Monday, September 19, 2011

Does Our Education System Spawn Genius?

Has it ever?

I read two "if only" posts today on EdWeek-affiliated blogs. The first, Who Will Be Our Next Walt Disney?  takes a look at schools and innovations in education, including science and technology initiatives.  The blogger's conclusion, in part:

What can students who do not live near a STEM or magnet school do to find creativity? [Homeschool!]  Many of us spent our seasons playing outside in the woods or on child-made baseball fields where we played baseball for five or six hours. Our winters were spent sledding down big hills and making snowmen in freezing temperatures and we lived to talk about it as older adults. Sometimes disconnecting from the internet allows us to reconnect with our larger world. It is possible to find creativity within our own thoughts without the distraction of the internet and television.

As a homeschooler, of course, I have long given up the idea that any school reform might work, and I read the above with interest.  Time out of doors!  It seems that it is a remedy for nearly every problem that ails schoolchildren.  Anthony Esolen's wonderful book, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child describes this remedy in more depth, and it's a great read.  Treat yourself.  I also recommend a good biography of Walt Disney, like Walt Disney:  An American Original.  Or, if you want some brief info now, check out the wiki page.  Walt got his art training on Saturdays at the Kansas City Art Institute, and at the Chicago Art Institute by taking evening classes, not at school.  In fact, as is true of so many geniuses...he was what we might unkindly call a "drop-out."  

Will building time in to school schedules promote Disney-esque creativity, as the blog author suggests?  I doubt it.  No matter how much time they use for creative pursuits, schools cannot duplicate the events in the life of a creative genius.  Will we send children to France to drive an ambulance in post war Europe?  Will our 16 year old children drop out of school to work in factories?  Will they suffer rejection, time after time, when seeking employment?   Many factors hone innate genius; schooling is only one of those factors, and very often, it is not the most important.

The second article, America's Strength:  An Innovation Economy, actually refers back to an op-ed, China's Rise Isn't Our Demise, by non-genius Joe Biden.  The blogger quotes Mr. Biden:

"The United States is hard-wired for innovation. Competition is in the very fabric of our society. It has enabled each generation of Americans to give life to world-changing ideas—from the cotton gin to the airplane, the microchip, the Internet. We owe our strength to our political and economic system and to the way we educate our children—not merely to accept established orthodoxy but to challenge and improve it... Our universities remain the ultimate destination for the world's students and scholars."

Well, he's half right.  America's unique political and economic systems are conducive to innovation, and our colleges do draw applicants from all over the world.  But the way we educate our children?  Maybe a time long ago, before compulsory high school, when being a "drop-out" wasn't stigmatized...for our list of American geniuses is comprised of those who could not or would not succeed within the system.  Eli Whitney, inventor of that cotton gin Mr. Biden uses as an example, was not in school at age 14, but was running a small manufacturing business.  When Whitney wanted to go to college, he prepared for Yale at a private school.  He was not a product of a compulsory, standardized education.  Neither of the Wright Brothers graduated from high school.  Jack Kilby, Nobel prize-winning physicist, was one of many in a long line of innovators who brought the microchip to us, and not all of them were American.  He took college classes while in high school to supplement his public education. And Robert Noyce, the microchip's co-inventor, was building dangerous backyard toys (like a functioning personal airplane) at age 12; I suspect this was not a school-sponsored project.  As for the inventor of the internet...the less said about him, the better.  But go beyond Biden's short list of great American innovations, and pick some wonderful inventions at random.  Very often, an unconventionally educated individual is responsible.

If there is any correlation between innovation and our educational system, it is that we have had, in the past,  great freedom to use it, or not, as we see fit.  We have never really had a unified national system like so many other countries have.  Is that a good thing?  Yes!  But as we creep towards a centralized curriculum, and give government more control over choices in education while taking those choices away from parents, and as we continue to stigmatize those who "drop-out," hold GEDs instead of traditional diplomas, and homeschool, mightn't we be guilty of curtailing the very freedoms that have nurtured innovation in the past?

My favorite educational reform movement (aside from homeschooling) is the Children and Nature Network, and the ongoing effort of this group to get children outside by informing teachers and parents about the deep need for time spent out of doors.  But then, the worst happened...the government got involved,  with the introduction of a "No Child Left Inside" act.  Sure, it's bi-partisan.  Sure, it is well-intentioned.  But has government ever, EVER co-opted a great grass-roots idea and turned it into a disaster?  Once or twice?  Um...let's keep this movement out of the hands of the government school bureaucrats.  

Let's allow freedom in education to spawn the next generations of innovators, just as it has in the past.

Who knows what time outside exploring might inspire?
A broken tree might inspire a materials scientist to invent more flexible compunds.

A hike at low tide might inspire new energy systems.

Tossing leaves off a bridge might inspire a better parachute design.

Hiking along a sea wall might inspire better coastal hurricane protection.