Every ten years or so, the US seems to suffer a crisis of culture and advocates for the focus of secondary schools to guide graduating students either to college or, ten years later, to some version of trade school. One thing that has consistently driven the economy, however, is something that seems left out of either conversation: innovation. Time and time again, the milestones in our economy have not come from those following a path but those who create. Regardless of where one chooses to get their education, there will always be a void in the “teaching” of creativity and innovation. What’s worse? We don’t seem to notice as a nation.
First, let me offer that I have a college degree. I do not see myself as different as anyone else with or without a college degree. My mechanical knowledge is wanton. I take my car to a guy that took a different path and is very good at fixing cars. Degree or not, he’s better at that than I am so I pay him for his skill set. As I get older, medical specialist become a little more important to me. I want a cardiologist that knows what he’s doing poking around with my ticker. I don’t take my heart to the mechanic and I don’t take my car to my cardiologist. Is it because they are stupid? No. It’s because they took different paths and offer different, and equally necessary, services for my needs.
However, respectful of their skills as I am I don’t necessarily see them as innovation powerhouses that will propel their fields of study through the next century. It’s not an indictment on their energy or their intelligence, they just have a very good practice going and it meets their needs. It used to be that the marketplace mandated innovation as companies expanded and required logistical, manufacturing, and even marketing improvements. Whether economical or practical, things HAD to change. Imagine things like starting to mount coal miner’s lamps on their helmets…it’s not particularly sexy, but think about the advantages that produced. That was 1815, at least in its first incarnation. To this day that initial concept has stood the test of time. What about the sewing machine? Clothing, upholstery, bedsheets, curtains…really anything constructed of any kind of fabric, vinyl, leather was affected by the 1830 inception of the sewing machine. Machine guns, dynamite, light bulb, toilet paper (which didn’t join the fray until 1880 in case you’re curious), automobile, video cameras, processor chip, computers… very few truly original ideas emerge from today’s culture though. We’re piggy-backing on the fundamental advances of days-gone-by.
As a parent who has been guilty of teaching their kids to “play to their audience” whether an employer or a teacher (or a parent), I realized there is one significant and unfortunate consequence of such a train of thought. I’m telling them to be content to operate within the existing paradigm. Look at the world and configure yourself to it instead of raising their expectation of themselves to contribute to the solutions for tomorrow’s problems. This whole line of consciousness then mandates the question “How do you develop innovation in students?” Sadly, that is an excellent question, but I would argue that is a question that absolutely is worthy of our consideration. We want actual leaders coming from the next generation. I think we’ve seen what allowing a systemic urgency to classify people into a convenient pigeon hole has given us in some of our elected officials, some of our leaders in business, and dare I say some members of the media.
Teaching our leaders of tomorrow about the world is important. Training them to be productive members of society is essential. However, let us not get so blinded by today’s vision of tomorrow that we forget to instill a spirit that not all things are inevitably bad and that things are, at the mercy of their willingness to try new things, are not as good as they’re going to be. I suspect that effort’s form may be as diverse as there are kids, but well worth the effort.