Temple Grandin is America's most famous high-functioning autist, leading a very successful life and even being the subject of a biopic while being utterly weird and unable to master many ordinary skills. As you might imagine, she did not like school, and thinks our schools are set up to fail people like her whose strengths are not in language or abstraction (NY Times):
I often get asked what I would do to improve both elementary and high school. The first step would be to put more of an emphasis on hands-on classes such as art, music, sewing, woodworking, cooking, theater, auto mechanics and welding. I would have hated school if the hands-on classes had been removed, as so many have been today. These classes also expose students — especially neurodivergent students — to skills that could become a career. Exposure is key. Too many students are growing up who have never used a tool. They are completely removed from the world of the practical.After noting how many of the high-tech products used in the US are built elsewhere, she writes:
Despite my accomplishments, if I were a young person today, I would have difficulty graduating from high school because I could not pass algebra. It was too abstract, with no visual correlations. This is true for many of today’s students who get labeled as bad at math, students who might otherwise pass alternative math courses such as statistics that would also apply to real-life work situations. There is too much emphasis in school on testing and not enough on career outcomes. The fact that I failed the SAT in math prohibited me from getting into veterinary school, but today I am a university professor in animal sciences and I am invited to speak to groups of veterinarians to advise them on their work. The true measure of an education isn’t what grades a student gets today, but where they are 10 years later.
The reason this equipment is coming from outside the United States can be traced in part to differences in educational systems. In Italy and the Netherlands, for instance, a student at about age 14 decides whether to go the university route or the vocational route. The vocational route is not looked down on or regarded as a lesser form of intelligence. And that’s how it should be everywhere, because the skill sets of visual thinkers are essential to finding real-world solutions to society’s many problems.
I agree with all of this. I cannot see what good it does us to try to make every high school graduate "college ready," nor why we would want a society where millions of adults have never held a screwdriver or a chopping knife. I liked something Tyler Cowen once said about education, that the model should be more like the Boy Scouts than an assembly line.
Grandin seems to have gone full into the language of "neurodivergence," which I think has become an excuse for a lot of people to be shiftless and randomly nonconformist. But it is true that we are neurodiverse. There are many, many people in the world who can fix a car but not write a paragraph, who communicate more fluently in C++ than English, who can't do algebra but can intuit what people want and help them get it.
It would be very difficult to set up an educational system that helps all young people develop their talents, rather than forcing them through a rigid curriculum that causes many of them great pain. But we should try.