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A couple of weeks ago I read an amusing column by Joe Soucheray in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In it he wrote about how the educational system we’re pouring billions of dollars into is failing because it continues to crank out idiots who (among other things) don’t understand that you can actually die from drinking too much water.

Refreshingly, Soucheray’s conclusion wasn’t that teachers aren’t doing their jobs. It was that people are just dumber than they used to be. He wasn’t sure why, but based on how easy it is to find examples of stupidity today, he was quite sure people just don’t have the brains they used to.

He did make some interesting points. If you stop to think about it, initially, it does seem like the number of dumb people is on the rise. Indeed, late night TV talk shows have been ahead of the curve on this one. Except for terrible singers, nothing’s funnier than stupidity. What a great country. Where else is it possible for a society to capitalize on it’s own weaknesses?

It certainly is an easy argument to make. As Jay Leno has shown us, it’s really not that hard to find stupid people these days. Be it history, geography, literature, grammar, current events or mathematics, millions of Americans should know more than they do. This is something I think we can almost all agree upon. It’s why we, as a nation, are always so concerned about the state of education. I mean, when was the last time you heard someone say, “Boy our schools sure are great. Kids today are smarter than ever.”?

But if this is the case—if, for some reason, Americans are indeed getting dumber—logically we should begin to see a drop in the productivity of U.S. workers. Right? But we’re not. According to the U.S. government, worker productivity has been on the rise since the early ‘90s and has accelerated dramatically in the last five years.

According to a recent article in INC. magazine, just one example of this rise in productivity can be found in the insurance industry. On average, in 1991, a worker in insurance contributed $85,000 in revenue to his or her company. Today it’s $250,000. So I guess the only conclusion we can make now is that stupid people (and bad singers), while funny, are still great for the economy.

The problem with the argument that schools are failing or that people are dumber is that they both contain faulty assumptions—that we know what people today should know in order to be productive members of society. Or better yet—we can know.

Children in kindergarten today will be graduating from high school in the year 2019. We don’t know what the world will look like in five years. What are the specific sets of facts or skills that are going to be valuable in the year 2019 and beyond? Will it be important to know where Edmonton is? Should everyone in that graduating class be required to know about John Smith and Pocahontas? How about the capital of
Rhode Island or the elements of the periodic table?

Maybe we should be asking Jay Leno these questions.

Our current educational model was built to meet the needs of industrialism. As such, it is assumes that you should know certain things, and you should be afraid of making mistakes—just like you should be afraid of your boss and to make mistakes on the job. Tests are given so that we know that you know certain things. But let’s face it. Some kids are rebellious. Some kids just don’t care about tests. And sometimes, try as we might, we simply can’t make them afraid.

So today, understanding the complex interplay between all of the issues surrounding society and education, American politicians have devised a system called No Child Left Behind–so that others can be afraid for them. And I think it’s working. Administrators, teachers and school boards across the nation are wringing their hands over test data, devising complex and thorough systems to identify children at risk, and redoubling their efforts to differentiate instruction to fit the unique learning styles of each student.

Thankfully, however, educators aren’t fighting this battle alone. Drs. and pharmaceutical companies are also doing their part by creating and distributing drugs that help fidgety kids stay focused.

“Every educational system around the world has the same hierarchy of subjects,” says Sir Ken Robinson, an expert educator and Senior Consultant for the Paul J. Getty Trust. “At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and at the bottom are the arts. And even within the arts is a hierarchy too. Art and music are usually given a higher status than drama and dance. There isn’t an educational system in the world that teaches children dance every day the way we do mathematics.

“Truly what happens as children grow up is that we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads—and slightly to one side,” he says.

Robinson concludes that the whole purpose of educational systems around the world is to produce university professors. What he advocates we do instead, is to cultivate creativity.

In 1934, Gillian Lynne’s teachers thought there was something wrong with the eight year old because she couldn’t sit still. She couldn’t focus and wasn’t getting anything done. So they recommended her parents bring her to a Dr..

After the initial examination, the Dr. asked her mother to step with him out of the room, leaving the young Gillian on her own. But before he left, he flipped on the radio. Outside, the Dr. simply asked Gillian’s mother to watch her through the window.

“Your daughter is not sick, Mrs. Lynne,” said the Dr.. “She’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”
Luckily, she did, and Gillian Lynne excelled. Eventually she met Andrew Lloyd Webber, and has since composed for some of the most successful musicals in history– including “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.” She’s been extremely successful in her career, contributed greatly to society and culture, given pleasure to millions and is a millionaire many times over.

But I have to wonder—might she have just done better with an ADHD diagnosis and some meds?

And do you think she knows that drinking too much water can be fatal?