Dean Kamen Q&A: American culture needs a geek overhaul


(Popular Mechanics editor-in-chief, Jim Meigs (left) and inventor Dean Kamen.)

Andrew Moseman says: Dean Kamen is famous for inventing the AutoSyringe, the portable dialysis machine, the iBOT self-balancing wheelchair, and, of course, the Segway human transporter. But he is most passionate when talking about his nonprofit organization, FIRST, which tries to get kids excited about science and technology by having them build 120-pound robots to slug it out on a rough-and-tumble field of play. "We're not competing with science fairs, we're competing with Britney Spears and Shaquille O'Neal" for the attention of teenagers, Kamen said. The FIRST game changes every year—in 2008, teams raced 40-in. balls around a track. Kamen spoke with Popular Mechanics editor-in-chief Jim Meigs and an audience of journalists and FIRST competitors at the magazine's headquarters, in New York City's Hearst Tower. Kamen's core message: American culture needs a geek overhaul.

What do you think is the most important science and technology issue to be addressed by the next president? What's the biggest issue he should take on?

Is it energy? Genomics? Is it bird flu? Is it the polar caps—are they really melting? Is it terrorism? You pick the crisis du jour: The answer to all these issues is going to be an educated, competent global society. This country ought to lead the world, for lots of reasons. And we ought to help the rest of the world get educated, because if they are educated, their impact on the environment is actually way less. If they are educated, they'll have better ideas than killing each other or killing you and me.

The next president should recognize the power of technology. Technology is how we create wealth, how we cure diseases, how we'll build an environment that's sustainable and also gives people the capacity to pull more out of this world and still leave it better than when they found it. You know, people always talk about rights in this country—I wish we had a bill of responsibilities. So I think the president has to stop thinking of the crisis du jour and say, "In this race between education and catastrophe, we need education to win." The next president better make sure that all kids are part of the solution, not part of the problem. And with 50 percent of the kids in the 20 largest school districts in the country not graduating high school, they're part of the problem. This is unsustainable. It has to change.

Read the rest here:

Dean Kamen on education


  1. “I would argue that education, actual learning—it is hard work…What parents do, and what teachers do—in a culture that isn’t full of distractions—is guide kids where to put that time and attention, that mental sweat.”

    That statement is simplicity itself:

    1. Turn off the TV
    2. Work hard, fail, work hard
    3. Parents kick your ass if you don’t work hard
    4. Succeed

  2. For my own experience, it was more along the lines of

    1: Parents watch TV
    2: Work hard, succeed, work hard
    3: Parents/society kicked my ass whether I worked hard or not
    4: Burn out.

    I tested in the top .01% nationwide on the PSAT and SAT – a football player with mediocre grades got a larger and more well-appointed scholarship than I did. I dropped out of college after an entire freshman Calculus class

    1: started in the middle of the Calculus 201 curriculum
    2: was taught by a TA who spoke no English
    3: I dropped said class
    4: 97% of the class would have failed the semester but it was graded on a curve so that only two people failed and /they/ didn’t even show up to the final exam.
    5: The honest withdrawal caused my scholarship to be suspended but dishonestly ‘passing’ it would have kept my scholarship.

    Kamen is one of my personal heroes. I wish I had been told, as a kid, that I could do anything I wanted to do without a college diploma.

  3. He mentions a little bit about some of the ideas that they’re borrowing from sports, but at the same time speaks so derisively about them. Although I agree that in the hierarchy of cultural importance sports are over-valued, it doesn’t help his argument to talk about sports in such a scoffing manner. Especially when he’s also comes across as not understanding sports at all beyond the fact that they’re competition.

    The biggest issue with education and kids is that unless you’re one of those nerds who’s obsessed with their test scores, it’s not immediate gratification enough. It’s not easy to convince an eight year old to sit and slog through tough material so that twenty years from now they can have a cool job that is challenging and enjoyable and also pays the bills.

    Sports provide a much more satisfying type of feedback and more often, because winning is awesome. An educational “sport” like his robot competitions are a good step in that direction, the challenge is to find a way to bring more of an individual’s education in that direction.

