In Bloomberg Businessweek’s October 17-23, 2011 issue, five people were asked how to fix the education system in the United States. Of the five people interviewed, one person stood out: Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, an amazing prosthetic arm (demoed on TED) and a myriad of other inventions, as well as founder of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). Kamen was asked if it mattered what was taught to students. His response is not only a challenge to the current political chatter regarding jobs, but a cultural shift redefining education. Kamen says:
Education is not filling a pail, it’s lighting a fire. And you can build the best system and the best process, but you can’t open up a kid’s head and pour this stuff in. What FIRST is all about is the recognition that, assuming we have good schools and assuming we have good teachers, we still have another major problem in this country. It’s a culture problem. Both parties are running around saying it’s about jobs, it’s about jobs. Kids need more than jobs. They need careers, they need passion to solve real problems.
For the majority of Americans, we have jobs. It is something that we do on a daily basis in order to pay our bills, afford the necessities of life, buy some toys, and perhaps have a little left to save or donate to worthy causes. We go to work, it is something that we do. For many, it has nothing to do with identity and everything to do with necessity. We are willing to accept a disconnect between the work that we do and the effect that work has upon the world. Jobs are about survival and addressing the daily needs of our lives.
But if our only concern is survival, how can we focus on solving real problems? Isn’t survival a real problem?
What Kamen is saying that there is something beyond just surviving in today’s world. We can solve problems. We can change the world. We can recapture our identity within the work that we do. Careers aren’t just what we do, but who we are. It is all about identity and the mark that we can make upon the world. Careers reconnect the work that we do with the effect that it has upon the world.
In order to have this career-oriented mindset, how we are taught and what we learn must change. Learning isn’t a checklist. It isn’t something that can be absorbed from a stack of books. It isn’t a linear process. Kamen uses the illustration of lighting a fire. I’ll take it a step further and say that continuing to learn is like stoking a fire and keeping it from going out. How do you do that? You need wood. You need oxygen. You need space. You need the right conditions. You need to be vigilant, yet free to let the fire be what it is going to be. That is the very nature of what is living.