Great Thinkers is a program for improving pre-collegiate education by motivating students to take up passions such as music, science, and art at early ages, educating society's next generation of leaders. We are concurrently undertaking a similar effort at the university level called Project Polymath, representing the natural continuation of this educational philosophy.
Many great thinkers and artists throughout history began cultivating their talents at young ages, but such ability is not exclusive to the Mozarts, Einsteins, and da Vincis of the world: each one of us performs an extraordinary feat merely by gaining fluency of a native language, for instance. The potential lies within all of us, but only a fraction of it is unlocked within the confines of a traditional educational system. And though we may later come back and attempt to learn what we have missed, the path to expertise becomes steeper with age.
Perhaps even more important than the actual ability is the desire and motivation to pursue an intellectual interest. Today's schools emphasize “what” to learn and “how” to learn it, but fail to instill a sense of “why” it's worth learning! The result is an authoritarian environment governed by fear: all assignments are handed down by the teacher, and the command to complete them is inviolate: do the work or there will be consequences. There is no autonomy, students cannot choose between subjects in pursuit of a passion (indeed, pursuit of an outside academic interest is indirectly punished, as it often comes into conflict with work assigned in the classroom!), and there are few if any incentives for developing traits such as morality, hands-on accomplishment, critical thinking, or creativity. Such a system is excellent preparation for citizenship in a totalitarian regime, but has no place in a democratic society built upon individual liberty and human rights.
In short, today's schools attempt to cram rote knowledge into students' heads, rather than inspiring them to a sense of purpose, passion, discovery, and ability that will last a lifetime.
The paradox is this: children at this age are naturally curious, constantly ask questions, and display an incredible eagerness to learn. Why then should we need to coerce them? The ultimate argument in the teacher's arsenal is “many students just don't have the motivation to learn on their own”.
They are correct. These students must be given role models, exposure to the field, guidance, and praise for accomplishment (which provides motivation to continue). This is practiced successfully in many leisurely and recreational areas of mainstream culture, but our society's values and progress suffer tremendously because we do not apply the same methods to pursuits of the mind.
Our method remedies this through the creation of role models in three forms: by hiring only instructors who have the capacity, integrity, motivation, passion, and respect to inspire students and function as proper role models, by bringing inspirational role models and ideas from the past to the present through a survey course on the lives, work, and ideas of “Great Thinkers”, and by providing an alternative to dictated assignments in the form of progress towards student-driven projects and pursuits.
Thus school would expose students to revolutionary ideas and entice passion through hands-on demonstrations, students would be challenged to think and create along these lines, gaining appreciation of the subject and establishing an unparalleled empathy with their predecessors which arises from facing the same challenges, and teachers would function as mentors, guides, and trusted role models to shape this passion and talent into a complete and useful framework which will serve the student in the future.