Education For The Sake Of Education Is Not Enough
I had never seen more poverty in my entire life. And I didn't grow up with warm water, let me tell you. But this was different. A few hundred people, close to the city garbage dump, crammed together all around that dump, in improvised carton boxes. You can't honestly call them houses, but they call them homes nonetheless. My heart was absolutely torn apart seeing young children playing in the ankle-deep mud and holding a piece of dirty bread in their unwashed hands, while smiling - yes - smiling - and playing and running around in that nasty mud, without the slightest sense of worry on their beautiful little minds. I was accompanying a friend who worked with the children and tried to connect with them through music and games. The entire experience is something I am not even going to attempt to lay down in writing because there are no words to describe what I felt. One little story stands out above the rest though.
I met a young man, a fifteen year old who looked and sounded more mature than many adults I know. He had recently become a father and he was exceedingly proud of being one. My mind and heart were all over the place when I approached this young - old - man and started talking to him. I felt as if I wanted to help him with all my might but at the same time, there was an unconscious desire that kept tugging at my heart, urging me to ask him questions and somehow, someway, learn from him. So I uttered, perhaps the dumbest question I could muster under the circumstances - but I said:
If you could have anything in the world, anything at all, what would that be?
I don't know why I asked him that. I just thought that if you wanna help someone, you might as well ask them how they might envision that help and kinda start from there. His answer is still striking a continuous deep chord in the depths of my soul, even to this day, as I recount this - and every single time I remember that encounter. It's something you don't want to forget. Maybe because it's unforgettable. Here I was, standing before this incredibly unprivileged young man, who had a family to support, who was almost young enough to be my son, surrounded by a mountain of garbage and disease and foul smells, cradling his tiny, innocent baby, and here's what he said:
I would want a horse and a carriage so I could haul out more garbage.
The reason why they setup camp there was because they'd go through the garbage dump several times a week and they'd go through a first-come-first-grab kinda system of sorting through the garbage and finding items worth selling at nearby recycling centers. The garbage truck would pull in and the strongest and most agile would get the first pick. But the toughest part of it all was carrying the garbage back. And the richest garbage collectors of them all, had a horse and carriage at their disposal, so they could collect as much as they wanted.
My young friend's deepest dream in life, was to be the richest garbage collector of that settlement. I still find myself either weeping and frowning and clinching my fists in anger at the thought of it all. See, as a poor unprivileged person, you can't even dream of the good life. The misery of your situation has robbed you - most of all - of your dignity and that loss of dignity is no where as visible in one's inability to dream great dreams. I left that place with a heavy heart and to this day, some of us are still looking for ways to solve that particular crisis.
We Need A New Kind Of Educational Model
Romania is the poorest country in Europe. Statistically, a quarter of Romanians live in poverty and that includes half of all Romanian children. And poverty is relative. You see, not only is Romania the poorest, but here's the really sad statistic. The at-risk-of-poverty threshold is calculated based on the median income and Romania is the second last in terms of the median income. So that means the average Romanian earnings puts Romanians second from last in terms of income and in addition to that, a quarter of Romanians are well below that income. This, after half a century of communist oppression that left the country crippled for generations to come, in more ways than one.
Why does all this even matter? Here's why this matters and why it continues to boggle my mind.
Because Romania is in the top of many major international educational competitions. Young Romanians from all over the country keep on bringing back home coveted medals in all sorts of key subjects, especially Math and Computer Science. Go find an international Mathematics competition and you'll be sure find a Romanian presence near the top ranking students. I'm not even going to mention the fact that Romania is killing it in terms of the growth of the IT industry. The talent is simply phenomenal.
I don't mean that everyone is going to be a top Math Olympian. No, but here's what I'm saying. Those Math prodigies and those Computer Science genius kids, should be given the opportunity to build sustainable economical structures that create enduring positive outcomes for others, like fifteen old friend from the garbage dump. And that's where education breaks down. When education exists for the sake of education, we all pay for it one way or another. If education's sole purpose is winning medals and obtaining diplomas and paying through the roof for degrees, we're all in trouble my friends. Deep trouble.
Education was never meant to lead to pure academic achievements. Education was all about preparing young minds to become a valuable part of the economy. To explore your gifts and unique abilities to contribute to existing value markets or even create new markets. Education removed from economy is not only useless but down right dangerous. It turns education into a financial black hole that burdens the students and students' families with disproportionate debts. And the worse part is that when education becomes a business, worried about the bottom line first and puts students second - or third, or fourth - that means the entire curriculum is not designed with the students' best interests in mind. And we can see that's true when those students enter the workforce. They're completely unprepared for the real world. Sure, I'm generalizing but this is becoming a worldwide epidemic.
