Misguided Educators and Parents

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BW: Given your life experience and extensive experience in business, you have come to question certain aspects of our educational system, so we’ll touch on a few of these. To begin, what I am most impressed by is the fact that you helped to pioneer and innovate a profession that didn’t exist before your generation and you were very successful in this profession, yet you never went to college and you barely graduated from high school. And you believe given the testing requirements of today, especially in math, you would not have graduated from high school at all today. You believe you would be someone who our present educational system would dismiss as a good-for-nothing.

JM: Today, I think it is commonplace for kids to not be able to graduate high school if they can’t pass subjects like algebra or geometry. I’m thinking of an LA Times article I read a while back that was a study on the demand for every child to be able to pass math in order to graduate. In the LA school system, there were kids who weren’t able to pass subjects like algebra or geometry. So they set up tutoring for these kids and in some cases it helped, but there were still many who could not pass those subjects. Not everybody can pass math. But the school system insisted they could not have a diploma even though they did very well in other subjects. I couldn’t believe it. I was mad as hell.

BW: You didn’t pass math in high school, right?

JM: No. I failed all kinds of math. I failed algebra. I failed geometry. I was scared to death of something called calculus, so I never took it. I never did successfully pass any math. And I’m still bad at math. But I’m damn good with arithmetic. I can add and subtract, multiply and divide. And I’m very happy. But you put an algebra or geometry problem in front of me, even a simple one, and I’m lost. I don’t have that kind of mind. Thank goodness I snuck through high school in 1935. (Laughs.)

BW: So these kids weren’t given a high school diploma because they couldn’t pass math classes like algebra and geometry.

JM: Yeah, and so they were at an impasse. In today’s world, when you try to get a job as a clerk at Sears, they want to know that you have your high school diploma. A lot of companies require a high school diploma. As a result of that, there are many kids that are stuck, they have nowhere to go because they didn’t pass math, even though they did well in other subjects. And, in this particular case, the school system said, “We gave them tutoring, we gave them special schooling,” and in response, the reporters in their interviews said to them, “Yeah, but a lot of kids don’t have a mind for math.” And the school system essentially responded: “Every human being should be good at math.” Which is a horrible attitude, considering some people just don’t have a mind for things like algebra or geometry. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating lax standards or permissiveness and license. Just so there’s no confusion. And you obviously need testing, and in this day and age, standardized testing is maybe unavoidable. People need to take math classes and be tested for those types of subjects, but it needs to be balanced with other types of education. And young people shouldn’t be completely defined by these type of requirements. So I am very concerned that people who are able to contribute to business and society in valuable ways are being unnecessarily tossed aside by some of these requirements. Many just aren’t suited for certain academic subjects. And ideally, there should be alternatives for those people.

BW: You had talked about trade schools in the past, and initially, I was very resistant to the idea. I thought it was outdated, archaic, but since then I have come around. I understand what you’re trying to say now.

JM: In Buffalo, NY, where I was raised, we had, I think five trade schools. If you wanted to become an auto mechanic, there was a good trade school you could go to. And if you wanted to become a painter, there was a trade school. If you wanted to be an electrician, there was a trade school. Now in the trade schools, they also taught the simple things they needed to know. They helped them learn how to speak properly, how to write, and how to do arithmetic and things that you need in life in general. But they didn’t have to excel at anything strongly academic. There were five trade schools in addition to the high schools so that the nonacademic kids had a place to go and graduate. And a person who graduates as a painter, or contractor, or an electrician can have a decent livelihood. Whereas someone who doesn’t graduate from high school because they can’t pass algebra isn’t so fortunate. Not graduating can also crush self-esteem. And in this article, the reporters also pointed out, some of these kids joined gangs, because in a gang you would be cared for, respected, and often make more money than in a typical low paying job. So I feel very strongly about having alternatives for people who aren’t strongly academic and who want to work with their hands, who prefer to be in the trades.

BW: I have to wonder about the many children who are diagnosed with ADHD these days. Many of them just may not have a mind and disposition for a structured, academic environment.

JM: You do have to wonder. Those that have a very strong academic orientation, like a young person who knows from an early age that they want to become a doctor or an engineer and they excel in academic subjects—there’s definitely an academic track that supports that. But that person, in a sense, is rare. For every one of those, hundreds of other kids don’t have that focus. And of course, there’s many skills that aren’t measured. Anyways, it’s worth thinking about and exploring. But, yes it is sad that maybe kids are being diagnosed as having something wrong with them when there may be nothing wrong with them.

