It's easy to be passive in our thoughts. We're bombarded with so many concepts and opinions everyday that we have learned to tune them out - smile and nod and ignore the message - or assimilate it subconsciously. I do it regularly.
But every once in a while, I recognize a trend: a series of unrelated sources all presenting me with the same questions to ponder. And that's when I take notice. That's when I think intentionally...

Monday, 17 September 2012

From the Nursery Window

I have heard from a number of friends lately who are beginning their last year of post-secondary education and looking forward (with both apprehension and anticipation) to all the possibility that awaits them in their next steps.  Naturally, it has made me think of my own feelings at that time, and I recalled this piece because I wrote it to capture my thoughts on facing the unknown.  So, here it is - dedicated at all of you who (regardless of age) are in that incredible season of dreams and choices.          

In these halls, silence seems foreign.  It is almost deafening, now, to hear nothing but white noise; that perpetual hum that I thought had been banned from this place.  Until now, I had never heard silence here.  
In the rooms on either side of this empty hall, I have spent countless hours studying the life and work of numerous individuals.  Today, their secrets are closed behind the locked doors – awaiting the arrival of other students who will walk the same endless halls.  They will study the same people and concepts that I did, and learn to examine their world through the eyes of others.  The examination of one’s own life, however, can be somewhat strange – like the impenetrable silence in which I stand.
I have changed.  That is the only conclusion I can draw in the moment.  While I recognize this simple and very obvious fact, I understand little more of the matter.  Actually, I cannot identify what has changed.  
I have gained half again my height.  
My hair isn’t as soft and fine.  
I have lost the baby fat in my cheeks.  
But this is not what I mean.  These are only physical manifestations. The feeling I am trying to identify is lost somewhere between the endless tangle of concepts like “maturity”, “development” and “knowledge”.  It is a combination of things that I picked up along the road, a few pieces between each milestone.  The titles read: “Lessons Learned”, “Talents Discovered” and “Characteristics Developed”.  In exchange, I feel, I left behind a part of who I had been.  
But this cannot be the answer: I am still the same person.  The same desires rest in my heart, though they, like me, are somewhat furthered – like a vision willed into reality.  Perhaps it is just that I understand them better and see more of what they truly are.  
Looking back, I can see the reflection of the self I know today, in the child that stepped foot inside a school yard for the first time.  I walked up the little pathway in my new little black shoes and opened the gate of the white picket fence.  I entered the yard quietly, but I was not lacking in confidence.  This was where I belonged.  It was like I had been there before.  
I noticed, at the far side of the school yard, there was a hill.  A small thicket emerged from it, and two boys hid behind the branches of a bush.  “Strange place to hide,” I thought, walking towards them.  I stood directly in front of the pathway that led up the hill to where they stood, my arms bent, hands grasping the straps of my backpack on both sides.  
“Look at David!” the larger boy said.  David stepped out onto the path at the top of the hill.  “Keep watching him,” I was told.  “Don’t look away.”  The other boy started towards me, and then put all his weight into a forward charge down the hill.  As he got closer, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, his arms reaching down for the ground and one leg sliding out towards me.  I continued to watch David, as I had been instructed.  Suddenly my legs gave way, and I found myself on the ground.  Both boys held their sides, laughing hysterically.  
Slowly, I picked myself up and dusted the dirt off of my clothes.  ‘Andrew’, as I would learn to call him, returned to the top of his castle in triumph and instructed me, “Watch David!” again.  Once more, I obeyed.  I did not break my gaze, even when I saw Andrew’s leg swing out again.  
This time was different, however.  This time, I knew his intention, and I was ready.  I stepped slightly to the side, and set my legs firmly where I could control the exact point of impact.  The result was dramatic.  It was just a matter of catching my foot around his, and I sent him tumbling down the rest of the incline.  
That was it.  It took nothing more.  I had earned their respect, and everyone thought it safer not to mess with me.  They considered me their equal.  I know this because their secret meetings, which were preceded by the announcement, “No girls allowed!” included me always.  Only occasionally, was I obliged to challenge anyone who disputed the topic to a wrestling match to settle the issue.  It was a safe bet for me, as we all believed I could “take out” anyone there, despite the disadvantage of my smaller size.
So, some things never change, I guess.  I still value brain over brawn, and I am still hopelessly competitive.  I appreciate respect and I refuse to be taken advantage of.  Although thirteen years have passed; that has not changed.  I am the same little girl who preferred a mud fight or game of soccer to painting my nails or playing hop-scotch.  So what is different?
        I am now wandering the halls of an abandoned school.  I am alone in that silence that I once longed for.  In those longings though, it was romanticized.  It is somehow different – less grand – in reality.   Now, it almost seems eerie and unnatural.  The emptiness is haunting; reminiscent of the past I will see only from a sealed window.  I stare through the glass panes and suddenly I feel like Wendy staring out at Peter Pan.  “I don’t want to grow up!” I whisper.  The echoes answer, “Tonight is your last night in the nursery.”
And so it is.  Today I step into the unknown.  I leave behind the security of structure and planning and take a stride into the emptiness of uncertainly.  However, that part of me that lives for the adventure of ‘not knowing’ is still intact.  I would not trade this next step for the world.  
Change within a person is like sand: we understand that it is real, we can see it and believe that it exists; it is formed a little at a time and will continue to build up, one grain upon another.  But, the more you try to grasp it the more the essence of it will slip through your fingers, and be lost entirely.  
We understand that change is related to time and the passage of a measurable difference.  However, we know nothing of time other than the simple fact that it is the absence of eternity.  I can reason through this equation, but it brings me no closer to comprehension.  Change is something that is easily seen in the physical realm.  It is felt emotionally, and while it is obtained, it will never be fully understood.
Today, however, I stand at the nursery window.  Grasping the sand is no longer of importance.  It flows freely as I loosen my grip, falling to the ground like pixie dust.  Leaving the nursery is easier when you know that you can fly…  

