumbering, dysfunctional bureaucracies. In an age that showcases rapid technological and societal change, these are exactly the wrong lessons. Today questions are far more important than answers. Failing early and cheaply is more important than seeking security. Knowing who you are and how you can serve, rather than letting someone else define you, is the secret to a successful and fulfilling life.
Children are precious beings, God-given gifts. Yours. Mine. And the poorest of the poor. Not objects. Not productive citizens serving the state. Not raw material for yours, mine or anyone else’s use. It’s not only foolish and counterproductive to treat them otherwise, but a moral outrage.