School’s Out

For the past decade or more, American workers have quietly been
fomenting a revolution. Through the downsizings of the ’80s and the
boom of the go-go ’90s, stockbrokers, PR flacks, dot-com geeks,
meeting planners, and many more white-collar folks have broken away
from 9-to-5 corporate gigs to have a go at it on their own. These
‘free agents,’ as Daniel Pink calls them, now include more than 30
million–one in four–American workers. They have changed the
landscape of the American economy. Now they may be sparking a
similar revolution in public education.
‘Imagine how we’d prosper if we began educating our children more
like we earn our livings,’ Pink writes in the libertarian monthly
Reason (Oct. 2001). In other words, imagine the creativity and
energy we’d unleash if America’s public education system embraced
free agency and let students follow their interests rather than
keeping them leashed to rigid curricula and standardized tests.
Imagine how well prepared these kids would be for the real world if
schools gave them the kind of flexibility the workplace
increasingly gives its workers.
It may seem far-fetched to imagine such a revolution in the public
schools, which have resisted fundamental change over the past half
century as no other American institution has done. ‘How many other
places look and feel exactly as they did 20, 30, or 40 years ago?’
he asks. ‘Banks don’t. Hospitals don’t. Grocery stores
don’t.’
In fact, Pink argues, compulsory schooling of the sort America has
practiced since the 1920s is an aberration in our culture. We are,
he notes, a country that prides itself on promoting personal
choice: No one is forced by law to vote, or to work, or to serve in
the military. Yet parents have been compelled by law to turn their
children over to an education system for 12 years of their life.
There they have learned how to ‘obey rules, follow orders, and
respect authority.’
Such lessons were important to children growing up in an economy
that relied heavily on factory workers and middle managers, Pink
allows. But the new free agent economy requires a different sort of
worker, with different skills and values. And it’s already changing
the face of American learning.
These changes are most evident in three broad education movements:
homeschooling, alternatives to high school, and adult education.
‘Free agency will force the necessary changes,’ Pink writes, and
‘these changes will prove [to be] as pathbreaking as mass public
schooling was a century ago.’
Illegal in most states until 1980, homeschooling is one of the most
powerful education movements of our time. In 1990, about 300,000
kids were learning outside the system with the help of parents,
peers, mentors, and tutors. Today, some 1.7 million
children–roughly the number of school-age kids in the state of
Pennsylvania–have opted out of the system, a number that is
climbing by about 15 percent each year. ‘Homeschooling is free
agency for the under-18 set,’ writes Pink. Like free agents in the
workforce, homeschoolers are independent; they construct and
maintain a network of resources, peers, and support; they challenge
the separation of work, learning, and home life.
‘Homeschooling is almost perfectly consonant with the four
animating values of free agency: having freedom, being authentic,
putting yourself on the line, and defining your own success,’ he
notes. It is ‘perhaps the most robust expression of the free agent
way outside the workplace, making its continued rise
inevitable.’
Free agency is also sparking changes inside the system, especially
in the way some perceive high schools. Leon Botstein, president of
Bard College, calls high school obsolete; he believes that most
kids would be better served by jumping right into college classes,
apprenticeships, public service, or the job market. Pink predicts
that high schoolers will gradually replace or augment their
institutional learning with apprenticeships, national service, and
entrepreneurship, and that schools themselves will respond by
offering a broader range of courses and by curbing standardized
testing. ‘Most politicians think the answer to the problems of high
school is to exert more control,’ he writes. ‘But the real answer
is less control. In the free agent future, our teens will learn by
less schooling and more doing.’
Beyond high school and college, the rise of free agency is also
demanding lifelong learning among adults. Part of this is simply
the reality of an information economy, of course: In order to stay
on top of any topic, the free agent must constantly upgrade his or
her skills and knowledge. But as Pink points out, this ongoing
learning curve is also the happy result of incentives built into
the free agent economy. Nobody knew how to navigate the World Wide
Web before about 1993, he notes; people had to explore it, connect
with other people, build knowledge-sharing networks, and support
innovation. None of this early work took place in a classroom, and
those who best mastered the do-it-yourself ethic became the
Internet’s first pioneers.
‘The Web flourished almost entirely through the ethic and practice
of self-teaching,’ Pink argues.
The Internet is already playing a pivotal role in the new free
agent education movement, providing a vast do-it-yourself library
of resources and networks as well as sparking the development of
online colleges, where independent scholars can easily hook up with
free agent teachers. But Pink’s ‘learning groupies’ also search for
knowledge in real time and space, at conferences, in book clubs,
and with other small groups.
The big losers in all this, of course, are the elite universities
and those public education institutions–and their students–that
place a higher value on degrees than on creativity. ‘The students
who make it to elite colleges are generally those who’ve proved
most adroit at conventional (read: outdated) schooling,’ writes
Pink. ‘That could become a liability rather than an
advantage.’
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