  4. The ruling class doesn’t want you smart and informed. They want you to be no more than dumb cattle who do as they’re told and consume their products without question. They are aware of what their agenda is and speak openly among themselves (in privately circulated newsletters) about the need to destroy public education. The world the aristocratic class longs for is what they call the “ownership society” where all services are privately held and government is nothing more than their own private police force.

  5. This country ought to lead the world, for lots of reasons. And we ought to help the rest of the world get educated, because if they are educated, their impact on the environment is actually way less. If they are educated, they’ll have better ideas than killing each other or killing you and me.

    I can’t wait. I’m so tired of just sitting here on my log, twitching and rocking back and forth, waiting for someone from a smarter country to descend from the heavens and instruct me.

  6. I’m part of the FIRST competition and its actually a great way for students to become interested and learn more interested in the engineering field.

  7. I agree with Mr. Kamen on the value of education, but I think there has to be decision on what makes valuable education. I remember, clearly, the day we went out as 5th graders and learned about marine biology by actually going to our beach and examining tide pools and river mouths with an experienced marine biologist. This was called “experiential learning” and isn’t used enough. Most schools are baby sitting centers or test preparation creches. We don’t take the time to that largely because of money, but also because we don’t know what’s the best way to do it.

    I don’t think the crappy education system is entirely the fault of elite machinations (only partially). There’s a decidedly anti-intellectual bent in the United States. One of our presidential candidates graduated from one of the nation’s top ranking universities, and its working AGAINST him.

  8. “50 percent of the kids in the 20 largest school districts in the country not graduating high school”

    The old educational model (the “Factory”) rolled over and died long ago. And that was *before* the -huge school- model, cramming hundreds (or thousands) into megaschools … about as conducive to learning as megachurches are to spirituality.

    Where is the Wikipedia-scale project to make networked computers into the excellent learning tools they have the capacity to be?

    Education will be sub-par so long as we treat it as an afterthought. If the financial sector deserves a thorough rethinking, and the energy sector needs a thorough rethinking, and infrastructure needs $300 billion in repairs: where’s the Apollo mission to revamp education, make it so unforgettably valuable and exciting that kids will fight to stay *in* school?

    The experts have failed. Maybe we should ask the kids.

  9. This country ought to lead the world, for lots of reasons.

    Wait–what? Why should anyone lead the world?

  10. I found this essay in the Fall ’91 issue of Whole Earth Review. It finally clarified for me why American school is such a spirit-crushing experience, and suggested what to do about it.

    The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher
    by John Taylor Gatto, New York State Teacher of the Year, 1991

    Call me Mr. Gatto, please. Twenty-six years ago, having nothing better to do, I tried my hand at schoolteaching. My license certifies me as an instructor of English language and literature, but that isn’t what I do at all. What I teach is school, and I win awards doing it.

    Teaching means many different things, but six lessons are common to schoolteaching from Harlem to Hollywood. You pay for these lessons in more ways than you can imagine, so you might as well know what they are:

    The first lesson I teach is: “Stay in the class where you belong.” I don’t know who decides that my kids belong there but that’s not my business. The children are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned to the right class. Over the years the variety of ways children are numbered has increased dramatically, until it is hard to see the human being under the burden of the numbers each carries. Numbering children is a big and very profitable business, though what the business is designed to accomplish is elusive.

    In any case, again, that’s not my business. My job is to make the kids like it — being locked in together, I mean — or at the minimum, endure it. If things go well, the kids can’t imagine themselves anywhere else; they envy and fear the better classes and have contempt for the dumber classes. So the class mostly keeps itself in good marching order. That’s the real lesson of any rigged competition like school. You come to know your place.

    Nevertheless, in spite of the overall blueprint, I make an effort to urge children to higher levels of test success, promising eventual transfer from the lower-level class as a reward. I insinuate that the day will come when an employer will hire them on the basis of test scores, even though my own experience is that employers are (rightly) indifferent to such things. I never lie outright, but I’ve come to see that truth and [school]teaching are incompatible.

    The lesson of numbered classes is that there is no way out of your class except by magic. Until that happens you must stay where you are put.

