Why Do We Hate Thomas Edison?

In his speech at the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman told attendees,”When we got out of college we had to find a job. When our kids get out of college they will have to invent a job.” But how can students develop their job-creating, innovation-oriented talents if our education system remains centered on knowing and applying information instead of teaching creative, big-picture thinking?

As far back as you can go into the annals of American History, you’ll find entrepreneurialism and innovation. Whether it was Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford or most recently Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – these were the people who defined the United States. This, and with what some say is yet the greatest American invention, its public school system – you have the foundation of America.

Well, I’m afraid to say that we may be abandoning our storied past. As Tom Friedman so rightly said, creativity and our pursuit of it is no longer a priority in America. Instead, we drill our children facts and figures, most may or may not be applicable to real life … and then test, test and test. Our preoccupation with standardized tests and keeping up China has reduced our future generations into nothing more than vehicles of rote memorization.

“What was once educationally significant, but difficult to measure, has been replaced by what is insignificant and easy to measure. So now we test how well we have taught what we do not value.” Art Costa, professor emeritus at Cal State Fullerton

If this mis-guided focus isn’t enough, we have further prohibited our children of any other creative outlet by stripping art, music and physical eduction from our schools. Students are relegated to their desks from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm. And this is how we prepare our future leaders. Far cry from Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison.

The world inside a classroom is the antithesis of the world our children inhibit outside the classroom. Our vaulted American public education system was conceived at the turn of the century, the century that turned 110 years ago. At the time it was perfect as we moved into the industrial age. Even the rows of desks mimicked the environment on the factory floor that students were expected to move on to after graduation.

Back then the world of information inside the classroom and out was contained in books. A student’s exposure outside their immediate environment was limited to the books they could get their hands on. Books were how students were taught, and books were how students learned.

The year is no longer 1910, and the factory floor now employs as many robots as it does people. And no longer are books the only influence. On the contrary, for most of the younger generations, books take a back seat to technology. In fact, most members of the Millennial generation actually hone their learning skills with the “trial and error” method of mastering video games. The methodology behind learning video games is close to the method of invention Thomas Edison used. You experiment, and fail, over and over again – until you figure it out. This is the basis of creative and innovation design. This is what this country was built on. No one is expected to get it right the first time. Yet our current public school model and its obsessive testing run contrary. “Failure is not acceptable and failure doesn’t test well.” And unfortunately, I see the support for this trend gaining momentum, not waning.

I find this top down dictator-type approach to education alarming in this day and age. The corporate world has dived head first into the customer-centric model of doing business. Whether it’s targeted marketing or constant product changes … businesses are especially tuned to the needs and desires of their clientele. The customer rules.

But isn’t a student technically a customer. Taxes are paid by their parents to support the system. Why is this relationship any different from that of the merchant and customer? Can you imagine walking into your local store, only to be told what you’re going to buy, when and for how much? No discussion!

Maybe this attitude stems from the education complex viewing “students” as not knowing anything and sure not knowing what’s best for them. “This is what you’re going to learn and this is how you’re learn it.” No matter that much of the information supposedly being learned and the methods being used to teach it have little relevance in the world of this younger generation. Introducing a “student centric” curriculum and teaching approach would most sure be met with the equivalent of nuclear holocaust!

Much talk, as it has been for four decades, has been centered on education reform. Fads come and go. One special interest after another throws their solution up against the wall … hoping it’ll stick and they’ll jump to the top of the educational “pecking order.” But it never does. The house of “educational reform” has teflon walls.

Now I’m an optimist. Maybe because it’s that I’ll never really grown up and still have the “naive optimism” of a teenager. But when it comes to the institution of public education, I’m a realist. Little is going change. And what does change, will trend downward, not up. But there is a solution … and this one will stick!

Take responsibility!

Your children are the most valuable asset you have, or will ever have. More valuable than your job and more valuable than your bank account. It’s up to you to nurture their creativity, the creativity that will enable them to succeed in a world so different from the one you grew up in. Give them room to try and fail, for it’s through failure we truly learn. Give them room to discover and develop their own way of learning, a way of learning that will provide them the basis of the educational advancement for life.

The future in the world of our children is not easy. Change and evolution is a daily constant. To not provide them with tools to navigate this world is paramount to putting them behind the wheel of a car with no instruction. If think you’ve done your job by merely turning over their futures to a questionable public school complex, don’t be surprised what turns out.

After all, maybe your children can land that career job with that storied Fortune 500 company. Oh, I’m sorry … that job doesn’t exist anymore.


You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg


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3 thoughts on “Why Do We Hate Thomas Edison?

    1. Thanks Cleo. This topic seems to be on the front of mind for a couple years now. It’s a battle I’m not willing to give up on.

      I don’t have a lot of faith in our current public education system. I see the trend going in the wrong direction. Reform efforts seems to not really take into account the students and how this type of education is going to help them in the long run. Ultimately it’s up to us, the parents, neighbors and community members to be there.

      Again, thanks for the props Cleo 🙂

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