Dear Seniors, Welcome to Thrilling Uncertainty

paper butterflies perot museum

Welcome to your final year of free public education.  Let’s stop and think about that statement, actually. Free public education. Wow. Even in today’s age, the concept of free public education is but an unrealized dream in most parts of the world.

Now, public education in the US does have its limitations, but fortunately for you, lots of teachers know this.

Unfortunately for you, the US economy and society is changing at its most rapid pace ever, and you have grown up in the whirlwind. The society you were being prepared for as elementary school students no longer exists. I promise this isn’t educational sleight of hand.  We just didn’t know what was coming.  

On the limitations of public education and what I’m trying to do about it:

Public education was invented in the industrial age, and it pretty much still runs like a factory.

However, maybe you’ve noticed that we no longer live in the industrial age, and the society and economy into which we are sending you is very different from perhaps what we have prepared you for so far.

This is unfortunate in many ways, but I choose to think of your last year of high school as an opportunity. An opportunity to rethink some of the ways you have been educated and to explore new ways of thinking about success.

Seth Godin, popular business writer and speaker and founder of Squidoo.com, asserts in his books that the industrial age is over and the connection age is here.  I am indebted to his books The Icarus Deception and Linchpin for inspiring this post.

Even at 17 or 18 years of age, you’ve probably noticed how huge lists of student activities and great grades don’t always get your friends into the colleges of their dreams.  You’ve probably known adults who have pursued “secure” jobs only to find that these jobs are being replaced by machines or phased out altogether.

On positive note, you may also have noticed that people know and care much more about the rest of the world and are concerned about responsibility in all areas of life.

The industrial society vs. the connection society

Here are a few ways in which the industrial economy (and I include most schooling in this model) differs from the new connection society:

Industrial: Competition. A focus on grades and individual rankings.
Connection: Collaboration, a focus on your ability to make human connections.

Industrial: Credentials and resumes
Connection:  Relationships and Projects (what have you actually done well, not just signed up for)

Industrial: Learn this body of knowledge, and you’ll be ready for your contribution.
Connection:  There’s no way you’re gonna learn all of that knowledge.  Thinking about how much information is in the world today makes me as panicky as thinking about how small Earth is in relationship to the UY Scuti star (a star I learned about in a few seconds on Wikipedia).  You’d better know where to find information when you need it, how to evaluate it, and how to use it to create awesome work.

Industrial: Follow the rules, play the game, implement the ideas of others.
Connection: Invent, create, have your own ideas and give them to the world.

Industrial: Bigger, faster, cheaper, more, quantity
Connection: Better, smaller, slower, less, quality, story

Industrial: Only those with enough money and power can influence the world. Everyone under these people at the top is just a cog in the machine and largely anonymous.
Connection:  Anyone with an Internet connection, a great idea, and the hard work to make it happen can influence the world.  No need to wait to achieve a certain salary or position. It’s actually pretty difficult to remain anonymous.

Industrial:  Private and public lives can remain separate.  You can adopt different identities for different contexts and with different people.
Connection:  It’s much more difficult to maintain different identities.  The separation between private and public lives is breaking down.  Even if you stay away from the Internet, you don’t know who else is talking about you.  At your stage of life, this is a challenge quite different from what those of us in an older generation experienced. We were free to experiment with various identities; you are much less free.

Industrial: Literacy is the domain of the leisure class and white-collar jobs. It’s possible to get a good job keeping your head down and following the rules. You don’t really have to read and write on a very high level.
Connection:  Literacy is more important than ever before.  We write and read all the time, especially online. Those who can powerfully communicate their ideas have access to the most influence over their own lives and over others.

What I care about in this class:

Because I am deeply concerned about preparing you for life and a future that we really know nothing about,  my teaching values and style may often look different from what you’ve experienced before. You might not always like it. But then again, you might like it better.  Here’s what I care about:

  • What you can do, not just what you can know.  Hello, people. For facts, there’s always Google and Wikipedia.  Don’t get me wrong. I love memorization, and I’m pretty good at it.  But the world cares what I do with all that stuff I’ve memorized. Unless I make it to Jeopardy some day.
  • Your social and emotional intelligence, not just your ability to take tests.  All the brainpower in the world won’t make you happy if you cannot form healthy and lasting relationships.
  • Your ability to read and think deeply about a difficult text, not just to skim the surface or interview your friends at lunch.
  • Your ability to develop your own questions and interpretations of a text, not just to accept the word of Sparknotes or other so-called experts (including me). Feel free to read the Sparknotes or whatever else you can find online.  But bring your own opinions (including your opinions of the Sparknotes) to class.
  • Your reflection on your own humanity and what you have to contribute to the world.
  • Your growth in empathy for the humanity of others.
  • Your appreciation for and even awe at the power of story that is uniquely human.
  • Your ability to interact with and develop relationships with other human beings and your recognition of what they have to contribute to the world.

How this class will look different from other classes you may have taken:

  • You will talk a lot in this class.  Mostly to each other, but I’ll get involved sometimes.
  • You will read a lot. Sometimes you will read in class. With no distractions.
  • You will write a lot.  In lots of ways. In various mediums. With various technologies. About your own story and the stories of others. I’m going to ask for your opinion and your insight.
  • You will rewrite if you need to.  I care that you learn how to write well, not that you just turned something in.
  • I’m not too patient with people who want to phone in their work, which is pretty much like phoning in your life. All I want is for you to show up to your life, not wish or fritter or complain or sleep it away.
  • I don’t care all that much about grades.  I care about your skill.  Are you improving? Are you able to do more at the end of my class than you could do at the beginning? Now, I didn’t say I don’t give grades.  I know that you and your families care about grades and that you need some way to know if you’re making progress. I try my best to make the grade correspond to the amount of skill you have mastered.
  • You will need to advocate for yourself in this class.  I want you to learn to ask for help, to say what you need, to ask questions.
  • I will expect you to do a lot of goal-setting and reflecting.  How much you learn is as much up to you as it is up to me.

And finally,

I’m so glad to meet you, and I’m already blessed to spend my time with all of you, doing what I love so very much.  The future is uncertain (really, it always has been), but people and their stories are not.

I will do my best to prepare you to thrive in whatever world you help create.

 

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