Opinion | Michigan, act like a 2-year-old: Continuously ask, 'Why?'

We made it through 2020. Onward to 2021. 

We can take pride in Governor Whitmer’s leadership adapting to the unpredictable chaos that COVID-19 wrought on our state.  Our governor played a pivotal leadership role in forging change in spite of a divided partisan legislature that often acted without any federal support, guidance or planning.  Let’s face it. COVID has rattled the world’s cage, well beyond Michigan’s borders. It will require a different way of thinking to  produce a better public health response going forward. 

We need public policymakers, lawmakers and decision makers at the national, state and local levels to take a moment of self and collective reflection and ask “why?” Clearly, if Michigan is going to be competitive on the world stage, where ideas and jobs can and will continue to move around the globe effortlessly, we need change, transformation and progress.

Tom Watkins served as deputy chief of staff to Governor Blanchard, director of the department of mental health and state superintendent of schools. He is an international business and educational consultant. 

Perhaps there would be value if more of our policymakers acted like a 2-year-old. No, not with more meltdowns and impulsiveness. Rather, by constantly asking, “Why”? Why do we do the things we do? Could we do better by rethinking the old order? This can really help us in the critical area of our public education system. 

Let’s look at what the pandemic has been teaching us about our education system.  Here’s where we really need to ask “why?”

It does not make sense

What COVID is teaching us is that we need to demonstrably change the way we deliver education.  

With the advancement of e-learning, anytime, anyplace at any pace,why do we have seat time requirements chaining learners to a school district chair? If knowledge is power, why don’t we have a system of lifelong learning, establishing a public private system of funding for lifelong reskilling? 

Why do we have more than 500 local school districts, hundreds of charter schools and another layer of overhead called intermediate school districts? Why are pre-K 12 schools not integrated with community colleges or universities? Should there be a single system of education that connects the learning from cradle to grave? 

With knowledge all but ubiquitous, why does it still take 12 years to obtain a high school diploma and four years to earn a bachelor’s degree? Perhaps rethinking the “why” would enable us to redesign costly systems set up in prior centuries to produce better results for today.

For example, what if Michigan decided that a high school diploma could be awarded in three years instead of the four it takes today?  This change would free up $1 billion for other training and educational needs. Are there better ways to deploy these resources? Should they be redirected to start school a year earlier than current practice? It seems this might be a better use of limited resources given the fact that we know over 80 percent of the human brain is formed in the first five years of life. Or perhaps these funds should be divided, and given as a voucher to enable students to invest in obtaining a vocational skill, or attend a community college or university?

What if we decided a bachelor’s degree required less credits than the historically mandated number that was established in a different era where the nearest library was a day’s horse ride away? 

Governments are human constructs. They can and should be reorganized, reformed, reinvented and transformed when need be. It is said that the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again, in exactly the same manner and expecting a different result. Seems we might be practicing a form of insanity in the way we maintain systems and other government constructs way after they have passed their usefulness.

As we are witnessing around the world, systems need to be re-evaluated, torn down and replaced. But for our governing organizations, change does not come easily.

The Michigan of pre-COVID has changed. What we once had is now gone. We simply cannot maintain government structures we established when Michigan was a different place.

Change doesn’t come easily

Centuries ago, that great political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli wrote: "There is nothing more difficult to manage, or more doubtful of success, or more dangerous to handle than to take the lead in introducing a new order of things." This lukewarmness arises partly from fear of adversaries who have the law on their side, and partly from “the incredulity of men who do not truly believe in new things until they have had a solid experience of them." Machiavelli also said, "The innovator has enemies in all those who are doing well under the old order and only lukewarm defenders in all those who do well under the new order.”

Leaders have a responsibility to not simply to manage the crisis in front of them, but the ability to look around the corner and over the horizon and pave the way to a new and better future. Convincing reluctant participants benefiting from the existing order of things to change – that is real leadership. 

Leaders help envision and create a path to new heights and paint a picture that many are not ready to see.  They create a path forward and bring others together to be a part of it- this is leadership. 

