What Do We Choose Now?

During my recent trip to Florida I stopped to see the Kennedy Space Center for the fourth time. The first three of my tours the NASA center was engaged in our manned exploration of space with either the Apollo Moon missions or the Space Shuttle. One could the feel the excitement as tour guides discussed upcoming manned missions to space and what we could expect from them. This last trip there was a different feel about the place. It was like an old, washed-up athlete sitting around telling stories of his or he past glorious accomplishments because there was nothing else the athlete could talk about. 

During the tour, every stop was someplace that once had importance during the manned missions into space. Now that there are no more American human spaceflights in the foreseeable future, these buildings had a snackbar and a giftshop stuck on the ends and became tour stops. The giftshops had all kinds of memorabilia about the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle missions. In fact the Space Shuttle was called "The Pride of America." I guess calling the now seemingly ancient Apollo Moon missions the pride of America would be too much to stomach even if I thought those were more exciting than a "flying truck." The biggest thing discussed was the addition of the retired Space Shuttle Atlantis, a reusable rocket to launch satellites into space, and a new vehicle to explore Mars. These are all good things but it does not bring to me the excitement that sending humans back to the Moon or to Mars would bring.

When I was growing up, the astronauts were real-life heros to me. I would follow each mission on television with great interest. Other people followed the manned space missions because we were in a competition with the Soviet Union to see who could get to the Moon first. Later, I would tell my history students that our race to the Moon proved to ourselves and the rest of the world that again Americans could accomplish anything it sets its collective mind to. One day we woke up and decided to go to the Moon and actually did it in about eight years. It was this same determination to do something that scared the Soviet Union into spending itself out of existence when President Ronald Reagan proposed a missel defense system to do the unthinkable, make a nuclear war winnable. Could such a system be built? Who knows but based on past history the Soviets could not take that chance and started spending money on defense and neglecting the needs of its people to the point it could not sustain itself and collapsed. We need a national goal such as going to Mars to inspire today's students to take up challenges that have always defined America in the past. 

And the winner is?

There were four movies that stood out in my mind about education in 2010: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, The Social Network, True Grit, and The King's Speech. These movies had a common theme that did not jump out until I started thinking about them as a whole. In each of these movies the main characters were able to do extraordinary achievements without the traditional education, credentials, or certifications one would expect of such people. Is our media sending out a signal that education as we know it is no longer necessay? Let me explain.

True Grit: while Rooster Cogborn was a Federal Marshal, he did not have the benefit of law enforcement training. His skill came by experience and not all of it as a law abiding citizen. Marshal Cogburn could be forgiven since there was no such thing as law enforcement training just after the American Civil War. However, the character that impressed me was 15-year old Mattie Ross. This young lady, without a high school diploma much less a college degree, was able to skillfully negotiate business deals with more experienced adults and get what she wanted. Mattie probably would make Lawyer J. Noble Dagget squirm in a courtroom.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Harry, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley drop out of Hogwarts, believing the school could teach them nothing more about how to battle the evil Lord Voldermort. This would be like three 1940's teens dropping out of high school after their junior year to go fight Adolph Hitler and the Nazis on their own during World War II. Of course they had excellent role models in Fred and George Weasley who committed the greatest school prank in education history as they dropped out of Hogwarts to go into business in Diagon Alley.

The Social Network: most people now know Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to work on making Facebook the most popular social network in the Internet. There were two other characters in the movie who did not have the benefit of a college degree and did rather well. One was Bill Gates, another Harvard dropout who went on to build Microsoft into a dominate software company. The other character was Sean Parker who did not even darken the doors of a college (unless to party) but changed the music industry forever by creating Napster.

Finally, The King's Speech: Lionel Logue was able to help King George VI's stuttering problem after other experts had failed. The problem was Logue was not an accredited speech therapist, a fact the King's advisors pointed out as they pressured the new king to drop Logue for "expert" speech therapists. Logue was an actor who got his start using acting techniques to help World War I veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (then known as Shell Shock) speak again. No formal training, just techniques that worked from experience. It was those techniques that helped King George VI give a speech that rallied the British Empire during the dark days of World War II.

Much has been said that there needs to be a fundamental shift in education, especially given the current economic conditions. I have heard the students who learn how to master the art of learning as they create new ideas will be the most successful in the future. It will be this type of student who will be able to work in the as yet unknown career fields traditional schools cannot foresee much less prepare for. There is so much knowledge available for free that, some say, colleges are not necessary. With movies like True Grit, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Social Network, and The King's Speech is it possible that our media is preparing people for a change or is it reflecting changes already occurring?