On Ulysses, Yoda And The School of Hard Knocks

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What image pops into your head when you hear “The School of Hard Knocks?” It’s a classically rough-around-the-edges, romantic, ideal lauded in the industrial age; a solitary image standing defiantly against adversity. Because in an age of engines and systems and machines, there was fear that industrialization would rob individuals of dignity and value. Our lore is full of rugged individuals as heroes:  Ulysses, Spartacus, Rob Roy, Davy Crockett, Molly Pitcher, John Henry and Jesse James. In our modern media-driven world, entertainers have built their careers portraying characters beating the odds as the loner-hero: Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, James Dean, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, Clint Eastwood and James Gandolfini, to name a few.

The School of Hard Knocks comes with a pro-middle class, anti-intellectual edge to it; valuing life lessons over book learning. Having common sense, street smarts, cunning and cleverness makes one “cool” while being a nerd, geek, wonk or bookworm does not. It defines both how we look at ourselves and how we look at others. Rarely is communal leadership celebrated over the iron will of a larger-than-life individual stepping forward from the backdrop of everyday life. Baby Boomers idealized the School of Hard Knocks as a statement about retaining individual identity and charisma, but on its flipside, it’s also an ignorant, opinionated, mythology-based belief system justifying the vehement suppression of anything and anyone threatening one’s quality of life.

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Here are eight lessons celebrated by self-proclaimed graduates the School of Hard Knocks:

  • Win at all costs – whatever it takes to maintain and sustain a certain quality of life must be done, even when it flies in the face of societal values, morals and ethics.
  • Beat the system – if you can get away with lying, stealing and cheating in order to avoid conforming to societal norms, you win.
  • Stomp the competition – on whatever side of an issue you stand, your primary objective is to destroy those who oppose you so that you can achieve your goals with minimal resistance.
  • Might makes right – after ideas are vetted and the dialog is done, whoever has the ability to physically defeat others is right, whether the merit of their ideas carried the dialog or not.
  • Competition over cooperation – winning ideas rise to the surface as a result of no-holds-barred competition that pits people against one another, leaving a trail of losers behind.
  • Survival of the fittest – those who rise into positions of power and influence are superior to those who do not have the innate abilities to make their own claim to self-determination.
  • Ruling class – established classes of people within a society have the right to do whatever it takes to maintain their status, even at the expense of other classes of people.
  • Nice guys finish last – if you live your life with integrity, you will not have the same quality of life as those who are willing to break the rules and take shortcuts to be successful.

The poverty and injustice and oppression created for others by these platitudes is the very adversity the School of Hard Knocks claims to fight; the assumptions and convictions handed down to us from those who survived the Great Depression and two world wars, now being challenged by our children. Twenty and thirty-somethings demand a more just, fair, equitable society where everyone is valued equally and the common good trumps individual interests. They do not celebrate, nor do they wish to matriculate to, the School of Hard Knocks. The physical world of the industrial revolution has given way to a virtual world where there are no physical limits and anything is possible; and the ultimate truth of this virtual world is, the only thing that holds us back are the limitations we impose on our own thinking.

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Today our issues are global, our world is shrinking, and there are no simple, single, right answers. Adults age forty and younger celebrate collaboration, diversity and the collective good. What is the metaphor for this new age? Think about its characteristics. No boundaries. Personal choice. Social capital. Communal norms. Global collaboration. Work life balance. Communication. Mobility. Adaptability. Transparency. In many ways we are aspiring to a new image of that shining city on a hill, where success comes from contributing to the community and being responsible for the common good. The only difference is, this time around, the city is not in a physical location, it’s virtual; and equitable access and opportunity, free from poverty, injustice and oppression, are the right of every citizen.

The question we face in education is, how do we serve a cyber city on a hill? We have certainly been moving away from the industrial model of desks and chairs in orderly rows. But we’re still working within the confines of grading scales, chronological-age-based grade levels and curricula organized by scope and sequence. There’s more work to be done. The good news is today everyone values learning: vibrant, meaningful, engaging, authentic learning. The School of Hard Knocks is imploding, consumed within is own black hole. Forget John Henry and Jesse James. Think Yoda: “There is no try. Relevant and respected, education must be. Evolve, we must!”

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