Will That Be on the Test?

The American educational system deadens the soul and fuels suburban sprawl. It is designed as a linear progression, which means most people’s experience runs something like this:

  1. Proceed through grades K-12; which is mostly boring and a waste of time.
  2. Attend four years of college; optionally attend graduate/law/med school.
  3. Get a job; live in the city; party.
  4. Marry someone you met in college or at your job.
  5. Have a kid; promptly freak out about safety and schools.
  6. Move to a soulless place in the suburbs; send your kids to a shitty public school.
  7. Live a life of quiet desperation, commuting at least 45 minutes/day to a job you hate, in expectation of advancement.
  8. Retire; dispose of any remaining savings.
  9. Die — expensively.

Hate to put it so starkly, but this is what we’ve got going on, and it’s time we address it head-on.

This pattern, which if you are honest with yourself, you will recognize as entirely accurate, is a byproduct of the design of our educational system.

The unrelenting message is, “If you don’t go to college, you won’t be successful.” Sometimes this is offered as the empirical argument, “College graduates earn more.” Check out this bogus piece of propaganda:

But what if those earnings are not caused by being a college graduate, but are merely a symptom of being the sort of person (socioeconomically speaking) who went to college? People who come from successful socioeconomic backgrounds are simply more likely to earn more in life than those who do not.

There’s no doubt that everyone is different; not everyone is suited for the same kind of work — thankfully. But western society has perverted that simple beautiful fact — and the questions it prompts about college education — into Not everyone is cut out for college,” as though college was the pinnacle of achievement, and everybody else has to work on Diesel engines or be a blacksmith. Because mechanics and artists are valuable too.

That line of thinking is the most cynical, evil load of horse-shit to ever fall out of our educational system. Real-life learning is not linear. It can be cyclical and progressive and it takes side-trips, U-turns, mistakes, and apprenticeships to experience everything our humanity offers us.

The notion that a college education is a safety net that people must have in order to avoid a life of destitution, that “it makes it more likely that you will always have a job” is also utterly cynical, and uses fear to scare people into not relying on themselves. Young people should be confident and self-reliant, not told that they will fail.

And for far too many students, college is actually spent doing work that should have been done in high school — remedial math and writing. So, the dire warnings about the need for college actually become self-fulfilling: Johnny and Daniqua truly can’t get a job if they can’t read and write and do math. See? You need college.

An Education Thought Experiment

I do not pretend to have “solutions” for all that ails our educational system. But as a design thinker, I do believe that if our current educational system produces the pattern of living I noted above, then a different educational system could produce very different patterns of living — ones which are more likely to lead to individual happiness and self-actualization.

If we had an educational system based on apprenticeship, then more people could learn skills and ideas from actual practitioners in the real world. If we gave educational credit to people who start businesses or non-profit organizations, and connected them to mentors who could help them make those businesses successful, then we would spread real-world knowledge about how to affect the world through entrepreneurship.

If more people were comfortable with entrepreneurship, then they would be more apt to find market opportunities, which can effect social change and generate wealth. If education was more about empowering people with ideas and best practices, instead of giving them the paper credentials needed to appear qualified for a particular job, it would celebrate sharing ideas, rather than minimizing the effort required to get the degree. (My least favorite question: “Will that be on the test?”)

Ideally, the whole idea of “the degree” should fade into the background. Self-actualized people are defined by their accomplishments. A degree should be nothing more than an indication that you have earned a certain number credits in a particular area of study.

If the educational system were to be re-made along these lines, the whole focus on “job” as the endgame would shift.

“A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance, 1841

And so if the focus comes to be on living, as Emerson suggested it should be, and not simply on obtaining the job (on the back of the dubious credential of the degree), then the single family home in the suburb becomes unworkable, for the mortgage and the routine of the car commute go hand-in-hand with the job. They are isolating and brittle, and do not offer the self-actualized entrepreneur the opportunity to meet people, try new ideas, and affect the world around them.

