Reflections on Educating Students for Happiness and Success in the 21st Century

Today we returned to work after a relaxing week of holiday-making for a day of “professional development”. The day kicked off with our school’s director sharing some information about a recent audit of our school’s parent community, which revealed that there is great anxiety among the parents at our school about their children’s experiences in school today, mostly relating to how well they will achieve on their examinations and whether their levels of achievement will assure them entrance to the top universities to which they (both the parents and the students) aspire.

The ultimate source of this anxiety, it would seem, is not the immediate importance of exam scores or even college acceptances, rather the deeper concern among parents that their children may grow up to be less successful than they themselves have been in their careers. I am sure that this anxiety is one experienced by nearly every parent in the history of mankind: from our ancient ancestors who stressed over their children’s abilities (or lack thereof) with a bow and arrow to blue collar workers of the 20th century who worked 80 hours a week to be able to send their children to state colleges where they may learn a skill that would raise their lot in the future. The parents of my students today likewise fear that their own children may grow up to be less successful in the fields they believe to be worthy of their children: business, finance, law, technology, management, and so on.

In fact, the parents whom our school serves are some of the most successful people in the world in their respective fields. They have risen to the top levels of management in multi-national corporations. They sit at the pinnacles of global financial institutions. Many are successful entrepreneurs or investors who have proudly raised their children in a world of luxury. The very fact that they send their children to our school is evidence of their own career accomplishments (we are a very expensive private school in one of the richest countries in the world).

It is for this reason that I believe nearly all these parents’ should be very anxious about their children’s futures. It is natural for parents to want their children to achieve what they have achieved (or greater!). It is natural for parents to desire for their children to be able to enjoy the living standards they have been afforded thanks to their own accomplishments in business, finance or law. As I have said, every parent in history has wanted as much for their children.

But is it realistic for a major league pitcher to wish for his son to grow up to throw a ball 105 miles per hour? Certainly not.

I believe that today it is less likely than it has been for generations that a child growing up at the top of the socioeconomic ladder will, in fact, achieve the level of professional success and the resulting income and living standard that their parents achieved. These parents’ anxieties are 100% justified and they have very little reason to believe their children will someday earn the incomes they enjoy today.

Here’s why: The entire trajectory of the global economy has shifted since my students’ parents embarked on the career paths that led them to where they are today. Globalization and technological change have displaced (or replaced) many of the blue collar jobs that Europeans and American counted on for a decent living standard in the 20th century, and these same processes have already begun to affect the white collar careers on which many of my students imagine their future paths taking them. The knowledge and skills we teach in schools today will be increasingly devalued in the future.

Knowledge will become a free good as artificial intelligence and other information technologies reduce the barriers to acquiring knowledge to zero. Likewise, the gaps in global skill levels and productivity that allowed the growth of incomes in Europe and North America to exceed those in the rest of the world throughout the 20th century have already begun to narrow, evidenced by a decade of low or no growth in the rich world and nearly 5% growth in the rest of the world. This means the pool of skilled workers of which my students will eventually be a part will be vastly broader and deeper than that in which their parents competed.

The knowledge and the skills we teach our students in school today will only continue to be devalued in the future, meaning students whose future aspirations are based on the assumption that such learning objectives will assure them a high income and living standard will find themselves drowning in a labor pool in which they have less economic value than they ever have in history.

Stated simply, value is a function of scarcity, and as skilled and knowledgeable workers become less scarce, those whose only assets are what they “learned in school” will find themselves far less likely to achieve the levels of income that those of earlier generations did.

The implication of technological advancement and globalization (both the defining forces of our century) for education is that unless we begin teaching something NEW and DIFFERENT than what was taught in the last century, our students will almost certainly not achieve what their parents (educated in the last century) have been able to achieve with their educations.

So this begs the question: What can students learn in school today that WILL help them achieve the levels of success and happiness to which all parents aspire for their children?

I think the answer to this question also came up in this morning’s speech by my school’s director. He closed by sharing a quote from a student who recently graduated from my school in which the student reflected on what he learned on a school trip to Nepal during his last week before graduating (as part of our “classroom without walls” experience). After spending a week with the orphans of Kathmandu and in a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayan foothills, this student returned to Switzerland with a new understanding of what happiness meant. He realized for the first time in his life that happiness was not measured by how many material things we surround ourselves with, but by the relationships we have with others in our community and by our connection to both other human beings and the natural and spiritual worlds.

My question (and concern) is: Why did it take until this student’s last week of school before he came to this important understanding? Is this not the most important lesson he could possibly learn? Should only those students lucky enough to spend a week in the Nepalese slums come to such important understandings about life, happiness and success?

I wonder if it would relieve our parents’ anxieties if we shifted our focus in school today to place less emphasis on a pre-determined set of rapidly depreciating knowledge and skills and more emphasis on relationships, connections with the community and the environment and spiritual self-awareness.

I wonder what our parents would say if we told them that our school’s focus were shifting from providing their children with information and skills that will earn them the best examination results to instilling in them an awareness of and an understanding that happiness is measured not by what you have, but by what you are able to live without.

Will parents understand that their children’s pursuit of a high paying job based on the same knowledge and skills that they learned in school will prove fruitless in an era where knowledge and skills are no longer scarce?

Will they agree that what matters is not their children’s future success as measured by their income and material well-being, rather their future happiness?

I wonder whether my students’ parents realize how justified their anxieties are. And I hope they understand that if or when their children do not succeed on the paths they envision them pursuing, it won’t be their own faults; rather, it is the inexorable outcome in an era where knowledge and skills are continually devalued by technology and globalization.

Henry David Thoreau, who shed the burden of materialistic pursuits for a simple life in the woods, once said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

The happiness of being able to do without material things is that to which our education today must aspire. The path my students’ parents followed will become increasingly narrow and unattainable for the next generation. Therefore, a rethinking of what we teach and, in fact, value, is necessary to achieve happiness for our students in the future.

Many schools have embraced the alternative path to happiness envisioned by Thoreau and others throughout history. The awareness that true happiness is not attained by the pursuit of money and status, rather a connection with our community, the natural world and our spiritual selves and an embrace of simplicity over complexity is nothing new. The Buddha knew it, Jesus knew it, Emerson and Thoreau knew it.

The question is, do our students know it? Do their parents know it? Heck, do I know it? And once we’re aware of this truth, how can we begin to redesign our schools’ learning objectives so that our students leave school with a truly attainable path to happiness and success, perhaps of a different kind from that imagined by their parents, but one that will certainly be more achievable and just as valuable in a future in which the spoils of global economic activity will be more evenly distributed between the world’s people than they have ever been in history.

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