I really, really wanted to write a post comparing the educational systems of America and China. The very day I was mentally making notes on being creative versus working hard, my coworker complained that “everyone holds up China as the ideal, when really, we should be looking more towards FInland or Japan for educational excellence.” I didn’t question this, as she did her masters on something to do education and technology and startups and other extremely interesting sounding stuff, whereas I have a trip to China and a mild ability to follow the news as my knowledge base. 

Thanks for ruining that blog post, Kamaila. Instead, let’s talk about John Wanamaker and how looking at the past has given me ideas on education for the future. 

Philadelphia has an amazing, beautiful organ in what is currently a Macy’s department store. This is odd. What is more odd is that the six story organ was installed into a department store that already had four concert halls.  While most department stores aren’t places you go for world class concerts,the Wanamaker family loved music. Moreover, they wanted to share their love of music with Philadelphia. That is cool. 

While music doesn’t have anything to do with education, John Wanamaker didn’t stop there. He gave all of his employees free medical care, recreation facilities (there was a track on the top of the building!) and education. Free education for all employees (and if that wasn’t cool enough, needless aside, he also took all of the younger employees to the shore for summer camp!). 

Would this work today? Is it possible to pay people to work, and to grow? Does the short term loss of revenue outweigh the long term benefits of having a more intelligent, more skilled group of employees?

What if every Starbucks, McDonalds and Walmart paid for five hours of education per week for its employees. How would change the future of an employee? Would employees take it for granted, or would it empowering? 

What if every web2.0 startup, ad agency and marketing firm hired an artist-in-residence. How would that change the life of the artist and how would that creative input change the company they were hired to? 

What if grocery stores taught basic skills that people can no longer afford to outsource? Is there a sustainable way to teach employees how to grow their own food, while growing food to sell in the store? 

I don’t know if any of these are good ideas, I just know that they smell like opportunity. Do you agree?