Is Our Education System Obsolete?

The MBA Bubble

“Education is the most powerful weapon one can use to change the world.”  –  Nelson Mandela

A little over a year ago; I dared to say openly for the first time what I thought of certain degrees. I did so on this blog, thanks to Olivier’s help. The impact of the article blew me away. Months after the buzz, people continued to leave comments and contact me through social media to ask me questions about their careers. So, I decided to do some thorough research and write “Le MBA Est-Il un Investissement Rentable?”, published by Éditions Maxima. The English version of the book, “The MBA Bubble”, has captured the attention of CNN Money, Financial Times, Poets & Quants, Business Insider, Chicago Tribune and Brazen Careerist, among others, and has been sold in several countries such as the USA, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Brazil, India, Italy and Spain.

So why then is it that criticism of degrees and the education system attract so much attention and even garner wide support when it is undeniable that education is the basis for the success of individuals and societies? Maybe because, deep down, we all know there is something wrong with our education system.

Note : This article is a guest post written by Mariana Zanetti of the blog ‘‘Career or Life’’ and author of the book “The MBA Bubble“.

A Paradigm Shift

You have probably heard a very common complaint from some students: What they learn in college is useless. Every year, many students are increasingly less motivated because of their studies. Many of those who graduate spend years trying to find work that matches their qualifications; when they land the long-awaited job, they are bored to death and struggle to find the motivation to succeed. Furthermore, what they have learned does not necessarily correspond to the knowledge they need. Is it the fault of the teachers? In fact, the latter are brilliant, but they are completely overwhelmed by the bureaucratic demands and the content of the education system.

Students Education System

Is the material not at the level? Each year, hordes of “wise people” study the relevance of the content; and the evaluation system and try to improve the programs. However, the educational experience is the same year after year. What you are taught at school for years has a very limited impact on the professional world and almost zero if you want to become an entrepreneur. Moreover, the educational experience is seen as torture by many young people.

The solution to this problem may not lie in repeating what has been done for centuries; but in completely changing the rules of the game. So, let’s look for some new avenues and the new rules that would result.

In France, the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (CRI), which is dependent on La Sorbonne in Paris; is an extraordinary case of academic experience. In fact, for 3 consecutive years CRI students won the iGEM competition in synthetic biology. They beat the teams of some of the world’s most prestigious educational technology centers such as Oxford, MIT (the technological “Harvard”) and Caltech. It is at the very least surprising. You would think that it is normal that this experience is happening within one of the most prestigious universities in France.

Well…it is normal that this type of institution attracts the brightest students but what is not normal is to obtain these results by breaking all the academic rules; which are the basis of the way by which we judge academic performance.
At CRI, students take only one compulsory course per week; far from the hectic schedules that students in elite educational centers are used to. Who chooses the program for this course? Well, no, it’s not the teacher, it’s the students. Who gives the course? Students for the most part. Who evaluates the students? No one.

At CRI, there are no grades (well, the system requires grades; but they are made up and students never know their grades).

The founder of the CRI is François Taddei, professor at La Sorbonne, who, despite having excelled in the traditional academic career, has always sought ways to “hack” the education system. His vision was simple, but revolutionary: In the 21st century, knowledge is within everyone’s reach and what is most important is learning to learn in an atmosphere of collaboration and not competition. Mr. Taddei took advantage of the fact that he was already a qualified professor and that he could not be fired from La Sorbonne for starting a small revolution, which sparked a lot of resistance. Even American students have left their prestigious centers to work in this magical laboratory in Paris.

What does this experience reveal?

In my opinion, that the challenges of the information age cannot be met with the academic “steam engine” of the industrial age, but also that the most effective way to bring about learning is not to impose the arbitrary process of taking in knowledge. And this is true not only for adult students. Some studies tend to show that children educated with so-called “open” methodologies, such as the Montesori method of education, have better academic and social results.

