A Call for a New Education System

By Adam Di Stefano

The education system is broken.  The way I see it, there are three potential purposes for education:

  1. To help kids find the right path for themselves.
  2. To help kids prepare for their careers.
  3. To teach kids about the world generally so that they’re prepared for whatever comes next.

In my case, the system failed me on all three counts.

My Education Background

When I was in high school, I thought I wanted to be a doctor, so I took all the pre-requisite courses to get into a Science program. In Quebec, where I grew up, students go through a 2-year pre-University program called CEGEP, start University one year later than their American counterparts, and do 3-year undergrad degrees.  After one semester of CEGEP, I realized I despised Chemistry, and didn’t particularly love any of the other natural sciences, and so I switched my concentration to the social sciences.

By the time I was applying to University, I had no idea what I wanted to do.  I applied to programs in Economics, Finance, Arts and Law.  Someone must have bungled the paperwork, because I was accepted everywhere, including McGill University’s Faculty of Law, the top law school in Canada, and one of the best in the world, which only admits about 20 students per year who don’t hold undergraduate degrees.

Because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I decided to go to law school, because…  well…  I got in, and I’d be crazy not to go, wouldn’t I? As it turned out, law wasn’t really my cup of tea, and so I spent the next 3 years of my law degree cutting classes, and cramming for 100% finals based on borrowed class notes.  In the end, I somehow managed to graduate with distinction.

It did not take me long to realize that life in a law firm would lead to instant misery, and so I took a job in the US as an in-house counsel to a private company.  That offered the opportunity for me to move into a management role.  After a year of that, I took another left turn, and returned home and started looking for a job in Marketing.  A field that I had never studied.

Two years later, I’m helping a 100 year-old company that’s known for printing yellow phone books turn into the premiere internet marketing firm in the country.

The Broken Bits

That’s a long backstory to come to a simple point – everything I know about my current job, I learned myself.  I never took a marketing class in my life and I can confidently say that I know more about marketing than I ever knew about law.

The education system failed me, no matter how you slice it:

  • If the purpose of education is to help kids find the right path for themselves, it didn’t work.
  • If the purpose of education is to help kids prepare for their careers, it didn’t work.
  • If the purpose of education is to teach kids about the world generally so that they’re prepared for whatever comes next, it didn’t work.

Let’s be clear, I am not critizing the quality of the education that I received.  My professors were fantastic.  The worst of them had incredible legal minds, and were repositories of knowledge.  The best of them challenged me to think critically and in ways that I had never thought before.

Despite this, they were training me for a discipline that in the end I had no intention of practicing, and while it may have been my own fault for being there in the first place, I wonder if this would have been any different if I were in the right discipline?  In talking to colleagues, it’s clear that the older ones never even imagined that marketing would be done the way it’s done today, while the younger only saw internet marketing mentioned when banner ads were discussed in the last ten pages of the 25th edition of a text book, originally printed in 1978.  So, would a marketing degree really have better prepared me for my current career?

The biggest issue facing the education system is that it is stuck in a bygone era.  The education system we know today was designed when a child could enter school, and the world that would exist when they finished was essentially the same as the one that existed when they started, and that the world that would exist at retirement, would only be slightly different.  Today, in the twenty years between when a child starts school, and finishes school the world is a different place.

When I started school, the Soviet Union still existed.  The internet was a still just an idea in Tim Berners-Lee’s head.  Homes had VHS machines, and the personal computer and cell phones existed, but were a long way from ubiquity.  Try to imagine what the world will look like when a child who starts school now finishes university.  Now, try to imagine what the world will look like twenty years after that.

That is the world that education systems are trying to prepare students for, but it’s impossible.  Beyond the fundamentals, the skills being taught in school now will be antiquated within five years of graduation. When I was in law school, we were taught how to use a legal reference library, even though just a couple of years later, my classmates are now using solely online legal databases in their practices.

What Needs to Change

The education system as it exists currently is built for trades, but the world is undergoing a creative revolution.  As trades can be done cheaper and just as well in developing countries, the developed world needs to focus on the highly specialized, cutting edge fields.  These are fields where creativity and innovation are more important than established skills.

As such, in the developed world, education systems need to shift away from training us all to do a job, and shift towards teaching us how to innovate, create and learn for ourselves.  Those that are thriving today are those that have learned how to do that for themselves in spite of the education system which has trained them to do the opposite.

There is no point in training people for specific careers when you can’t be sure that those careers will still exist by the time the student graduates.  Instead, we need to train people to improve themselves constantly.

Education also needs to adapt itself to the strengths of individuals.  Education privileges the book smart, but that is only one form of intelligence.  Instead of penalizing children for not mastering the traditional subject that they may not have an affinity for, what about discovering their talents and nurturing those instead?  What if our education system recognized the artist in a child and nurtured that in the child to allow that child to hone those skills?  What if instead of taking a child with difficulty in mathematics and drubbing him with remedial math courses, our education system instead steered the child towards lighter mathematics, and more emphasis on what the child was good at?  What if less focus was placed on the number of right answers a student gets on a test, and more focus was put on the wonderful learning experience that comes from a wrong answer?  What if the purpose of schools wasn’t to prepare a child for a vocation that he is expected to know that he wants before he is ready, but instead to help a child figure out what that vocation should be?  What if our education system stopped pumping out graduates with useless degrees (like me) and instead focused on churning out people who are prepared to create their own ideas?

