Three Things Educators Should Stop Saying

Education is a wonderland of pithy sayings.  However there are at least three oft-repeated phrases that get tossed around again and again that I believe harm both our profession and educational mission.

Every student deserves a high school diploma.

To continue to transform a credential into an entitlement is a problem on multiple levels.  First, we immediately remove the responsibility for success from the shoulders of students and place it on their schools and teachers, which inevitably leads, unsurprisingly, to all manner of nonsense designed to graduate students with little concern for academic achievement.  Second, we actively encourage schools to dumb down curriculum in order to improve their graduation rates if we continue to insist that granting a diploma is synonymous with actual education.

Today a meager 25% of high school graduates are fully prepared for college or careers when they are handed a diploma, and we put this population at extraordinary risk of failure in higher education and employment—a slow motion and ongoing disaster for our nation.  Moreover, weak academic standards are an open invitation to government-led social engineering in our nation’s classrooms, so our entire K-12 system finds itself where it is at present: struggling in a spider’s web of contradictory legislative mandates that seek to ordain outcomes at the expense of actual learning.

Every student should have the opportunity to learn in a school committed to high academic standards and staffed by excellent teachers who are content experts in their academic subjects; the rest, however, is the responsibility of the student.  Just as our schools cheat our students if they are satisfied with low expectations, students cheat themselves if they hold everybody but themselves accountable for their own success.

Public education is suffering because we are “forced to teach to the test”.

I realize this has become a mantra among so many teachers and administrators who denigrate standardized tests used to measure learning outcomes—and it is a lovely bit of misdirection meant to distract taxpayers from the problem of weak academic achievement in our nation’s public schools.   As an excuse for our nation’s surpassingly mediocre public schools, the notion that “teaching to the test” is the underlying problem fails on two basic levels.

First, to make the case that it is a problem to ask students to demonstrate, based on their grade level, they can read and understand a challenging selection, edit a piece of writing to correct obvious errors, and do some arithmetic or mathematics requires one to discard the concept of distinguishing between success and failure in our public schools.  There are certainly legitimate concerns that students sometimes may not take the tests seriously or suffer unnecessary stress from the testing procedures, but both of these problems can be addressed if all concerned are willing to work toward common sense solutions.  However, both students and educators need to understand what is—and is not—being learned in our nation’s classrooms so academic deficiencies can be identified and addressed, and standardized testing is a key part of this process.

In addition, if your assertion is that your students are failing to learn due to all the class time you spend teaching to the dreaded test, an obvious question suggests itself: Why is it that so few students actually pass the test that is the supposed educational priority?  I hate to have to be so blunt but, if some public school teachers are incapable of educating students to a reasonable and well-considered standard of academic achievement that will equip them for success in college and careers, get out of the classroom—and please do not then become a school administrator.  It may be best for all if you find a job where you will not be damaging children for a lifetime.  Education is no different from any other profession: its challenges are best borne by those with intelligence, enthusiasm, and a drive to succeed.  Clock watchers and whiners are better off elsewhere.

Finally, on the subject of standardized testing, we all need to prepare ourselves for a vociferous chorus of complaints as new—and more rigorous—assessment tests based on the Common Core standards roll out across the nation.  States that have already started to test to the new standards set to the goal of college and career readiness upon high school graduation are seeing dramatic test score declines.  There will be, as a consequence, a lot of ranting about the tyranny of the tests and the unreasonable goals of the Common Core standards.  Expect many demands for waivers, delays, and rollbacks regarding the new testing standards from every corner of our nation in the years to come.  I hope we can resist the urge to sweep bad news under the rug in order to make the adults running our nation’s schools more comfortable.

   Our schools are wonderful, but our students are not.

The laundry list of complaints about today’s students is as long as my arm.  They are rude.  They are poor.  They are being raised by horrible people.  They are over (or perhaps under) medicated.  They have poor attention spans.  They are lazy.

Get it?  How can we possibly be expected to educate these little losers?

I have another explanation to offer: These are, in fact, the very same children we’ve been producing since the dawn of humanity in a slightly different wrapper.  Curious, anxious, insecure, lonely and desperate for love, typically growing up in less than ideal circumstances, shockingly tender, and in dire need of reliable and trustworthy adults to take them in hand and show them the path to adulthood.  I am certain that a frustrated parent wearing a mastodon skin was squatting in a cave a long time ago complaining about how little Yog let the fire go out and can’t remember to bring his spear inside at night.  “What is the matter with young people these days?” has been the same plaintive cry throughout the ages.