Students Education System

I invite you to watch Sir Ken Robinson’s brilliant speech on the paradigms of education (subtitled in French). Our education system was designed to face the challenges of the industrial age, where people had to be trained to work in factories. Children entered an “academic production line”, where they were grouped by age bracket, as if this was the most important thing in common they had. They were evaluated with standardized tests, and if they were not “compliant”, they were sent back, to be retested over and over again until they were within the “standard”. The mental model of success during the industrial age was study hard, get good grades, work hard, and you will be successful. However, young people no longer believe in this model because the world no longer works that way.

We would like to believe that the education system prepares children and young people to succeed in adulthood.

But if that was the case, there should be consistency between success in academia and that in the professional world. The key to success, therefore, would be to memorize an arbitrarily defined amount of knowledge and correctly answer someone who questions you on that topic knowing the answer already, without focusing on solving any concrete real-life problem. Further, even if you could find these answers just by clicking on Google, you wouldn’t because that is “cheating”. And you would never ask a coworker, or you could be fired.

Yep, it’s ridiculous.

Of course, there are still professions for which part of this system is relevant, such as medicine. I would not like my doctor not knowing how to analyze my symptoms in the emergency room. That said, even he could rely on well up-to-date 21st century information systems to make a diagnosis; and for most professions, that’s just nonsense.

In the information age, the amount of information is multiplying exponentially every year. The diversity of problems that need a specific solution is also increasing. Employers need solutions to very specific problems and can’t find qualified people to solve them; while students cloak themselves with high-flown degrees that don’t do anything for them. It is impossible to face the challenges of the 21st century with the current academic model.

Obviously, even chasing “relevant programs”, students will never be prepared to deal with such diverse business needs. It is impossible “to devour” all the knowledge you will need to solve all the problems that come your way. The past is no longer used to predict the future, and therefore it is very likely that the solutions to the problems you will have do not yet exist. When I did my MBA 10 years ago, I paid a fortune that I thought would pay for itself in several years. At that time, for example, neither social networks, smartphones, nor blogs existed. Most of my learning efforts in marketing today are wasted.

So, what’s the solution?

I would like for a provocative article to be enough to change the system, but it will not. A diploma will continue to be a condition for getting a job in the years to come because it is a way for companies to preselect CVs. Governments and schools will have no incentive to lead such a radical change in the system, especially since they have beliefs that are not analyzed and shared by all of society about the value of education. But hey, if Mandela dared to dream of such a radical change in the world, why wouldn’t we dare to dream of an education that increases the wealth and the development of individuals and of society?

The Dream of a New Education System

What would the ideal education system look like in order to face the challenges of the 21st century? Certainly, this system would call into question many of the pillars on which the “industrial academic model” rests.

No more grades: Exams are real challenges

CRI students neither have good grades nor do they study more than students from other centers. Yet, they overcame incredible challenges. They have been allowed to use their genius to choose from the endless amount of knowledge at their fingertips, which are most relevant to achieving their feat. They weren’t tempted to enter the grades-driven competition, and they worked together to innovate and generate outstanding results. Today, the best “grades” are real results, problems solved, teams who want you for what you bring. This is what companies who hire or customers who buy products or services are looking for.

Someone who has managed to get 20,000 fans on their Facebook page will have less trouble finding a job in marketing or becoming an entrepreneur than any other marketing graduate. Does Olivier Roland need to show how well he scored in his blogging or internet sales exam to know that he is qualified, and to show others how to get good results? His greatest qualification is the concrete results he has had as an entrepreneur. I imagine a math exam as explaining a real-life problem through an equation; or a language test such as a local newspaper’s publication of an opinion piece. This gradeless system would not make life any easier for lazy people. Providing real tangible value takes a lot more responsibility and studying than memorizing some arbitrary knowledge to pass an exam.

The teacher’s essential function is no longer that of passing on their knowledge

In the industrial age, the teacher who knew the most was the most recognized and they enjoyed showing everything they knew in lectures. However, in the information age where it is impossible to assimilate all knowledge when it is available at the click of a button, no teacher can boast of knowing everything or being indispensable for acquiring new knowledge.