The job holder becomes accustomed to the idea that the world is static and cannot be changed through their own action; their stance is reactive. The city is broken, therefore I will live in the suburbs. The property taxes in the suburbs are lower, so I will choose the less expensive option.

Entrepreneurial people believe the world is plastic and can be changed — creating wealth in the process. But our current system does not produce entrepreneurial people.

Break Out of What’s “Normal”

It may be a while before we can develop new educational systems that produce new kinds of life patterns.

But you can break out now. You’ve had that power all along. I’m not suggesting you drop out.

But I will say this: in my own case, I grew up in the suburbs, went to an expensive suburban private high-school — which I hated — where I got good grades and was voted most likely to succeed.

I started a retail computer store and mail order company in eleventh grade. I went to Johns Hopkins at 17, while still operating my retail business. Again, I did well in classes, but had to struggle to succeed. And no one in the entire Hopkins universe could make sense of my entrepreneurial aspirations. It was an aberration.

I dropped out of college as a sophomore, focused on my business, pivoted to become an Internet service provider in 1995, and managed to attend enough night liberal arts classes at Hopkins to graduate with a liberal arts degree in 1996. This shut my parents up and checked off a box.

I also learned a lot. About science. About math. About philosophy, literature, and art. And I cherish that knowledge to this day.

But I ask: why did it have to be so painful and waste so much of my time? Why was there no way to incorporate that kind of learning into my development as an entrepreneur? Why was there no way to combine classical learning with an entrepreneurial worldview?

Because university culture is not entrepreneurial. And I’m sorry, universities can talk about entrepreneurship and changing the world all they like, but it is incoherent to have a tenured professor teaching someone about entrepreneurship. Sorry, just doesn’t add up for me. Dress it up in a rabbit suit and make it part of any kind of MBA program you like; it’s a farce. Entrepreneurship education is experiential.

I had kids in my mid-twenties and now have moved from the suburbs to the city because it’s bike-able and time efficient. And I want to show my kids, now ten and twelve, that change is possible in cities. I believe deeply in the competitive advantage our cities provide, and I intend, with your help, to make Baltimore a shining example of that advantage.

I don’t suggest that I did everything right or recommend you do the same things. But I did choose to break out of the pattern. And you can too.

Maybe if enough people do, we can build the new educational approaches that we most certainly need in the 21st century. This world requires that we unlock all available genius.


#1 Scott Paley on 05.16.10 at 11:06 pm

If this isn't too personal, what choices have you made in regard to educating your own children? Are they in public school in Baltimore? Private school? Home schooled? Something else?

#2 Dave Troy on 05.16.10 at 11:17 pm

I didn't get into this in the post because it's a whole separate can of worms.

My kids are very different people, and different from me. So, I've tried to make choices based on who they are, the realities of the present moment, and it's still complicated.

My kids are attending two single-sex K-12 independent schools, which were reasonable fits for each of their personalities. For example, the program at my son's school puts some emphasis on sports – something I was pretty hopeless at but which he enjoys. The school my daughter is at is rather academically rigorous.

We are happy enough with these choices, but have been seriously considering the Sudbury School in East Baltimore. It has no curriculum and no formal rules; everything is administered by the kids, and all learning is self-directed.

Unfortunately, I believe we are in a transitional moment where the old system is not yet dead, but the new system hasn't been fully fleshed out. So we opted to go for the part of the old system that offers the best chance of happy accidents — for good teachers, for compelling creative opportunities.

If that doesn't go as well as we'd like, then something like Sudbury is our next choice.

Meantime, we're doing as much as possible to expose our kids to real world stuff: to Beehive, to Design Conversations, to art shows, to stuff we're working on. All in all that stuff is going to provide them with more of a foundation than anything else.

And as long as the old system is still in place, it's still a reasonable hack to check off its various boxes. But we don't have to revere or rely on them.