I don’t believe the problem is our children.  It is, sadly, our schools that are often the dysfunctional player in the drama.  We see too many examples of educators who expect too little, complain too much, gossip and spread rumors, fail to embrace responsibilities, resist all accountability, resent when their failures are pointed out, and build an emotional wall that separates them from those with whom they need to connect.

Our educators are, in other words, often guilty of the very shortcomings they claim their students possess.

Therefore, who is—if educators sometimes fail to act like responsible adults—truly at fault when a student does not learn?  Do we need to be certain we are consistently living up to the standards we expect of our students before we so readily point the finger elsewhere to explain why American public education is—after decades of reforms and trillions of dollars in additional spending—still producing so many high school graduates who cannot write coherently, read thoughtfully, or calculate accurately?

Let’s stop tossing out easy excuses and get down to the time-consuming, difficult, and sometimes tedious business of holding both ourselves and our students to the highest possible standards.  It is the very least we owe to our nation, communities, families—and, most of all, our children.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( October 27, 2013


Educators: Our World Has Changed

Unless one has recently won the lottery and is spending life doing nothing but spending, most of us between the ages of 18 and 65 have to work to pay the bills, put a roof over our heads, food in our mouths, and clothing on our backs.  Although how we earn money can vary enormously, if we know nothing else about the world of work, we know this for certain: If the task at hand wasn’t a chore, no one would be paid to do it.  Therefore, just by definition, many of our working lives are going to have their less than pleasant patches along the way.

Moreover, now that the economy can hum along quite well with fewer workers, more and more have to cope with part-time hours, few (or no) benefits, and substantial job insecurity.  Would we all prefer that it be otherwise?  Absolutely.  Are our wishes likely to change anything in an increasingly globalized economy where the competition is intense and the pricing pressures are cut-throat?  I, for one, think not.

Even before the most recent cataclysmic downturn in our economy, the private sector was not a breeze, although I suppose it must always seem to be so to those who have never actually been there.  The quarterly pressures to turn a profit and make a payroll tend to turn even the nicest individuals into money-obsessed jerks.  Very few business discussions revolve around why a goal cannot be met for the very simple reason not meeting it is grounds for immediate dismissal; no one cares a bit about excuses, no matter how reasonable they may be.  If you have to stay in the office all month, pull double shifts until your arms ache, or live out of a suitcase until your family forgets your face, that’s just what has to be done.  You generate results or else start updating your résumé.  There is no middle ground to be found.

Having spent more than a few years being pounded in the private sector—I’ve been promoted, jumped ship for better opportunities, and been abruptly let go when business was bad—I’m well aware of just how that side of the economy works.  Although the role of the public sector during my lifetime has always been large—and has grown to be even more astoundingly huge since the onset of the Great Recession—we have to focus on remembering that government is dependent on the private sector, and the fact that it now seems to be exactly the opposite is likely contributing to at least a portion of the lingering economic problems we face.  Government spending, which must generate a broad social or economic good to be justified, cannot continue unabated just because those who make their living from government wish it to be so.  The idea that education in general—and educators in particular—should be exempt from the pressures faced by every taxpayer today is unsupportable.

I have always enjoyed teaching because it is a pleasure to work with students and help them to create a better future for themselves.  However, I am also fully aware that education at all levels is embroiled in revolutionary changes that are only growing both broader and deeper with each passing year and are radically changing the basic concept of what educators should do.  Schools and programs, just as with many private businesses and product lines, are closing or being threatened with closure on a daily basis.  Technology is both changing how we deliver education and the very concept of education itself.  Outcome goals—the desired outcome for any school being a well-educated student rather than a meaningless credential born of a dumbed down curriculum—are becoming increasingly familiar to educators everywhere.

Recent polls have indicated that the morale of educators is at an all-time low.  I understand this; those who are wholly unfamiliar with private sector pressures must find the new reality disconcerting.  No longer can one expect to do exactly the same thing in exactly the same way for a whole career without eyebrows being raised.  Parents and students have become increasingly astute consumers of educational services and are apt to loudly complain if their expectations are not being met.  In an era of budget scarcity, results have become of paramount importance and long-held assumptions about what should be taught are being rigorously evaluated.  Finally, the concept of lifetime employment in education that is largely divorced from a meaningful performance evaluation is going the way of the dodo.  It’s a whole new world out there that is shaking up many who were perfectly content to have everything continue to be just the way it was.