    The second lesson I teach kids is to turn on and off like a light switch. I demand that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor. But when the bell rings I insist that they drop the work at once and proceed quickly to the next work station. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any other class I know of.

    The lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? Bells are the secret logic of schooltime; their argument is inexorable; bells destroy past and future, converting every interval into a sameness, as an abstract map makes every living mountain and river the same even though they are not. Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.

    The third lesson I teach you is to surrender your will to a predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld, by authority, without appeal. As a schoolteacher I intervene in many personal decisions, issuing a Pass for those I deem legitimate, or initiating a disciplinary confrontation for behavior that threatens my control. My judgments come thick and fast, because individuality is trying constantly to assert itself in my classroom. Individuality is a curse to all systems of classification, a contradiction of class theory.

    Here are some common ways it shows up: children sneak away for a private moment in the toilet on the pretext of moving their bowels; they trick me out of a private instant in the hallway on the grounds that they need water. Sometimes free will appears right in front of me in children angry, depressed or exhilarated by things outside my ken. Rights in such things cannot exist for schoolteachers; only privileges, which can be withdrawn, exist.

    The fourth lesson I teach is that only I determine what curriculum you will study. (Rather, I enforce decisions transmitted by the people who pay me). This power lets me separate good kids from bad kids instantly. Good kids do the tasks I appoint with a minimum of conflict and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to learn, I decide what few we have time for. The choices are mine. Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.

    Bad kids fight against this, of course, trying openly or covertly to make decisions for themselves about what they will learn. How can we allow that and survive as schoolteachers? Fortunately there are procedures to break the will of those who resist.

    This is another way I teach the lesson of dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. This is the most important lesson of all, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. It is no exaggeration to say that our entire economy depends upon this lesson being learned. Think of what would fall apart if kids weren’t trained in the dependency lesson: The social-service businesses could hardly survive, including the fast-growing counseling industry; commercial entertainment of all sorts, along with television, would wither if people remembered how to make their own fun; the food services, restaurants and prepared-food warehouses would shrink if people returned to making their own meals rather than depending on strangers to cook for them. Much of modern law, medicine, and engineering would go too — the clothing business as well — unless a guaranteed supply of helpless people poured out of our schools each year. We’ve built a way of life that depends on people doing what they are told because they don’t know any other way. For God’s sake, let’s not rock that boat!

    In lesson five I teach that your self-respect should depend on an observer’s measure of your worth. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged. A monthly report, impressive in its precision, is sent into students’ homes to spread approval or to mark exactly — down to a single percentage point — how dissatisfied with their children parents should be. Although some people might be surprised how little time or reflection goes into making up these records, the cumulative weight of the objective- seeming documents establishes a profile of defect which compels a child to arrive at a certain decisions about himself and his future based on the casual judgment of strangers.

    Self-evaluation — the staple of every major philosophical system that ever appeared on the planet — is never a factor in these things. The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents, but must rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.

    In lesson six I teach children that they are being watched. I keep each student under constant surveillance and so do my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children; there is no private time. Class change lasts 300 seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other, even to tattle on their parents. Of course I encourage parents to file their own child’s waywardness, too.

    I assign “homework” so that this surveillance extends into the household, where students might otherwise use the time to learn something unauthorized, perhaps from a father or mother, or by apprenticing to some wiser person in the neighborhood.

    The lesson of constant surveillance is that no one can be trusted, that privacy is not legitimate. Surveillance is an ancient urgency among certain influential thinkers; it was a central prescription set down by Calvin in the Institutes, by Plato in the Republic, by Hobbes, by Comte, by Francis Bacon. All these childless men discovered the same thing: Children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under central control.

    It is the great triumph of schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among even the best parents, there is only a small number who can imagine a different way to do things. Yet only a very few lifetimes ago things were different in the United States: originality and variety were common currency; our freedom from regimentation made us the miracle of the world; social class boundaries were relatively easy to cross; our citizenry was marvelously confident, inventive, and able to do many things independently, to think for themselves. We were something, all by ourselves, as individuals.

    It only takes about 50 contact hours to transmit basic literacy and math skills well enough that kids can be self-teachers from then on. The cry for “basic skills” practice is a smokescreen behind which schools pre-empt the time of children for twelve years and teach them the six lessons I’ve just taught you.

