Changing it won’t be easy. It isn’t easy to change yourself, it is even harder to change behavior in other people, and it is especially hard to change the way a society works but change has to happen or you end up with stagnation. I am not sure about you, but I feel like the United States is stagnating. We are resting on our history of success to carry us into the future. I am afraid to even think about where this path would lead us but I am certain it is nowhere good. Instead we need to continue to evolve. We need to encourage innovation, creativity, and free thinking.
How? Where should change start? In recent years, our government representatives have been changing behavior through legislation. They attempt to impact our behavior by drafting laws that force us to act a certain way but these kinds of laws really only act to restrict behavior and they do not necessarily act to encourage behavior. Instead, I think the answer lies from below. A bottom up approach, if you will. This approach has two parts that need to be applied simultaneously, Part I requires legislation (state and local would be perfectly fine) and Part II requires you.
Part I: The Children
They are our future. It is unfortunate that this saying has become a cliché that is often heard and spoken without truly grasping its meaning. Our children are most decidedly our future. All of our leaders in government, in our community, in our schools, at work – they were all children once. Some came from backgrounds that encouraged them to be creative. Some were encouraged to be conformist or competitive or courageous. What do they all have in common with you? We were all children once and we all went to school. Are you seeing where I am going with this?
Education. Plain and simple, we need to start with education. We need to encourage students to be creative, to think, and to expand their base of knowledge. Does our current education system do that? I don’t think it does. School teaches children how to pass a test. School doesn’t always encourage our students to take a hard look at history. Do students learn to think critically? Are they encouraged to write, draw, perform creatively?
Many of you will stop me here and tell me that we are the great country we are today because of education. I would agree, our early emphasis on education and equalizing education brought us to great heights but are we really still on that track? I think not.
Let me throw some numbers at you.
- During the 1929-1930 school year, there were 248,000 public schools. In 2009-2010, there were 98,817 public schools (source: National Center for Education Statistics). As of January 2014, there were 59,327 registered nonprofits (this includes Charter schools) that are geared toward Elementary and Secondary Education (source: GuideStar). What do these numbers mean? Since the population of the United States did not decline, it means we are cramming students into fewer schools and expecting success. We ‘saved’ money by eliminating schools only to create a secondary revenue stream in the form of nonprofits who aim to improve education, usually to specific demographics and not to education as a whole.
- Between 1990 and 2012, educational attainment has increased. There are now more people receiving at least a high school education or its equivalent. The numbers have increased across all race categories; women now surpass men in this category (source: National Center for Educational Statistics). Yet, the U.S. ranked 16th out of 23 countries in literacy proficiency, 21st in numeracy proficiency, and 14th in problem solving, according to the OECD survey (click here to read the article).
I could go on but do I need to? I am sure even without these statistics you can see where education is lacking. Ask your teenager or teenage neighbor to do math without a calculator. Ask the clerk in the bookstore if they know what a metaphor is. Go to your local art museum and tell me how many people under the age of 50 you see admiring the collection.
Part II: YOU!
Who? What? Where is the bottom? Look to your left and to your right. It is me, you, and your neighbors and friends. Did that make you guffaw? It shouldn’t all great movements in this country have started at the bottom, led by a great thinker or charismatic speaker with an idea that grew. I am not asking you (or your friends) to start a revolution but I am asking you to take a risk.
Risk? Yes, a risk. Rather than repeating the “conventional wisdom”, speak your mind. Express your ideas. Maybe you are a closet artist that has never allowed your work to see the light of day, start there. Maybe you are a writer that has never actually let someone else read your written word, hand your poem/short story/article to a friend. Maybe you are an innovator or inventor, show your design to someone who can build it. This great country was built on and by people like you! Somewhere along the road of history, we stopped encouraging people to achieve their dreams and instead told them their dreams were unachievable. I am hear to tell you that your dreams are achievable if you are willing to take the risk and put in the work. If I didn’t believe this, I would not be keeping this blog or running a Meetup group. I would sitting in front of my television wasting my Sunday doubting that my thoughts or words would or could make a difference to anyone else.
How the Two Parts Work Together
It may not be obvious as to why this required a two part approach. Do you have children in your life? They don’t have to be yours, they only have to be children that you are close to or fond of. Maybe you have nieces or nephews, maybe your friends or neighbors have children that you see often, maybe you are a step-parent or foster parent. It doesn’t matter. These children look to you as role models. If you do cool and exciting things that these children take interest in, then you are reinforcing with them that innovation, creativity, free thinking matter and are important and valuable. If you hold yourself back, conform to societal standards, never achieve your goals and dreams, what are you teaching these children? You are teaching them to stifle and stagnate. You see? These parts have to work together.