A Call for a New Education System

The education system is broken.  The way I see it, there are three potential purposes for education:

  1. To help kids find the right path for themselves.
  2. To help kids prepare for their careers.
  3. To teach kids about the world generally so that they’re prepared for whatever comes next.

In my case, the system failed me on all three counts.

My Education Background

When I was in high school, I thought I wanted to be a doctor, so I took all the pre-requisite courses to get into a Science program. In Quebec, where I grew up, students go through a 2-year pre-University program called CEGEP, start University one year later than their American counterparts, and do 3-year undergrad degrees.  After one semester of CEGEP, I realized I despised Chemistry, and didn’t particularly love any of the other natural sciences, and so I switched my concentration to the social sciences.

By the time I was applying to University, I had no idea what I wanted to do.  I applied to programs in Economics, Finance, Arts and Law.  Someone must have bungled the paperwork, because I was accepted everywhere, including McGill University’s Faculty of Law, the top law school in Canada, and one of the best in the world, which only admits about 20 students per year who don’t hold undergraduate degrees.

Because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I decided to go to law school, because…  well…  I got in, and I’d be crazy not to go, wouldn’t I? As it turned out, law wasn’t really my cup of tea, and so I spent the next 3 years of my law degree cutting classes, and cramming for 100% finals based on borrowed class notes.  In the end, I somehow managed to graduate with distinction.

It did not take me long to realize that life in a law firm would lead to instant misery, and so I took a job in the US as an in-house counsel to a private company.  That offered the opportunity for me to move into a management role.  After a year of that, I took another left turn, and returned home and started looking for a job in Marketing.  A field that I had never studied.

Two years later, I’m helping a 100 year-old company that’s known for printing yellow phone books turn into the premiere internet marketing firm in the country.

The Broken Bits

That’s a long backstory to come to a simple point – everything I know about my current job, I learned myself.  I never took a marketing class in my life and I can confidently say that I know more about marketing than I ever knew about law.

The education system failed me, no matter how you slice it:

  • If the purpose of education is to help kids find the right path for themselves, it didn’t work.
  • If the purpose of education is to help kids prepare for their careers, it didn’t work.
  • If the purpose of education is to teach kids about the world generally so that they’re prepared for whatever comes next, it didn’t work.

Let’s be clear, I am not critizing the quality of the education that I received.  My professors were fantastic.  The worst of them had incredible legal minds, and were repositories of knowledge.  The best of them challenged me to think critically and in ways that I had never thought before.

Despite this, they were training me for a discipline that in the end I had no intention of practicing, and while it may have been my own fault for being there in the first place, I wonder if this would have been any different if I were in the right discipline?  In talking to colleagues, it’s clear that the older ones never even imagined that marketing would be done the way it’s done today, while the younger only saw internet marketing mentioned when banner ads were discussed in the last ten pages of the 25th edition of a text book, originally printed in 1978.  So, would a marketing degree really have better prepared me for my current career?

The biggest issue facing the education system is that it is stuck in a bygone era.  The education system we know today was designed when a child could enter school, and the world that would exist when they finished was essentially the same as the one that existed when they started, and that the world that would exist at retirement, would only be slightly different.  Today, in the twenty years between when a child starts school, and finishes school the world is a different place.

When I started school, the Soviet Union still existed.  The internet was a still just an idea in Tim Berners-Lee’s head.  Homes had VHS machines, and the personal computer and cell phones existed, but were a long way from ubiquity.  Try to imagine what the world will look like when a child who starts school now finishes university.  Now, try to imagine what the world will look like twenty years after that.

That is the world that education systems are trying to prepare students for, but it’s impossible.  Beyond the fundamentals, the skills being taught in school now will be antiquated within five years of graduation. When I was in law school, we were taught how to use a legal reference library, even though just a couple of years later, my classmates are now using solely online legal databases in their practices.

What Needs to Change

The education system as it exists currently is built for trades, but the world is undergoing a creative revolution.  As trades can be done cheaper and just as well in developing countries, the developed world needs to focus on the highly specialized, cutting edge fields.  These are fields where creativity and innovation are more important than established skills.

As such, in the developed world, education systems need to shift away from training us all to do a job, and shift towards teaching us how to innovate, create and learn for ourselves.  Those that are thriving today are those that have learned how to do that for themselves in spite of the education system which has trained them to do the opposite.

There is no point in training people for specific careers when you can’t be sure that those careers will still exist by the time the student graduates.  Instead, we need to train people to improve themselves constantly.

Education also needs to adapt itself to the strengths of individuals.  Education privileges the book smart, but that is only one form of intelligence.  Instead of penalizing children for not mastering the traditional subject that they may not have an affinity for, what about discovering their talents and nurturing those instead?  What if our education system recognized the artist in a child and nurtured that in the child to allow that child to hone those skills?  What if instead of taking a child with difficulty in mathematics and drubbing him with remedial math courses, our education system instead steered the child towards lighter mathematics, and more emphasis on what the child was good at?  What if less focus was placed on the number of right answers a student gets on a test, and more focus was put on the wonderful learning experience that comes from a wrong answer?  What if the purpose of schools wasn’t to prepare a child for a vocation that he is expected to know that he wants before he is ready, but instead to help a child figure out what that vocation should be?  What if our education system stopped pumping out graduates with useless degrees (like me) and instead focused on churning out people who are prepared to create their own ideas?

When I graduated from high school, I teased a good friend who went into an arts program at a private college. Now, I’m calling for an education system less focused on churning out more lawyers, and more focused on churning out more liberal arts majors.  I guess I still have a lot to learn.

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