The Education Conondrum

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Is our education system the next economic bubble to burst?

Many think so, but there is a way to stop it.

Imagine going back to February of 2008, but maintaining the knowledge of the calamity ahead. Imagine having the ability, awareness and power to protect yourself from the upcoming fallout, or knowing what it would take to avoid the whole mess all together. What could you do with such unassailable power? Become a super-hero? Wear tight clothes and have a catch-phrase?

Your super-hero status may not be as far-fetched as you think.

The federally backed housing market of 2008 gave us very distinct and clear markers prior to it’s collapse. It is easy to Monday-morning-quarterback the entire fall today. Reams of digital paper have been filled with every detail of the financial storm. Because of the enormous amount of analysis experts have found indicators. Today it’s easy to see the same indicators in other markets, and unfortunately, the economics of education are following the same trajectory.

In a nutshell, the crisis started when people defaulted on their federally backed home loans because they were no longer worth paying. A situation that has been forecasted, debated and written about regarding our education system for years now. The chart on the left shows the sharp incline of the housing market sales and price in the decades preceding the collapse and ends just prior to the sub-prime lending crash in 2008. The chart on the right shows a composite of those prices continuing through to current day overlaid upon college tuition costs over the same time frame.


Graph courtesy of                                                       Tuition data courtesy
It is obvious that when the housing market righted itself in 2008, the education market did not. As the price of college rises, and the government continues to guarantee the loans, the bubble grows larger every day. The steep incline of the price and the feds responsibility for the loans aren’t the only concerns. In 2016 one out of every six federal student loan borrowers were in default. For some it is easy to walk away from a loan that will get paid by the government if they default, and is no longer worth what they paid for it. Add to that the waning influence of a degree and the fact that some colleges saw a 15% decline in enrollment last year and we have a recipe for disaster.

Public opinion of college is changing.

Michael Dell said, “You don’t have to be a genius or a visionary or even a college graduate to be successful. You just need a framework and a dream.” With the huge list of successful people who proved that true like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Dave Thomas, Larry Ellison, Kevin Rose and more without degrees, formal education has become a very, very hard sell. Plus the online training revolution has made specialized training simple to access. Today a person can learn how to code, build a shed or write a novel on Youtube, and many are.

These huge shifts in our education system leads to a few questions. What can educators do to remain relevant, and how can education best serve this new and changing world?

Enter Ignaz Semmelweis. 

In the years between 1841 and 1847, mortality rates from puerperal fever were devastating, reaching over 30% and up to 40% in some hospitals. A family was almost as likely to lose a child or mother in childbirth as they were to have them come home healthy. But, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis discovered why.

He theorized that unclean hands and tools co-mingling with patients was the cause of what was being called,”childbed fever.” Semmelweis implemented hand washing between births and clean tools for each mother and annihilated the death rates in his hospital by over 90%! Semmelweis had, for all practical purposes, cured puerperal fever. All that was left was to tell the world and millions would be saved.

But, this story ends tragically.

Semmelweis had the numbers, the education, the timing and the ability to change the world. But he didn’t. It would take Joseph Lister, a man who is known more today for minty fresh breath, than for saving the lives of incalculable throngs of people, to set cleanliness as a fixture in hospitals. Semmelweis was rendered a footnote in the lives of those saved by his techniques, not because he wasn’t educated, didn’t have the numbers right or wasn’t educated.

He lost his influence because he was a jerk.

He had no tact, his personality was abrasive and his demeanor was gruff. To an obstetrician in Vienna he wrote, “You, Herr Professor, have been a partner in this massacre.” To a similar colleague he penned, “I declare before God and the world the you are a murder and the ‘History of Childbed Fever’ would not be unjust to you if it memorialized you as a medical Nero.” Semmelweis had everything he needed to save millions of lives, except for one thing.


In Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway  bestseller, The Tipping Point, he outlined a similar story. On the night of Paul Reveres midnight ride, another rider raced through the same population, on the same errand, with the same message, “The British are coming.” Yet almost no one from William Dawes’ route showed up to fight, while Revere summoned an army.

Isaac Newton wrote and published Principia Matimatica, giving the world the basis for physics, but some his studies were founded on the principle of the Law of the Inverse Square of Gravity. A founding voiced and coined by Robert Hooke, and even though Hooke was the President of the Royal Society before Newton and helped establish a massive foundation for modern physics, no one knows what he looked like and few remember his name. Because he was so bitter, angry and hateful that upon his death the members of the Royal Society, with Newton acting as president, burned the paining of Hooke, the one and only likeness ever made of the man.

All of the training, timing and knowledge in the world can’t replace influence. 

Men like Semmelweis, Dawes and Hooke had all of the training, knowledge, ability and timing to make significant contributions to the world, but failed. Not because they had poor education, didn’t understand their field or were missing a piece of necessary training, but because they did not have the personalities needed to affect large scale change. Conversely, history has given us women like Mother Teresa and Rosa Parks, who only knew personality and influence, and they made measurable contributions to the betterment of society.

Yet, our education system is built on teaching the numbers and science of the widget, the calculation of the graph and the fundamentals of the thing, all great and valuable information, but without influence, it can be rendered almost obsolete, like cassette tape storage towers, Blockbuster Video stores or the Palm Pilot.

Because two of the most famous college dropouts left the same college, I thought I’d look and the curriculum that Mark Zuckerburg and Bill Gates, who both left Harvard, may have taken. When I researched Harvard Business School classes to see if there were any relationship based, personalty centered classes I was intrigued by the course Titled The Arts of Communication listed under General Management.

I thought perhaps Harvard was leaning in the right direction, until I read the course description.

Today’s leaders must have the ability not only to analyze thoughtfully but also to communicate clearly and persuasively. This course will seek to strengthen the capacity of each student to speak well in public settings while navigating a range of leadership scenarios. Approximately one-third of the course will be devoted to classes that introduce students to strategies of communication and to models of public presentation. The rest of the course will consist of workshops in which students will hone their skills in public speaking. The course is designed for future leaders and professionals in the both private and public sectors.    

It is not a communication course but a public speaking course.

Teaching nuts and bolts in itself is also becoming less valuable because of the rapid expansion of technology. What a student learns their first year in college is often obsolete before they graduate. This phenomenon is quantified by Moores Law, which is explained here and summed up by a quote from the article.

-according to Kurzweil, “We’ll make another twenty years of progress in just fourteen years (by 2014), and then do the same again in only seven years.” So basically what Kurzweil is attesting is that a student who enters first grade (in) September 2012, and finishes college in the typical 16 years, graduating in 2028, will see the world progress the equivalent of roughly 80 years.

It is almost impossible to teach the nuts and bolts of what will be valuable when our students need it. Widgets, systems and application evolve, but influence rarely does. Influence and personality gets people hired, obtains investor money, builds great teams, sells widgets, builds great relationships and charters change. In the face of a rapidly changing world, influence is the first falling domino that ignites the motion of success.

                                             “Growth comes from a beautiful blend of knowledge and personality,”

and the saving grace of education just might be implementing a reflection of that blend, teaching people the fundamentals of the widget and the personality and influence necessary to help that widget improve the world.

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