11.21.2012

The Diamond Age

By Josh

In Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi novel The Diamond Age, Nell, a bright but disadvantaged girl, gets her hands on a book titled Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer: a Propædeutic Enchiridion. Originally intended for an aristocrat’s daughter, the Primer tutors Nell throughout her school-age years — and what a tutor it turns out to be!

The Primer challenges its reader to try new experiences, exercise her imagination, and think for herself. As a result, Nell grows up to be a bold, omnicompetent woman who changes the world for the better. The authors of UNBORED are fans of The Diamond Age; our book — as we told our publisher, right from the beginning — was conceived of as a real-life version of Nell’s Primer.

Here’s a peek at the proposal for UNBORED (provisionally titled The Kids’ Field Guide to Life) that we submitted to Bloomsbury in April 2010:

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Traditionally, education is about mastery of content and conventional problem solving. The Primer, however, takes it for granted that what society’s future leaders require, not only for personal fulfillment but success, are advanced thinking skills such as synthesis, adaptation, and innovation. Because the problems of their (near-future) world are highly complex, the Primer‘s readers are encouraged to view things from multiple perspectives, identify a range of approaches, and think adaptively and flexibly before conceiving solutions.

Like Neal Stephenson’s Nell, today’s children are facing a future whose problems — social, cultural, economic, political, environmental — are highly complex. Yet both their educations and life outside of school aren’t preparing them for these challenges.

Don’t take our word for it, though! In a November 2012 interview with the New York Times, Sal Khan — founder of Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization that is supported by Google and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and produces wildly popular free 10-minute educational videos for children in grades K-12 — said that one of his all-time favorite books is… Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age. “A member of the nobility has someone create this tablet device that can teach his granddaughter so she can be highly educated and knowledgeable. The device gets bootlegged and pirated and eventually gets in the hands of thousands of orphan girls, who, because they are able to get educated, take over the country.”

In school, kids today are often pushed to excel at math and reading, to the exclusion of (take your pick) music, science, social studies, fine art, drama, PE — even recess. Outside of school, anxious parents often overbook their kids’ leisure time by having them spend all their time on, say, soccer or violin. These trends don’t make for a fun, fulfilling childhood! Nor is this how we ought to be raising our society’s future leaders.

UNBORED is informed by the DIY (Do It Yourself) movement’s ethos, whose core notion is that complex problems are a fun and exciting challenge… as long as you know how to see things from multiple perspectives, identify a range of approaches, and think adaptively and flexibly to conceive solutions.

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“The biggest problem in schools is boredom,” says Dale Dougherty, the publisher of MAKE Magazine, the foremost publication of the DIY movement. “Students sit passively, expected to absorb all the content that is thrown at them without much context. The context that’s missing is the real world.” Like MAKE does for adults, UNBORED engages kids through the practices of making and hands-on experiences, through tinkering and taking things apart. We believe, with Dale Dougherty, that students can be something other than consumers of education. As he puts it so well: “They can become makers and creators of their own educational lives, moving from being directed to do something to becoming self-directed and independent learners.”

Eventually, we believe (with Sal Khan and Dale Dougherty), those self-directed and independent learners will change society and the world for the better!