BW: What the modern academic system tests for is a very narrow range of intellectual ability. And these days, high school is really all about college prep. In many cultures, including our own, it seems to be a sacred cow assumption that everyone wants and should seek higher education. There seems to be an unwritten rule that everyone should go to college and everyone should want to go to college, and pursue as much education as possible. For example, get a masters or Ph.D. when a bachelors may be more than sufficient. And of course, in an industrial, technological society, there’s a heavy investment in the belief that technology is going to make our lives better and solve all of our problems, but that’s very debatable. Regardless, a dominant belief is that everyone should be good at math and science or become good at math and science, and pursue those types of degrees. Always with the argument that those are the degrees that ensure the best salaries.

JM: And what’s interesting is that I’ve found many people will get an advanced degree, get jobs with that degree and make good money, but end up making career changes and finding more fulfillment in work that pays less and doesn’t require a degree. And so you wonder, what was the point of the advanced degree.

BW: And there‘s the assumption that a college degree is actually preparing you for the work world. In a country like America where pragmatism reigns, one would think our education prepares us well for the business world, but based on the problems you observed, it doesn’t. For example, people are most often fired because of an inability to handle interpersonal relationships—they simply can’t get along with others. I think it was Theodore Roosevelt who said, "The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people,” but this is something that is rarely addressed in the educational system.

JM: No.

BW: In higher education or lower education.

JM: Right. And most people will probably never use algebra or geometry in their work, yet everyone has to get along with others.

BW: The theme that has come up quite a bit in our dialogues is that ironically, what is supposedly making us more competitive, in other words, better able to survive, is actually helping to defeat us. What we are rewarded for in education, doesn’t necessarily equip us for real life. For example, our education conditions us to dread and avoid failure at any cost, but in reality, failure is necessary for true learning and growth and ultimately success.

JM: I read a study on gifted children and they tracked the progress of these children and found that, in the end, they didn’t progress much, not what was expected anyways. They found that these children became so identified with being gifted that they became afraid of taking any risk. In other words, they didn’t want to risk failure and appear stupid, so they never progressed, learned much, or accomplished much.

BW: You also found that there is tremendous ignorance, confusion, and misunderstanding over what is leadership and what is teamwork. Regardless of whether you are in a technical or nontechnical field, a very important determiner of whether you will succeed or not, has a lot to do with whether or not you understand teamwork and leadership. Again, something that is not generally addressed in traditional education which overwhelmingly emphasizes achievement in narrow areas.

JM: Right. And this conditioning helps to defeat us in many ways. The emphasis is always on personal achievement and outdoing everyone and becoming some kind of star. And this attitude of having to beat or triumph over our peers is strongly ingrained through our education, the implication being that becoming a star is necessary for survival. The unspoken implication seems to be, if you’re not a star, then you’re no good. That our whole survival depends on this, when in fact, this isn’t really the case. Personal achievement is important, but understanding teamwork and leadership is just as important.

BW: In one topic, we talked about competition and how it is appropriate in some situations and not others, but as a culture, we’re so obviously in love with this Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest concept, we’ve turned it into an ideology and put it into practice in places where it doesn’t belong.

JM: And we don’t realize how destructive it can be. We call it progress, but it can be very destructive. I think Skilling’s management philosophy at Enron is a good example. Again, this type of mentality and conditioning can be very counterproductive to teamwork and true leadership.

BW: In another topic we discussed people who are extremely unhappy in their work, but often they ended up in their positions because they had been told by their guidance counselors—if you want security, status, a decent livelihood etc., you have to be doing this.

JM: Or by their parents. Or by the culture.

BW: The overwhelming emphasis seems to be on upward mobility and status.

JM: I think that the parents play a major role because they want their kids to be in something that they as parents are proud of. For example, I have a friend who is 36 years old. Her father is an outstanding research scientist in Berkley. Really good, outstanding. And so he wants his daughter to be an outstanding research scientist. And he is just constantly working on her to be doing that. And she’s working on her Ph.D. now and she is doing research whereas I’m realizing that she would like to be doing other kind of work. And I’m not sure what it is because her parents are so strong about research, technical research, that she can’t budge, so a lot of it has to do with the need for status that the parents want. They want their children to achieve status or maintain the family status. And so many parents also want their children to make up for all of their failures and shortcomings in life.

