T. S. Eliot had it all wrong, at least for most of the 53 million kids attending school in grades K-12: September is the cruelest month, mixing anxiety and boredom, stirring precious little in the way of excitement and learning.
To be sure, the overwhelming majority of American schools aren't hell holes, even if they are increasingly looking like medium-security prisons, with metal detectors adorning entrances, police officers patrolling the hallways, and rehabilitation sessions such as D.A.R.E. integrated into the academic curriculum. But our schools are not particularly fertile grounds for learning or education, especially given the vast resources pumped into them. (According to the Census Bureau, average per-pupil spending for grades K-12 topped $7,000 in 1999.)
Why schools are so lame—and how people are bypassing them—is the subject of Daniel H. Pink's cover story. (See "School's Out," page 28.) As Pink, author of the provocative recent book Free Agent Nation, points out, over the past few decades, there has been nothing short of a revolution in the way most businesses and organizations deliver goods and services. Banks, once famous for keeping limited hours, are now effectively open 24 hours a day, seven days a week; contemporary supermarkets offer a range of fresh and prepared foods that was unimaginable 30 years ago; even hospitals and doctors, renowned for neglecting patients' needs and demands, have developed customer service skills.
That seismic shift hasn't yet hit schools, especially public ones. "Most schools I've visited in the 21st century look and feel exactly like the public schools I attended in the 1970s," writes Pink. "The hallways even smell the same." In a world of mass customization and individualized attention, argues Pink, schools are still locked into an assembly-line model that's more attuned to an industrial economy than to a knowledge economy.
Regular readers of REASON know why most schools remain static and reactionary institutions: They are insulated from anything like real competition for students and resources; the lack of competition breeds a lack of innovation. Pink's focus is less on the failings of traditional schools and more on how people are learning in spite of them. After all, innovators don't simply sit on their hands waiting for systemic reform—they enact it immediately and dare others to follow.
Pink sketches a new age of individualized, lifelong learning that is as attractive as it is plausible. Indeed, whether one focuses on the growth in home schooling, adult "unschooling," or a whole range of other alternative educational paths, this is one trend that is thankfully already well underway. Who knows? In a few more years, September may never be the same again.