Rich Karlgaard: Our country spends $900 billion a year on education of all kinds–or about 8% of GDP. What do we get for it? Less and less. Our K-12 schooling has slipped out of the world’s top ten ranking. Our colleges are supposedly the best, but a deeper look into this claim is scary.
This reputation rides too much on America’s position in science, engineering, medicine, law and business schools–the paths of rigor.
Meanwhile, the softer path–the liberal arts curriculum in American universities–is a joke. It has become an asylum for haters, anarchists and cranks. Too strong a statement? Ask Harvard’s president, Lawrence Summers. Or Google the name Ward Churchill and take a look.
We owe our young people more than this. At the least we owe them a set of “road rules” for the real world.
Purpose. Every young person needs to know that he was created for a purpose. There is, of course, the spiritual purpose Dr. Rick Warren writes about–to please God–but this is not a spiritual column, so I won’t go there. I would, however, argue that there is also an economic purpose to our lives. It is to discover our gifts, make them productive and find outlets for their best contribution. Does any school teach this?
Priorities. The best single piece of advice from Peter Drucker: Stop thinking about what you can achieve; think about what you can contribute (to your company, your customers, your marriage, your community). This is how you will achieve. Enron had an achievement-first culture; it just achieved the wrong things. Dell has a contribution-first culture; it has achieved hugely and is on the road to greatness. In these SAT-score-obsessed times, how many schools teach young people to think in terms of contribution?
Preparation. Lest you think I’m urging young people down a Mother Teresa-like path of self-sacrifice, I’m not. The task is to fit purpose and contribution into a capitalistic world. There is a crying need for prepared young people who can thrive in a realm of free-market capitalism. This great system works magnificently, but it doesn’t work anything like the way it’s taught in most universities. In the real world, the pie of resources and wealth is not fixed; it is growing all the time. In the real world, the game is not rigged and static; rather, money and talent move at the speed of light in the direction of freedom and opportunity. In the real world, greed is bad (because it takes your eye off customers), but profits are very good. Profits allow you to invest in the future. In the real world, rising living standards do not create pollution. Instead, they create an informed middle class that wants and works to reduce pollution.
Pan-global view. This is one point that young people may intuitively grasp better than do their elders. The economy is global. There is no going back. If you want a PowerPoint presentation done in 12 hours for $50, you don’t shop the local Yellow Pages. You go to the Internet to elance.com. Let the world bid for your job.
Partner. If I were teaching students about entrepreneurship, I’d point out that many of the great startups of the last 30 years began as teams of two.
• Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Apple)
• Bob Miner and Larry Ellison (Oracle)
• Len Bosack and Sandra Lerner (Cisco)
• David Filo and Jerry Yang (Yahoo)
• Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google)
Behind this phenomenon is a principle: Build on your strengths. To mitigate your weaknesses–and we all have them–partner up! Find your complement. Steve Jobs knew how to work with electronic devices, but his genius was in spotting changes in the American culture that would create large markets for such devices. Steve Wozniak had a genius for designing the most efficient computer from the least number of parts. With Woz’s design, Apple burst out of the motley pack of kit designers and delivered the first fully manufactured small computer.
Schools, on the other hand, strive to make students feel guilty about their weaknesses. Now, I accept that students need a basic proficiency in a broad range of topics. But at some grade level the emphasis needs to shift from shoring up weaknesses to building on strengths. The trick is to teach students how to look outside themselves for strengths that they’ll never possess. Inventors need marketing help. Product designers need salesmen. We all need heroes and mentors. This is how the real world of free-market capitalism works. Do we teach it?
Perseverance. Young people are smarter and more sophisticated today. It’s not even close. My own generation’s SAT scores look like they came out of baseball’s dead-ball era. But apart from the blue-collar kids who are fighting in Iraq, most American kids today are soft. That’s a harsh statement, isn’t it? But cultural anecdotes back it up. Kids weigh too much. Fitness is dropping. Three American high schoolers ran the mile in under four minutes in the 1960s. It’s been done by one person since. Parents sue coaches when Johnny is cut from the team. Students sue for time extensions on tests. New college dorms resemble luxury hotels. College grads, unable to face the world, move back in with their parents and stay for years. Does this sound like a work force you’d send into combat against the Chinese? I don’t know the answer here. But the trend is bad, and we can do better. For our kids we must do better.