Education: Are We Missing the Point?
A new school year is around the corner. Parents hustle and bustle to get their children new clothes and school supplies. Rejuvenated teachers anxiously prepare their classrooms and navigate the torrent of early year meetings. For teachers, students, and parents a new school year is ripe with new possibilities. It’s a chance to get things right. Yet, like most New Year’s resolutions, nothing is likely to change. Hopes are plagued by a lack of those pesky core principles. They are plagued by the tide of an enormously destructive youth development culture that too few are willing to confront. Most detect something is amiss, but are afraid to speak critically in the culture of ceremony and image. Our unwillingness to confront uncomfortable truths precludes any really solutions. I’ll let the numbers do the talking:
Drug overdoses at an all-time high:
- Prior to 2000, overdoses never reached 20,000. They’ve climbed steadily to over 64,000 in 2016 1
Suicides are at an all-time high:
- 100% increase in suicide rate for kids 10-14 from 1999-2014 2
- 60% increase in global suicides in past 45 years 3
- Between 2010 & 2015 alone, the number of suicides for adolescents aged 13-18 jumped 31% 4 (It is interesting to note that these were years of economic growth. What changed was the smartphone- by 2012 smartphone phone ownership eclipsed 50%, by 2015 over 73% of teens had access to smartphones)
School shootings at all-time high 5:
- 1960’s -1; 1980’s- 27; 1990’s- 58
- 2007-2017- over 120
49% of youth have a mental disorder and one in five youth now have a “severe impairment” 6:
- 37% increase in teen depression between 2005 & 2014 7
- Since 1970, American Obesity has tripled in youth ages 6-19 8
- Today almost one in five kids are obese. Not overweight, obese.
- 41% of 40-59 year olds are obese. This is who is setting the model. 9
- A Harvard study predicts that of students age 2-19 as of 2016, 57% will be obese by the time they are 35 10
“It is not the young people that degenerate; they are not spoiled till those of mature age are already sunk into corruption.” –Charles de Montesquieu
This is the definition of a failing culture. We are the most comfortable, instantly gratified, and constantly entertained culture in human history, but struggle to find sustained happiness. This culture will not create a capable, fulfilled generation with the tools to live meaningful lives.
The ramifications of modern norms are rampant: obesity and lifestyle-related illness, orthopedic issues, depression, anxiety, drug abuse, dependency on destructive convenience foods, and constant distraction. These all are rooted in a neglect of our most primal physical needs for natural movement, nourishment, play, time in nature, mental space, purpose, challenge, and authentic connection. These needs are a ubiquitous reality of the human condition. Each person tries to address them in their own way.
Most people who attempt to address these needs fail… repeatedly. Discipline is difficult, particularly in a world constantly promoting convenience, instant gratification, and consumerism. We suffer a society-wide absence of healthy habits or philosophical contemplation about the essence of life. While curriculums abound, very little exists to teach us optimal patterns for human thriving. Health, strong values, willpower, purpose, and all these most essential lessons magnify impact and experience. These are unlikely to happen by chance. People would be far more likely to value the actions and beliefs that promote lasting fulfillment if they’d only been exposed to clear experiential training on these subjects.
The Opportunity of Education
Education can address all these needs by providing experiences that transform people- profound lessons that show more than tell to create a quantum shift in perception and inclination. Great teachers, parents, coaches, and leaders all strive to foster autonomy. Certainly, they are often employed for a shortsighted goal, but their impact comes through creating depth and connection. They transform by teaching (and inclining) their pupils to fish, rather than giving them fish. This is the difference between the image-oriented developmental strategy that dominates today and one that appreciates the process of education and its essentiality for fulfilled living in this complex world- one that believes in the merit of learning in and of itself- as the very essence of life. For learning as a way of being is at the core of all fulfilled people.
Truly core to humans is the study of the human condition and the essentials of fulfilled living. This begins with a departure from our reductionist model to embrace the inextricable inter-relation between body, mind, and emotion. From this foundation, we can explore purpose, values, and habits that honor our nature and needs. Our needs have a bio-evolutionary foundation that we cannot ignore. We must examine our current environment from the context of the environment our biology evolved to thrive within.
