Rethinking Education

Cap and Gown

“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”
– Albert Einstein

It’s graduation season. And I’ve spoken recently with many high school juniors and graduating seniors, as well as their parents. At least in my social and family circles, there’s one topic that dominates their lives to a hysterical degree: college admissions and college financing. It’s unbelievable.

The college frenzy has made me think a lot more about our educational belief system and its relation to the lifetime success of my own two preschoolers.

Like many parents, I wish for my kids to be curious and passionate about the world around them. I wish for them to find purpose and embrace it, and to tackle important problems with creativity and drive. I also wish for them to enjoy what they’re doing along the way, and feel pride and fulfillment in the end — that what they’d done really mattered, and made the world a slightly better place. It doesn’t matter to me so much which path they pursue, but I hope it has these elements.

So what role does formal education have in achieving this? I believe formal education is important, though today’s distorted embracement of education is dangerous and counterproductive. When I think about my kids’ success (or lack thereof), I believe the most outstanding factors will have less to do with which grade school or college they go to, and a lot to do with how inquisitive, determined, self-directed, socially connected and adaptive they become. It will matter a lot that they find quality mentors and peers to inspire, nurture and guide them. Parenting is perhaps the biggest factor.

The danger of our education system, in the U.S. where we live, not only is that it so often fails to do these things, but we overemphasize the stakes in the latter years, when kids are already molded and set in their ways. If our society and government institutions really cared about education, they’d reverse emphasis toward the earliest, most formative years — say, one to six years of age. These are the most hectic years in which parents — amidst one of the most stressful, life-changing and financially pressing times — struggle just to secure decent, reliable childcare, let alone maximize later childhood development and education.

Then, we have a checkered mix of public grade schools, often corrupted by politics, outdated tenure policies and infatuation with standardized testing and “averages”. The unquestioned yardstick of success is to drive achievement on government-sanctioned tests, with a close eye on the rate at which students propel into “elite” colleges and universities.

Then there is higher education. Considered the most promising path to success — as if what happened before mattered less — families invest two years into the college search and admissions process. Then they spend tens of thousands of dollars — and increasingly hundreds of thousands — for the kids to attend. Governments subsidize loans, enabling more people to attend and pay ever higher tuition fees, resulting in ever more aggressive recruitment among profit-driven educational institutions. “Elite” higher educational institutions are creating unnecessary hysteria and a perception that there is a scarcity of opportunity. Are these institutions really creating successful people through education, or are they just very good at selecting students likely to achieve?

More than ever before, kids are starting their young adult lives with an ephemeral knowledge asset and incredible debt. And unlike a housing loan, it’s extremely difficult to shake an educational loan if you go into bankruptcy. This financial burden not only hinders early wealth accumulation, but makes debt holders risk averse — at a critical life stage when they’d benefit most by experimenting and taking on more risk. What is the overall impact of this trend to our country’s national debt and innovation? I wonder.

There are several problems with this educational system. One, it overemphasizes questionable means (elite, expensive higher education versus early development and self-direction), and deemphasizes the end (tangible goals). Second, young students are making huge financial commitments in something ephemeral, which may (or may not) really benefit what they end of up doing in the long term.

I think about my own preschool-age children. In twenty years, how much will formal education have influenced their success? Inevitably, it will have played a large role, but far less than the inquisition, determination, self-direction, social connectedness and adaptability that they develop now. I’m trying to keep this idea top of mind, and let it guide our parenting decisions every day.

For the record, I’m a strong advocate for higher education. But I also think we need to rethink how we approach it, how we prioritize it, how we invest in it, and what we expect of it. We also need to rethink and emphasize the role of early development and education.

BONUS: If this topic strikes a chord, I recommend a few recent articles that got me thinking:

  • The National Review recently published a great interview the successful entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel on his views of education. Thiel’s foundation is selecting 20 college students under the age of 20 and paying them $100,000 each to drop out of college and embark on entrepreneurial careers.
  • The Wall Street Journal also recently  published a great story on the “Montessori Mafia” — titans of innovation and business who credit their success to their early childhood Montessori education, more than anything else.

(Photo: j.o.h.n. walker)

Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

Join the Conversation


  1. I’ve just forwarded your blog to six teachers I know here and in Australia. One of my recipients is a master (in my view) Montessori teacher and a prime example of creative, lateral thinking–very much outside the box. You would enjoy a chat with her. It is gratifying that Montessori philosophy has again crossed your path and maybe for the first time, really. Perhaps your less than happy memory of the personalities can be healed and replaced by the examples of those who have benefited from a proper Montessori education.

    While the Australian education culture is slightly different from the American version, the politics of funding in order to exist, one-for-all curriculum design and the overwhelming bureaucracy of education, yes with testing issues, is an albatross there. Consider that Australia has the world’s oldest indigenous population–over 60,000 years old–a culture still just barely removed from their own deep and ancient traditions. How appropriate is a western curriculum to those children whose lives focus on hunting sea turtles, snakes and witchetty grubs, foraging medicinal plants, male/female initiations at twelve years old, responsibilities for the care of tribal country and to family? It is not a simple culture. Learning English is one thing. Managing money and time leading to a 9-5 job over 5 days a week is entirely another. Injecting western education to most indigenous Australians is unfairly dealt by the least able of humans–politicians. There are many interesting debates to be held here.

    One can imagine how deeply rooted are the problems of education, way beyond one’s own knowing . You are right. Encourage curiosity and self-direction from very early age. Then the skids are greased for the future, whatever it may hold. Goodonya.


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