What This MIT Job Ad Means for Your Child’s Education

[MIT campus]
Flickr User InSapphoWeTrust (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is hiring a new professor. Creativity is the catchword:

The MIT Media Lab seeks a new kind of early career faculty member, not defined by discipline, rather by his or her unique and iconoclastic experience, style, and points of view. You can be a designer, inventor, scientist, scholar or other — any combination — as long as you make things that matter. Impact is key.

This means somebody with at least these three sets of characteristics:

  • Being deeply versed in a minimum of two fields, preferably not ones normally juxtaposed
  • Being an orthogonal and counterintuitive thinker, even a misfit within normal structures
  • Having an adventurous personality, boundless optimism, and desire to change the world.

Any disciplines apply as long as their confluence shows promise of solving big, hard, and long-term problems. … A doctorate is not necessary, but evidence of extreme creativity is.

Wow. One of the world’s premier institutions of higher education wants an assistant professor and they don’t care about whether candidates have a doctorate, the traditional credential for any university professor. What MIT does care about is “unique and iconoclastic experience” and “evidence of extreme creativity.”

Credentials matter less; what you can do matters more

Admittedly, the Media Lab at MIT is an unusual place to work. Even so, I think this ad tells us something important about how the world of work is changing and how we should think about preparing our children for the future.

All around, I see that credentials matter less, while skills and initiative matter more. You don’t need an expensive taxi medallion to drive people around for a living anymore; you just need the Uber app. You don’t need a degree from an Ivy League University to get a top-paying software engineering job at Google or Facebook; rather, you need to demonstrate that you’re a creative problem-solver and work well with others.

Of course, degrees and credentials will still matter, partly because they help people build real skills and partly because they make it easier for employers to spot people who are smart and hardworking. But, as you and your child consider preschools, middle schools, high schools, or colleges, you can relax a bit. It’s not so important to choose the most prestigious brand. Rather, what matters is choosing a place that will help your child learn and grow.

Wanted: Adventurous, optimistic, ambitious souls

Want your child to be able to compete with robots? Raise them with adventure, optimism, and ambition. It’s going to be a long time before robots outpace humans in these domains.

And what great news for parents and children! It not only feels good to step away from the rat race of credentialism; it’s the right thing to do. When they’re young, expose your children to a wide range of activities and ideas. Look for what captures their imagination. Give them opportunities to explore, imagine, and create.

As they get older, give them freedom to find and delve into activities they love. Encourage them to commit more deeply to activities they enjoy. Make an effort to introduce them to adventurous, optimistic, and ambitious people — whatever their professional fields are.

But knowledge and skills still matter — a lot!

Note that MIT is seeking applicants who are “deeply versed in a minimum of two fields.” That means people who know a lot and who have developed deep skill and insight.

This is where some parents and educators get confused. They are led astray by none other than Albert Einstein, who famously said that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”1

For sure, imagination was essential for Einstein to discover new ways of solving problems and seeing the world. But the irony is that Einstein spent many years building his knowledge of physics as it was understood at the time before he led us to a different way of seeing time and space.

Critical thinking is highly prized in modern workplaces and society. But, as the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham points out, “Students need deep knowledge of a subject in order to think creatively or critically about it.”2 Ellen Galinsky, chief science officer at the Bezos Family Foundation, defines critical thinking as “the ongoing search for valid and reliable knowledge to guide beliefs, decisions, and actions.”3 Indeed, there is no critical thinking without knowledge.

So, as you raise an optimistic, adventurous, creative thinker, don’t forget that deep knowledge and practiced skill remain crucial components of a foundation for success.

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What This MIT Job Ad Means for Your Child’s Education
  1. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/01/01/einstein-imagination/
  2. Daniel Willingham, Knowledge Matters Campaign Issue Brief, March 2016
  3. Ellen Galinsky, Mind in the Making website.