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School Daze Redux

I can remember being just out of college, freshly installed in Providence, RI, dropping by Brown University to investigate their MFA program.  I had graduated fully decorated, done graduate scholarship work abroad and had no reason to believe my academic record made me anything less than a desirable candidate.  I was also living with my husband-to-be, sharing the day to day responsibility of his two-year-old. 

I was stunned when the woman behind the desk, with no knowledge of me beyond my physical presence -  not even a transcript, mind you – announced officiously, as she eyed the baby girl grasping my hand, that there would be no way for me to pursue graduate work part time. 

Me, the perennially desirable academic candidate, being told I didn’t “fit” the program.  That was a first.  I walked away from “formal” education that day because it didn’t fit my life.  But I can remember thinking how really unintelligent that decision was – on the institution’s part, not mine.  Why would you turn away a highly motivated, qualified applicant because of your own inflexibility?  By refusing to accommodate my needs, they lost my tuition check.

There is a rich vein in the American success narrative driven by dropouts.  These characters either reject the educational system or are rejected by it, and then go on to make a huge impact on our nation.  Trailblazers who run the gamut in terms of skillsets, they represent a broad array of professional fields – from Woody Allen, Louis Armstrong and William Safire to Paul Allen, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.  Many times they are known for accumulating huge wealth, like John Jacob Astor, America’s first multimillionaire, Ted Turner or J. Paul Getty.  They are most often mythologized as original thinkers who could not be constrained or restrained by the system.  American icons.

These characters have always populated our streets and our imagination.

What I’m wondering now, however, is whether there has been something of a sea change.  If no longer just the intellectual odd-balls, but mainstream students – some of our best and brightest, at a time we need them most – are actually voting with their feet.  Just recently I have run into a spate of twentysomethings – all terribly smart – who have had it. Not with the American dream, but with the American educational system.  These are the kids who can succeed, who have completed serious academic workloads, who should go on to become leaders in our system.

Instead they opt out. 

Not because they’re burned out.  Because, in part, they’re disillusioned with a last century educational approach that protects information, sells out to the highest bidder even while tuition mounts and, as one former student put it:  “are large organizations in the business of staying large instead of delivering value.”

Take Dan P., currently living in Cambridge.  Studying mechanical engineering and robotics, he completed a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree and was ABD (all but dissertation) at MIT.  Then he quit.  He cites the rise of open source hardware and software projects as well as DIY electronics and computer groups.  “If you really want to get an education by doing – you can do that now.  A degree still means something now, but that will go away soon.”  He sees the system as largely “irrelevant.” 

Human beings may be what they eat.  Similarly, institutions of higher learning are who they attract and retain. 

Contrast Dan’s story with the numbers of applicants to MBA programs (even now, post crash) – a degree known to up your leverage with an employer and materially increase your salary.

And while there are certainly many worthy MBA candidates, I have also encountered my fair share who appear to have simply gone to trade school for powerpoint and excel.  Somehow, those extra years of schooling never really touched their brains or fired their imagination. 

Why can the schools attract these students but lose the potential game changers?  And what does it mean when that happens – not occasionally – but habitually?

The President is calling for a renewed emphasis on education – a fuel that will fire the new American Renaissance.  He talks about students and the opportunities education affords.  I would counter:  We need our educational institutions to be worthy of our students.  We need them to be worthy of this century and the challenges we face.  We need them to train our leaders about the new world – not disenfranchise them with old world methods.

Paradoxically, at a time when Clay Shirky documents the rise of organizing without organizations, the capital and import of their face to face immersive environment is also rising.  What some institutions are failing to recognize is that they can simultaneously leverage the true value of their communities while adapting their educational models to reflect the non-monopolistic realities of our lives today.

American business is scrambling to keep up with the pace of change.  There is no reason to assume the education sector is immune to those same pressures.   If today’s higher education is not relevant, transparent and elastic, if it doesn’t reflect life as this generation knows it – instead of old-school, business-as-usual values -  it will fail us – all of us – when we need it most. 



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