Lions on Wikipedia

Here’s a common story from the zoo. We raise an animal, say a lion or a penguin, in captivity from birth. Zookeepers are careful to immerse the lion in a world perfectly constructed to look and feel like the savanna. The penguin lives in his proper Antarctic zone, designed to look like the ices of the tundra. They are both fed, on a regular schedule, and kept happy and healthy. So long as they perform for the zoo’s visitors.

Do lions feel cabin fever?

Yet the animals, with endless possibilities at birth, quickly come to know the limits of their potential at the zoo. The savanna zone has a wall. It is constrained freedom, an existence manufactured by outside observers as the image of what a lion ‘should’ grow up in. And so, should that lion be released from captivity later, the freedom would be deafening. Undoubtedly, it would be unable to function without a daily feeding and a bath. That has become its reality, and understanding of the world.

We understand these shortcomings, and continue to raise lions in zoos for the good of the onlookers. But why do we educate our children this way?

Earlier this week, Peter Thiel named his 20 under 20 fellows, who he would pay $100,000 to drop out of college to pursue other interests for two years. In doing so, Thiel raises questions about the value of higher education. If these high-performing kids go on to become extremely successful, it evidences the declining necessity of higher ed for success.

But, as Andrew Kelly points out, these were already the most academically gifted students in the country. They don’t need college, but they also don’t need the Thiel fellowship. They’re already successful in their own right. Thiel’s program proves nothing about college as an institution.

In reading their short biographies, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own experience in public schools for twelve years of my life. One difference is quite clear: I was raised in captivity. Each year had its walled garden of lessons and allowances. I learned in exactly the way that educators had decided I should.

We should know better. Like designing exhibits at a zoo, people are woefully inadequate at circumscribing worlds for others to live in. We systematically underestimate the capability of subjects, be they animals or young people, to care for themselves. And in doing so, we limit their potential.

Worse still, Thiel’s idea strikes a nerve because we’ve been made to feel a certain insecurity about our learning. We think we need rigor, requirements, and standards in order to learn and grow. So we set standards and require demonstrations of skill.

The big W
My childhood playground

Thankfully, my most formative years in captivity were spent with a back door. Spring 2001 was my first encounter with then-nascent Wikipedia. It was rough, articles were dramatically incomplete, and teachers were afraid of it. And it came with related links. Suddenly the great depths of human knowledge were interconnected and at my fingertips.

A few days ago, my friend Mindy (deservedly a Thiel fellow but probably too modest to apply) asked whether knowledge was too easy for our generation. She focused on the once-prevalent struggle to earn knowledge by finding it. Now that information is so easy to find, she asks, have knowledge and critical thinking become superficial?

I think this question is deeply intertwined with how we educate kids.  When your curriculum is on rails, learning is a direct-to-DVD movie.  Just read the spoilers, the bullet points, and the SparkNotes, know the destination and your ETA, and you can fall asleep for the rest of the ride — wakefulness is simply not worth the effort.  We don’t short-circuit our learning because information is too easy to come by.  Instead, we seek out easy information because we know the answers are canned anyway.

Alfie Kohn has done extensive research on the way intrinsic motivation can be undermined by extrinsic incentives, in business settings and at school.  When time is precious and you’re evaluated by your knowledge of the occurrences in a book you were forced to read, the bulleted summary is a strictly dominant strategy.  Lions in captivity don’t move around much except when there’s a steak involved.

The key to all of this is who selected the knowledge to be imparted.  Students, it turns out, are quite capable of choosing their intellectual adventures without coercion.  Every one of them, not just the geniuses. I did my fair share of leveraging Wikipedia to avoid wasting my time on coerced learning.  But I also took the back door out of my cage when no one was looking.  I followed Wikipedia trails, swinging from one link to the next in a forest that has no walls.

I don’t remember much of eighth grade social studies’ cursory treatment of the Constitutional Convention, but I do remember reading the Wikipedia articles on every one of the 27 amendments, which sparked my brief but intense obsession with Constitutional law.  I remember secretly reading about string theory while bored of class exercises about the water cycle.