Change is often the most talked about and least acted on concept in government. Change is only of value when it produces progress. True leaders shake things up. 

Learning from Machiavelli, he cautions that “it happens whenever his enemies have the opportunity to attack the innovator they do so with the zeal of partisans.”

No, it is not easy to act as a 2-year-old and ask, “why?” Yet, we do know that progress is not made by standing still.  We don’t need a two-year-old tantrum, but we must be willing to constantly ask “Why”?

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Sat, 01/09/2021 - 11:22am

Ask the same question to a person from U of M with a Civil Engineering degree and someone, say from Michigan Tech. You will get your answers.

Mary Harp
Sat, 01/09/2021 - 10:39pm

Unfortunately, MI is one of the worse states in the nation precisely because of this rogue Governor. She continues with unproven lockdowns (yes, check actual science from over the globe), 44th in vaccine distribution, still at 80% of covid deaths in nursing homes, over half of restaurants shut down for good, vetoed unemployment, and this gentleman, saying virtual learning is good has obviously not seen the studies showing students falling behind academically and socially. Despite what MSM says, Whitmer has been rated the worse Governor in the country and Michigan residents hate their state the most of any other residents in the other 49 states. She certainly is liked and important in the liberal government. But that's always been her only goal.

Quit harping
Tue, 01/12/2021 - 3:43pm

Answer these questions: Do you support Trump and did Biden win the 2020 election? Your answers will demonstrate to us your sanity and how serious we should take your comments.

Ann Concerned
Sun, 01/10/2021 - 2:17am

I'm truly concerned that Tom Watkins is quoting Machiavelli and at the same time suggesting we need to change our current education system using Machiavellian tactics.
The political history and philosophy of the Italian Renaissance diplomat Niccoli Machiavelli is acting in accordance with the principles of government in which the political expediency is placed above morality and the use of craft and deceit to maintain the authority and carry out the policies of a ruler, ie Politicians? This from the Prince.
Machiavellian ideology is clearly godless, scheming, and self interested. Or as Isaiah Berlin described, Machiavelli was regarded as "a man inspired by the Devil to lead good men to their doom, the great subverter, the teacher of evil, etc.
It's disturbing that children and education are mentioned in the same article as Machiavelli.
One can hope this opinion piece from an Educational Consultant will go unnoticed.

Tue, 01/12/2021 - 3:45pm

You seem to be talking about the GOP and Trump.

Craig Douglas
Sun, 01/10/2021 - 6:46am

Tom is right; we need to re-think how to best move forward....I am very concerned about our kids, they have been disrupted by the pandemic in countless and immeasurable ways.

Tue, 01/12/2021 - 3:47pm

That is your concern, not the attack on our Capitol and the anarchy that is ensuing? I'm very concerned about our children as well. They are watching the reckless adults and thinking that behavior is normal.

Tue, 01/12/2021 - 6:25pm

We can agree that Whitmer and the Democrats have been acting like 2 year olds, but not with the question "why".

The gist of this opinion piece is WHY do we need an educated population? I can ask WHY this author refers to inner city schools as "chaining" them to chairs. It seems quite racist to me. He apparently also isn't aware that K-12 education is more than learning to read, write or do math, it's also about social skills. Under Democrat rule in Michigan our schools have been failing in all of those. We do need to ask WHY.

Yes, in decades past people graduated high school able to function in society, unlike today. In large part because there was a direct link between action an consequences. If a student didn't study or apply themselves, they failed. They got to FEEL GOOD, when they actually accomplished something, like doing the assignment right or passing a test. Give current college grads a high school graduation test from the early 1900's and most would get their names right. Maybe. Balance a checkbook, nope. Make change without a computer telling them how, nope. Compare credit cards for the best deal, nope.

But hey, at least they feel good when they graduate.

Let's free up even more money and stop education all together and give out diplomas when they turn 18. We'll save tons of money with very similar results.

Since we have no leaders in Michigan, Whitmer being a prime example of this, it looks like change won't be coming, fortunately. But there will still be a litany of "why" and more meltdowns .