When I graduated from high school, I teased a good friend who went into an arts program at a private college. Now, I’m calling for an education system less focused on churning out more lawyers, and more focused on churning out more liberal arts majors.  I guess I still have a lot to learn.

Photo credit: One Laptop Per Child

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8 Responses to “A Call for a New Education System”

  1. Scott Templeman

    Great points Adam, though I think pumping out more Liberal Arts majors would be a big mistake (how's your friend progressing in paying off his debts for that L.A. degree?). As a fellow non-L.A. marketer I agree that our system is far too focused on making children select careers. The notion that you will be able to select a career before you're (legally) responsible enough to drink is a silly one. Furthermore, the average person will switch careers at least once in their lives, so having such tunnel vision in our education system is hurting our competitiveness down the road. I think folks should get as much variety as possible in their education, as you'll be amazed at what skills become useful/complimentary down the road. We live in an age that you could literally educate yourself to the same quality as institutions that charge $50k+/year, so I think the brand name & header on your diploma means less and less every year. We need to create more incentives for the youth to be innovative and encourage intelligent debate for problems that our society will be facing. I just think these issues are best solved at a microeconomic level (individuals) over institutions. And as for my against a focus towards more L.A. educations, is that I see many more “graduates” from these programs that enter the real world with very few practical skills (an expanded world view could easily be supplemented without focusing our academics on it). Furthermore, you & I both decided to enter a new field, without academic schooling, and are doing just fine. We definitely couldn't have decided to enter aerospace engineering on a whim.

    Reply
  2. Lauren Schumacher

    This essay has a lot of great ideas…but too much of your argument seems to be that you hold the education system responsible for your personal indecision!

    People often “fall into” their careers, and they change them often too, but that's not a failure on the educational system's part. Someone who enrolls in college undecided often comes out the same way on the other end, even if they have a degree–and they're a sucker if they expected otherwise. I'm sorry you got a “useless degree” but you're the one who ordered it, didn't you? You can't pay an institution 40K to make career decisions for you, and making decisions based on the flattery of an acceptance letter is even worse.

    Reply
  3. Adam Di Stefano

    Thanks for the comment, Lauren.

    However, I'd say about 1/3 of my argument is based on my own personal indecision. Did you know that many guidance counselors and academic advisors get bonused based on what school/program their students get accepted to? When I was trying to decide what to do my academic advisors actively pushed me to go to med school because they knew I had a shot. When I finally got off that career path, they were more than happy to push me towards law school.

    I have to take some responsibility for my indecision. That's fair, and I acknowledge that. However, I do think the education system tries to herd students towards certain fields and away from others.

    The rest of my argument is irrespective of my indecision. Even if I had been a happy lawyer (oxymoron? kidding…), I think most lawyers will agree that law school does little to prepare them for firm life, and even less to prepare them for life outside the firm. Hence my example of marketing students, and the quality of education that doesn't prepare them to enter a world where much of what they learn will be obsolete in a matter of years.

    Maybe my argument would have been stronger if I hadn't prefaced it with my personal story, but I wanted to make sure everyone knew where I was coming from, so that they could decide for themselves whether my points were valid, or just the result of a disgruntled graduate!

    Reply
  4. Adam Di Stefano

    Thanks for the comment, Scott. Actually my friend is doing quite well paying off his loans. He's been steadily employed as a stage actor since graduation. Not saying he's the rule, just saying. :)

    I agree with everything you said above, though. There is an incredible capacity for individuals to learn on their own today, and it's one that we both took advantage of. But it does beg the question, if we can learn so much on our own, how does that reframe the purpose of education? Surely there must still be one, but it is no longer the purpose it has served for so long. And if the purpose is different, the system needs to change as well.

    That's my take.

    Reply
  5. Scott Templeman

    First off, I am amazed with your friend, as most of my art friends transitioned to something more business oriented, started reschooling, or have gone the way of the house spouse, so kudos to him! If that's where your passion is, and you can make it work, it doesn't really matter what the prospects are after graduation if you have the tenacity to succeed.

    Well High education has always been an aristocratic institution for the wealthy, and has better served as a place for the future rich & powerful to network and make connections. Now we have a huge industry of degree factories, pumping out graduates at such a rate that a 4 year degree is now the equivalent of graduating High School 30 years ago. Perhaps employers need to rethink requiring a 4 year degree for every position that isn't janitorial in nature. I am sure you can think of countless examples of folks that were great in the academic world of scantrons and essays, and utterly useless in the real world.of black ink and results. Bill Gates, Matt Damon, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Ralph Lauren, and Michael Dell — All dropout Billionaires

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  6. Scott Templeman

    He IS a stretch for that category, however he is one of the top grossing actors in Hollywood (took in $26 million for Born Ultimatum alone) and I didn't want just a list of computer folks. Couldn't find an exact figure regarding his networth. :o P

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