Let’s commit to stop fussing about change and start to embrace its possibilities for our students and society.  Walls are tumbling in every corner of our world, and education is certainly ripe for a variety of changes that will deliver improved value at reduced cost.  A bachelor’s degree used to cost roughly the same as a car; now four years of college costs about the same as the average house.  To pretend this terrifying cost trend is eternally sustainable and expect students and parents to continue to assume a crushing load of educational debt to make it so is contrary to all reason.  To also expect local taxpayers to continue to blithely fund local public schools that routinely hand out diplomas to high school graduates who are basically uneducated is equally unreasonable.  Those halcyon days of educational spending disconnected from results are coming to a crashing halt from the kindergarten classroom to the halls of our graduate and professional schools—and nothing is going to turn back the clock.

Complaining will change nothing, and continuing to press the dubious claim that educational outcomes are wholly dependent on family and community environment will only serve to further support the push for lower cost alternatives to the current educational structures.  After all, if educators are hapless—and helpless—victims of the circumstances that exist outside the classroom walls, it will occur to many that we can likely get the same mediocre results with teachers and administrators who are paid a lot less—or not at all.  If we want to be considered professional—and be paid as professionals are—we need to fully embrace a professional sense of responsibility for our students in deed as well as word.  Moreover, as painful as it is to tell people they are simply no good at the job, school boards, teachers, and unions must be at the forefront of pushing incompetent educators out of the classrooms and administrative offices instead of making excuses for their failures.

If we don’t accept responsibility, embrace change, and adapt in order to both improve results and reduce costs, don’t be surprised if, sooner than we might think possible, we will all be cleaning out our desks while a contractor is wheeling in a TeachBot 3000 to take our places.  We must not make the mistake of complaining rather than evolving at this critical moment in our nation’s education system.  Rather than be the impediments to fundamental and beneficial changes, educators at all levels must be leaders in the innovations that will restructure and improve our public schools, colleges, and post-graduate programs.  If we do not immediately begin to make the necessary changes in a forthright and responsible manner, those who know much less about the classroom and learning will be making decisions that may not benefit our students and could do irreparable harm to both our education system and our nation.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( September 8, 2013

Silence Harms Us All

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities

Although reasonable people can disagree regarding the extent, we are certainly a fractured nation moving in two directions at once.  There are individuals living in our country who enjoy personal fortunes that in times past would have been more associated with a Pharaoh or an Emperor, but we also have such an extraordinary degree of poverty that a record number of Americans need food stamps to survive.  We enjoy more personal freedom than at any time in the history of civilization, but we are also subject to more government surveillance than the old Soviet KGB or East German Stasi could have imagined possible.  We have more information at our fingertips than ever before, but we seem to be ever more ignorant of the basic facts of our history, the world around us, and how both bear upon our own lives.

Charles Dickens was, of course, writing of a time immediately prior to revolution, a time when so many were so dissatisfied with the status quo that they violently overthrew the established order and beheaded their leaders in the public square.  I do not believe we are ready to bring back the guillotine, but we do have to recognize the extraordinary discontent that runs like the water beneath the bedrock throughout our land.   Given the surpassingly low percentage of Americans who are satisfied with our legislative branch, the surprising percentage of citizens who now seem to believe we are not likely to remain a unified nation, and the daily vitriol that now passes for public discourse, one has to wonder where all this is leading us.

Perhaps as a consequence, there does also seem to be a certain degree of learned helplessness that now underlies our national existence.  We see injustice, we see cupidity, and we see daily disregard for human decency—but we rarely protest beyond growling at the television.   Maybe we are simply scared; I have more than once been advised to stop publishing commentaries because “they’ll find a way to get you” in the end.  Maybe “they” will.  However, one of my central precepts is that I have an eternity to be silent after I am dead—we all, in fact, have an obligation to use our brief lifetimes to speak out and promote positive change.

Of course, the truly incredible aspect of all this discontent is how little is actually done to address it or remedy its causes.  We are, instead, routinely assured that we are living in some Panglossian best all possible worlds—or at least a world not so awful as is to be found in the rest of the scary, stupid, and strange nations around us.  It is, to be frank, quite amazing how routinely American rate their education, healthcare, and financial systems as the best in the world when, if bald statistics are to be believed, nothing could be further from the truth.  Whether our natural patriotism is our own worst enemy or we are simply the victims of stupendously effective misinformation, it is difficult to say.  Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to consider the daily implications of the misperceptions that inform our lives and buy our silence.

