Skepticism as a Virtue

Angela Maiers, who provides the world with more links than just about anyone except for Larry Ferlazzo or Richard Byrne--although it's close--sent a link out to an article from the Asian version of Reader's Digest, circa 1991. The article, titled "The Best Teacher I Ever Had,"written by Dr Leong Hon Wai is a quick read about the quality that his teacher in question, Mr. Whitson, helped develop in him. That quality? A healthy skepticism of authority.

Time Magazine came out this week with another one in their series "The Future of (insert monolithic enterprise of modern life)," this week. This cycle's topic was the future of work, and they gave 11 ways in which work will profoundly change in the near future. The 11 are here, but I'd like to draw attention to only two: "High Tech, High Touch, High Growth," and "The Last Days of Cubicle Life."

Mr. Whitson had asked Dr. Leong and his classmates to have "the courage to look people in the eye and tell them they are wrong. He also showed us that you can have fun doing it." A valuable life lesson, undoubtedly, especially considering the amount of information we are confronted with on a daily basis. The ideals touted by Mr. Whitson are more relevant today than they ever have been before, but something has changed about them ever so slightly. Our conversations are happening on multiple levels, in real and virtual spaces, and in ways that weren't possible when Dr. Leong sat in that sixth grade classroom. One of the comments I received on my last post here, and which I also received here, pointed to my position as an inherently false one. That's a skill there, it's part Mr. Whitson, and part not. The ways in which we call someone out online have to adhere to a set of principles that were not developed in Mr. Whitson's era, because the response to the calling out is so much swifter. We need to be teach our children how to communicate in environments where there language can be interpreted as is intended.

An interesting quote from the "High Tech, High Touch, High Growth," piece in Time:

"There are definitely downsides to it being harder to get a job," says Alex Lavoie, a 21-year-old junior from Avon, Conn. "But it's forced people to look harder at what they really want to do instead of following a standardized path."

The student quoted here could very well have been a student of Mr. Whitson. Listen to his analysis of the situation. It's rife with a healthy skepticism (and a whole lot of youthful idealism) about what's in front of him. Granted, Alex is a Harvard junior, and not the type to survey a barren job landscape and get gloomy, but the idea here is that we need to be cultivating those type skills in our students that will allow them to look at traditional solutions or career paths and imagine them anew for themselves.

Seth Godin, who authored the final piece of the the Time series, "The Last Days of the Cubicle," had this to say about how we'll work:

employers no longer need to pay you to drive to a building to sit and type. In fact, under pressure from an uncertain economy, bosses are discovering that there are a lot of reasons not to pay you to drive to a central location or even to pay you at all.

When you do come in to work, your boss will know... The boss will know when you log in, what you type, what you access. Not just the boss but also your team. Internet technology makes working as a team, synchronized to a shared goal, easier and more productive than ever. But as in a three-legged-race, you'll instantly know when a teammate is struggling, because that will slow you down as well. Some people will embrace this new high-stress, high-speed, high-flexibility way of work. We'll go from a few days alone at home, maintaining the status quo, to urgent team sessions, sometimes in person, often online. It will make some people yearn for jobs like those in the old days, when we fought traffic, sat in a cube, typed memos, took a long lunch and then sat in traffic again.

There are myriad examples of how teachers are using similar, yet scaled down, methodologies in classrooms today. Think of how we use collaborative technologies to help students work around busy schedules for group projects or for their own organization, and think about how hyper-connected we all have become via mobile technology. Godin's future is not a hard one to imagine, and one that will lead us in many directions. Let's apply Mr. Whitson's lens here: will it enhance our lives to do the majority of our work at home? or will it degrade from our inherent need to be social. Employers are seeing that the cost of bringing everyone together may not pay economically, but what about the social cost? Will we create elements of our society that can replace those spaces we used to work/socialize in--perhaps the rise of third places?

It feels good, Mr. Whitson, to look out upon what is told to me and wonder about its veracity. Now I just have to learn how to make it work in these new spaces.