For example, our primal heritage rewarded the false positive. If we heard rustling leaves and assumed it was the wind, we may have been right most often, but eventually, it would be a lion and we’d be eliminated from the gene pool. Consequently, our minds still scan the savannah for predators. We’re then taught to scan documents for mistakes, not knowing that this heightened sense for error must be offset by a practice of gratitude.
We live on a Hedonic treadmill, constantly normalizing each improvement in lifestyle. Each material gain becomes our new set point and our expectations rise. How else could we be depressed in a luxurious 21st-century world of limitless smartphones and incessant comfort? We have not learned that we should be inserting intentional discomforts, denials, and moments of less to train true depth of experience and offset dependency. We gorge on food, failing to realize that our lizard mind feels paranoia that this could be its last meal. Our environment offers inconceivable abundance, yet we have no model for successfully navigating a world where sugar-infused, processed convenience food is considered the “normal diet.”
Humanity survived to create civilizations because of an immense capacity to work together and form communities. Our biology expects to live in a tight-knit tribe of heroic humans who all contribute towards a common purpose. Yet today, we are immersed in moral relativism, narcissism, nihilism, and alienation. Compare the free-wandering exploration you and your friends enjoyed as adolescents to the childhood of today- seated, scanning phones, immersed in Fortnite. Each child is an island, entertained in isolation, curating an image while scarcely leaving the safe confines of an air-conditioned room.
“The disease of our times is that we live on the surface. We’re like the Platte River, a mile wide and an inch deep.” – Steven Pressfield
The standard model offers constant distraction and a conveyer of outcomes that are supposed to bring us happiness. What does scratching every itch look like? Incessant and unconscious social media checks, addiction to sugar and convenience food, scanning Netflix in every free moment, and a lack of freedom as we trudge lethargically into jobs that don’t invigorate but bring money for debts accrued in the pursuit of things that have already lost their luster.
In contrast, education offers the discipline and understanding for individuals to intentionally outline pursuits that will bring them true fulfillment. They can identify trends that don’t serve them and create habits that ensure a consistent renewal of purpose, vision, and experiences that make life a bold adventure. They move as a way of living, they reflect, they clarify values, they experience gratitude, they establish boundaries, and they direct themselves towards purposeful pursuits that still matter in the context of our imminent deathbed. They build a community that emboldens them to positively attack adversity and remain consistent in the habits essential to their foundation of physical, mental, and emotional health. Their experience gives the courage and vision to operate outside a standard model that’s failing millions. This is not a Kumbaya Utopian vision, but a realistic analysis of the education necessary to thrive in this world. It is the goal of the IHD membership. It is not a path to avoid challenges, but rather a call to intentionally engage in the challenges that feed one’s spirit
The true core of education are the foundational lessons most important to all. Certainly, a future engineer will need to understand calculus; a future lawyer, political science, but what does that matter without an understanding of relationships, communication and the development of emotional intelligence that prioritizes physical vitality over vanity selfies? The art of writing is lost amongst today’s youth, but what good will composition be without the self-understanding that guides discussions of any depth. What does a statistics major offer, without a sense of purpose, or the values that create a desire for a life outside the cubicle? Furthermore, how much more would this numbers whiz be capable of with a strong body, a resilient mind, deep relationships, and a clarity in values that infuses work with a sense of play? In an increasingly volatile job market where we cannot predict what jobs will look like in 20 years, it is emotional intelligence, purpose, and the ability to learn that are most valuable.
It is with these aims in mind, that I’ve created the core of IHD’s original 6 courses and the IHD membership. Our mission is to offer the lessons, timeless and timely, for human fulfillment. What is the point of chasing money that, of itself, does not satisfy? Without a true understanding of the human condition and the pursuits in which it thrives, no amount of material comfort will make us happy. As depression, anxiety, obesity, and general dissatisfaction proliferate, it’s time we reflect on the core that underlies all humans so that they can create more intentional living.
When people first heard of my plans to create online courses, most were confused. “Why would people want a course that did not come with a diploma?” That’s like asking a trainer why someone would want to eat nutritiously if they were married and not actively seeking a partner. We’ve been so conditioned to think only of outcomes in education. Learning is secondary. We will pay thousands of dollars for comically poor online curriculums that hand diplomas over for a couple message board posts, yet are confused at the value of truly impactful lessons. Those who do not learn as a way of being, are doomed for manipulation, stagnation, and malaise.
