"Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth."
John F. Kennedy
Our educational institutions are largely legacy systems, established in a time when the purpose of education was, according to those in charge, far removed from notions of actualization or “me becoming me.” Schools were modeled after factories, with the expressed purpose of producing conformist adults who would best serve as the next generation of industrial workers. In this system, there was one right way to do everything, and those that could perform in that one right way were rewarded; those that did not, were seen as problematic or expendable.
To be fair, this system did produce some impressive results – raising millions out of poverty and increasing the high school graduation rate from roughly 6% in the 1920s to over 80% in the 1980s. However, something else happened in the ’80s – the second industrial revolution, epitomized by the assembly line, gave way to the third industrial revolution, brought on by the advent of personal computing. As the United States transitioned from an industrial economy into something different, the problems with the factory model of education became more glaring.
Today, we live in the time of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where technology and life are becoming increasingly intertwined. In the words of Thomas Friedman, the world is now flat, made so by the internet, and we are increasingly challenged to do more than algorithmic tasks – those with one right way to do them. After all, machines can do algorithmic tasks faster and better than we can. We need people who can innovate – who can be different – rather than those who can conform to one-size model.
One thing we have going for us is that while our systems were designed to stamp out individuality, the uniqueness of every single person has endured, and researchers and scientists have discovered some key insights into how and why we differ, knowledge we didn’t possess a century ago. We have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to leverage this new learning to better support students. This is not a referendum on past practice; it is a new path that was hidden from our predecessors.
"Do the best you can until you know better. Then do better."