The Other 99%

“The whole purpose of public education is to produce university professors.” So says Sir Ken Robinson in “how schools kill creativity,” one of TED’s 20 most watched videos. Only about 1% of college students become professors, so the other 99% are the losers in our educational system. That might be changing.

Educational reform is a hot topic these days even though Ken Robinson says we’re not yet making many reforms. Robinson is a recognized leader in education, creativity and innovation and worth watching. If you have 18 minutes, catch his hilarious TED talk: Ted Robinson says schools kill creativity

If you don’t have 18 minutes, here’s one highlight. “As children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up,” Robinson notes. “Then we focus on their heads – and slightly to one side. If you were to visit education as an alien, I think you’d have to conclude – if you look at the output, who really succeeds, who gets the most brownie points, who are the real winners – that the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors.”

A former university professor himself, Robinson highlights what’s abnormal about academicians. “There’s something curious about university professors,” he says. “They live in their heads – and slightly to one side. They’re disembodied. They look at their bodies as a sort of transport for their heads.” No doubt professors will be peeved at his remarks, but the rest of us – the 99% – believe Robinson is on to something.

Robinson is echoing an ancient understanding of knowledge and education. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, learning was doing. Knowledge was hands-on, as in Ezra 7:10, where the same Hebrew for “seek” (or “study”) is also rendered in the same verse as “practice.” You practice, you learn. Knowledge is hands-on practice. This explains Genesis 4:1 – “Adam knew Eve.” Their knowledge of sex didn’t come from a seminar. It was exploration, experimentation, and ecstasy. As educational philosopher Kieran Egan insists, “Knowledge exists only as a function of living tissue.”1

This understanding of knowledge went into eclipse in the 19th century. Robinson roots the problem in a 19th century movement called progressivism. Progressivism said knowledge is best gained by writing papers. Academicians are good at writing papers, so they became the most knowledgeable people. The new “experts” then helped plain people (students) progress up from their backwardness. The point of progressivism is that plain people (those who only have hands-on practice) cannot progress up unless they are pulled toward the light by the enlightened – academicians coolly devoted to facts and science. Out of progressivism came today’s public education.

There are boatloads of problems with progressivism. When scripture records that “Adam knew Eve,” it doesn’t mean Adam wrote a white paper on sex. I am continually astounded at Christians, particular clergy and academicians, who believe they can study something – faith, work, economics, the arts, etc. – by writing white papers. In the 19th century, British academicians wrote bloated “blue papers” (so-called because of their blue covers) detailing legislative ideas for consideration by Parliament. MPs couldn’t understand them. So the academicians whittled down their bulky reports, reissuing them with white covers, and, with uncommon logic, calling them “white papers.” Of course, reissuing doesn’t resolve a problem. Had Adam reduced sex to white papers, Eve would have lost interest. Had Adam reissued his papers, Eve would have walked.

And that’s what is happening in public education. Some of our most innovative people are walking away from college. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard because he had 1,000s of hours of hands-on computer programming practice. His professors – so-called “experts” – had little. Gates had dirt under his fingernails. His professors had writer’s cramp. Google’s director of talent, Judy Gilbert, says the most important thing educators can do to prepare students for work in companies like hers is to show them how problems can never be understood or solved in the context of a single academic discipline. Classes have to become “hands-on,” she says, and students have to become creators, or experts, not merely passive consumers taking notes.

The good news is that Robinson is not a voice in the wilderness. David Brooks recently cited the work of Jim Manzi, a consultant who has spent his career helping businesses learn from experience. In his new book, Uncontrolled, Manzi chastises government and academic experts for pushing untested models. “What you really need to achieve sustained learning,” Brooks writes, “is controlled experiments. Try something out. Compare the results against a control group. Build up an information feedback loop. This is how businesses learn.”2

This is how Harvard Business School students are now learning. This past fall, the new dean at HBS, Nitin Nohria, dropped the case study method. He replaced it with fieldwork – students going out and talking to real people and helping solve their problems. As the Economist reported, “this is a big change for HBS. Its students used to sit in a classroom and discuss case studies written by professors.” Now the educational model is “learning by doing.”3 This is promising, even though many HBS faculty – the 1% – are unhappy. Of course they are. Nohria is upending the whole purpose of education, reinventing it to produce practitioners. If he prevails, the other 99% will be winners in an educational system presently designed to only produce university professors.

________________________
1 Kieran Egan, Getting It Wrong From the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget (New Haven: Yale, 2002), p. 68.
2 David Brooks, “Is Our Adults Learning?” The New York Times, April 26, 2012.
3 “Field of dreams: Harvard Business School reinvents its MBA course,” the Economist, December 3, 2011.

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10 Comments

  1. Egan – “Knowledge exists only as a function of living tissue.”

    Sorry Mike, this statement really does signify the reductionist view we have of knowledge. Knowledge, according to the above statement, then is rooted in the materiality of this reality, a social construction at best. A being such as God could not exist, he is not material therefore not knowledge and could not interact in this reality.

