Cogs on the wheel

When President Woodrow Wilson outlined his goals for America's fast-developing education system one hundred years ago, he said the following:

"We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons...a very much larger forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."

Although Wilson's goal sounds obnoxious to the modern ear, his vision was achieved in grand fashion and is an accurate description of education today.

To be fair to Wilson, he didn't cause our present education system. He merely described what was going to happen to it anyway. 

By the term "liberal education," it should be noted that Wilson did not mean "liberal" in the present-day political sense. 

In Wilson's day, "liberal education" meant schooling that taught students to think critically, have wide interests and be well-read in history and literature. 

We give a brief nod to old-fashioned "liberal education" in our high schools and colleges today, but the fact remains: We're best at teaching the masses to perform "specific difficult manual tasks." 

Such as operating on brains, or repairing teeth. Such as building computers or writing advertising or manufacturing widgets. Or growing wheat. 

We are experts at "specific difficult manual tasks," but we don't see the big picture. 

What is even worse, we are so trained to be a little cog in a big industrial machine that we don't know what to do with ourselves when we become obsolete and get tossed aside. 

People yearn for freedom from an imposed schedule but don't know what to do with that freedom when it arrives. 

From kindergarten through senior high, we are taught to submit to a schedule and agenda imposed from outside. 

College is more of the same. Yes, you chose a major, but after that decision, you do little more than jump through a set of prescribed hoops.

We get used to the schedule. Soon, we don't know how to operate any other way. When freedom finally comes, many people simply collapse into a degenerate heap. 

Contrast this to the old days when the bulk of our population lived on independent small farms. 

When a farm family got out of bed in the morning, nothing dictated to them what had to be done but the rhythms of nature and plain old good sense. 

If you were short of firewood, you cut firewood that day. If the wheat was ripe for harvest, you harvested wheat that day. If the pigs were ready for slaughter, you slaughtered pigs. 

Old-fashioned farm life developed in people the ability to structure their own days without an outside bureaucracy telling them where they had to be and when. 

It took some doing to shoehorn those old farm families into the industrial education system. 

In the first years of universal public education, when harvest came, the kids stayed home to harvest. When spring planting came, they planted. 

Not good, said the educators. We need people who show up at the office on time all the time! Year round! Industrial tasks like solving math problems can't wait for hickish nonsense like harvesting potatoes! 

Soon, the educational system stomped out the farmers' quaint adherence to non-industrial rhythms and replaced it with an all-encompassing schedule that now threatens to expand to twelve months. 

What's wrong with such discipline? 

The problem is it is not self-discipline. 

All creativity, all scientific advancement, all good art, all new business, all progress has flowed from people who aren't cogs on the wheel. 

Progress has come from people who schedule their own day, create their own lives and shape their own destiny. 

Progress comes from people who refuse to conform to expectations, who refuse to become drones that perform "specific difficult manual tasks" on a schedule imposed from outside. 

Greatness comes from people who know how to make use of a day that isn't scheduled in any way. 

If our education system wants to foster creativity and not just create mindless cogs on the wheel of an industrial machine, it should teach students to make productive use of a day that has no schedule, no deadlines, no obligations and no distractions. 

In a structured, scheduled industrial culture, our impulse is to use free time to sleep in or let loose.

In a creative culture, we would relish free time as an opportunity to chase our individual dream.