The brightest teachers are those who help students think about and identify the most relevant knowledge to solve real-world problems by bringing value to society; those who know how to confine knowledge of general culture to the essentials, in order to optimize the resources and energy of students; teachers who respect the personal interests and talents of students by helping them focus on providing value; those who use information technology ; those who teach to learn; those that encourage collaboration instead of competitiveness; those who lead their students to produce concrete and tangible results. Unfortunately, our education system is not fulfilling the potential of the brilliant teachers of the 21st century.

No more hierarchy of subjects

Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

In the industrial age, math and a handful of subjects were at the top. This hierarchy was reflected in the creation of an elitist educational system that favors analytical thinking and competition, and which produces managers who do not know how to collaborate, who do not listen to their teams and who try to explain away the massive numbers of suicides in their company with Excel diagrams. This system is ignorant to the fact that the value brought by human beings can be very diverse, and that allowing this diversity to flourish in a collaborative context can skyrocket the wealth of a society.

A few months ago, a young woman with extraordinary art won €100,000 in the “Top Chef” competition. She said in her triumphant speech that she was proof that someone who was bad at school can be successful in life. For me, it is also proof that our education system tries to kill the natural talents; and interests of young people to force them to fit “into the industrial standard”.

Looking at this woman’s art; I couldn’t help but imagine her suffering with trigonometry exercises that were of no use to her. At some point, her interests should have been identified and developed. She could have taken “real-life culinary exams”, which would have proved that she was qualified to bring value to society and be exempted from having to forcibly study certain subjects just to satisfy the system.

The content of the system should be at the service of value and excellence and not vice versa.

Our society needs a diversity of talents; and our education system should stop convincing brilliant people that they are not “good”.

The key skills for success are discussed at school

In the days of the “steam engine”; the public education system was not interested in making you think about how to make money. You would go to work in a factory and therefore your salary was defined by your boss. You weren’t taught personal finance because, ideally, you had to spend your entire salary buying the products that came out of the factories and paying the taxes imposed on you. And you weren’t being told how to find mentors, or how to develop your political or business skills. Emotional intelligence was never mentioned in school. You weren’t taught anything about business because you were trained to be an obedient employee told what to do. However, the world has changed, and governments can no longer guarantee you a job from the time you leave school until you retire.

Another consequence of this system is that most people have very limited ideas about their career choices.

If they’re not that bad at school or great at a job like the Top Chef winner, they’re just going to follow a career path they hate because they have no idea how to find a business model (either as employees or as entrepreneurs) to build on their talents and interests. Most of them give up doing what interests or excites them; because they think that if they do it, they will live in poverty. And many of those who indulge in their passions blindly do live in poverty. Thus, beliefs are self-confirmed.

However, this mental model, that is to say this description of how the world works, is totally inaccurate. People have dared not to follow the conventional path and have found a business model corresponding to their interests and existing talents; therefore, it goes without saying that it is most definitely possible to make a living off your interests and talents.

Students Education System

Can anybody holding an MBA-type Master’s degree correct this problem? First of all, MBAs are a characteristic product of the industrial age designed to continue the training of another type of factory employee: “white collar workers”. You learn some interesting business concepts in MBA, but their exorbitant price and the culture of business schools only serve to launch their graduates into the wage-earning world with a very industrial perspective: they will be even more subservient slaves of the system.

The hope for an education system suitable for the 21st century can be found in action-oriented programs.

Teachers should only disclose knowledge with concrete application; geared towards solving a specific problem by guiding students to learn to find the knowledge they need according to their goals and interests.

The obvious inadequacy of the education system to the needs of our society is starting to attract many people. A few months ago, Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal and himself a graduate of the prestigious University of Stanford, took up a provocative challenge: he paid $ 100,000 to 20 brilliant young students to drop out of school and create their start-up. Also, in the United States, the “Unschooling” movement has gained momentum. These smart young people decided to drop out of school very early; and to organize themselves to create their own education system.