Romania is the poorest country in Europe but the effects of a sterile educational system are well observed throughout Europe, North America and every continent of this great world of ours. If we are ever to hope for a less impoverished world, we have to redesign our global educational system. And the main flaw is its misalignment with real economical needs. If we are to get to the bottom of it all, we need to empower new generations of hungry minds with an education that can not only put food on the table and ensure basic material needs but an education that can contribute true value and to existing markets or even create brand new markets. If we can get around to setup for ourselves such educational structures, we might just be able to be alright after all. And even the poorest of the poor might find themselves in the midst of networks of productivity that pull them out of their current poverty and misery.
True Education Must Lead To Job Creation
As much as we might want to believe that going to school and getting a high school diploma might help that fifteen year old get out of that slum, it's nothing but a pipe dream. It won't work. We live in a world right now where we simply don't care about diplomas anymore as a society - not as much as we did a few decades ago anyways. What we need in the 21st century, are people skilled enough to get the job done, diploma or not. And as much as those Math prodigies might help the national brand get ahead in the world, a medal is not going to solve real customer problems and a diploma is not going to cut it out in the real world. As much as I believe education can save lives and yes - I do believe everyone deserves their shot at a good education - I don't believe that's the end of the story. No, education for the sake of education is not enough. We need to give people a chance at making a living and we need the sort of education that gets them there.
What we need to do is measure the effectiveness of education based on how many real jobs it creates and how many lives it truly saves in the process. We're beyond measuring the efficiency of the educational system. What good is efficiency if it's ineffective? And when I mean jobs, I don't mean academic jobs - as much as we need those, the bulk of the economy requires more than professors. So what does our economy really need in these difficult times of ours? What do we desperately need as far as skills, valuable, marketable in-demand skills?
Well, before we answer that question, it's well worth stepping back a bit and reminding ourselves about where it is that we find ourselves at this particular point in human history. We are at the very cusp of a new era. One where non-human entities are poised to yield so much economical power that humanity will be forced into an existential flight or flight mode - unlike anything else we've ever seen in the history of our species. Think for a moment, that we now have more intelligent machines than we ever and that these machines can do things that humans cannot simply even dream of attempting. You know how you could never compete at arithmetic with a calculator? Well, multiply that by a trillion and we're not even close to what's happening today.
Analysts predict that roughly a third of US jobs are at risk in the next fifteen years, because of these incredible advances in machine intelligence. The UK is approximately in the same boat, as well as most developed countries. Developing economies are even more in trouble. So in addition to fighting poverty, the next decade and beyond, will see us fighting machines as well. At least competing with them for our jobs. We're not talking factory jobs only but every job. Every profession is at risk, including lawyers, accountants, sales people, cooks, even surgeons. If we are to make a future for ourselves, we need the sort of education that truly is job-creating and is effective at doing so.
Every Job Will Be A Tech Job
Back to our question about the most marketable and in-demand skills. If every profession is at risk because of machines, then perhaps the last profession on that list would have to be the profession that got us in here in the first place - Software Development. As the Digital Era unfolds before our eyes and eats up every industry known to man, digital skills are going to be more and more in demand. Put it this way, someone has to write the software that runs those machines and someone has to maintain them and communicate with them. That's where Software Development comes in. It's clear that non-technical jobs are disappearing but what's also crystal clear is that tech jobs are booming.
In this Digital Economy, if we are to design an education system that stand apart from the crowded sterile educational landscape, we'd have to build one that's primarily focused on the creation of tech jobs. Jobs that are future-proof and jobs that are in high demand. For us to get there, we need to teach technical skills that are relevant today and that will still be relevant as we all grow through this transitional period towards a dominant machine-driven economy. As scary as that sounds, we might as well embrace the reality as fast as we can and get onboard the train before it's too late and we're left behind scratching our heads.
If we are to hope at a human-oriented future, where personal dignity is flourishing and where young fifteen year olds dream good dreams, it's plain and clear to determine our global course of action. We have to arm current and future generations with relevant technical skills and send them out in the marketplace, ready to not only survive the digital economy, but face it fearlessly and courageously, ready to thrive. We need to make Tech Education our priority and we must move fast, while we still have time to learn and acquire the right skills.
The challenge is that current Tech Education options are limited to say the least and at best, they are highly unscalable to the massive number of people that will flock to such solutions once they begin to face the reality of the new machine revolution that's upon us. Tech Education has grown from a theory-first educational system and it's not helping us achieve the job-creation goals we need to achieve if we are to transition the global workforce to new employment opportunities. Attending expensive lectures or watching video courses online is not going to cut it. We need to do better if we are to stand a chance at providing a future for ourselves and for our families. We need to improve Tech Education. And we need to do it now.