I was reading a post on Mark Sisson's always interesting blog Mark's Daily Apple a few weeks back about specialization and self-sufficiency in modern times. In it, he cited a great quotation from Robert Heinlein's Time Enough For Love (1973); Heinlein wrote: "a human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects" (p. 248) Setting aside whatever you might think about Heinlein's politics, this quote is worthy of a deep consideration. What kind of life is Heinlein calling on you to live? What kind of education is Heinlein calling us to craft for young people (and indeed for adults)?
In a previous post, I wrote that for schools to be effective in the 21st century, they have to become more and more places of doing rather than just temples of knowing. I argued that knowing outside of its doing context is insufficient. This quote strikes me as a great reminder of what education at its best and clearest always was in Western society. Surely Heinlein in this case is just updating Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier for a 20th century audience? Equally surely, education that aims for the Renaissance ideal of a well-balanced human being capable of skillfully doing many different things should be the purpose of our schools.
What would a school designed for these purposes look like? How would it function day-to-day? How would it be organized? I've spent a lot of time in my career thinking about and developing visions of the graduate and graduation requirements...think about what a school would have to devote its attention to if it set the Heinlein quote as its graduation requirements. Changing a diaper is simple enough. Program a computer and solve equations is actually not that much more complex (at least on its surface). But let's say you wouldn't let a student graduate until he or she had demonstrated proficiency at giving and taking orders...what would the curriculum for that look like? To say nothing of dying gallantly.
How would you bring Heinlein's quote up to 2012? What's new in what a human being should be able to do? Is there anything you would delete as unworthy, inappropriate or wrong-headed? Do you think Heinlein's ideas are wrong? Is specialization worth considering in 2012? In my next post I'll take up the idea of specialization.