In 1907, Henry Ford announced that Ford Motor Company would build a “car for the multitude”. An idea at the time that seemed ridiculous, far-fetched and impossible. How was it that every person in America would one day own an automobile? But this was not the most important question that needed to be answered.

The real question at hand was, “How will Ford accomplish this goal?” The answer was the assembly line.

The assembly line was revolutionary. Not only in its concept, but specifically it’s application to the Ford Motor Company’s factories for mass production. Cars were built while traveling down a direct path from start to finish. Individual attention was given only to the station at hand and then passed on to the next person in line. It was (and is) the most efficient way to mass produce a product

And we modeled our entire education system on it.

At the start of the Industrial Revolution and into the mid 20th century, our public education was modeled and structured around producing one general type of American – the blue-collar worker who earned a decent wage, lived in the suburbs with a wife and 2 children (and a dog, of course), worked his way up the ladder to mid-level management, retired with enough money to do a bit of traveling and finally fix up that 1938 Ford his father had left lying around the family farm. Your high school diploma was like a one-way ticket to success as long as you worked hard, steered clear of controversy and tried to get along with everyone. And if you had a college degree, you were destined for greatness.

But times have changed and our education system has not. Despite the requests, demands and pleas of not only our students and parents, but also our teachers to the “powers that be” to rethink the classroom in the 21st century, all our children get are old text books, small classrooms, dilapidated schools, greasy meals, and benchmark measurements that resemble a quality inspection list rather than an educated human – all signs of our antiquated educational system.

The education necessary to excel in this new century is radically different than the education our grandparents and even our parents needed to excel. This is not to say that the education system of the mid-20th century is sub-par to the needs of this century – it isn’t, the school system taught what was necessary for students to succeed in their environment at the time. But it is no longer 1950, or even 1990 – it’s 2013.

Students today will graduate high school in a country full of opportunities relating to innovation, creativity, technology, entrepreneurial spirit, design, science, and engineering. While there will always be a need for strong manufacturing and farming jobs that grew out of the Industrial Revolution, the entire landscape has changed. Even the education of our manufacturing work force has yet to fully adopt to the 21st century – hence companies like Bosch Rexroth recently announcing $400,000 to build a classroom at Greenville Tech to help train students (and future employees).

We’re not educating our children the way we need to.

To accomplish our own, varied, American dreams – putting a human on another planet, curing AIDS, leveraging technology to accomplish unthinkable tasks, creating communities that celebrate our diverse culture – we need a new educational focus. There is a nation-wide movement to curtail our education system and improve it so that our children no longer merely pass through an assembly line until graduation. That movement is a push for STEAM-minded education – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (headed up in South Carolina by the Arts in Basic Curriculum Program at Winthrop University). These subjects are the cornerstones of every innovation in the history of our world and are being touted by students, parents, teachers, experts, CEOs, politicians and industry leaders alike as the areas in which our children MUST be educated in if we want them, and our country, to remain the best in the world.

The reality of the 21st century is that everything around us is dictated by these core areas. All innovation starts with a creative idea – something totally out of the box, drawn in a studio or on a napkin, something that looks at a problem/situation from a different perspective. To make this creative idea a reality, the tools of the 21st century are rooted in science and math – a logical, measurable way to define the realistic needs and possibilities of this creative idea. And then to produce this idea, we need to engineer a way to produce it, or develop a new technology to distribute it.

Innovation does not come from a politician’s mouth, it does not come from a school board’s inability to proactively adjust to change, it does not come from a hopeless endeavor to have every child learn exactly the same thing at the same level at the same time, and it does not come from measuring a child’s ability to regurgitate a standardized answer. Innovation comes from the ability of our education system to embrace, promote and develop the creative capacity of our human brains.

Instead of focusing on whether or not a high school senior can learn a topic and testing their learning capabilities with a series of checks down a standard sheet, it is now more important than ever that a high school senior be able to understand a topic, apply their understanding and actually solve a problem. There is a huge difference between learning something and understanding something.

We need a workforce that understands situations, the creative process and the math and science behind making innovation possible.

With a focus on these STEAM subjects, students can emerge from their classrooms more prepared than ever to solve the problems of the 21st century. It takes more than an assembly line to cure world hunger.


This post originally appeared on Mauldin Patch