#3 joshploch on 05.16.10 at 11:30 pm

Dave – Thanks for the post (and the comment) we are in a similar transition,and you spelled out my feelings much better then I can. It helps to step back from being “in the middle” of it.

#4 Scott Paley on 05.17.10 at 12:29 am

Pretty neat.

You mentioned that they both go to same-sex schools. Was that an incidental or intentional criterion?

#5 DanielDubya on 05.17.10 at 12:57 am

Awesome post, Dave. What you're suggesting is that we find a way to teach our children self-actualization. I think the most instruction on this when I received for this as I was growing up was “You can do anything you want to do.” While I believe in this axiom, there was never any sort of guidance how to do that. I think that's in part because neither of my parents really ever did exactly what they wanted to do (at least, when I was younger).

One thing that we're doing for our kids is homeschooling. We're fortunate that we have the resources and the room in our schedule to homeschool. For our older daughter, we found that she wasn't getting the personalized attention we thought she needed and deserved in order to succeed. And we were right, she' does a great job in most of her subjects. Our hope is that she's learning the skills to make smart decisions in life.

That said, we don't always know what the future is going to hold. One of the cruxes of parenthood is that you don't always know how present circumstances are going to really impact your child. Like you said in your comment, you have to make the best choices for them based on the realities of the moment.

#6 cherylhaas on 05.17.10 at 2:25 am

I agree that much of our learning is done around and outside of our education system. As a high school student growing up in the suburbs of DC, my parents were progressive enough (and substantially older than my peers parents) to recognize that an occasional skip day was important to my education. A few times a year I called in “sick” to go downtown. I visited art museums, monuments and independent bookstores because I was curious. I knew there was a world bigger than suburbia and I wanted to explore it. My parents didn't exactly have the same thirst that I did, but they supported me. That can make all the difference.

While I agree with nearly everything you say in this post, there's one thing that I take exception to: “Self-actualized people are defined by their accomplishments.” I believe that self-actualized people are defined by their experiences and more importantly how they perceive those experiences. Our accomplishments are only one external measure. How we perceive them is on another plane and it is internal. The spirit of your post is to help encourage “taking a less traveled road,” which I agree, but it's also about being comfortable/proud of with the path you've chosen and/or been given.

#7 Dave Troy on 05.17.10 at 2:42 am

Cheryl – thanks for the thoughtful comment.

I agree with your point, and I considered tweaking my wording a bit; instead of 'accomplishments' I thought about using the word 'designs,' but I doubted anyone would know what I meant, to wit:

When Thomas Jefferson designed his grave marker, he included only the fact that he was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, author of the Declaration of Independence, and the founder of the University of Virginia. Notably, he left out the fact that he was two-term president of the US.

The architect William McDonough explained: “He recorded only his designs, not his activities.” I believe that self-actualized people are defined by their designs, not necessarily their activities or 'accomplishments' in the narrowest sense. And yes, those designs can be subjectively evaluated.

And while I believe people should be encouraged to take a less-traveled road, I have a hard time getting excited about a life that does not produce a legacy through design. I am not opposed to it, but it seems to me that people who make an impact on the world around them, even just a little bit, deserve to be celebrated the most.

#8 Dave Troy on 05.17.10 at 2:53 am

It's just the way it worked out. We have no particular bias on that topic. Til this year they had both been in a co-ed K-5 day school.

#9 Dave Troy on 05.17.10 at 2:53 am

It's just the way it worked out. We have no particular bias on that topic. Til this year they had both been in a co-ed K-5 day school.

#10 cherylhaas on 05.17.10 at 3:10 am

I wouldn't have understood “design” without the context of the quotes. But, those quotes are powerful. Jefferson's words say it all- He wanted to be known for what he considered to be his greatest contributions. That is internal. The presidency wasn't how he defined self-actualized though it may how many would define it. That is external.

