Survival of the fittest. Natural selection. I think we all get it when it comes to animals, plants and stupid people tricks. The strongest and fastest animals survived and the rest all died. The ones that stayed alive evolved to keep the good stuff and ditch the bad. And within the human race? Those poor sods who urinate on the third rails of train tracks, chew on lit firecrackers and remove their roller coaster restraints when taking the plunge? Obviously too dumb to get through life. We chuckle, pat ourselves on the back for being superior, and move on.
Now, let’s talk about education and the workforce. Besides one leading to the other, what’s the correlation? Ask Darwin. No, I’m not talking about that old self-righteous and enabling Social Darwinism, or even “Freakonomics,” but rather how a lack of supervision and structure might ultimately be good for us.
I’ve nearly given myself three heart attacks this week as I have a New York City fifth grader who has to finalize his middle school applications next Friday. Every single school he’s considering, including the one he’s currently attending and therefore guaranteed admittance to, operate on a fairly unstructured model. It’s up to him whether he does his homework, turns in his projects on time or reads the correct book during book club instead of hunkering down in a corner with the 65,000th volume of “Harry Potter.” It’s been hard to turn off my hovering, cajoling, shouting and, at times, OCD tendencies to just let him be, but I have found that if I do, one of two things happens. He either gets lower grades than he and we expect, or he does the work. Often the first two scenarios happen a couple of times before we get to a third, but more and more, he’s just doing it.
Then, I thought about my own career and those of my friends. While it’s true that self-employment rates in the United States are lower than they have been since the 1980s, still … nearly everyone I know has a job that didn’t exist a generation ago, and in some cases just a few years ago. Personally, I work from home for a host of different clients in several specialties, and if I don’t deliver the work, I don’t get paid. Simple. My office is the size of my head, plus whatever communications device is in my hands, be that a laptop, video camera, smartphone or tablet. Depending on how creative I’m feeling, that’s either a very small space or an infinite one, but this much is guaranteed. No one knows or cares what time I sat down at my desk, what I’m wearing or how social I’m being within the community of workers. Did I deliver what I said I would? Fine. Next! And I’m not the only one.
Back in what seems like the Dark Ages, after I’d quit acting but before I was a reality television personality and actually had day jobs in offices, the accountability level was pretty low compared to today. Yes, my colleagues and I had to turn in finished projects, but it was as much about showing up to the office and attending hundreds of meetings as actual hard product. Or it was business trips with department members from different cities. The amount of time spent together with colleagues doing something other than brainstorming, actually producing work or putting our hands on what we’d created is staggering when I look back on it. Today, I might have one face-to-face meeting a week, but if I don’t meet my 12 deadlines per day, I just won’t get paid.
So as I was panicking about middle school and blindly searching for structure and finding only the Common Core Standards, No Child Left Behind plus so much hot air I thought my laptop might overheat and explode, I thought … Darwin. Maybe less structure in school is exactly what our kids need, because that is the shape of the workforce they’ll be entering.
Maybe all this hysteria over standards, oversight, structure, whatever, is bringing us back to just getting down and dirty and doing our own work with more freedom than ever, but a much higher level of accountability. If you don’t know how to do something, there’s no boss to ask. You do it, or you don’t. So perhaps, just maybe, it’s the right track. Darwin is dead. Long live Darwin.