educate thyself

What Victorians got right about school, and Silicon Valley has wrong

March 12, 2013
March 12, 2013

TED, the superstar conference of technology and entertainment, just awarded its top 2013 prize to Sugata Mitra for his proposal to overturn a “Victorian education system” that “mass-produces workers with identical skills.” In lieu of lectures, books and homework, Mitra encouraged teachers instead to step back and let children learn in their own ways via the Internet:

Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardized curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time… Unlocking the power of new technologies for self-guided education is one of the 21st century superhighways that need to be paved. Profound changes to how children access vast information is yielding new forms of peer-to-peer and individual-guided learning.

The basis of the talk was Mitra’s 1999 project to give rural Indian children hole-in-the-wall access to a single computer. The story is moving, mostly because his subjects were so eager to learn about the rest of the world, and the inexpensive computer he gave them was such a powerful tool for doing so.

But I also wondered if Mitra, a professor in the UK, had noticed on the flight to his conference how virtually every child between 3 and 13 was glassy-eyed from using an iPad as a form of self-guided education. After watching Mitra’s talk, I thought about the autobiography of John Stuart Mill, the home-schooled, self-guided, proto-Victorian prodigy, who late in life found salvation from the poetry he was never exposed to as a child.

This same week, the New Yorker published a requiem for Aaron Swartz, the Reddit entrepreneur who committed suicide after an arrest for downloading academic articles from MIT. More than almost any human being who ever lived, the acutely sensitive, breathtakingly gifted Swartz was a child of the Internet, a pure product of “the self-organized learning environment” advocated by Mitra: he did not go to high school, but taught himself everything via books and the web, each year publishing commentary on what he’d read.

In the midst of this heartbreaking story, what struck me were the comments of Swartz’s father, an anti-establishment computer programmer who disliked school as much as his son, about what the younger man lost when he quit Stanford after his freshman year:

College is very important in that you’re forced to study stuff you’re not interested in… I’ve hired a lot of very talented programmers, and one of the things I discovered was that the people who didn’t graduate from college couldn’t finish projects. Because when you go to college, there’s all sorts of stupid stuff you have to do in order to get through.

What Mitra identifies as obsolete in schools is exactly what Aaron Swartz’s father seemed to be saying his son needed the most: the discipline to master subjects that may not interest you, among people you don’t always like.

Most research backs the father’s view. For all the information schools impart, most are not very successful at raising students’ IQs, but many schools are very good at making their students more disciplined. And self-discipline, it turns out, is the only way to get through life in one piece; it is the trait most consistently correlated with life success.

But sticking with school is no longer an unquestioned virtue. After all, many of Silicon Valley’s heroes are college dropouts: Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates. And now Peter Thiel has offered some of the brightest high school students $100,000 each to put off college or bypass it entirely in favor of an entrepreneurial or research venture.

Perhaps many Thiel fellows will one day face the predicament that, in the New Yorker’s account, confronted Swartz: “if you can do anything you want, then every day becomes an existential problem, an empty space of possibility that has no ceiling but also no walls and no floor.”

Of course, anyone emphasizing structure and self-discipline risks being cataloged as one of “the Victorians” in Mitra’s talk, an enemy of curiosity and creativity. But that is not the point. Any educated person recognizes that curiosity and creativity aren’t just important; they are among the essential human activities.

But already in the era of Tumblr and Twitter, the developed world supports nothing so much as curiosity and creativity. The recent college graduates I work with have been given elaborate license to explore their world and to express themselves; certainly, the last thing they need is more time to browse the web.

What they struggle with is the only pursuit that gives our professional lives any weight at all: negotiating the long, hard way of doing one thing for a while, often with other people and sometimes all alone, with plenty of “stupid stuff” sprinkled amongst the sublime—and learning to do it really well. This takes a bit of Mitra’s independence, but also a lot of the breadth, doggedness and humility that you have to learn in a traditional school.

Follow Glenn on Twitter @glennkelman or via his blog. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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