BW: There’s a tremendous pressure and emphasis on achievement. And these days, achievement in technical areas. And in current schooling there is a very heavy emphasis on knowledge and abstract reasoning versus creativity. But you’ve found imagination is important in business.

JM: It certainly is.

BW: And there is evidence that creativity and imagination has its basis in imaginative play early in life. But that’s being eroded away in an insidious way. Summer breaks are getting shorter and shorter, and the school days seem to be getting longer. They’re cutting out recess during the day, they’re cutting out a lot of art programs and music programs and even gym, all for academic learning. There seems to be more pressure at an earlier and earlier age to achieve in academics, and all of that is being rationalized in a very clever way with very clever arguments. Children aren’t allowed to be children anymore.

JM: That’s right.

BW: Do you feel there is a connection between this and the increase in violence in schools, such as shootings?

JM: I can’t sit here and say that I know for certain, but basically, I do. Yes.  Everyone has all sorts of opinions and theories, but the tremendous pressure certainly doesn’t help.

BW: I know the threat of suicide is a related issue. I have a retired friend who worked at a university for all of his life. And he said that the threat of suicide, along with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, is a perpetual undercurrent, not openly acknowledged or talked about. It’s certainly an issue in our country—the suicide rate is double the murder rate in our country.

JM: And the status quo is maintained as if it is in the best interest of everyone.

BW: People at all levels of our culture have very clever ways of rationalizing why this is necessary. People say this is necessary to compete in this day and age. If you suggest there could be an alternative, for example, that people could pursue what they love or are interested in, some argue that would create some form of chaos.

JM: And what do we have now? Peace, joy, happiness, and harmony? Yeah, you do need to be practical, realistic, and grounded, but at the same time pursuing a profession you don’t even like because of the security and money is a form of dishonesty. Don’t get me wrong—sometimes you’re going to have to take jobs you’re not crazy about just to pay the bills—I’ve been there. That’s just life. But I also did what I loved for many years.

BW: There’s a lot of hostility directed towards you if you question the status quo. And I think part of the reason is that people so identify with things that are external. In our culture, achievement is connected to self esteem. Our self-esteem is tied up in our status, how much money we make, what we accomplish. Your self-esteem shouldn’t depend on those sorts of things, but if you suggest otherwise, some people look at you like you’re from another planet. And I also think living in this area, you become very aware that upward mobility isn’t the source of happiness. Some of these people who live in Santa Barbara and Montecito, they have everything you’re supposed to want, but they’re still dissatisfied and unhappy. They make me think of Solomon in the Bible. You could say that Solomon had achieved the ancient equivalent of the American Dream—he had wealth, power, social respectability, status, good-looking wives, expensive real estate, vacation homes—he had it all, but was still dissatisfied and unhappy. And he realized it was all vanity. And he was considered the wisest person ever. And one of the conclusions he came to in Ecclesiastes, was that the best thing is to find happiness in your work and to enjoy your work. “So I saw that there is nothing better for people than to be happy in their work. That is why we are here.” (Ecc 3:22,NLT.)

JM: Yeah, working is definitely is a huge part of life. You can’t escape work. So work that is fulfilling, work that is meaningful, work that you enjoy, work that you love is so important. And for the work to be truly productive and viable, there has to be love and passion for what you do and consideration for the people it is going to impact. Much of the great innovations and ideas in the world have come from people who have a deep love and passion for what they do.

BW: But our education doesn’t emphasize that. The quest for status takes precedence over love.

JM: That’s true.

BW: Our whole educational system lacks love. But if you say that, some people get furious with you, like how dare you suggest something so irrelevant.

JM: And it’s a vicious cycle. People want status, recognition, to feel superior, that sort of thing. And they want their kids to achieve those sorts of things. As long as most of our motives are along those lines, then our education will always reflect that. So unfortunately parents are a big part of the problem. We’re all part of the problem.

BW: But not everyone. I’m struck by the total acceptance of your parents—you liked working outdoors with your hands. You worked in landscaping and gardening for years. By many you were considered just a workman, a common laborer, but your parents were very loving and accepting of that. That kind of acceptance is rare, unfortunately. In contrast, your friend had parents who pressured him to be in business even though he had no interest in business. They rationalized it as being in his best interest. And he eventually ended up very lost, dissatisfied, and unhappy.

JM: Because his parents called what they did love, but it wasn’t love.