    We’ve had a society increasingly under central control in the United States since just before the Civil War: the lives we lead, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the green highway signs we drive by from coast to coast are the products of this central control. So, too, I think, are the epidemics of drugs, suicide, divorce, violence, cruelty, and the hardening of class into caste in the U.S., products of the dehumanization of our lives, the lessening of individual and family importance that central control imposes.

    Without a fully active role in community life you cannot develop into a complete human being. Aristotle taught that. Surely he was right; look around you or look in the mirror: that is the demonstration.

    “School” is an essential support system for a vision of social engineering that condemns most people to be subordinate stones in a pyramid that narrows to a control point as it ascends. “School” is an artifice which makes such a pyramidal social order seem inevitable (although such a premise is a fundamental betrayal of the American Revolution). In colonial days and through the period of the early Republic we had no schools to speak of. And yet the promise of democracy was beginning to be realized. We turned our backs on this promise by bringing to life the ancient dream of Egypt: compulsory training in subordination for everybody. Compulsory schooling was the secret Plato reluctantly transmitted in the Republic when he laid down the plans for total state control of human life.

    The current debate about whether we should have a national curriculum is phony; we already have one, locked up in the six lessons I’ve told you about and a few more I’ve spared you. This curriculum produces moral and intellectual paralysis, and no curriculum of content will be sufficient to reverse its bad effects. What is under discussion is a great irrelevancy.

    None of this is inevitable, you know. None of it is impregnable to change. We do have a choice in how we bring up young people; there is no right way. There is no “international competition” that compels our existence, difficult as it is to even think about in the face of a constant media barrage of myth to the contrary. In every important material respect our nation is self-sufficient. If we gained a non-material philosophy that found meaning where it is genuinely located — in families, friends, the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple ceremonies and rituals, in curiosity, generosity, compassion, and service to others, in a decent independence and privacy — then we would be truly self-sufficient.

    How did these awful places, these “schools”, come about? As we know them, they are a product of the two “Red Scares” of 1848 and 1919, when powerful interests feared a revolution among our industrial poor, and partly they are the result of the revulsion with which old-line families regarded the waves of Celtic, Slavic, and Latin immigration — and the Catholic religion — after 1845. And certainly a third contributing cause can be found in the revulsion with which these same families regarded the free movement of Africans through the society after the Civil War.

    Look again at the six lessons of school. This is training for permanent underclasses, people who are to be deprived forever of finding the center of their own special genius. And it is training shaken loose from its original logic: to regulate the poor. Since the 1920s the growth of the well-articulated school bureaucracy, and the less visible growth of a horde of industries that profit from schooling exactly as it is, have enlarged schooling’s original grasp to seize the sons and daughters of the middle class.

    Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation that he took money to teach? Even then, philosophers saw clearly the inevitable direction the professionalization of teaching would take, pre-empting the teaching function that belongs to all in a healthy community; belongs, indeed, most clearly to yourself, since nobody else cares as much about your destiny. Professional teaching tends to another serious error. It makes things that are inherently easy to learn, like reading, writing, and arithmetic, difficult — by insisting they be taught by pedagogical procedures.

    With lessons like the ones I teach day after day, is it any wonder we have the national crisis we face today? Young people indifferent to the adult world and to the future; indifferent to almost everything except the diversion of toys and violence? Rich or poor, schoolchildren cannot concentrate on anything for very long. They have a poor sense of time past and to come; they are mistrustful of intimacy (like the children of divorce they really are); they hate solitude, are cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid in the face of the unexpected, addicted to distraction.

    All the peripheral tendencies of childhood are magnified to a grotesque extent by schooling, whose hidden curriculum prevents effective personality development. Indeed, without exploiting the fearfulness, selfishness, and inexperience of children our schools could not survive at all, nor could I as a certified schoolteacher.

    “Critical thinking” is a term we hear frequently these days as a form of training which will herald a new day in mass schooling. It certainly will, if it ever happens. No common school that actually dared teach the use of dialectic, heuristic, and other tools of free minds could last a year without being torn to pieces.

