I understand why top students – the A+ types – learn physics and calculus. I get why they study classic literature and the details of history. The kids in this brainy group are the future professors, scientists, and engineers who will propel civilization forward.
But why do we make the B students sit through these same classes? That’s like trying to teach a walrus to tap dance. It’s a complete waste of time and money. And most students fall into that middle category. I assume this ridiculous educational system is a legacy from a day when generic mental training was good enough for just about any job.
In our modern world, would it make more sense to teach B students something useful, such as entrepreneurship?
Consider my own story. I majored in entrepreneurship at Hartwick College, and that experience was the most useful training I’ve ever had. Okay, technically, my major was economics. But the unsung advantage of attending a small college is that you can mold your experience any way you want.
There was a small business called The Coffee House on campus. It served beer and snacks, and featured live entertainment. This was back in the days when the drinking age was 18. The operation was student run, with faculty advisors. It was a money-losing mess, heavily subsidized by the college. I interviewed for a place on the student group that ran the business, and became the so-called Minister of Finance. The first thing I noticed is that there was literally no accounting system for the profits, the inventory, or the expenses. So I proposed to my accounting professor that for three course credits I would build and operate the accounting system for the business. And so I did. The experience was amazing.
I also got to manage our vendors, redesign the menu, deal with internal politics, and be involved in marketing and employee hiring. I got a legitimate taste of a full range of small business experience. Our efforts paid off, and the business bloomed.
At about the same time, two friends and I hatched a plan to become the student managers of our dormitory and get paid to do it. The idea involved replacing all of the professional staff, including the Resident Assistant, security, and even the cleaning crew with students who would be paid for those functions. We imagined forming a student government of sorts to manage elections for various jobs, set out penalties for misbehaviors, and generally take care of things. And we imagined that the three of us, being the visionaries for this scheme, would be running the show.
We pitched our entrepreneurial idea to the dean and his staff. To my surprise, the dean said that if we could get a majority of next year’s dorm residents to agree to our scheme, the college would back it. And so we did. For the next two years my two friends and I each had private rooms, at no cost, a base salary, and the experience of managing the dorm. On some nights I also got paid to do overnight security, while also getting paid to clean the laundry room. At the end of my security shift I would go to The Coffee House and balance the books.
My college days were full of entrepreneurial stories of that sort. By the time I graduated, I had mastered the confidence of pitching an idea and turning it into reality. Every good thing that has happened to me is born of that training.
I think it’s a bad idea to evaluate our school system based on international test score comparisons. While it’s important that our top students are as good as top students everywhere, our biggest untapped resource is our B students. Maybe we should start teaching them useful skills.