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The Soldiers & the Schoolteachers: An Unlikely Coalition Committed to Liberating Genius in America

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This post was written jointly with General John E. Michel of the United States Air Force. The team of educators at Choose2Matter is joining forces with John and his team of military and civilian leaders at General Leadership to create a new platform called "Liberating Genius."

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." - Pablo Picasso

Henry David Thoreau once wisely shared, "The world is a canvas to our imaginations."

These words remind us that genius is not reserved for a chosen few--such as poets, painters, politicians, scientists, or writers. Genius is in all of us. But it can only be realized if we take tangible steps to illuminate, liberate and celebrate the unique gifts we have to share with the world.

Artist, author and entrepreneur Erik Wahl captures the essence of what it means to liberate our natural genius when he writes,

"Genius is born of the desire for adventure that never leaves you...the ever-present wanderlust that beckons you from your tidy, predictable days...the insatiable curiosity that forever hopes--forever longs--for life to be bigger and more vibrant and more meaningful than the one you currently live."

Please be clear--Liberating Genius isn't a program. Nor is it a quick-fix approach to a better you fed by memorizing a list of do's and don'ts. Rather, Liberating Genius is a movement designed to help people from all walks of life--all education levels, income levels, faith beliefs and political orientations--break free from the craving for security and acceptance of mediocrity so they can rekindle their innate genius.

Our natural genius will not emerge by accident. It must be intentional. If we are to grow into the fullness of the person we are capable of being, we must be willing to respectfully rebel against the sheltered life, and get busy creating the future we want...for ourselves, for our communities, for our companies, for our nation, and above all, for our children.

Over the past 20 years, the Internet and technology have changed the world, and the workplace, dramatically. Unfortunately, most students today receive an education substantially similar to what their parents received in the 1970s and 1980s, even as the demands of the job market today are dramatically different than what their parents encountered, and continue to morph every day.

Instead of encouraging critical and creative thinking in our children, many of our schools demand that students memorize predetermined answers, or study predetermined methods to deliver the predetermined solution. Instead of creating opportunities to spur kids to "color outside the lines" or "think outside the box," we reward them for turning off their imaginations and toeing the line, or staying in line. No questions asked.

Unfortunately, as long as standardization remains our primary focus, we diminish our children's natural genius. The more we reward blind compliance and conformity, the less we encourage our future leaders to discover for themselves the unbridled sense of wonder, adventure and opportunity that comes from fearlessly pursuing their dreams and ambitions.

So how are young people reacting to a system in which their individual abilities, interests and passions--their natural genius--are limited instead of liberated?

They drop out.

Not physically, mind you - the number of students leaving school has actually fallen over the past two decades - but emotionally. In January 2013, the Gallup Organization reported that a survey of 500,000 students showed that student engagement plummets every year a child continues in school. By the end of high school, only 4 in 10 students are fully engaged.

No wonder Gallup called this our "monumental, collective national failure."

Right about now I suspect some of you may be wondering: Who are we, an unlikely coalition of a soldier and schoolteacher, to speak about the urgency of these ideas? After all, we come from dramatically different perspectives, right? But soldiers and schoolteachers have much more in common than you might initially think. To name but a few:

  • We believe soldiers and schoolteachers are both committed to doing something that contributes to shaping a better future for America;
  • We believe soldiers and schoolteachers understand the raw talent of today, our young people, are the true hope of tomorrow;
  • We believe parents entrust us to steward their precious children wisely; to treat them respectfully; and to return them home safely;
  • And perhaps most importantly, we believe that soldiers and schoolteachers share a common calling to serve others; to preserve our cherished democratic way of life; and to bring out the best in those we are privileged to influence each and every day.

Ultimately, although our daily mission may be different, our orientation is the same. We both are willing to do a difficult, sometimes thankless job if it will help others reach their potential. We both must also be prepared to always give the best of ourselves in service to a cause higher than ourselves--one campaign or classroom at a time.

But we have much to do to accomplish our objectives.

As a military leader responsible for thousands of lives and billions of dollars of equipment and resources, people look to John every day to make wise decisions and take prudent action based on fact. Not fiction. Not myth. Not spin. So here are the straight up facts:

If America fought wars the way we are approaching public education, we would quickly find ourselves incapable of defending the life we enjoy and freedom of action we treasure.

Any way you look at it, there exists a gigantic chasm between the scale of the existing problem and the scale of the current response. Which is why it is time we get busy illuminating, liberating and celebrating the unique gifts that ignite enthusiasm, celebrate responsibility, and inspire noble action in next generation of leaders (and ourselves as well!) Those young people stream into America's classrooms every day hoping that we will equip, encourage, and empower them to one day be able to proclaim, "look, no more mediocre me."

Will it be hard?

Yup.

Will we meet resistance?

Absolutely.

But is it right?

Unquestionably.

Together, as an unlikely coalition of soldiers and schoolteachers, politicians and pastors, and business leaders and bankers we can lead the change we want to see--beginning right now.

Please remember, your life is a canvas waiting to be painted. You are the only fearless artist capable of creating an original, one-of-a-kind work that can contribute to changing the world. Your best talents are within you and our future generation of leaders is waiting for your contribution.

Why keep them waiting any longer?