Lady Gaga, Sweet Potatoes, and Water Buffalo

What kind of education will best prepare today’s students for the challenges of the twenty-first century? One way of thinking about the all-important question is offered in this blog post, “If Lady Gaga Can be Useful . . . ” by Yong Zhao, associate dean for global education in the UO College of Education. A full professor in the Department of Educational Methodology, Policy, and Leadership and the author of more than twenty books, Zhao is currently focusing on designing twenty-first-century schools in the context of globalization and the digital revolution.

Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga, is no doubt one of the most successful global superstars. She has more than 13 million Twitter followers and 40 million Facebook fans. Her YouTube video “Bad Romance” has accrued more than 411 million views and estimates her net worth to be about $110 million. Apparently, she has something valuable to offer.

But what she can offer is of no value in the village where I grew up. Nestled in the hills of China’s Sichuan Province, the village’s only industry is farming. With all the young people gone to the cities as migrant workers, about fifty people, including my father, live in the village, which once had a total population of more than 200. No resident in the village has ever heard of Lady Gaga nor would find her interesting or valuable. When I was growing up, the most valued talent was the ability to handle water buffalos used to plow the rice field, other than physical strength to carry things such as newly harvested rice or sweet potatoes. I don’t know for sure how good a water buffalo handler she could be, but I am quite sure she will not be able to run on bumpy muddy paths with 200 pounds of sweet potatoes dangling on each end of a bamboo pole.

If she had been born in my village, she would make a lousy farmer. Moreover, what earned her the success she enjoys today would be useless, cause her terrible trouble, and bring shame to her family. To make her useful in the village, her parents would try very hard to educate her: teaching her that meat is for eating, not for wearing, singing does not bring home food, no one would marry a girl with wild hair, and fetching water from the village well every day is a good training course for learning to carry sweet potatoes.

In the same vein, I doubt that Lady Gaga would make a great worker on Henry Ford’s assembly lines. Her eccentric personality and nonconforming style would make it hard for her to follow rules and repeat the same action with precision. She could make a great Halloween appearance, but that is just once a year. So she would have been either fired on the first day on the job or educated to forget her passion, desire, and talent in music, if she could have withstood the training program.

There have been many individuals with the qualities of Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta born in villages like mine in human history, but they have been “educated,” in various rigorous ways, to become anything but Lady Gaga. Out of necessity, societies and families must ensure that their future generations have the ability, knowledge, and skills to live a successful life as workers, parents, and citizens. Thus they must have an education, formal or informal, that focuses on cultivating what meets the needs of the society. For a long period of time in human history, many societies have only needed a very narrow spectrum of human talents on a large scale and a very small pool of special talents. As a result, the dominant education paradigm has been to reduce the vast diverse potentials of human talents, interests, and abilities to what the society deems as useful or employable skills and knowledge.

Such a paradigm continues today and in even more rigorous, organized, and forceful ways. Governments and other authoritative bodies work very hard to define useful skills and knowledge through curriculum, standards, textbooks, high-stakes testing, and financial investment. In the U.S., for example, whatever raises standardized test scores on math and reading is useful and valued. This is why over the past decade the majority of U.S. schools have narrowed their curriculum to the two tested subjects, many teachers have aligned their classroom instruction to what is to be tested, students who do not perform well on these tests are considered at-risk and sent to remedial programs, and schools and teachers failing to produce the required test scores are believed to provide low-quality education. This is also why instructional times for arts, music, sports, foreign languages, social studies, and science have been shortened or eliminated.

Lady Gaga proves that such a paradigm no longer works. In addition to her, the hundreds of TV channels, numerous cooking shows, millions of YouTube videos, and the explosion of jobs that never existed before are just examples of the tremendous expansion of possible ways that the full spectrum of human talents and interests can be useful and valuable. Author Daniel Pink, in his insightful book A Whole New Mind, proposes that traditional overlooked aptitudes—design, story, empathy, play, and meaning—have become essential in the Conceptual Age. I don’t think these aptitudes necessarily make traditionally valued aptitudes (logic, analytic, verbal, and quantitative) less valuable. Instead, they add to the list of useful and valuable talents and skills. In a similar fashion, the frequently talked-about twenty-first-century skills are another way to suggest that we have arrived at an age when society can make use of the broad range of human talents and interests.

Thus, education should move beyond the paradigm of imparting to our children what government or other authorities deem useful. Instead, it should work to support every individual student to become successful, help each individual to reach his or her full potential, and encourage all students to pursue their passion and interests. After all, if Lady Gaga can be useful . . .

Visit Yong Zhao's blog, Education in the Age of Globalization