A School that Frees its Students to Think, Question, and Create

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What if there was a school that actually empowered its students to ask questions, become intellectually curious, take responsibility for their own learning, and create?

In today’s episode, Curt interviews Michael Strong, founder of the Academy of Thought and Industry — a disruptive educational institution for high-school age students which empowers them to do all of the things mentioned above.

“I often describe myself as someone who loves learning and hates school,” said Michael. “I was very good at school, got straight A’s, got into Harvard, and I realized as I began learning for fun as an adult just how horrific school was. So my whole life, basically, I’ve created schools that really were the kind of educational experience I would’ve wanted to have.”

Radical School Choice

Instead of trying to force one model of schooling on students, he’s in favor of widespread school choice.

“Unschooling, homeschooling, micro-schools, alternative schools, Catholic schools, military schools…I’m a radical pluralist,” he explained.

Michael compared the current situation to a fictional world in which a ‘national food committee’ was focused on improving the edibility of dog food for humans, while ignoring the variety of food options that exist.

“All these nice professionals are trying to create “good schooling” and “good teaching” and so forth,” he said. “I see it as…suppose a national food committee was trying to improve the qualify of the dog food we had to eat every day.

“Meanwhile, there are restaurants, there’s gourmet food, there’s organic food, there’s Chinese food, and Indian food, you know, millions of kinds of different food. Compared to dog food, wow!”

He added, “I see our existing educational system as nice people trying to make higher quality dog food when, hello, there’s a world of food out there.”

Socratic Dialogue

Michael said he started his career in education training teachers in public schools to lead Socratic seminars — fostering “interactive, live real conversational experience.”

With Socratic discussions, he explained, there are “no lectures…we think and talk, we read Aristotle together, we read Euclid together, we read Shakespeare together, you have some crazy idea, I disagree and, you know, back and forth…people love to talk.”

He added, “That’s how real people learn. Physicists stay up at night arguing about physics.”

This is different from the current “mainstream” schooling model, which is largely based on what he calls “asshole behavior,” in which a teacher has a specific objective of trying to make you believe something.

The whole goal of Socratic discussions, he explains, is that “there is no specific objective.”

“But if you and I are at a party, and I come up to you and I have an objective, and I’m going to make sure you believe something (that I believe) in ten minutes, I’m an asshole. That kind of conventional teaching I regard as essentially asshole behavior. And so that’s the structure of schooling.” he said.

The Academy’s Curriculum

Michael said the underlying foundation of the curriculum of Academy of Thought and Industry is “the conscious development of personal identity.”

There are three required courses:

  • Life Design: “We want kinds to think about who they are, who they want to become, what’s important, what their purpose is.”
  • Socratic Humanities: “We read, think, and discuss mostly classic texts.”
  • Mathematical Problem Solving: Developing a “versatility” in how one thinks about how to solve problems.
 

Beyond the required courses, the school also offers voluntary project-based offerings, such as film, entrepreneurship, makers space, and “nuts and bolts skill development leading to bigger and bigger projects” or other traditional academic courses.

In our full interview, Michael and I discuss educational disruption and the Academy in more detail, the power of free markets, as well as his efforts (along with Whole Foods founder John Mackey) to unleash the power of entrepreneurship to address global challenges, and the need for transpartisanship in a deeply partisan world.

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