A friend of mine went to visit Fidel Castro a few years back. (He is not your typical guy and I have no idea how this was arranged.) They got into a conversation about education. My friend mentioned me and Castro asked whether I might want to be the Minister of Education of Cuba. When my friend told me about this, he asked what I would do if I had that job. I replied that I would ask Castro what Cuba wanted to be.
My friend found that an odd response. Some days later, Castro shot some people and the U.S. prevented my friend from visiting Castro again so that was the end of that.
I was reminded of this incident because, as I write this, I am on a Greek island and, not surprisingly, talk centers on what to do about the economy. Having recently been in Italy and Spain as well, it is obvious to me that the problems these countries are having stem from issues in education.
When I say that, the response is usually less than enthusiastic, because it seems an odd idea, so let me explain.
When I mentioned what I would want to ask Castro, this is what I had in mind. Education is meant to achieve something, although this is usually forgotten in education reform conversations. The people who designed the U.S. education system around 1900 knew this well. The country needed factory workers, so keeping students “in dark, airless places” doing mindless repetitive work, seemed like a good strategy.
Today we have the factory worker strategy still in place, reinforced by a push for standards and multiple choice tests everywhere. The fact that there are no more factories seems to have skipped people’s attention. Also we have a big push for making sure everyone goes to college, despite the fact that college produces students who study what the professors happen to teach which means English, History, Mathematics, Philosophy, Sociology, and any number of subjects that will not make students in any way employable.
In the U.S. we have gotten away with this attitude for many years because we simultaneously had a big push by the Defense Department for new technology and thus were able to create Silicon Valley and enable an atmosphere of technological innovation. So while we have no factories, we do lead the world in software. It is almost as if someone in the Defense Department in the 60s and 70s were planning this. (I was there. They were.)
Now think about Spain. Its number one industry is tourism. You would think therefore, that in Spain the schools would be pushing hospitality or cooking or hotel design. But they are not. They have their enormous share of useless language and history majors as well and the University establishment works hard to keep things as they have always been.
Or think about Greece. Their number one industries are tourism and shipping. I have been an advisor to a Greek shipowner for over a decade now, and I can tell you it isn’t all that easy to learn about shipping in a Greek university. Nor is it easy to learn about tourism, because Greek universities, like those everywhere, are run by people who are worried about insisting that things stay the same so that their professorships are still relevant.
What Greece and Spain need to do, what Cuba needed to do, what any country that is not big enough to do everything needs to do, is pick its spots.
Universities offering a classical education are fine when only the wealthy elite are being educated. But mass education requires that schools be run people who are trying to educate for the future. This does not mean educating for “21st century skills” whatever that might mean. What is does mean is that schools need to do two things.
First, they need to teach general thinking skills, not math, but planning, not literature but judgement, not science but diagnosis.
Second, countries need to decide what they want to be when they grow up. Cuba, had I been running the educational show there, would have had to decide what the wanted to be the best at. Biotech or Agriculture or the Technology of cigar making. And they would have had to offer something less than everything under the sun to their students.
To fix an economy in the long run requires planning. The planning has to start at the beginning by creating citizens who can both think and find useful employment in the sectors of the economy that the country already has or wants to have.
Education is where everything starts. Countries can simply decide to be good at something and make themselves good at it. The U.S. decided exactly that about computer science 40 years ago. But it doesn't require the wealth of the U.S. to do that. Modern educational techniques, especially high quality experiential on line education, can make any country a specialist in any industry that it can realistically dream about.