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But, Who Will Design the Robots?

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In one of his always interesting "Disruptions" column in the New York Times, Nick Bilton held forth on how robots are replacing workers at Amazon and elsewhere. These robots, a researcher at Johns Hopkins told Bilton, "will help augment people's abilities, allowing us to use robots for things humans cannot do." And, the Hopkins guy adds, we will always "have to have someone who builds the robots."

Columnist Bilton is upset for the workers who will lose their jobs, but his column is also a wake-up call. I read it as an implicit critique of a narrow curriculum that puts aside just about anything that encourages the imagination in favor of 'the basics,' meaning basic reading and basic math.

Stressing the basics is no way to make sure that we will produce people to design, build and operate robots, or create the future in other ways. We need schools that encourage the imagination, that allow and support deep learning, and that fan the sparks of creativity -- not stomp out the fires.

However, a narrow and unimaginative curriculum is not a new phenomenon. Just as armies are supposedly spending their time getting ready to fight the last war, many schools and colleges seem to focus on preparing young people for the day before yesterday -- and have been doing so for a long time.

I have some direct experience in this. In the late 1960s, I taught for two years at a historically Black public college, Virginia State, in Petersburg, Virginia. For a privileged young white man from New England, it was a life-changing experience.

One sociological lesson stuck with me. The college stressed vocational training for its students, most of whom were the first in their families to attend college. While some studied to become chefs and barbers, a very popular major involved computers, which at the time were still pretty new. These students were being trained to be key-punch operators! (Ask your parents!!) It didn't take a wizard to know that, in a very short time, absolutely no one would be able to make a living as a key-punch operator, but that didn't slow down the training program. Disrupting that assembly line would have required more than foresight; it would have meant sticking one's neck out and challenging the comfortable status quo -- remember, this was Southside Virginia, not a safe place for African-Americans to challenge the system. Easier and safer to prepare students for tomorrow than to make waves and risk one's own career.

I've often wondered what happened to those young men and women. I hope they found other work, and other opportunities to learn new skills.

What about today? Not only are we not challenging the status quo of 'basic education,' we seem to be cutting to the bone and getting rid of 'frills' like the arts. While I am hearing and reading stories about larger classes and fewer 'non-essential' programs in lots of places, Texas seems to be leading the way in cutting education (big surprise).

But, wake up, folks. The arts are basic, as this report from Florida demonstrates. Some of you may have seen our piece for the NewsHour on this topic:

So what do we do about a narrow, boring curriculum and the failing schools that generally seem to accompany that approach? It takes courage to challenge the runaway train of the current approach. As the metaphor suggests, standing in front of a train is not a recipe for a long life. The money and the power are with the status quo.

Some corporations are getting involved, although maybe not as a direct challenge. If you watched the Masters Golf tournament, you saw ExxonMobil commercials about improving America's competitive position in math and science. That company's foundation has spent millions on math and science education. (I also liked that many of the ads said 'Support our Teachers,' a too-rare message these days.)

Better news comes from San Francisco. Some high tech entrepreneurs there are resisting school-as-usual and getting their hands dirty trying to change things. Right now they seem to be involved because they have children of their own, but let's hope they are intent on helping other people's children as well. Let's hope these interesting approaches to schooling become models, not just boutique luxury items for the privileged.

Cursing the darkness never did anybody any good. Let's celebrate -- and copy -- those who are lighting candles to show us the way.