Our technology has categorized and linked the great body of human knowledge.  And connectedness breeds discovery, mapping, and synthesis.  All we need to do is let go of our insecurities and free children from the world we created to protect them from their own power.  Each of the Thiel fellows did this early on, and we assuredly will be celebrating their accomplishments in a few years.

So maybe we could all use a little unschooling.  Let go of the carrots and sticks, and stop trying to define what should be known only so as to guarantee it will be forgotten. I think we all remember tiring of the savanna exhibit long ago.  Kids don’t need zookeepers, they just need to learn how to hunt.

The backpack, the binder, and the basket

If sleep forces us to consolidate our memories every day, the act of graduating initiates a more profound sleep.  Today I’m confronted with the formidable task of sleeping on four years of academic work.  I have two hours to reduce the material I’ve spent 2,184 hours of class time learning into three piles: the backpack (to reread), the binder (to reference), and the basket (to recycle).

The backpack, binder, and basket piles.

But, wait.  I didn’t actually spend 2,184 hours of class time on these readings, notes, and lecture slides.  Be real, Jesse. I probably skipped over half of the actual class time required to generate all of this paper.  So let’s not be too sentimental about it.

The truth is, some entire classes — 42 class-hours plus countless hours of work outside — get thrown straight into the basket pile with no due process or review.  So what separates the lessons I’ll carry in my backpack forever from the ones that have already long been thrown into the wastebasket?

Analyzing the mountain of paper is instructive.  There’s a strong correlation between the size of the pile and its chance of getting summarily trashed.  Often, it turns out, professors have a certain self-consciousness about their classes, and it shows in how much paper they generate.  Fifty-page lectures, hundreds of pages of readings, required note-taking, and so on.  These forms of coercion amount to a way of saying “I’m important, pay attention to me.  Or else.”

Now, I’m no coward with respect to reading.  I love information.  And a long reading is justified when it’s the sort of pithy text that tickles your consciousness with every turn of the page.  So don’t get me wrong.   I’m not advocating for ‘dumbing down’ school or reducing academic rigor.

But there’s a big difference between rigor that’s out to teach something and rigor that’s out to prove something.

Ideas that have made it into my backpack — the things that I will forever carry with me into every organization, and evangelize to every person I meet — are deceivingly simple.  The Heath brothers would say that such ideas are ‘made to stick‘.  Simple, unexpected, concrete, and empowering.

It goes beyond the stickiness of a few ideas, however.  The classes worth remembering are often consummately so.  There are entire bodies of knowledge I love and repeat constantly in my life.  Shoutouts are due… to organizational behavior (MGMT 238 – Adam Grant), emerging economies (LGST 216 – Phil Nichols), and information strategy (OPIM 469 – Lorin Hitt and OPIM 666/210 – Eric Clemons).  Their entire classes have made it into the backpack and the binder, and I will remember them for the rest of my life.

What these four professors did was extraordinary, and it ultimately amounts to bravery.  A quality that I’d call “courageous distillation“.  Looking at an overwhelming trove of knowledge in one’s subject area, and spending significant energy deciding what’s important, distilling it into memorable stories.  And more importantly, having the courage to decide that, even if a textbook exists for the subject, most of it is actually not important, and won’t make it into students’ backpacks.

Unfortunately, that type of courage is almost entirely lacking in academic disciplines with texts.  Somehow, having something bound with a shiny cover that others in the field use gives one license to lose all creativity.  But teaching for actual learning will always be an art, and finding lessons worth remembering is a subtractive process.

Seems to me that the key to all of this is being willing to let go of some ego, and to actually make decisions — to let go of notions that every method and finding in one’s entire field of study deserves regurgitation, and find the messages at the core.   So professors, if you’re listening, rewrite the textbooks, create classes that are uniquely your own, and rediscover the essence of what you’re teaching through students’ eyes.  And do that over and over, every year.  You might even learn something in the process.

These lessons aren’t limited to academia.  As I move forward in my life, I need to constantly remind myself that not everything I do is important, and to be courageous enough that I’ll periodically re-evaluate my work and distill it further.  I will never be afraid of empowering others to take my life’s work and do more with it than I had dreamed.

I’ll forever thank the nine professors whose class notes made it into the backpack and the binder.  Beyond those few, I’m just glad that paper, like memory, is recyclable.