    Logic, critical thinking, deductive reasoning, language and other cognitive resources and sentient properties of humans are now relative to the individual; this is an unhealthy individualism and promotion of anti-intellectualism. “Hands on” only reveals a simplistic understanding of such primary narratives such as mercy, love, grace or relationship.

    I find it very worrisome that we can’t separate metaphysical knowledge from practical knowledge and then think that university is to primarily produce technicians whose task is to learn a career, only to engender progress-ivism.

  2. Precient commentary as Mazi’s book is reviewed today in the Wall Street Journal. I have not read the book, but “Uncontrolled” does seem to be biased to modernist assumptions about what is measurable and as such gets murkier the closer it gets to human behavior. None of this takes away from the general point you are making that field testing and experience is a lot better than abstract writing or talking. Only that there is more to knowing than quantifiable knowing will ever know, to quote Pascal.

  3. Mike, Outstanding. (Not withstanding that we’re writing papers to each other in agreement that hands-on learning leads to real learning!) It’s another way of saying “It’s” all about relationships. If we go back even before the 19th century, we’d find the church fathers writing, and perhaps writing a bit too much, leaving behind true understanding for headiness that has lost its way. If Judaism lost its way by focusing on the law, rather than on The Lord, we too face the same challenge. I honestly think way too much is made of systematic theology: the there is just not there. The church has become as guilty of seeing the text as Jews saw the law. But I digress into too much writing…!

  4. Thanks for the TED link.

    After decades of education being specialized and segmented more narrowly, it is encouraging to hear HBS is starting to tie disciplines back together. Perhaps one day they could even tie back to theology so that all of the knowledge of what and how could have a why.

    Gerard

  5. John and Mark make excellent points as well. It’s not Harvard business, but I wouldn’t be able to both know (metaphysically) and experience (relationally) the Love of God unless I was doing more than thinking about it as an abstraction. Very involved with a wide range of people and with The Lord (in The Spirit and in The Word), I’m impressed enough by the experiences to dwell on This Love. This Love is more real than the weight of the world, but my light-weight qualities of apprehension somewhat reduce the real to abstraction. Only my weaknesses prevent me from full comprehension.

  6. Hi Mark E:

    While I appreciate the push back – and take it seriously – help me understand how you some of your statements logically follow. E.g., if knowledge is rooted in the material world, how is that a “social construction at best?” I’m confused. You are a material being, your mind is material (meaning your thoughts have a material aspect), so how are your comments also not a social construction at best?

    I may have made my point poorly, but help me understand why your statements could not be construed as severe dichotomies (thinking vs hands-on)? Finally, what do you make of this statement from the church’s catechism from 1015? “The flesh is the hinge of salvation?”

  7. Interestingly in a small town Texas school back in the 80’s/90’s I was put in a program called C.A.T.S. which stood for Creative and Talented Services. It was designed to foster creativity. My mom always liked to joke that it was a little too effective when she was checking my spelling 😀

    But seriously, this is part of the constant ebb and flow of education reform. When things are measurable, grades stifle creativity. When things aren’t measurable, people float around and don’t learn anything. Neither way is “right”, you just gotta stumble through and hope the kids learn from the good and the bad alike.

  8. There always is a tension between thinking and doing, IMO. Up until the 1900s an education meant that you studied ancient Greek, read plato and Socrates and studied logic. Reformers wanted more practical courses so we left this curriculum behind and went to economics, and degree oriented classes. Professors needed to know if a student understood what was being taught so tests were devised where students regurgitated the knowledge they had aquired.

    Case Studies were a reform to bring thinking back into the course work because there were no right answers with good case studies, just better insights into what was working and what was not working.

    By the time students arrive in college, all interest in learning and thinking originally has been stamped out of them. Hopefully more hands on learning will make learning more practical and less dry but I’m not sure this debate about which method is best will ever end.

  9. In my lit review for a research proposal, I came across education writer, Tony Wagner, who has a book called Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. I haven’t read the book yet, but I am curious if you think that writers like Wagner have any influence at all in changing the way education approaches “hands-on learning”. With our new national set of standards, it seems that we are moving in a better direction of helping students feel their way through material that we used to drill with worksheets and memorization, but I haven’t been in education long enough yet to know if it will work or even last.

  10. Jess:

    I’m not familiar with Tony Wagner. I would recommend a recent New Yorker article on the relationship between Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Stanford is known for innovation, and its connection with Google and the like is one reason. The writer tries to suggest this relationship reduces education to utilitarian ends – but that’s a false dichotomy. In Ezra 7:10, the same word for “study” is also rendered elsewhere in the same verse as “practice” – where we get our word “practical,” or utilitarian. All knowledge, properly acquired, is hands-on.

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