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Cost of Education

A while ago I wouldn't have made any direct connection between education and the economy.  They seemed as unrelated as two fields of study could be.  That is, unless you were in school, majoring in economics; which I wasn't.  And there was a very good reason for that: economics bored me… terribly.  But these topics appear to be inextricably linked, in many ways.  As I began to take note of the ties, I began to realize how much this often-overlooked relationship promises to impact our future.  As I stepped back and surveyed the bigger picture, the question that kept surfacing in my mind was "What is our current model of education costing us?"
The immediate, answer to that question is obvious.  My generation's current expenditure on the mainstream educational model is huge.  There is little disagreement on that point.  I cannot recall any conversation with a peer, concerning their educational experience as a whole, without some exasperation over how much they are paying for it.  When I ask what they want to do after, the most common answer is, "I want to get my diploma, and then find a job to pay off my student loans – hopefully it will be in the same field that I studied, but whatever I can find will have to do until I can get into what I really want to do."
Fair enough, I suppose, although most stepped onto that path without knowing the stats on how it would likely pan out.  But what is that debt doing to their personal finances in the meantime?  Most are putting all of their time into maintaining their schedule: class, study, work, sleep… (or a liquid sleep substitute of caffeine or energy drinks)… and eating on the run.  And after all that, many of those who have graduated are working in a job they were, or could have been doing, before their debt load was added to the scene.
Frustrating, to say the least.  Long-term, though, I wonder how it will affect the national economy.  Considering the fact that the average Canadian household already owes more than they bring in, and today's students are graduating with a debt of $25,000, or more, it's not a solid start.  On top of that, we are beginning to see that a diploma does not guarantee a job that pays more than minimum wage.
So why go to university?  We go, because in these uncertain economic times, one needs an education to separate them from the pack.  Right?  Well, technically, it's true.  But unfortunately, our current system is not providing that education, and it certainly isn't separating anyone from the pack.  Today, those in 'the pack' all have degrees, and the overpriced diploma to prove it.  But just as our dollar has undergone inflation, so has education.  A degree is valued less and less.  Our culture is advancing at such an exponential rate that half of what a student learns in their first year of study is outdated by the time they have graduated.  Having proof that you once went to school is not enough.  It does not qualify you for a job market experiencing such drastic growing pains. 
The top jobs of 2010 did not exist in 2004.  And we have no idea what the top ten will be in another few years.  So the advice of previous generations, although well-meaning, springs from their experience of a culture that no longer exists.  Pursuing a stable career, with a good, reliable income falls short of what this ever-shifting culture demands. 
But the answer needs to come from the foundation.  The current model is flawed, in its basic concept.  Education should not be a conveyer belt or a factory, and it should not be fragmented into independent subjects that have no direct bearing on each other.  Without an understanding that each 'subject' is simply a different way to approach the holistic, multi-faceted world we inhabit, students will not be able to embrace, process or apply new information readily enough to keep up.  Without the courage to be creative and risk getting it wrong, students will not be equipped to find new answers to the problems they will encounter in their rapidly unfolding future.
Education is necessary; and the skills that are being taught today are necessary.  But on their own, they will not suffice.  As Thomas More once put it "One of the greatest problems of our time is that many are schooled but few are educated."  These terms are no longer synonymous.  The retention of facts and the ability to echo it back is a demonstration of mastering the systematized tests, not mastery of the concept or skill.  It means you're good at the game, not equipped for life in the real world.
Thomas More also said: "Education is not the piling on of learning, information, data, facts, skills, or abilities - that's training or instruction - but is rather making visible what is hidden as a seed."  It's not about data.  It's about active, conscious assimilation of new information and the ability to apply it in any situation that might require it. 
It is in this way that our schools are failing, and therein lies the true cost of our educational system.  As a culture we have separated the spectrum of natural human talent into two categories – 'worthwhile skills' and 'hobbies' – and we only teach the ones that 'count'.  However, in so doing we have lost something.  Our own limited understanding of the skills that matter has caused us to steer away from the very skills that separate us from our increasingly tech-supported world.  We may know what to think, but not how.   
Unfortunately, this limited focus has another symptom.  Because certain skills were not valued, certain career choices (usually the creative or hands-on ones) were also stifled.  My question:  What impact is this going to have on our future economy?  What happens when a generation pursues a degree or a dignified career, one that they've been told is stable and worthwhile, at the expense of what they love to do?  As I see it, you undermine the job market.  And that has the potential to cost us so much more than our student loans ever will. 
            Of my peers who have gone to college or university, too many have a piece of paper to say they did, and a job they hate because it has nothing to do with their field of interest.  Oddly enough, those who pursued their passion right out of highschool are further ahead in their career, because they have real field experience.  Many are also feeling more fulfilled, seeing purpose in their day to day lives.  I've experienced it myself.    
            The solution?  I'm not saying "don't go to school."  That would be intensely ironic coming from someone who has worked in the education system since graduating highschool.  It has its place.  But I am saying, "know why you are doing it!"  Don’t go simply because it's the expectation or the norm. 
            Ultimately, you need to pursue your passion, even if that means skipping formal, post-secondary education.  Gain experience in the field you feel called to impact.  And take responsibility for your own development.  Don't expect a professor or boss to do it for you, because if you can't jumpstart your own ambition, your education stops there.
            That could end up costing you more than you bargained for.