Turning the Titanic

The Challenges of Changing the Course of American Education

The 20th century’s public school system was designed with one overarching goal in mind: preparing young people to be successful participants in an industrial economy. It’s largely for this reason, I suspect, that schools place so much emphasis on having students sit down quietly when the bell rings and diligently complete tasks assigned to them by an omnipotent authority figure. Those who refuse to carry out these repetitive tasks — those who resist having their bodies, their thinking, and their time controlled by others — are punished and stigmatized in a way that is clearly visible to future employers.

According to some cultural critics, this suggests that public schools should be thought of as factories, whose primary aim is to mold children into cogs for the industrial machine. In this view, uncompliant children are pulled off the assembly line and discarded like defective car parts. From a more charitable perspective, however, we might say that schools are simply doing their job by preparing children for the world they will encounter as adults. Given the fact that all students will soon have to find a place within the capitalist economy, wouldn’t schools be doing children an enormous disservice by NOT inculcating them with the values necessary for success in that world?

I attended art school after college, and during one critique, I was absolutely savaged by a professor. Literally foaming at the mouth, he screamed at me, “I want to tear this drawing up into little pieces, swallow those pieces, and then shit them out! Then, this piece will be BETTER!” After class, I approached the professor and (while fighting back tears) shared with him how hurtful his comments were. He responded by saying, “Listen, kid, that’s exactly how the art world is going to treat you. If you don’t have thick enough skin to handle that kind of critique, you should get out of the art game.”

At the time, I was furious with this teacher — after all, wasn’t the point of art school to fan the flames of young artists’ creativity, rather than maliciously urinating on them? Years later, however, I came to see that this professor actually believed that he was helping me — by preparing me for the world I would be entering. My sense is that this same justification might be invoked by our educational system more broadly. Although we know that forcing children to sit silently at a desk for seven hours a day (and requiring them to ask permission to go to the bathroom!) is often a soul-crushing experience, we tell ourselves that this is the only way to set them up for success in adulthood. 

As I see it, however, the debate about the merits of crushing our children’s spirits in order to prepare them for the industrial economy overlooks one crucial fact: that industrial economy is VANISHING! In my opinion, It’s highly likely that most of the jobs held by Americans today will no longer exist in 2060. As just one example, there are some four million people in the US whose jobs involve driving people and goods around. With the advent of self-driving cars and trucks, many of those jobs will simply disappear. (As another perhaps more ominous example, a Silicon Valley startup has just unveiled an artificial intelligence system that can write newspaper articles which are indistinguishable from those created by professional journalists.) As robots and AI systems become exponentially more powerful over the coming decades, will our children be able to enjoy careers that look anything like those of previous generations?

As more hopeful futurists like to point out, it’s entirely possible that the advent of automation doesn’t kill jobs, it just changes them. Pointing back to the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, these thinkers argue that the birth of factories didn’t lead to a drop in employment — it just moved jobs from farms and cottage industries to urban factories. While these arguments are certainly reasonable, it seems clear that the industrial jobs for which public schools were meant to prepare children are very unlikely to exist in just a few decades. In fact, we can see signs of this seismic shift already: the kind of obedient worker prized in a factory setting is entirely unsuited to start-up culture, which demands wildly disruptive creativity. Given this obvious fact, isn’t it strange that our public schools are still using largely the same curricula and pedagogical methods they employed in 1950?

In my view, there are two reasons for this unfortunate state of affairs. The first is that our educational system has become a massive, highly centralized institution. Now that curricula are created by statewide committees that oversee millions of students, evolving education is a lot like turning the Titanic. Although change is certainly possible, it occurs on the timescale of decades. (As a concrete example of our educational system’s tragic inability to respond nimbly to changing circumstances, we need only look at the enormous trouble our schools have had responding effectively to the coronavirus pandemic.)

More importantly, however, our efforts to change the course of the educational system are stymied by the fact that no one can predict what the economy will look like in thirty years. Should we be preparing our children for a world where everyone will compete for jobs as computer programmers and tech entrepreneurs, or for a world where they’ll receive monthly universal basic income checks and spend most of their time pursuing their personal passions? Confronted by a future shrouded in a thick fog, the captains of our educational system have decided that the safest course is simply to plow straight ahead.

As just one example of this inability to adjust to a rapidly changing world, our educational system is still largely based around the dissemination and regurgitation of information. As we all know, however, information is now instantaneously and ubiquitously available, and so asking kids to memorize the Gettysburg Address is a largely meaningless exercise. Although it’s clear that what matters for success is no longer information per se (but rather, the ability to analyze and synthesize it in creative and meaningful ways) schools continue to give kids tests that they could ace simply by opening Wikipedia on their phones.

In my mind, this suggests that the necessary innovations in education are unlikely to come from our massively centralized public school system. Instead, they will come from small independent educational institutions that are agile enough to try out new ideas and evolve rapidly based on what works and what doesn’t. YourCosmos has been specifically designed to be one of those incubators of new educational approaches. As a result of our tiny class sizes and highly interactive teaching format, we can continually evolve our curricula and our pedagogy to better meet the demands of students and the future they will soon inhabit.

More fundamentally, our entire pedagogical approach is based on the acknowledgment that we can no longer predict the future with any accuracy. Because we can’t offer students definitive answers about what world they will inherit and how they should prepare for it, we believe that education must now focus on helping students to think for themselves and to come to their own conclusions. With this in mind, all our courses are designed to offer students multiple perspectives and to help them decide which they find most compelling. As one example, our course called Humanity’s Possible Futures helps students explore different visions of what the world might look like in 100 years and then decide which ones seem most likely and also most worth advocating for.

On one level, this kind of open-ended inquiry might seem like it’s letting students down. After all, isn’t it our job as educators to inform young people about the world they will be stepping into? As we’ll explore in the next post, however, we could see this crisis in education as finally offering young people a challenge worthy of their creativity.