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Has education become useless?

By Calvin Mackie, Special to CNN

Calvin Mackie is an author, speaker, former engineering professor and technology entrepreneur. He graduated from high school with low SAT scores that required him to take special remedial classes before he was admitted to Morehouse College. He has since earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, and inspired thousands of students and educators across the country.

As a mechanical engineer with a Ph.D., a motivational STEM speaker and a former college professor, you’d probably be surprised to hear that I think education is useless.

In America, the education system has moved away from developing citizens to serve their fellow man to the unadulterated pursuit of standardized success at any cost. Mixed in with a sea of social change and celebrity obsession, somehow we’ve all lost sight of the goal of education: creating passionate students who are employable, teachable and adaptable in a dynamic world. Students are turned off for a number of reasons right now.

To get back on track, we must recognize that education is useless if students aren’t thirsty for it!

I’ll always remember this lesson that my grandma and grandpa taught me when I was a young kid. I was trying to force a pig to eat the slop I had prepared for him, when my uneducated but wise grandmother stated the truism, “Baby, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink!”

Much like the pig, today’s students don’t want the education we have prepared. They either aren’t hungry or they’ve gotten their fill from somewhere else. In response to my grandma, my grandpa yelled back, “Yeah, you can’t make him drink, but you sure can get him thirsty!”

We can bring students their education and put it on a silver platter right in front of them, but if they don’t want it, they’re not going to eat it. How can we make our students crave it? How can we get them motivated and passionate about learning again? The key is to get back to basics and remember what education is really about.

The primary purpose of education isn’t to teach students how to make money but to provide them with the tools and mechanisms so that they can be FREE. Free to create, free to produce and free to do the things God has ordained and created them to do. As W.E.B. Du Bois stated, “The purpose of education is not to make men and women into doctors, lawyers, and engineers; the purpose of education is to make doctors, lawyers, and engineers into men and women.”

Education affords people the ability to develop and expand their personal and collective capacities. It not only gives them skills, it helps increase their sense of “somebodiness” and purpose. Only when we bring purpose and service back to education, coupled with utility and training, will we win back the hearts and souls of America’s students.

Now, it’s not going to be that easy. “The Silent Epidemic,” a 2006 study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found that annually, nearly one-third of all public high school students fail to graduate with their class. Nearly one-half of all blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans are flunking out too. In simple terms, the present-day education system is failing the very people it’s supposed to serve: the students.

One of the biggest issues is that our children are growing up in a culture where their passions are advertised and sold to them - there’s no room for them to grow on their own terms. They are more motivated to become the next American Idol, contestant on “Dancing With the Stars” or hip-hop mogul than to become leaders of the free world or create the next Internet. What else can explain the fact that President Barack Obama and Kim Kardashian have the same number of Twitter followers?

What we need to understand is that students have motivation right now, they are just motivated by the wrong things, superficial things that do not require nor promote the education needed to succeed in the 21st century and only make them “feel good.” And so education is rendered useless. As teachers, parents, motivators and concerned citizens, we must shift our strategy to combat this problem and make our students thirsty!

Rather than starting with lesson plans that attempt to go right to the brain, teachers need to grab student’s attention and win their hearts first.

Show them the amazing lifestyle they can earn by becoming a contributing member of the knowledge economy. Put new role models in front of them - people they should look up to, follow on Twitter and “like” on Facebook.

Help them develop the ability to achieve whatever career they want, whether that is as a doctor, lawyer, engineer or teacher. Remind them every day that when you, “put something in your head, no one can take that from you.”

In the end, it’s up to us to reignite and resuscitate America’s students. Service and self-agency are the essence of motivation in education. When they return, so will our students.

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