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Educating a Nation: A Job for Real Superheroes (VIDEO)

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[2:50pm Sunday: Please see addendum regarding farm and factory workers at the end.]

"I stand for truth, justice, and the American way" -- Superman

In my review of Waiting for 'Superman', I pointed out that the film omitted any discussion of what type of educational system should replace the antiquated, outdated system we have today.

Putting aside the fact that the film falls into the classic analytical trap of looking at the part that appears to be most obviously broken (the teachers, since they essentially "have America's children last" and, therefore, must be responsible for whether those children are educated or not) and thinking that that's what needs to be fixed, the film clearly shows that we have an educational system designed to produce mostly factory workers and farmers. And it states that this is so because those are the types of jobs most Americans had when the system was first set up.

A system designed to support the socioeconomic reality that existed when it was originally set up. What could be more natural than that? Nothing.

What Educational System Does America Really Need?

But how crazy is it to leave unexplored the question of what type of educational system we need today, based on how society has changed over the decades since today's system was designed? Pretty crazy. Well, maybe not crazy. Just amazingly blind to the obvious, at least obvious to people who don't just think about "what" exists but also ask "why" things exist, like me.

The reason something exists. It's really an interesting question to ask, especially if -- by asking it -- you discover that the external, sociological reason something exists has changed so much that this sociological "original imperative" no longer exists!

Seeing answers to the "why something exists" question involves a special kind of truth telling. And that's why I say it's a job for "real superheroes" to educate a nation. And it's also why I say it's "a nation" -- and not just "a nation's children" -- that need to be educated.

The Need To Educate Everyone, Not Just Our Children

That's because before America's children can get the education they need (for the world that exists today, not the one that existed decades ago), the American people must learn what the TRUE nature of today's world really is. Because it's not enough to just know that the old system is obsolete, although that's a huge and important first step.

No, in order to change a system effectively, you have to know what you really need to change it into. Because if you just change it into something different than what it is now, you may change it into something that's both different and worse! What you want to do is change it into something that's both different and better! Thats what's known as "effective change": change for the better, not for the worse.

How to do that? You have to think critically about what today's world requires. You need to figure out the nature of today's world, so that you have some sense of which jobs will be a waste of time and which jobs will help make the world a better place.

Now, before you get concerned that I'm talking about "social engineering", I'm not. But what I am talking about is finding out where society is at -- right now -- and where society has the potential of going (the most constructive scenarios of the many possible scenarios which might occur) and making sure that our children know about them, so that they can make "informed choices" about their futures.

Education To Create A Sustainable America

This could be called education for America's best future. But I prefer calling it Education for a Sustainable America, borrowing from the critically important but little known work done by the President's Council on Sustainable Development during the Clinton administration.

A Sustainable America. One that's able to function both today and into the future in such ways that future generations are not harmed by what today's generation is doing.

Sounds as American as apple pie, doesn't it? Also sounds really hard to imagine in these days of budget shortages, high unemployment, and "winner takes all" Capitalism (where the vast majority of winners seem to work on Wall Street).

Well, that's where educating all of America (not just America's children) comes in. And that's where the need for Real Superheroes also comes in.

Real Superheroes Needed

It takes a truly heroic person -- a Superman, Wonder Woman, or other "nothing gets in my way" person -- to not only suggest that we can have a Sustainable America today but also a Sustainable America decades into the future, especially when we define "sustainable" in human not just environmental terms. And not just suggest but communicate in such a way that this human as well as environmental Sustainable America vision really comes into being.

Way too many people think of melting ice caps and stranded polar bears when they hear the phrase "sustainable development". And as concerned as I am about those challenges, I'm talking about preserving humanity, not just animal and plant life.

When I say "sustainable," I mean prosperity for all people, not just animals and not just for the wealthy few humans. Preserving humanity means all humans ultimately functioning at their fullest potential, not on some sort of subsistence level form of existence.

And no, I do not equate "sustainability" with socialism or communism. I am approaching this from a social system sciences perspective. And from that perspective -- in which human society evolves beyond past social system concepts -- terms like socialism and communism are obsolete.

Only Using Words That Fit A Bold New World

Just as horse-drawn trolleys gave way decades ago to electric-powered urban transportation... and just as telegraph wires have given way to the internet and cell phones... terms like socialism and communism will give way to terms that refer to sustainable human development, not political ideology.

Throughout history, political ideology has done nothing except divide humanity into different ideological camps. To create a Sustainable America (and, ultimately, a Sustainable World), we need to use terms that are inclusive rather than exclusive.

Sustainable human development is an inclusive concept meant to be used to lead us -- from a social/emotional perspective -- to a world that works for everyone. Words that have divided us in the past have no place here. (download the zip for the 34 page text of a speech by my late friend and mentor, systems thinking pioneer Russell Ackoff of The Wharton School, on the topic of moving beyond capitalism and socialism to a development-based economy.

