As a child growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, I wanted to be a soda jerk. You know, the guys who stood behind the counter at the old-time soda fountains like we would see in “Ozzie & Harriet” and “Dobie Gillis.” Man, that looked like living to me. Some of my friends wanted to be firemen. Others wanted to be astronauts. As we got older, every single one of us wanted to either become the fifth Beatle, or start our own rock band. Lots of us did – but our bands never played anywhere outside of the garages in which we practiced. As we became older yet, sensibility set in, and we went off to college to study business, engineering, accounting or pre-law. Sensible careers with sensible futures.
Our parents steered us in the right direction and guided us toward fields in which we could make a living. Careers with job security and good benefits. Many of them did their thirty years either on the line or in an office cubicle, built a good pension and collected a “gold” watch or some other memento of their many years of dedication to the firm. Companies bought watches by the carton. They received a firm handshake and perhaps a certificate of meritorious service which they hung on the wall in the den, and were out the door. Done.
Twenty years ago I was at an educational conference in Santa Monica. Attendees were from performing arts high schools across the United States and Canada. The keynote speaker was Sydney Pollack, noted Hollywood director of such classic films as “The Way We Were,” “Out of Africa” and “Tootsie.” In his complete body of work over a 40-year career, Pollack directed 21 movies and television shows, acted in over 30 films or shows, and produced over 40 more.
Pollack was born in Lafayette, Indiana, to parents –immigrants from the Ukraine – who had dreams of him becoming a doctor or dentist. His father was a pharmacist and was intent upon his son following the American dream of making a good living in a solid field. Uh, oh, the son wanted to be an actor. They frequently argued over this, and his parents become despondent that their teenage son wasted so much time in a darkened movie theatre, when he should’ve been studying. Good son that he was, he tried his parents way, grudgingly setting off to college to become a dentist. Very quickly, he discovered it wasn’t for him. His heart wasn’t in it, and he just couldn’t see himself setting up a practice in South Bend and filling teeth for the next thirty years. He wanted to make movies.
He told us that the conversation with his father was one of the most difficult he’d ever had, but he mustered the courage to tell his strict, Ukrainian dad that he felt the world could survive with one less superb dentist, but Sydney felt he could make a more important difference through film. 44 Academy Award Nominations and 11 Oscars later, it seems as if young Sydney Pollack made the right choice. As fine a dentist as he might have been, one would imagine the legacy of Pollack’s films left a far greater impact.
Much like our parents did in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, today’s parents still view job preparedness as the primary reason to get a good education. Students need to be ready to compete in the global marketplace, so we face an ever-rising achievement bar on test scores, computer literacy and mastery of technical data. Study hard, get a good education, get a good job. Pretty simple, right? Well, maybe not.
There are no gold watches anymore. Putting in thirty years with the same company just ain’t in the cards these days. Neither is job security. The national unemployment rates still hover around 10% and many highly experienced computer programmers and tech specialists can’t find work. In Michigan, there are more unemployed engineers than there are unemployed actors. Okay, so that might be an exaggeration. But the Big Three and what’s left of their subsidiaries and suppliers have created a new business model. Outsourcing and contracted services have replaced secure yearly salaries in many American companies and industries. So, are we pushing our children toward an unattainable goal? Is the path down which we lead them a bit too narrow for the 21st Century? Could be.
Just for fun, call five friends who are employed in traditional, reliable career fields. Ask them if they love their jobs. Does their work fuel their passion? Oh, and while you’re at it, if your friend is under, say, 40, ask them if this is their first or second career, and ask whether they intend to stay in this same cubicle, with this same company, in this same career field for 30 years. But if they say yes, don’t tell them that they don’t give out gold watches anymore. Go on. We’ll wait.
Careers and career fields have changed dramatically over the last 20 years. So have kids. Not many want to be firemen anymore, more’s the pity. But not too many of them want to grow up to become an interface designer or usability specialist either, whatever that is. The truth is that a large portion of today’s kids will enter career fields that don’t even exist yet, and will likely change careers four-to-six times. And that’s okay too.
A broad-based educational foundation will likely be more valuable to today’s kids than a narrow and confined curriculum that teaches to the test. Channeling students into courses designed for the industrial age or even the information age (unfortunately, in many educational settings these are the same curricula) may be tantamount to guiding them down a dead-end street. And then where are they? Lost.
Of the top Fortune 100 CEOs, 35% have undergraduate degrees in the liberal arts. Some of the fastest growing start-up companies over the past ten years have been led by jazz musicians, philosophy majors, cartoonists and college drop-outs who didn’t find their path to success in a biology classroom. Hmmm . . . a liberal arts approach in K-12 education might not be all that bad. Rather than teaching students how to “achieve” good test results, maybe massaging a student’s intellectual curiosity, fostering quantitative and information literacy, and allowing them to discover their own path just might be even better advice for the 21st century than our parents gave is in the mid-20th century. We could still tell them to always wear clean underwear, eat their spinach, and be home before the streetlights are on.
Our world will always need dentists, and we’ll always need engineers. However, allowing your child to discover what fuels their passion, dancing to the beat of a different drummer or coloring outside the lines could lead them to be the next Sydney Pollack or Mark Zuckerberg. What will your kid be?