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Our 19th Century Educations
Why our school system falls short for the world of today and tomorrow.

By: John Shepler

The question we all asked in school, or at least wanted to, was "why am I learning this?" Admit it. There was probably a point in every class you ever took when you wondered when they were going to get to the point and tell you what you were going to do with the information. Chances are, they never did. That was the point. You and I were, and students today are, being trained to supply an industrial revolution that had its own agenda and has now run its course. We're well prepared for the turn of the century, alright. Only it's the last century.

Where is John D. Rockefeller When You Need Him?
In his book, "Tomorrow Now, Envisioning The Next Fifty Years," Bruce Sterling describes how his high school daughter is being prepared for life as a New England cotton-mill girl. Ouch! Can that really be true?

Sterling makes the point that learning is not the main reason we send children to school. The main purpose of elementary and even high school is for socializing children to sit quietly and listen for hours on end, respond positively to authority figures, move in sync to the ringing of bells, fill out forms, conform to a dress code, accept constant supervision in rooms and halls, and parrot what they've been taught upon command.

Laughably, Sterling points out that if the purpose of school were learning and not socializing, the smartest kids would get to go home after about an hour. But that's not the way it is at work, is it?  Nobody gets to go home after an hour. You put in your 8 hours and attest to it on a time sheet or time clock. There is no point in getting "done" at 3 when you know you're stuck till 5.

Rockefeller, Carnegie or Ford would be tickled. After about 150 years of retraining an agrarian society, we're now able to mass produce a docile workforce for the railroads, coal mines, cotton mills, steam plants, pocket watch factories, and the like. There's a certain wry humor in the current educational battle cry, "no child left behind." We've ALL been left behind.

Does This Really Work?
Society would be on the fast track if standardized labor-intensive jobs were being created as fast as they could be filled. Unfortunately, "jobs" of all types are on the wane. White collar, blue collar, gold collar... they're all going bye bye. The latest business news is that the economy is improving at the same time unemployment is increasing. Does this make sense?

Consider that companies are maximizing their short term profits by eliminating activities that don't make an immediate contribution to the stock price. Jobs, as we've come to know and love them, are being exported to lesser developed countries still anxious to make the conversion from farms to factories. Even after factoring in those effects, worker bees and executives alike are dropping like flies. Business has gotten so good at automating, computerizing and otherwise improving the efficiency of creating the services and stuff that we all use, that a decreasing work force can well serve the needs of an increasing population. Just as we no longer need an army of field hands to cultivate the crops, we no longer need an army of assemblers to put things together or an army of clerks to push forms from one desk to another.

Shouldn't this dangerous trend be reversed before we're all cooling our heels in the unemployment line? Forget it. Unless, of course, you wax romantic about the idea of hoeing the back forty from dawn to dusk and then collapsing in your sod hut. Or, sweating 12 hours a day in a hundred degree oil and steam mist, deafened by clank of gears and rods banging against each other. No, friend, if you want to live in a world where you can relax in front of a wall size high definition entertainment center or drive your SUV to the mall to pick up a few of the latest DVDs, you better cheer on the productivity improvements that make it possible for the common folk to live in mini-mansions... even if you're not quite there yet. The future is forward, not back.

So, Now What?
The really scary truth is that we're headed toward an entrepreneurial society that we've never been trained for. Faced with a pink slip, today's loyal but confused ex-employee quickly calls upon his or her lifetime employment experience to update resumes, scan help wanted ads, call job recruiters and employment offices, and otherwise attempt to get back in the comfort zone of a steady job. As long as that works, there is no need to face the shock and horror of starting all over from scratch. But what about when it doesn't? Youngsters move back in with mom and dad. Oldsters scale back to living on one income or eating down their lifetime harvest of savings, investments, social security benefits, pension payments, etc. Those in the middle years and maxed out on credit are really in a world of hurt.

There is another possibility. It's been said that we should consider the industrial revolution a mere blip in history. Before the mid to late 1800's most people made their way independently as farmers, shopkeepers, trappers, prospectors, blacksmiths and other one person or family enterprises. Then we all got regimented and moved en-masse to the factories and offices, expecting to be told what to do all the time and forgetting how to fend for ourselves. Now the best opportunities may well have to do with how good you can be at fending for yourself.

If you are at this point in life or see it coming, you know that your educational background and even college credentials may not be enough to help you prosper independently. You need to add new skills. You need to learn how to manage money better when your steady income is replaced by feast and famine cycles in business. You need to learn how to market and sell, how to convince people to pay you for what you can do for them. You need to be able to spot needs in the marketplace and move in to provide what people will buy for as long as they want it. Then how to move on to the next opportunity. You'll need to replace your dependable salary with multiple streams of independent income, so that if one opportunity dries up you won't be tossed on the rocks.

Probably the biggest thing you need now, that nobody ever planned for, is the ability to figure out what it actually is that you need to know and how to best acquire that knowledge. It might be additional schoolwork and certification, perhaps Internet research, books and tape courses, or interviewing those already in the know. Nobody is going to ring a bell or tell you to be quiet and turn to page 51. You'll have to figure out for yourself what page you need to be on, and in which book.

At some point, our creaking educational system is going to need a major overhaul to be able to get kids up to speed on readin', writin' and 'rithmatic, plus new topics such as inventing, making money, selling and supporting customers, seeing hidden opportunities, independent contracting, and just plain fending out there in the cold. For now, we'll just have to figure out how we can add to our basic educations to bring ourselves up to speed on the opportunities that are here today, not yesterday.


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