Design is an entirely different concept. It is purposeful and driven. You can't teach that, but you can mentor it. We need to create space for students/people/educators to foster it. That is what is lacking.

I love the work you are doing. Keep on….

#11 David M Taylor on 05.17.10 at 3:24 am

Dave – Thank you for sharing, it's an inspirational post. My own experience has lead me to many of the very same conclusions, especially regarding education. That's a topic that I've considered for many years, and now that I have children entering kindergarten next September, it's a battle that I feel is just beginning for us…

We will find and maintaining that balance between “checking the boxes” and providing for them a real world education. I will at the same time do all that I can to preserve and grow their already blossoming love of knowledge. It will be a challenge, but nearly nothing in this world motivates me more than helping to create my children's future and of course, going up against the pigeon-hole, assembly-line, least-common-denominator mentality in education. Whatever the future holds, it's going to be a fun ride (at least on our end:)

Thanks for pointing out that “Normal” isn't really normal at all here…

#12 Lance G. on 05.17.10 at 6:28 pm

Dave – Thoughtful post. Our culture does seem to relentlessly funnel young people to one accepted linear path. Much of it, I think, is fueled by economics, where choices are simpler because they are based solely on money. For many students, before they even critically consider its actual value, college results in substantial debt. The obvious decision is to enter the workforce taking whatever job will help them pay this off as fast as possible. Even more intriguing, is the brightest and most accomplished, who are most apt to do something new and different, are accepted into the best and most expensive universities. Validating their achievement, they too (full-scholarship recipients aside) accept the dept inherent in their choice. Entrepreneurial desires are put on hold for some, extinguished for others.

There is huge room for improvement with regard to experiential entrepreneurship education. Additionally, demystifying the risk of entrepreneurship is key to breaking out of what's “normal.”

#13 Marie Waldman on 05.17.10 at 7:25 pm

You nailed it! It is so true, it is pathetic that so many of us (including myself) just accept this plain life in the subburd (and not even for a better public home school in our case). I have always wondered why I needed college. I make more $ without my degree and will take a paycut when I go into teaching (with the required degree and the student loans to go along with it). So silly, a few schools have wanted me in the past, I showed them what I could do, I am a natice French speaker but until I have that degree, I can't be hired as a French teacher. Yet I don't feel the degree is going to give me a new passion and a new personality… Yet I also have to take a teacher exam… in math! Other than numbers, giving change and telling time, I don't anticipate to teach algebra in French in public school but whetever! I always tell my kids to do something with their life. Learn something, if it is not in college, it doesn't matter. Just learn a skill you enjoy doing. More time for apprenticeship and less to study facts only because they will be on the test (and forgotten right after the test!) is a great idea. It is a concept I have observed in Steiner schools in France where I grew up… SO many kids end up doing nothing constructive because what they have to offer is not valued and therefore they feel like loosers and often end up with that shity job/life you mentioned… How do we fix it though? It is so part of the culture 🙁 Forgive the typos and spelling errors, I am typing fast 🙂

#14 Jerry_B on 05.18.10 at 2:08 am


Absolutely spot on commentary. It reminded me of an old (2006) TED Talk that pushed me over the edge in making the decisions I did during my college years. A story that might be worth sharing.

Sir Ken Robinson

When I first began attending college economics was my major. Studying business and micro/macro economics came naturally to me. During my time at State I realized that the academics where not very challenging. Facing the reality of spending a large amount of capitol for something that could be self taught bothered me a great deal. After watching this talk it became very clear to me college was only going to be a very expensive piece of paper with little to no value.

So against my parents “better judgement” I took a hard look at what the most difficult degree would be for me to get, and ultimately decided on Chinese. Additionally, once the switch had been completed all of my free time was spent on extracurricular activities and networking. I still studied business.

Sadly, most students I meet are not looking to attempt the challenging, or risk their GPAs for the unknown. Hands-down one of the smartest choice I have made.

