Monday, May 21, 2012


I overheard a conversation this weekend about the general limitations of the standard GPS.  A group of gentlemen were sharing war stories about trips gone wild when trust was given to the little voice from the car dashboard without reservation.  There was the time that the authoritative voice demanding that the driver “Turn Left…Now” was given the benefit of the doubt over the driver’s survival instincts to avoid plunging off the road into a ditch.  There was the panicked cell phone call from a spouse who ignored the “Road Closed” signs in favor of strictly following the GPS order to “Continue .4 miles to destination”.  All the guys related to the Allstate commercial that humanized the fickle nature of the GPS with a man on the floor of the front seat yelling “TURN…NOW!” just to enjoy the crash.  
Ever since KITT in Knight Rider started barking directions to his mount, we have done what we’ve been told as long as it was the dashboard talking.  After all, computers know best, and we grew up thinking that the voice from our car had our best interests at heart.  To ignore the GPS voice is to reject sanity in favor of anarchy.  The GPS knows more than we do, and we ignore it at our peril.

(For the true television addicts of another generation out there, this fascination with following disembodied voices from  automobiles traces further back to the 1960s short-lived series, My Mother the Car, in which Jerry Van Dyke’s mother, Gladys, tells him what to do and think from the used station wagon’s car radio speakers.  Today, we have Dr. Laura to play that role for us.)

There are problems with relying exclusively on one voice to get to where we want to go.  Sometimes the information in the GPS software isn’t updated quickly enough to match conditions on the ground.  Sometimes the GPS directs us on the most conventional route, while we know from personal experience that there is a short cut with fewer traffic lights that will get us to our destination with fewer stops and starts.  Sometimes an alternative route is just more fun for us and we accept that the car will shout its disapproval with regularity.  “Make the first available U-turn!!!” 

The fact is that a GPS is just one of many requirements in modern America to get to where we are going.  We still need a paper map to expand our perspective and to pinch hit when satellite reception is weak.  We still need to ask locals for the easiest way to get to where we are going with the fewest traffic delays during peak hours.  We still need to keep our eyes open for detours that were not anticipated.  We need to accept the advice of our GPS with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Beyond just listening to omnipotent talking cars, there is a wider phenomenon of people blindly accepting conventional wisdom like it’s being shouting from a GPS.  In particular, the field of education is filled with directions and instructions for success that may require a software upgrade before it can safely guide our kids to success on 21st century roads.  The school day must end by 3 PM.  High school must be 4 years long.  Kids need the summer off.  Without Standards of Learning tests, we’ll never know if kids are learning.  Kids must graduate from a 4 year college.  Really?

School ends at 3 PM so farmer children can help in the fields before sunset, a schedule that worked when we were an agrarian society.  High school lasts 4 years because…it always has.  The school structure of today was built for the society of the 1950s.  Maybe like the trusty GPS, the educational system needs a reboot to challenge assumptions and identify new routes. 

America’s GPS is barking orders that 4 years of traditional college is the correct and only path to success for our kids, and I am starting to become skeptical as the brochures come rolling in.  The educational GPS has been programmed to give us this 4 years of college answer, and in many instances, it is correct.  A college degree will get our kids to the destination of a good job and the opportunity for upward economic mobility.  The statistics are clear on this point. 
But are there other routes to the same destination of economic success in life?  When will online colleges at half the cost become the favored route to the American Dream?  Could there be another path that is less expensive, less stressful, and provide better outcomes?  Are we being marketed advice as incontrovertible fact?

That’s what the GPS provides, by the way – advice.  We can take it or leave it.  Sure, it is often correct, but not always.  When it comes to preparing our kids for the 21st century global workforce, maybe the conventional wisdom on college is wrong.  Maybe the conventional wisdom on the value of 4 years away from home at a cost of $150,000 isn’t pointing us in the right direction.  Maybe that exorbitant price for a little academic learning and lots of invaluable life lessons needs to be challenged.  The landscape of 2012 has changed quite a bit since 1984.

(Maybe I’m just cheap.)

Online colleges may provide a smoother and cheaper path to the same destination.  A 2 year trip around the world all expenses paid may less cost than 4 years of college and ultimately make my child more marketable in the business world.  The best road for my child may differ from the conventional wisdom, and may still help her arrive at her destination. 

The GPS doesn’t always give us the best advice, and skepticism is good.  Four years of college may not be the better route for every child, and skepticism is good.  Maybe it’s time to update our software, cross-check the results with a map and ask friends for some alternative directions to the American Dream.


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