    Institutional schoolteachers are destructive to children’s development. Nobody survives the Six-Lesson Curriculum unscathed, not even the instructors. The method is deeply and profoundly anti-educational. No tinkering will fix it. In one of the great ironies of human affairs, the massive rethinking that schools require would cost so much less than we are spending now that it is not likely to happen. First and foremost, the business I am in is a jobs project and a contract-letting agency. We cannot afford to save money, not even to help children.

    At the pass we’ve come to historically, and after 26 years of teaching, I must conclude that one of the only alternatives on the horizon for most families is to teach their own children at home. Small, de- institutionalized schools are another. Some form of free-market system for public schooling is the likeliest place to look for answers. But the near impossibility of these things for the shattered families of the poor, and for too many on the fringes of the economic middle class, foretell that the disaster of Six-Lesson Schools is likely to continue.

    After an adult lifetime spent in teaching school I believe the method of schooling is the only real content it has. Don’t be fooled into thinking that good curricula or good equipment or good teachers are the critical determinants of your son and daughter’s schooltime. All the pathologies we’ve considered come about in large measure because the lessons of school prevent children from keeping important appointments with themselves and their families, to learn lessons in self-motivation, perseverance, self-reliance, courage, dignity and love — and, of course, lessons in service to others, which are among the key lessons of home life.

    Thirty years ago these things could still be learned in the time left after school. But television has eaten most of that time, and a combination of television and the stresses peculiar to two-income or single-parent families have swallowed up most of what used to be family time. Our kids have no time left to grow up fully human, and only thin-soil wastelands to do it in.

    A future is rushing down upon our culture which will insist that all of us learn the wisdom of non-material experience; this future will demand, as the price of survival, that we follow a pace of natural life economical in material cost. These lessons cannot be learned in schools as they are. School is like starting life with a 12-year jail sentence in which bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know.

  11. “50 percent of the kids in the 20 largest school districts in the country not graduating high school”

    And coincidentally enough, those same school districts have a large percentage of kids from cultures (both inside and outside the U.S.) that don’t value education. Education is the effect, not the cause. And we can’t be too smug, because it wasn’t that long ago that kids in the west were holding down full-time jobs in the mills and mines, and an 8th grade education was a luxury.

    And I would argue that anti-education values are sustainable. Throughout human history, rank illiteracy has been the norm. Subsistence has been the norm. Life in those cultures where it persists continues to be nasty, brutish, and short, but that lifestyle is possibly more sustainable than the alternative. Getting an education so you don’t have to herd goats or scratch in the dirt with a stick to feed your 12 kids is the exception. And it’s hard to maintain. It would be all too easy to slip back.

    Congratulations to Kamen for fighting to keep that rock rolling up the hill.

  12. My dad was one of the mentors for a team in the Cambridge MA (I think that was the location) competition, and let me tell you, he could not have been more delighted to be teaching these kids about the things which still get his heart racing to this day, even at the age of 70. And he was incredibly proud of them, apparently his team was the only one to pass the preliminary trials on their first try. Go dad!

  13. @#5 Galoot

    Spot on, Galoot. With the complete US loonies hopefully on the way out, there has been more air time of the supposed other side of politics and general thinking.

    Somehow though the “Yanks must rule one way or another” doctrine, whether via black hawks or segways, seems to be a bipartisan thread.

    Are they actually serious or is it a given that everyone has to pay tribute to the great patriotic moron-mass?

    This TED talk I just watched is a great example…I fear a lot of progressive Americans wouldn’t even be able to pin the bits that make most non-Americans reach for the sick-bag…

  14. Kamen’s ideas are admirable. But, as long as the reality of underfunded public education persists, nothing will change. As the fetish for tax cuts continues unabated, schools will forever struggle to meet even basic goals, let alone improve to meet the dreams of people like Kamen.

  15. @ #2 bardfinn:

    You dropped out of college because of one class in freshman year? There are plenty of other ways to succeed in life than by getting a college degree, but knocking the whole concept of higher education because of one poorly taught class seems like kind of a defeatist attitude.

    I am totally with you on the topic of sports scholarships, though. What a freaking joke.

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