That experience led me to develop some of the strongest relationships, travel the world, and still look myself in the mirror with a smile.

And for those people reading if you have not spent the time to drive out to some of these baltimore startup events, you are missing out.

#15 Gus on 05.18.10 at 1:30 pm

This post made me think of a friend who complained recently on Facebook that his young son was penalized at public school (in Howard County) for completing his homework too fast and starting on other class assignments.

Again: The kid was disciplined! Unbelievable. And frightening.

#16 jcutonilli on 05.18.10 at 11:36 pm

Will That Be on the Test? is a very entrepreneurial questions. It searches for the minimum viable product that is necessary to pass the class.

It sounds like the real question your asking is how do we measure what someone can do? In business, things that can be measured get done and are improved upon. The hard part is figuring a way to measure this. It gets easier if you are trying to measure what one or a few people can do and next to impossible at any kind of scale.

There is no doubt that our current system of measuring people based on academic/paper achievement sucks when measuring an individual, but it tends to work reasonably well to screen people down to the few people level.

The degrees serve as a measure of what someone has done. It can be inefficient at times, but how do you provide a general education to a specific career path and not get some inefficiency. What is irrelevant to you may be just what is needed for the 10 other people that got the same education. There were courses I was required to take that I thought were irrelevant, yet became relevant later in life.

University culture is very entrepreneurial. Most entrepreneurs need to mimic university culture in certain aspects. University culture has an innate curiosity and focuses on the learning of new things and the ways to learn new things . This is the basis of entrepreneurship. Silicon valley or any of the other entrepreneurial hot spots would not be so entrepreneurial if it were not for the universities. Where universities fall short is that they focus exclusively on the learning aspects. They rarely examine practical problems. When the do they often exclude the hard parts of the problem and focus on a very narrow part of the problem.

I think the point of education is to give a background so that we can better understand the world. It needs to be able to provide opportunity, not a guaranty of success. Our current education system is far from perfect, but I think it does a reasonable job of broadly categorizing people. Even past success, like your suggesting doesn't guaranty future success. Until we can better measure what someone can do, I think were better off making incremental improvements to the education system.

#17 JulianDelphinki on 05.26.10 at 4:57 pm

Great post. I can't stand the thought of wasting some of my best years earning a degree to help me make somebody else monday.

I'm a 24 year old “college student”. I use quotes because last semester I dropped most of my classes until I had the minimum required (6) to still play volleyball for my university (the main reason I am still in school).

I've since spent my free time building my own business which has had an incredible return in knowledge, fun, confidence, pride, and money.

English class became helpful only because I started writing papers with SEO in mind…

On a side note:
I grew up in Florida and remember a very inspired “Gifted” program in our (public) elementary schools. They picked particularly bright kids to meet with special own teacher once a week. In gifted we would focus on mind puzzles, build our own cities and companies, and play the stock market. I remember LOVING this class and learning a lot. I still remember deciding at that young age that I was going to be my own boss. Unfortunately, after elementary school the “gifted” program turned into the EXACT same curriculum as the other classes, only with more homework… sigh… my best years in school were pre-teen, but maybe without those i'd be stuck in life as lawyer working 12 hour days to perhaps make parter in a decade …shudders…

#18 Salman on 05.31.10 at 2:07 pm

Awesome post Dave. Excellent comment Daniel.

To answer Daniel's question about self-actualizing, the best way to motivate kids is to turn them into the teachers. And turn the teachers into advisors. It's a role shift that doesn't happen until graduate school for most people. But that's how I've seen the most exciting ideas and experiences happen for people in an academic environment. Learning becomes non-linear and progressive just as Dave wishes it were.

#19 Todd Marks on 07.10.10 at 1:33 pm

Dave, once I am financially independent after growing Mindgrub some more I want to found a charter school based on similar principals. I think you know I was a teacher for a few years before starting Mindgrub and you are right, its serious time for change. Lets discuss sometime soon. Best, -t.