Two Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Questions

(This is written as a letter to my two college-aged daughters.)

(It is also the foundation of my learner-centered leadership beliefs)

I apologize to both of you for every well-meaning person who has asked you these two questions:

1. “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

2. “What job are you going to get with that major?”People that ask you those questions aren’t bad people, they have just accepted the incorrect assumption that learning must lead to a career.

No Child Left Behind

You see, you were both born at about the time the worst policy of all time was passed by Congress. This policy declared war on children, schools, and everyone associated with schools. The policy (No Child Left Behind) took the humanness from learners and kids became numbers on a chart. NCLB encouraged (shamed) schools to manipulated these numbers by implementing “interventions” to try to “fix” the numbers. Notice, that NCLB does not get “messy” and talk about human beings. No, that would be too difficult. By limiting the definition of a learner to a number, education reformers that passed NCLB instituted a mindset of technocratic institutionalism.

Technocratic Institutionalism

Technocratic institutionalism elevates data obtuseness to something close to religious fervor. Data becomes so important because technocratic institutionalists believe that every action can (and should) be measured and once measured, needs to lead to an outcome that can also be measured. Thus, you might have had to sit through a remediation class in high school so your data point on a test could be improved for the next time you take a test. Learning, to a technocratic institutionalist, is not the point. Measuring something that leads to another measured data point IS THE POINT. Therefore, people want to measure your data point so it can match to a career.

Once people believe in technocratic institutionalism, it is easy to ask questions like:

1. “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

2. “What job are you going to get with that major?”

There are two undergirding beliefs in these questions:

1. Your career defines who you are

2. Learning cannot take place unless it (measurably) leads to a career.Your mom and I have raised you to be concerned with learning. Period. We have encouraged you to further your studies in areas that you are interested in. Whether that is history or philosophy, so be it. Be curious. Question things. Explore new pathways. These attributes will lead to true learning. A job will come later and it will not define who you are.When people ask you the first question say “I aim to be happy and fulfilled when I grow up.” Watch the video below to get inspiration from a 12-year-old.

When asked the second question, say “I am learning how to think which will help me in any job I choose to take.”Bucking the societal obsession with careers is difficult. I hope that you will find a career (like I did) that matches your curiosity and passion. I am sure you will.

About Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.
View all posts by Tom Butler, Ph.D. →

Leave a Reply