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This TED Talk demonstrates ONE of the areas that is so lacking in our current US educational system.  

This example is about mathematics. A few years ago I was introduced to the wonder, simplicity and pure genius of Vedic Mathematics by some of my Indian friends. (Watch this TED talk to learn just how EASY math can really be).

Our US (in particular) educational system is wrongly focused on two (unstated but very real) objectives:

1.  Hyper-specialization. Our society values extreme specialization as a function of commercial scarcity. In other words, the more specialized the individual’s technical skill set, the more scarce her/his work product. Likewise, the greater the scarcity level, the higher the monetary compensation that person can command. The higher the salary, the higher the professional prestige. In short: Hyper-specialization = more PAY and more PRESTIGE.

2.  Erecting barriers (often totally artificial) to hyper-specialization to make learning seem more difficult in that area, thus sustaining the scarcity tied to that specialization and skill set.   Society values specialization that takes more time to learn, requires more work and is ever more selective in acceptance to (and matriculation through) such programs. This perpetuates the illusion of difficulty and sustains the intended “club” effect. In essence, the more difficult the entry into and completion of that specialization, just like the matriculating students, the more pay and prestige the academicians within that area of specialty can likewise command.  

Mathematics is a good example of this. Many people believe math is too difficult because they were taught that it was difficult by their math teachers and/or university professors.  They pile on tons of homework without providing any context to the student helping him/her perceive the subject matter as relevant, interesting and “simple.”  

It is a very effective educator that positions his/her discipline as easy, interesting and relevant. It is a very ineffectual teacher who makes the subject matter appear more difficult than it really is. This of course has the side benefit of registering more adulation and praise for mastering the subject matter.  

The revelation of the high speed and simplistic methods of Vedic Mathematics are a great example of this very dilemma. Western mathematicians do not even recognize its shortcuts as relevant (or even acknowledge its standing as a legitimate field of mathematics). Instead, too many institutions of higher learning seek to perpetuate the myth that mathematics is “a veritable black box that only a genius can master.” Is it any wonder that Math and Science specializations get approximately 99.5% of public educational dollars, despite the fact that results versus other nations continue to fall short? Meanwhile, arts and humanities programs are perennially on the public school (proverbial) “chopping-block.”

In my opinion, we need a new approach to learning, one that de emphasizes difficulty and complexity in favor of simplicity and relevance. An education that actually seeks a well-rounded experience and recognizes that tomorrow’s leaders will need a broader perspective to see “the forest from the trees” in order to solve society’s most menacing and multidimensional challenges. As Einstein admonished, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Societies that suffer from hyper-specialization often inadvertently foster a lack of societal empathy (as an unintended consequence), resulting in a new (and I might add somewhat exhausting) enigma: the problem of hyper-polarization.

In such a world, it isn’t difficult to see how populist politics can easily devolve toward recalcitrant and self-interested positions without the slightest regard for opposing viewpoints, philosophies or the ‘broader view’ of the common good.

Better yet, maybe we can just label it “fake news” and take the next self-serving stance and refer to it as the only ethical position on the topic?  (hint of a little sarcasm?!). Or perhaps the ubiquity of today’s fake news phenomenon is really just emblematic of polarized perspectives (on both sides) regarding what the messenger (whoever it is) ‘perceives’ is better for them personally, either financially or socially.

It certainly seems that the more the academic community and economic incentives push us toward continued hyper-specialization, the further away we find ourselves from finding common ground.