Legacy, Life

In the old world, we needed a lot of laborers. We needed a lot of people to take “this thing” and move it over to “that place.” We needed people to “push that button” all day. We needed people expend all sorts of energy doing a whole lot of things that we just don’t do anymore. We needed a lot of people to scale the work.

Now, it’s not that we don’t need those things anymore, it’s just that we don’t do them any longer. Increasingly, this kind of “assembly line” work is getting pushed further and further away, especially in the US, due to globalization and technology.

And yet, our organizations are still built to encourage button pushers.

How did we get here?

One of the best short explanations I’ve seen comes from a fabulous book called Tribal Leadership.* Here’s an excerpt/summary:

Between 1890 and 1920, 80 percent of the rural population moved to the city to take millions of new factory jobs, and they brought their children with them. On the farm, many children meant many helpers, but in the factory, many children meant many accidents and acts of exploitation. Children’s welfare and child labor practices became the issue of the age, and most people felt that something had to be done to protect and train the children while mom and dad worked in the factory.

The solution was to train a new generation of workers by teaching them inside a system that looked a lot like a factory. In school, bell rings, go to class; bell rings, recess; bell rings, go back to class; bell rings, eat lunch; bell rings, go home. At school, children with the “right” answer get a gold star, then an A. A star pupil is one who does the homework and has the right answers. This new system undid the classic liberal education, which said that the value was in the well-designed question, and this shift in focus made the worker exploitable, often consigning him to a Stage Two or Three career.** In between bell rings, children learned what they needed to become effective workers, and that amounted to reading, writing, and math. The system didn’t emphasize creative thinking, strategizing, leadership, or innovation. Stars were smart conformists, and people who stuck to the pattern became model students.

When children come of age, they find a familiar model. Whistle blows, go to work; whistle blows, take a break; whistle blows, go back to work; whistle blows, eat lunch; whistle blows, go home. A star employee is one who knows the right answer to a factory problem, obeys the rules and doesn’t make waves.

The current incarnation of our schools were created to serve the old world. They teach students how to stay in line and push buttons and follow orders.

But those aren’t the things the world needs anymore. In basic economic terms, the demand for assembly line workers is plummeting. And on the other side, the need for more people who can do creative, connective, collaborative, complex work — instead of just “pushing the button” — has grown much higher than the supply of them.

We’re churning out button pushers into a world that doesn’t have buttons.

Because of this disastrously outdated system, we’ve got a job crises that goes much deeper than just having (or not having) a “job.” We’ve got a full-blown work epidemic, and it’s going to take a whole lot of us working together to fix it.


* I honestly can’t recommend this book highly enough. Please buy it. And read it. At least once.

** This will make sense when you read the book.

UPDATE 9/5/11: Here’s a great post on this topic today from Seth Godin.


2 Replies to “Button Pushers & Broken Education”

  1. benjamin says:

    since you loved the last sayers essay i sent you so much, i thought i’d recommend her essay on education reform to you as well. http://ht.ly/5xRZe it pretty much deals with what you’re talking about in this article: how modern education is set up to create docile drones as opposed to people who really know how to think. the last line of it sums it up well: “the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.”

  2. Thanks once again, Ben. My favorite parts:

    For the record, I have often been “troubled by the amount of slipshod syntax going about.” (That is just an awesome sentence.)

    “…although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.” (Preach it, sister.)

    “Taken by and large, the great difference of emphasis between the two conceptions holds good: modern education concentrates on “teaching subjects,” leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing one’s conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along’ mediaeval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.” (The current lack of interdisciplinary study has bothered me for quite some time.)

    “For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.” (Wow.)

    “What use is it to pile task on task and prolong the days of labor, if at the close the chief object is left unattained? It is not the fault of the teachers–they work only too hard already. The combined folly of a civilization that has forgotten its own roots is forcing them to shore up the tottering weight of an educational structure that is built upon sand. They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.