Education Needs to be Dangerous

October 1, 2009

Atop the ancient fortress at Dun Aengus, the Bride and I were nearly alone. (Travel tip: When visiting the Aran Islands, stay overnight, then tour the sites in the morning before the ferries bring thousands of afternoon day-trippers.) I say nearly, because we did find a lone gentleman there who was kind enough to take our picture. He was there discovering his history as well, and shared a brief tale: Upon reaching the parish where the records of his great grandfather’s birth should be, he found the name had been misspelled, because a stranger wrote it in the birth record. His great-great grandfather was illiterate, and his scrawled X next to the misspelled surname indicated a dark aspect of our friend’s Irish Catholic heritage. The Penal Laws, as extended in Ireland with the Education Act of 1695, held, in part, that Catholics could neither teach their children nor send them abroad.

Foreign occupiers have long understood that major challenges to their fortunes emerge from educated subjects. From Rome to England, education among the occupied was seen as a danger to the established order. The value of education in perpetuating a vassal state was found in not permitting it. The logic may not be pure, but perhaps the value of education for a high-performing society lies in doing our best for every child.

In the U.S., education is insufficiently dangerous. Among other ills, the system lacks innovation – both the ability to share great practices across the system, and the ability for ‘disruptive innovation,’ ideas that fundamentally change the “industry” of learning, for lack of a better word. There is a body of research and practice regarding innovation in private sector industry. It is time to learn from this work and create the conditions for innovation for U.S. education. There are implications for philanthropy, the federal Department of Education, academic research, administrators, teachers, and the entire value network for the education “system of systems.”

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