My older daughter graduated from college in May and has been working at her new job since June. Last night we had a conversation that got me thinking about how school does a really terrible job of preparing our young people for "the real world" by setting up some seriously unrealistic expectations.
In school, we teach kids that:
- Life happens in a series of connected, time-delineated steps (courses, semesters) so there's always "light at the end of the tunnel" and its clear what the next step will be.
- If you follow the rules--of an individual teacher, of the school--you will be rewarded.
- If you work hard, you will be rewarded.
- There are always "right" answers to questions and problems.
- Problems are well-defined and if you don't get the "right" answer, it's because you didn't work hard enough.
Ironically, those kids who take these lessons of school most seriously--who try hard to do what we ask them to do in school--end up being the most disillusioned and ill-prepared for what happens when they graduate. Further, these rules are hidden, making their impact more insidious and talking about the problems they cause more difficult.
What we really need to be teaching young people, if we truly want to prepare them for the "real world," is that:
- Work and its problems are really ill-defined. Rarely are there "right" answers. More often than not we are having to make trade-offs that force us to choose between "bad" and "worse" or at least between "OK" and "less OK." There are always going to be extenuating factors and issues that impede our ability to achieve the ideal, even in those situations that seem the most clear-cut.
- Sometimes hard work is rewarded. Sometimes it is not. Sometimes following the rules is rewarded. Sometimes it is not. The challenge is learning when to stop beating our heads against a particular brick wall where our hard work and rule-following is not working. When do we need to break the rules? When do we need to work hard at something else or somewhere else?
- Related to this, working harder isn't always the answer. Sometimes we are in situations where problems go unsolved and issues are unresolved because of things that are entirely outside of our control. Sometimes there is no answer and we have to learn the lessons of patience and of moving to a new situation, rather than just buckling down and trying to make the best of what we have.
- There is no "light at the end of the tunnel." There is just more tunnel. Some parts of the tunnel are darker and some have more light flickering in. But there is always tunnel and we are never sure what lies at the other end.
I remember graduating from college and facing many of the same issues my daughter is now facing. I was so used to a world where everything had been so clearly defined for me, where if you just went with the program you would get where you needed to go. But that's not how the real world operates. It seems like we should be preparing our kids for that.