George, Retired Tech Executive, Father of 2, CA
George is a former tech industry executive who is taking time out to focus on his kids, coach soccer and softball, and volunteer in the community (including serving as a Court Appointed Special Advocate). George and his wife have a 12-year old son and a 10-year old daughter who attend their neighborhood schools in Palo Alto. He was interviewed by his neighbor and RE-ENVISIONED Catalyst, Callie.
Tell me about a child you care about. What makes him or her unique and special?
[My daughter Ruth is] a fine candidate to talk about. She is more empathetic than most. She is artistic, thoughtful, and hardworking. She’s got a lot of great attributes and all of those things help her tremendously in her educational pursuits. She’s not afraid of anything. She’s very sensitive, so she doesn’t like direct criticism. But she is very thoughtful – she takes feedback and changes her behavior. She’s very coachable in a real sense.
Now, imagine that Ruth is now in her 30s – out of school and starting into adult life. What do you hope for her about her life? What would make it a ‘good’ or ‘successful’ life?
I hope she’s happy. I hope she likes her work. I hope she’s surrounded by people who treat her well. Other than that, I don’t care if she’s not wealthy, not living here. I don’t care about much other than her being happy. In my perspective, parents owe their children the opportunity to go and make their own world rather than our making the world for our children. Our task is to give them the tools and the thoughts and the opportunities to do what they want to do but I don’t have a preconceived notion that she’s going to be an architect, banker, real estate agent, or an artist. She can do whatever she wants to do.
What does actually being happy mean to you – what does that look like?
Enjoying every day. Enjoying what you do and not doing some drudgery job because you need the paycheck. Not going to work with people you don’t like because you think it’s the career you’re supposed to have. I’ve had plenty of friends who have done that and I’ve tried that and it doesn’t last very long for me. So I’d like her to have the ability to pursue what makes her happy so that she enjoys what she’s doing whether she’s getting paid for it or not, whether she’s here or not. Whatever floats her boat. She wants to fish in Alaska year-round, that’s totally great, too. She wants to go work in India teaching poor kids English, that’s totally great, too. I don’t have the need for her to be a doctor, dentist – I don’t see that as the purpose of her education or upbringing. It’s giving her tools so she can make choices and have the resources to live with those choices.
What role do you think schooling should play in achieving that ideal good life?
For me there are two thoughts – school is not that different than when I was a kid and it should change given the technology and all the other things that are capable, that are possible today. But I do think that schools are tasked with providing every child the basic tools and training they need – the ability to read, write, communicate with others, work in groups, work on difficult things that you can’t complete, work on easy things that you can do three times and get better at. A lot of it is spending time building the skills that later on will make you a better worker, person, contributor, in some way, shape or form. But I think education is about setting the table for people and they can choose from the buffet what they want to eat. I know many kids who are very different, who focus on one thing and neglect the other or don’t care about one so therefore they don’t progress in it, but that will influence what opportunities they have later on, if they can’t write well or do math in their head. It will help determine what choices and opportunities they have later.
Do you think schools will/are playing the role you think they should play for “your” child? Why or why not?
For Ruth, she’s been lucky because we live here in a good school district with good school teachers. She’s had opportunities to stretch, opportunities where she can work hard. There are a lot of talented kids in her class who raise the bar for her.
Do you think people agree with you on each of those levels of what a good/successful life is and the role of schools?
Unfortunately in the United States it depends on where you live. There are plenty of people who live in a poor school district who feel their kids are ill-served because their teachers aren’t good and they turn over every year and the opportunities are not there and they’re being disrupted by the children in the class. That’s why I fully recognize that our universe is not the world and not even representative of education in California. I recognize what we’re offering [in Palo Alto] is, in my opinion, a world-class education and not every child in the United States is getting a world-class education.
Do you think everyone in the U.S. has the same goal for their kids? When we ask others where they want their kids to be when they’re in their 30s, to what extent do you feel people share the same perspective that you have, that would say a similar thing you said about what you’re hoping for Ruth?
I think there is a whole bell curve between those people who will invest as much as it takes for their child to be a dentist or doctor or high professional and equally at the other end are perfectly glad that their child will not finish high school but will join them in the family business – gardening or running a laundry or whatever it is. That’s partly what makes the United States great – any person can start in the middle and end up at any one of those spectrums. A lot of people are looking at their ability to survive and pay their own way in life, pay off their debts, rather than necessarily being happy. A lot of people in the United States do have to worry about food, shelter, and water. Half of the country probably does not have the luxury of being happy, they worry about finding a job that pays the bills.
What about even here in Palo Alto, to what extent do you think people agree with the vision of happy that you put forth for Ruth?
I would say I’m more average than people would want to think about Palo Alto. They think we’re all striving tiger parents that are pushing their children really hard. I don’t know those parents.
What have been some of your most empowering educational experiences? This doesn’t have to be in school – it could be outside of school or after you finished.
I would draw the distinction between education and development, because I think the two are not the same thing. I’ve had the opportunity to have a great education. I got to go to MIT twice and there are great teachers in every possible field at MIT. But the things that changed me a great deal were the adults who took an interest in my life, which included my first real boss when I was in high school, when I was working for a chain of laundries, who was a small businessman and he had employees and he treated them well and it was a long-term business. I learned a lot from him. He filled in a big gap from my world, which I didn’t get from my parents. Similarly, my high school water polo coach who did not take the money that was provided for a coach but always had some young, good water polo player there helping him as co-coach and he gave the whole salary to that person and he had a high school water polo dynasty. His willingness to give back his time and his energy and not take the money really set the bar high for teachers and community service.
What do you see as the differences between education and development?
People without having formal education can grow a great deal and become very talented. You can self-teach many things. Simply reading is an awesome way to develop creativity and imagination, things teachers can’t do for you. They can prescribe the books for you to read, they can ask you to be thoughtful in your written assignment, but you are responsible for actually having the scene in your head about what’s going on in a book or interpreting the mood and emotions of the people. Education is the provision of the tools to learn, but it’s not learning. Development is taking life’s lessons or what knowledge you’ve acquired and turning it into something that changes what you’re doing or what you’re capable of. I take geometry to learn these tools so that I know how to do angles. But when I’m fixing a tire or building a frame for something, it’s my own interpretation of those three-dimensional things that matters. Calculating the area of a cone is useless in life but knowing what a cone is and how this would help in water formation or water filtration or anything else is useful.
Did any of my questions spark ideas or thoughts about something that you didn’t talk about yet?
Many people believe that there are very talented kids who are being wasted in our educational system, that they sit in there and they are asked to shut up, keep their hands still, and stare at a teacher’s writing on the Smart Board. Our educational system has that weakness. If you can’t learn by quietly observing, you’re not going to get what you want out of the classroom. But that’s the problem with having our system of “I’m going to serve roast beef today and every child is going to eat roast beef.” Not every kid is going to enjoy, like or want roast beef. And I think that’s the weakness in our educational system. I believe that there is the ability for most of these kids to get what they want in some way but they are going to have to sit through the classes, and the paying attention part, and not every kid is good at that.
I also think the economic striation we have – it’s very hard to look at a class and not see a bell curve of those who cannot keep up with the others because of where they came from or what their home life is, and those at the top end who have every possible resource and whose parents are helping them with their homework and making sure they’re doing their homework, and that creates an unbalanced playing field for everybody. I do think every parent should be connected with their children’s education to know if they are doing their work, enjoying work, and capable of doing their work and I don’t think every parent is involved in their kid’s life in that way.