Are Americans Still Eager to Learn?

12/13/2011 03:31 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2012

At a recent leadership conference, academic leaders voiced concerns about the future of education in America. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, their remarks were punctuated by angry protesters who openly confronted the panel of college presidents about the high cost of a college education.

What struck me is how much "Occupy" behaviors are creeping into daily life. People are no longer willing to politely sit and listen when they hold a collective grievance. This open defiance frays the warp and woof of authority and raises the question: who's in charge?

Last week, I was in Denver giving a talk to non-profit leaders. They shared their anxieties about the road ahead. After years of uncertainty, there seems to be confusion about what it means to be a leader. In the past, authority and leadership went hand-in-hand.

Unless you live in a cave, you're already feeling the impact of the societal shifts underway. These tremors are being amplified by a rising generation no longer willing to knuckle under to authority. Why should they? The status quo has failed them. In large part, it has made the core value proposition of getting an education all about failure and hardship, rather than striving and achievement.

Henry S. Bienen, a former president of Northwestern University, pointed out that just 8 percent of the graduates of the Chicago public schools, on whose board he sits, are college-ready. That's 8 percent of a population already narrowed down by attrition -- only 57 percent of students in Chicago finish school. Shocking!

When we make learning all about difficulty, we diminish its potential to lift people up. Call me old-fashioned, but we used to believe in learning in America. Otherwise, we never would have instituted the GI Bill or the land grant college system. The former allowed my father, an otherwise indigent kid for Appalachia, to get a college education. The latter made it possible for me to afford tuition at Michigan State University by waitressing and tutoring athletes.

Are we still eager to learn?

As a marketer, I wonder what it would take to revive our enthusiasm for learning. Can we market our way toward a better set of beliefs about education in America?

I make my living advising clients how to seed the culture to speed the adoption of new social norms. I want to believe that it's possible to foster a culture where learning is nurtured as a way of life.

By all indications, tapping into the passions of the young protestors will be part of the solution. Hint: They're in charge.