However, to be fair, there is also a certain good sense to our silence.   If you have the reasonable belief that the only person who will be punished if you speak up is you, why would you bother?  We have already seen—far too many times in far too many circumstances—that those who have friends in high places are immune from punishment beyond the merest slap on the wrist.   If you know the business where you work is padding the bills, if you know a questionable quid pro quo is necessary to obtain a contract, or if you are aware that the job you are being paid to do is not being done at all—and speaking up is apt to change nothing but cost you a needed paycheck—you indeed would be a fool to open your mouth.

Those who complain that we ruthlessly punish those who steal little because they are easy targets that make nice headlines but allow those who steal much to hide behind a phalanx of sweet-talking lawyers certainly have a point.  Very rarely do you hear about someone who robbed with a pen or computer sitting in a grimy cell alongside someone who robbed with a gun or a knife.  We are content to hook the minnows and allow the sharks to go on their merry way, untouched by the harm they cause to others, or allow them to serve out their meager sentences in some penal country club where they will be the least inconvenienced.

In addition, even if you had the urge to speak up regarding some wrongdoing you have seen, there is the additional problem of knowing who to tell.  Local prosecutors typically have little appetite for throwing the locally powerful in jail; state officials are often beholden to the very businesses they are charged with regulating for the campaign cash that keeps them in office; our federal government has, whether Republican or Democrat, compiled quite a sorry record of allowing the biggest crooks to pay the smallest penalties.  Skillful evasion is business as usual in the corridors of power.

Therefore, perhaps silent acquiescence is not such a bad strategy at all.

However, our failure to punish white-collar crime and official misconduct has a cost.  It corrodes our faith in our public institutions and elected representatives, which hands even more power to those with cash in hand because everyone else already has gone home in utter disgust.   It means that, when an honest call to meet an urgent national need is sent forth, many fewer will respond because they will cynically—and likely reasonably—question the motives of those who call for everyone to sacrifice.  Worst of all, it drives citizens away from active engagement with our democratic processes and leads to government that is more likely to view itself as detached  from those it is meant to serve.

In its final manifestation our collective silence breeds a professional class of politicians whose highest loyalty is to those who get them re-elected through means fair and foul.   When we reach this point, if we have not already, we can practically taste the bile of our own powerlessness—our learned helplessness—and we are left only to grumble, sulk, and find a million little ways to focus ourselves away from the public square in order to distract ourselves from our anger.

What will happen when something arouses us from our slumber—and what will it be that actually has the power to do so?  It will be exciting to see what event or confluence of events will prompt us to action.  However, this point will not come until those who know the truth find within themselves—contrary to all common sense—the strength to speak publicly about the malfeasance they have seen, the willingness to bear the consequences of their “disloyalty” to the powerful whom they serve, and the resolve to devote their energy and knowledge to making changes that will better our nation for the many instead of the few.

Until this happens, we will wait… and wait… and wait—until we can wait now longer.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( July 28, 2013

Do We Need To Rethink Our Relationship To Government?

I am occasionally surprised by one aspect of our many debates on government policies.  We so often argue over whether a particular governmental approach to a problem is correct, cost-effective, or respectful of the rights of all—but we rarely ask ourselves whether an issue is one that government should be involved in managing, regulating, prohibiting, or enabling.  Indeed, it seems almost unthinkable to look at any problem or need in our lives anymore and not immediately ponder how government should respond.  Has this reflex has become a harmful adaptation that actually diminishes our ability to live happy and productive lives?

Please allow me to say right off the bat that I am not a small government absolutist.  We need government to protect our broad national interests, provide a temporary safety net when trouble strikes, monitor professional certifications and licenses, root out private and public malfeasance, supervise and enforce public safety and health, collect data to be used in decision-making, maintain a working infrastructure, keep public records, and ensure that a system of high quality education is available to children for free and to adults at a cost that is affordable.  This is not, of course, an all-inclusive list, but it is certainly the foundation of what government should provide in exchange for our tax dollars.

The devil is, as is typically the case, in the details; within these broad categories, one could make the argument (and many do) that everything on, in, and above the planet earth is the proper purview of some level of government—which has put us where we are right now.  Everything that we see, hear, touch, taste, feel—and now think—on a daily basis is subject to statute or regulation enforced by some level of elected or appointed office with an army of civil servants and attorneys at its command.

Some rules are necessary and desirable, and few of us want to live in a world without out-of-bounds markers.  The Wild West was indeed wild, and most are happy to obey those rules that allow us to cooperatively maintain an orderly society and live in freedom and safety.  We should obey—and most do—if what we are being asked to do is both reasonable and minimally intrusive.

