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Wootton Students: Not in Their Right Minds?

Author Daniel Pink argues education is too focused on analytical skills.

“If you remember one thing from our time here this morning,” the author Daniel Pink told Thomas Wootton High School students last week, “I want it to be this: Don’t become an accountant.”

The response that came immediately from the front row was not scripted, though it drove home Pink’s point.

“My mom’s an accountant,” one student said.

“So’s my dad.”

That’s fine, Pink said. They are old enough that they will probably finish out their accounting careers before they become obsolete. But today’s high school students shouldn’t invest themselves in a profession that is going to be outsourced to countries like India (where chartered accountants earn about $6,000 a year) and eventually completely automated — evidence TurboTax, the software program that 21 million Americans used to file their taxes last year.

Pink was at Wootton Oct. 12 to discuss his recent book, “A Whole New Mind,” with two classes of Advanced Placement students and anyone else that was willing to give up part of their mid-day free time.

Pink hadn’t come simply to rail on accountants or to rehash now-familiar doomsday predictions about outsourcing to India. The larger point of his book is that the educational models that prepare students to be engineers, lawyers, and accountants are outdated. They focus too much on the analytical skill set — repetition, number crunching, multiple choice — and not enough on qualities like artistry, empathy, inventiveness, narrative and big-picture thinking.

English teacher David Lopilato and a group of students that produce a monthly radio program had invited Pink to Wootton, not simply to lecture but to debate with a panel of students.

Lopilato handed out the panel spots based on student essays supporting or refuting one of Pink’s arguments.

“We wanted him not just to have a chance to express his ideas but to have sort of a ... debate with some of the people most affected by his ideas — high school kids,” Lopilato said.

Pink said he relished the opportunity. Except for giving a commencement speech last spring, “I haven’t spent an enormous amount of time at high schools, which is one reason why I was really curious and interested to come here,” he said.

Pink told the more than 60 students that while growing up in Columbus, Ohio, his parents pushed him the familiar path to economic success: good grades, a prestigious college, and professional school to become a doctor, lawyer or accountant.

“I even made the mistake myself of listening to my parents and following their advice,” Pink said. He went to law school and did poorly but graduated. He has never practiced law and eventually has become successful in spite of his parents’ advice.

“The argument at the center of this book is that the advice that I got and that you might have gotten is actually really, really outdated,” he said.

The see-change underway will heighten the importance of the right-brain skill set — creative skills — in addition to the analytical skills that schools have long emphasized.

One particularly irksome relic of the old way of doing things, Pink said, is standardized testing.

“I guarantee you that … once you leave formal education, you will never again have an experience in your life that involves trying to determine which of four answers is correct in a given fixed amount of time,” he said. “Life doesn’t work that way. It’s much more ambiguous than that, there often aren’t right answers, and it isn’t timed either.”

Many of the students in the room had taken the PSAT earlier that morning.

But those same students were eager to engage Pink with their insights on “A Whole New Mind,” both pro and con.

Junior Uneeb Qureshi argued that society has historically swung like a pendulum between movements of left-brained (analytical) and right-brained (creative) thinking, as evidenced by the shift from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

“Pink’s future is fairly short term,” Uneeb said, because “right-brained thinking … is equally vulnerable to outsourcing.” In Pink’s “conceptual age” the global skill set will eventually flatten out when creativity becomes the norm.

Junior Hilary Koepenik said that Pink’s vision of a more creative generation is hopeless in a culture where emotion and self-expression have become commoditized. Empathy and creativity can’t be taught, she said, least of all to a society of people that define themselves by what they buy.

Pink was silent for a moment before he responded to the students’ speeches — evidently impressed.

“That was fantastic,” he said “I thought they were all great.”