The Use and Mis-use of Human Talent

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.

Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.
Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

Every year, more than 130 million children are born on this globe (1). Each of them are endowed with a set of innate talents, which can be cultured for many different uses. Some manage to use their talents for the benefit of the World, while others use them for privately profitable, but socially damaging, activities. Unfortunately, most talent is simply wasted.

One of the main causes of this waste is the World’s education systems.

The number of primary school students in the World has increased by almost half a billion over the last 50 years reaching close to 700 million now (2). To handle so many students, and such rapid student growth, education systems have to be very efficient – almost factory like. This usually means teaching large numbers of students the same things, in the same way, at the same time, and at the same speed, ignoring the huge differences in innate talents, learning modes, needs, and interests of the students.

Instead of identifying strengths and building on those, school systems typically identify weaknesses and try to re-enforce those areas, so that all students pass the minimum requirements in all topics. Schools thus end up turning out hundreds of millions of almost identical, mediocre primary school graduates.

This makes little sense in a globalized, highly competitive world, where your only chance of success is to be special. You don’t need to be outstanding in all areas, but you do need to develop an edge in the area in which you are going to make a living. It is important to avoid getting into that huge pool of identical, unskilled workers, which the World uses as a source of cheap labor. If you do not have any special skills or talents, the only way to distinguish yourself from the rest is to be slightly cheaper. This means that wages in this pool are driven down to the subsistence level.

In developed countries the homogeneous primary education is not so much of a problem, as students continue studying and specializing, thus eventually re-enforcing their innate talents. But in developing countries, where education often stops by the end of primary school (MDG accomplished!), it is a big problem. These countries just manage to get their youngsters into that huge global pool of cheap labor. Such a pool is great for the World’s capitalists, but it is not clear that it is beneficial for the poor.

If we want to insist on universal primary education, this education should be sufficiently flexible to identify each child’s strengths and develop those strengths into profitable vocations. We shouldn’t make kids waste 8 years in school, memorizing poems, presidents and multiplication tables, just to drop them into the great pool of identical, cheap labor, where they will have to labor at a subsistence wage for the rest of their life.

Know any other ways to promote or change the way we educate our young talent? Leave a reply below.

(*) Director, Institute for Advanced Development Studies, La Paz, Bolivia. The author happily receives comments at the following e-mail:
(1) See, for example, the World Population Counter of Peter Russell.
(2) World Education Report, UNESCO, 2000.


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