However, when so much of our nation’s time and energy needs to be devoted to satisfying the demands of overlapping bureaucracies that provide the minimum benefit at the maximum cost, I become just a tad peckish.  It should not be the case that our first action in so many matters public and private is to run straight to the book of rules and—with the assistance of an attorney—try to figure out if what we want is allowed.  For a society that so prides itself on the free exercise of our rights, we certainly spend an incredible amount of time asking permission for virtually everything

Of course, much of this is exactly according to plan, and it is difficult to argue with those who have seemingly endless faith in the ability of government to make wise and fair decisions that will turn our nation into a heaven on earth—if only all the troglodytes who block “reforms” would just shut up.  The notion that governments sometimes oppress their citizens—or simply waste their money—seems an alien concept to many advocates of more and more government intervention meant to enforce correct thinking and behavior.  How is it, some future historian might wonder, that a nation founded on revolutionary ideals of individual liberty came to turn over control of large chunks of its citizens’ daily lives to local, state, and federal officials who have created a self-sustaining system designed to convert us into passive cash machines that support yet more government operations?

Some of this is, obviously, the result of all sorts of well-meaning individuals working on separate tracks with no thought to the negative cumulative effect of so many governmental efforts to “improve” our world.  Some of the problem is the simple fact that government programs, once begun, become impossible to kill.  Some of it is fallacious logic: if some government is good, more must, of course, be even better.  Some of it is simply the inability to understand that, just as all wars have unintended consequences, all government interventions in our lives skew our world in ways we do not immediately comprehend—and will likely require yet another government program to undo the damage caused by the first.

I do not want to denigrate those with the honest and deeply felt wish to help others; many intensely idealistic individuals see government as the righter of all wrongs, and their desires to help are both heartfelt and laudable.  However, just as the most well-meaning of parents can harm because of a zeal to help, government can be just as guilty of over-reaching—albeit on a scale that would boggle the minds of even the most overprotective parents.

Moreover, just as we are harmed if we live in our parents’ basement until we are forty, so does the ingrained habit of turning to government to solve all our problems often create difficulties.  When it comes to government as overly-involved parent, the problems are obvious: destructive incentives and disincentives, dysfunctional systems that continue to thrive as zombie wards of the state, and a political class of fixers who want nothing more than our mute compliance as they busily privilege the few—and themselves—at the expense of the many.

There is much good in America—and a great many good people within it.  Perhaps it is time to recreate our current system of government in a manner that exerts the lightest touch, helps those who truly cannot help themselves, and encourages a new social compact of personal responsibility and the reward of merit instead of connections.  This will, of course, require us to radically rethink our relationship to government, insist on a full reckoning of past misdeeds and mistakes, and dig down deep within ourselves for strengths that we have allowed to atrophy.

We can do it, but it will require us—just as growing up has since the beginning of time—to leave the comforting dreams of childhood behind.  However, just as adulthood requires some sacrifice in exchange for all of its rewards, we will be happy with the ultimate outcome if we are willing to make the effort today.

We know that government that empowers citizens to make their own decisions and take control of their own lives can be an incredibly positive force.  However, when governments infantilizes us by insisting we sit down, shut up, and do as we are told, it cuts out the very heart of what makes our country and its citizens great and places us on an express train to national ruin.  We must choose which path we want for ourselves and our children—and make that choice a reality—if we are to begin to solve the many problems now facing our nation today.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( June 2, 2013

Higher Education Should Be More Than Vocational Training

An interesting piece of educational legislation is now working its way through Congress, the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act.  A rare bill that has support from both Democrats and Republicans, it would create a database of college graduates’ salaries, the colleges they attended, and their majors.  It is believed that, with more information in hand, students will be empowered to make better choices about which schools will most benefit them, which majors to seek out—and which ones to avoid altogether.

The thinking underlying the bill prompts some questions.  Will this legislation, if enacted provide a market-based impetus to expand certain colleges and majors—or dramatically shrink or eliminate others?  Will this, in turn, convert more of our nation’s colleges and universities into vocational programs in all but name because all those learning experiences that we traditionally associate with higher education will get stripped away by a single-minded pursuit of the best outcome as measured solely by a paycheck?