Sustainable Thinking Has A Long History, If You Study Your History

If you think talking in terms of a "post-ideological camps America" is crazy, please read President George Washington's Farewell Address. In it, he warns against the creation of political parties in America, because he knew they would divide the country.

So, all I'm really talking about is having the America of the future mirror (in part) the common sense thinking of President George Washington.

Also, in mentioning George Washington's Farewell Address, I want to make a point that pertains directly to educating the American people about what needs to be taught to create a Sustainable America. Many people have heard the expression "Those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it." But what is equally important is to know that those who don't study history are also doomed to miss knowing that solutions have already been found to the greatest challenges we face.

Knowing that political parties (which are not in the Constitution, by the way) are not healthy for the proper, sustainable development of America is very useful, historic information.

The History Lessons From America's Recent Past

So also -- from a perspective that doesn't require going all the way back to George Washington -- is the history of what a great many Americans knew in the period of 1980 -- 1999: that organizing ourselves along collaborative principles (rather than competitive ones) is the desired organizing mental model to get to a Sustainable Future.

In 1980, NBC TV broadcast a special report called "If Japan Can, Why Can't We?". This special report -- the product of NBCs desire to explain to the American people why Japanese products (especially automobiles) were now of such high quality that they were badly beating American products in the marketplace -- brought to people's attention the work of American management pioneer W. Edwards Deming. Dr. Deming's collaboration-based, continuous learning and improvement methods had been studied by the Japanese since 1950, when Deming was sent there at the suggestion of the United States government to help the Japanese rebuild their industrial capacity. These principles had also been used during WWII, by American manufacturers who needed to make high quality weapons to win the war. But they had not continued to be used in America after the war ended. America manufacturers -- feeling full of themselves since everything they made was being bought by a waiting world -- made the mistake of going back to how they made things before the war, using "the boss is always right" thinking.

"If Japan Can, Why Can't We?" set off the "quality revolution" in American industry. The Ford Motor Company famously used the expression "Quality is Job 1" because Ford's CEO Don Petersen brought Dr. Deming in to consult with Ford.

This management educational movement -- confined initially to American manufacturing industries -- grew over the next 20 years to encompass all sectors of American society -- including education, health care, and the government itself. But Dr. Deming died in 1993. And the forces of resistance to an organizational a social system based on collaboration have proved to be much harder to dislodge from their primary position in American life than those of us who studied Dr. Deming's philosophy once thought. (I'll write separately about that bit of history at another time.)

Solutions Here For The Taking

But the movement still exists. This resource -- capable of teaching all Americans the theory and application of collaboration-based development that's capable of producing sustainable prosperity for every person in America and, eventually, every human on Earth -- is available today. It can be used to design both an education system for America's children and a "public, civic education system" for the American people as a whole.

I will be attending the annual conference of the W. Edwards Deming Institute next weekend, where I will be talking up this Sustainable America idea. As I mentioned earlier, this idea was first developed by the Clinton administration's President's Council on Sustainable Development. President Clinton, himself, studied Dr. Deming's principles when he was governor of Arkansas and supported a state-wide effort to teach these principles through the chambers of commerce throughout the state. (Yes, chambers of commerce can do good.) I will let you know what happens at the conference.

A treasure trove of knowledge and wisdom exists, one that is capable of supporting all Americans in learning what they need to know and teaching our children what they need to know to create a Sustainable America. It was developed here by American-born management and organizational development pioneers whose conceptual breakthroughs rivaled any developed by Einstein. But the vast majority of you reading this have never heard of this made-in-America resource... until now.

And now that you have, I suggest it's time to start using what we have. No new theory needs to be developed. It's all here for the taking. But you'll have to think and act like a Superhero -- committed to truth (real, objective, entrepreneurial truth) and justice for all Americans -- to make this happen.

From a special 1994 retrospective event organized by the W. Edwards Deming-oriented organizational development industry, here are three videos that will give you a deeper understanding of this body of knowledge. Also, it's not too late to join me at next weekend's Deming Institute conference, if you'd like to learn from some of these people directly. Don Petersen, the former CEO of Ford, will be there.

America needs more Superheroes, because it's going to take a lot of us to keep America from completely going over to the "Darkseid".
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Addendum: It has been brought to my attention that I unintentionally demeaned factory and farm workers in my essay. I apologize for doing so. While America doesn't need an educational system whose design is based on cranking out "I pay you to work, not to think" factory workers, farming -- ie. sustainable agriculture -- must be part of America's future. And knowing how to work in a factory is important for a sustainable future America, so long as the manufacturing process is designed according to "nature friendly" principles such as those developed by William McDonough (see his Cradle to Cradle design work here). Again, I apologize for this mistake.