“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.