Hurdles to Education

In today’s New York Times, Andrew Hacker, the author of a book that has long been on my “to read” list: Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It wrote that in his opinion Algebra isn’t necessary for all students.  I really must agree.

As 21st century leaders and students we must ask ourselves whether the conventional wisdom of the mid-20th century applies to us.  Algebra is quite necessary for building of 21st century technology and solutions in programming, economics, engineering or research science – but is it necessary that everyone knows how to build these technologies?  I’m not talking about opportunity to learn – everyone should have the opportunity to take all classes – but as every student does not have the same skillset let alone the same interest, should every student be forced into the same math requirements?  And if so what should those requirements be?

Hacker brings up an alternative to the traditional algebra-geometry-trigonometry-calculus path that all high school graduates must make it at least halfway through before receiving a diploma:

Thus mathematics teachers at every level could create exciting courses in what I call “citizen statistics.” This would not be a backdoor version of algebra, as in the Advanced Placement syllabus. Nor would it focus on equations used by scholars when they write for one another. Instead, it would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.

We as citizenry must decide how much information an individual can be required to learn before they can be a responsible citizen.  Currently, we blindly push everyone toward the same STEM career path without regard for their own skillset or the changing market dynamics that may require intellectual development in non-math fields.  Does this 20th century model really work?

Things that Matter

Well, in our society, we have things that you might use your intelligence on, like politics, but people really can’t get involved in them in a very serious way — so what they do is they put their minds into other things, such as sports. You’re trained to be obedient; you don’t have an interesting job; there’s no work around for you that’s creative; in the cultural environment you’re a passive observer of usually pretty tawdry stuff; political and social life are out of your range, they’re in the hands of the rich folks. So what’s left? Well, one thing that’s left is sports — so you put a lot of the intelligence and the thought and the self-confidence into that. And I suppose that’s also on of the basic functions it serves in the society in general: it occupies the population and keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter.

– Noam Chomsky

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What would commitment mean?

I find myself almost daily asking the same question.  What do I need in my life?

The question comes up not as a list of all the things to be kept, but as a searing, train-of-thought stopping “Do I really need THIS in my life?” whenever I’m doing something particularly heinous.  Like washing dishes or staying up until 3 am to build a model.  There is something about doing difficult things that results in a knee-jerk wishful thought that maybe I don’t have to do this.

Its human nature to think of a simpler, lazier way out.  Laziness is an essential part of our creativity.  Otherwise we would still be walking and carrying everything we owned on our backs rather than inventing the wheel.  Maybe my generation has come to value the lazy part of human nature too much.  This is why a recent Harvard study found that 56% of my peers don’t graduate from a 4 year program in 6 years.  A multitude of reasons could lead to this statistic: difficulty of classes, hatred of teachers, inability to time manage, rising tuition cost, irrelevance to the job market and probably a million more.  These reasons center on how lazy we’ve become at defining the importance of college.  It’s not enough for us to know “college is important.”  If that’s all we know then when the inevitable stress begins and we ask “Do I really need this?” the answer will be no.

My long time mentor, Augie Turak, just wrote a post on Forbes.com calling out people who are crippled by thinking just like that.  He describes the red hot heart of leadership as the willingness to commit to, not just what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it.  For me, that means that you have a reason to say yes.  I’ve been in Architecture school for a year now and inevitably when it’s 3 am and the 3rd night of glueing tiny pieces of bass wood together the question always comes up.  And I answer yes because one of the first things Augie every told me he wrote in this post:

It is not the failure to succeed that produces despair. It is the failure to try.

A person will never be successful at something if he/she doesn’t try.  Trying every difficult thing is important – more important is having a reason to try every difficult thing.  Without a reason, there is no commitment.  With a reason there is an answer to doubt.  Being committed is to be so focused on the reason that every other action is in service to that reason.  In many ways commitment is the opposite of balance, but commitment actually can’t exist without the questioning of it.  The very act of questioning, of doubting strengthens our commitment to important things that are worth difficulty (building a model) and also gives us the power to let go of difficult things that are unnecessary and unhealthy to keep in our lives (building a model at 3 am).  Laziness is part of the equation, it’s what fuels the doubt in difficult times, but we can’t be committed to being lazy.  Commitment to the idea of not having to carry our stuff means we worked hard to invent the wheel.