It is, of course, already true that we sell higher education to a lot of students with the implicit—or explicit—promise that a college degree equals a more financially secure life.  The great expansion of higher education in the United States after World War II can, in fact, claim to have helped to produce the best educated and best paid workforce the world has ever known.  Every moment of every day, students are enrolling in courses, entering majors, and completing degrees and certifications in the hope that this dream for a better life can be theirs as well.

However, we must begin to ask ourselves if we need to take a closer look at the thinking underlying both the legislation being contemplated and our narrowing conception of the purpose of higher education.

I have, I must first point out, no problem whatsoever with the proposed legislation.  Information is, after all, power.  For those students who are in school simply for the paycheck down the road, it makes sense to know the earnings of graduates in specific majors at specific colleges.  Nonetheless, we may, in our zeal to apply market-based discipline to our system of higher education, be heading down a path that, a few years hence, we will realize has produced a society less socially mobile, citizens more intellectually narrow, and a workforce less able to be flexible within a world economy that will be increasingly about nothing other than rapid change and the ability to navigate those changes.

We will, it is certain, need a workforce comprised of broad and agile thinkers and doers.  However, what does this mean in terms of the type of post-secondary education that will be necessary to produce these thinkers?  Will it be more necessary to be able to analyze a poem or write a marketing analysis?  Will knowledge of the plays of Shakespeare be more or less useful that learning how to shake useful data out of an Excel spreadsheet?

When it comes to attending college, the practical choices often seems to trump the artistic—perhaps only because many parents who are footing the bill for school don’t want their children living at home forever.  Certainly, although there are artists who are able to make a living, that living often is dependent, either directly or indirectly, on taxpayer-funded grants that we decide are useful because we want pretty objects in our public spaces and a play or musical performance to attend in some charmingly renovated and re-purposed downtown building that would otherwise be an eyesore.  In that regard, mom and dad have a point.

However, that being said, the creation and appreciation of art is not simply about making our daily lives a little more pleasant; we need artists to help us look at our world with a new set of eyes—and we also need all the poetry and Shakespeare we can jam into our colleges and universities because preparing for a career at school is not only about learning a set of vocational skills.  To be sure, education that goes beyond the vocational allows us to live happier and more satisfying lives because, simply put, ignorance is boring and knowledge is fun—but it also has the definite side benefit of better preparing students for productive lives and careers.

The sheer joy inherent in all knowledge—of learning, trying out new ideas, and picking ourselves up for another try if those new ideas fail—is precisely what we need in our fluid and fast-moving 21st century world if we want to be economic leaders and market innovators.  Therefore, we must learn to be both vocational and artistic—to meld the sensible and the seemingly impossible—in order to continue the practical creativity that produces a society that is economically agile, socially open, and nimble enough politically to both support individual aspirations and maintain a cohesive social fabric.

We cannot do this if we continue to see the vocational and the artistic as economically antagonistic sensibilities and view art as something best appreciated along with a platter of wine and cheese instead of a lunch bucket.  This snobbish and short-sighted sensibility harms both our social fabric and our economy, and it needlessly pushes colleges and students to choose between that which teaches a skill and that which grows our souls

The artistic and the vocational are not in competition—and learning to use them together in both the college classroom and our workplaces will make our lives better in both environments.  We need colleges that can train welders and ballet dancers, accountants and poets, and nurses and painters because our practical work is often directly enhanced by those “impractical” arts that allow us to relax, to grow—and sometimes even learn those critical additional skills that enhance our ability to do our jobs.

I will never forget attending a conference where a pediatric plastic surgeon—one who worked with the most severely malformed babies—talked about how he took up the study of sculpture in order to learn how to better reconstruct the skulls and faces of babies who—the truth be known—were horrible to behold.  As a result, he was able to make these children as beautiful as any other baby on this earth and bring their loving parents to tears when they saw what he had done for their children.  That doctor was, in a manner of speaking, a perfect blend of what we need today, tomorrow, and for all time to come—an individual who can think, plan, and execute with two sides of their brain at once.

Before young adults pick a school and a major based simply on the numbers on a downloadable spreadsheet of salaries, it might be worth reminding each young person that the job they train for today will likely not exist by the time they retire.  They will—as we all will—have to learn to be the artists of their own lives by pursuing a plan of study that will prepare them for a lifetime of engagement, learning, and challenges they cannot yet foresee.  To be truly prepared for a life that is both economically secure and personally satisfying—each inextricably bound to the other—it is necessary to read a little Shakespeare, make a little art, and write a few poems along with learning vocational skills while in college.  Only in this way will both halves of the brain combine to produce a whole greater than the individual parts.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( May 5, 2013