They have a much more demanding discipline than that of regular students; and some of them have even been hired at large companies and have had promotions.

In addition, more and more 21st century thinkers such as Leo Babauta or Josh Kaufman have decided not to send their children to school and to practice “Home Schooling”, teaching their children to learn by themselves.

As Sir Ken Robinson says in his book “The Element”, our education system acts like a chain of “fast food” restaurants. Everything is standardized; the quality is controlled and assured; the fries always come out at the same temperature, and the hamburger always has the same weight. Yes, this cuisine is fatty, raises cholesterol and causes obesity, but it is guaranteed quality. Yes, the education system causes alienation among young people; ignores what interests them and does not guarantee them a job; but it guarantees that they will have passed exams on a certain amount of arbitrarily defined knowledge. On the other hand, starred restaurants, like the CRI of the Sorbonne; are judged according to certain criteria of excellence, which are neither specific nor detailed. Every restaurant is unique, just like every learning experience for a CRI student is unique; but the result is always fantastic.

Where would you set the bar to define the educational level of your children?

The Educational Bubble

Any financial bubble bases its growth on a few unanalyzed beliefs about the value of an asset. In Spain, in 2006, you often heard people say that residential property investment was good and that it did not carry risks. However, the reality of our times shows us that this unanalyzed mental model has led many families to ruin. Likewise, education is seen as a “safe bet” that no one dares question. Protected by this belief, the private education industry has fueled a monumental educational bubble. Each year, the number of Master’s programs multiplies and, although some of these programs meet specific needs demanded by the market by providing real value, many of them are just a waste of time. In the United States, for example, student debt topped credit card and auto debt for the first time in history.

While graduates struggle to find jobs, university presidents have millionaire salaries. It is not surprising that business schools, whose MBA graduates have been the protagonists of recent financial bubbles, have also contributed to inflating a bubble that has been very profitable for them: Since 2005, MBA tuition fees have increased by 62% on average, and schools continue to use manipulated salary statistics and deceptive marketing techniques to justify such prices when the profitability of these studies is very difficult to demonstrate.

I do not doubt the importance of education. However, we are at a time when it will be necessary to question the value provided by the education system beyond the manipulation of lobbying on behalf of higher education institutes.

An Open Letter to My Son

My son is just a baby; and I don’t know what the world will be like when he begins his adulthood. But if that day came today, here’s what I would say to him:

You live in a world full of inconsistencies. Therefore, one of the abilities that you must develop to be successful and to be happy is the ability to live in a consistent manner; despite the inconsistency that surrounds you. It is no one’s fault because no one has the ability to change the world as fast as they need to. You are required to have a diploma to get a qualified job; even though the time and effort to obtain it is not warranted in relation to the value it will bring you. That said, do not give up your diploma without having shown that you can really do without it.

Succeeding in the system may not be the best reward for your effort but being excluded from it without having something better to replace it can ruin your life.

At the university, be respectful to your teachers because, despite the fact that they really do want to help you; most of them are powerless against the system. So, focus on succeeding. Forget about grades. Desperately try to add value by respecting your interests and to create your own path as fast as you can. If you are forced to learn something that does not bring you anything, invest only a minimum of effort. You can learn it better later if you really need to. Instead, focus your efforts on understanding how the world works and finding your place in it.

Do not trust the system: it is not true that by just doing what you are told to do; studying and working hard, you will be successful. Your professional success will depend on your ability to solve real-life problems with economic value (either for employers or for customers) and on being able to convince them that you are the best at doing it. It is not necessarily easy, but you must assume this responsibility for your life; because neither the State, nor the University; nor your employer will guarantee you with their “methods” the life you deserve. And above all, know that nothing you do will be meaningful;  if you do not happily celebrate this wonderful gift that is life. I love you. Mom.

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