Businesses are beginning to see this. They are tired of hiring the same shortsighted “where is the answer” style thinkers that our search engine educational model mass produces. They want fresh perspective and new possibilities and are beginning to re-evaluate hiring requirements. As the exorbitantly expensive college diploma increasingly indicates only a willingness to show up and follow directions, employers are beginning to prioritize real life experience. Ryan Holiday dropped out of college to apprentice under legendary author Robert Greene, before becoming head of marketing for American Apparel, on his way to becoming the best author of his generation. Peter Thiel now pays college students $100,000 for two years to drop out and begin entrepreneurial projects less expensive than the diploma. Even our Ivy League schools are noticing the trend. Harvard now encourages students to take a gap year in hopes that they return with a perspective that promotes learning for the right reasons. Yale Professor, William Deresiewicz attacks the modern educational norms funneling him elite students increasingly less able to think critically. His book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life argues for a return to the liberal arts educational values and away from practical subjects that teach only narrow skill sets. We must create capable, competent, interesting people, with the desire to learn and contribute.
“In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.” –Eric Hoffer
Unfortunately, as the need for constant learning grows, the inclination to learn is dying off. It is the age of dependency. Lawnmower parenting is removing all obstacles driven by an obsession with providing for every want. Mobile phone culture creates dependency on distraction and entertainment. The convenience food industry creates addiction. The ability to craft wholesome meals or eat as a family are replaced by fast food, select sports, and television. Search engines and mass media preclude analytical skills and offer superficial answers. The abundant availability of confirmation bias creates entrenched dogma and dependency on safe spaces. For most people, the solution to almost every problem is a superficial, dependent relationship- drugs for anxiety and distractibility, or the latest fad diet program to replace actual nutritional knowledge. We expect teachers to pass our students rather than focus on educational experience and the student’s role to strive and learn as a lifelong inclination.
Recently, a teacher told me about a class discussion about cheating in school. It’s no secret in education that the mobile phone has led to an explosion of academic dishonesty by an increasing number of methods. Still, my friend was abhorred at the earnest opinions of one of her favorite senior classes. To universal support, one student exclaimed, “what else are you supposed to do if you don’t know the answers.” It speaks to a far greater society-wide problem: the rationalization of shortcuts at the expense of growth. We’ve normalized cheating, without realizing it represents the inclinations that entrench poor health, depression, and limited living. We’ve removed the adversity necessary to become capable of more and thus, stripped ourselves of a passionate, tenacious spirit. Instant gratification becomes our personal lobotomy.
In his book The Vanishing American Adult, Senator Ben Sasse quotes author Neil Postman’s observation that, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.” The brave new world Huxley described is the product of a culture that’s lost its appreciation for the opportunity of education.
“… the fulfilled life is a consequence- a gratifying by-product. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things… Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air, and behold the view… climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.” –David McCullough Jr.
The purpose of great education has become clouded. “Apathy and ego” are just another way of describing the entitlement and image-obsession growing more rampant while creating mental angst in all it consumes. The immediate visible outcomes of education have nothing to do with education. Grades, trophies, certificates, and recognition are all well intended and sometimes warranted, but they are not the point. They are arbitrary social constructs. They are inventions distracting from what matters.
Education’s true value is to transform- to create capability, empowered perception, and inclinations for pursuits that breed fulfillment. Education should provide people with the ability to thrive. It should not be a stagnant consequence of the status quo’s standard, dependency driven model. Education should be intentionally crafted to question common patterns while exploring what drives truly fulfilled living. It should be dogged in its pursuit of truth and above appeasement and superficiality. It should respond to the latest research and be driven by a study of that which is most impactful and inspiring.
While this seems an obvious directive of society, the information overload in which we dwell has only served to distract the majority from any sort of intentional developmental philosophy. The norm is giving outcomes and thus creating lifelong dependency where pupils will slip the moment they’ve left our care. This is hollow education that’s completely forgotten its purpose to inspire and create agency to thrive and live with impact. There is no conveyor belt to success. Students must create their own future and we must make them capable.