I just stumbled across this fantastic video discussing whether our educational systems are actually harming our creative potential. The talk reminded me of an epiphany I had while at school, so I thought I would share.
It hit me toward the end of my second year of college. A singular notion, it had never occurred to me before. I was sitting at my desk in my dorm rewriting a paper on subject matter I thoroughly did not understand (Descartes’ astronomical physics–long story). I was so far from understanding it, in fact, that my professor refused to critique my first draft because it was so terribly off the mark (“It’s so bad I can’t even read it,” I believe were his actual words…nice, really nice). So I sat there struggling and it occurred to me that I wasn’t doing this for him. I wasn’t even doing this for the grade. I was at college to educate myself.
Over the next few months this idea kept reemerging. I wasn’t there to passively fill the blanks on my transcript. My education should be cultivating ME. I could use it to design ME, use it as a tool to sculpt my future and the person I wanted to be. As painfully obvious as this observation might seem, many students of my generation and younger exist in such a highly structured system that we end up floating right through it, never wondering whether we have any say in how the structure is made or can question if the system is good or bad or a combination. Those of us who can endure jump through hoop after hoop after hoop, right up to the point that we realize we don’t know who we are, what we want, or what use we can make of ourselves in this world.
So there I was, half way through college and only just starting to realize why I was there at all. The extent to which I learned anything useful depended, not on my teachers or curriculum, but on whether or not I owned my education. A good friend of mine helped me, albeit unwittingly, see how far I was from achieving this. She had been homeschooled her whole life. For any interest she harbored, she and her family figured out how to pursue it, whether it was public speaking or language acquisition or fencing. She grew up thinking it was normal to choose her own paths of study, thinking it was normal to speak with adults as an equal, and owning the right to investigate, question, and create. I watched her, marveling at her utter lack on inhibition and her seemingly effortless accomplishments. How do I even begin to take that much ownership over my learning?
I am still learning this lesson. But now I am in the real world, lacking that safe harbor of college where I could try anything under the sun to see if I liked it. At least I could help my sister avoid the same mistakes. A few years ago, as my sister was making her college decision, she suffered from burnout and constantly felt disoriented. I encouraged her to take a gap year. I wanted her to understand that diving back into school was not her only option. Many kids struggle with this. They just keep going from grade to grade to grade to college to grad school, etc. The idea of stopping, resting, and living their own lives–well, it warps their little paradigms. My sister took her gap year, and it wasn’t easy. For the first time in her life she had to figure out what she was going to do every day. She would get frustrated easily, but every adult she talked to confirmed her decision by declaring longingly, “Man, I wish I had taken a gap year.” In the end, she didn’t regret it. During that year she studied art history in Italy and the experience stirred such a passion in her that she has since excelled in her coursework at school and appears positively giddy at the idea of a career in art conservation.
This video touches on many of these similar ideas. Speaker Sarah Stein Greenberg, executive director of the Stanford d.School, says “If I told you that if you exercised everyday for four years and at the end of the four years you would be fit for the rest of your life, you would laugh… but essentially, that’s the model we have baked into college.” Four years is, when you think about it, an arbitrary timeframe for college, and most of us get it at the beginning of our adult life when few of us have had any experience of real world problem solving. The result is that students don’t know how to apply what they learn while at school and then they leave and discover they won’t know how to learn what they need to apply. One of the suggestions introduced in this video is the idea of a six year college program that students can start and stop as needed and in which they are encouraged to mingle real world work and big life problems with the safety and freedom of the classroom. See what you think. I’d love to hear your feedback.
FYI…sorry, but the video won’t embed properly. here is the link: