Dude, Where’s My Purpose? Ashton Kutcher on Today’s ‘Abysmal’ Schools

Ashton Kutcher is not one of those celebrities who has his own name-brand school, or who used to be a teacher. But he is one who lobs plenty of critiques about education, and thinks he can do it better.For one, he thinks “schools are doing an abysmal job at raising capital.” If he ran one himself, he’d call up Elon Musk asking for a free Tesla X, and maybe some starter cash to see if his students could create something of value for the car company. He’d also buzz his buddy Brian Chesky, who runs Airbnb, a company Kutcher has invested in, and try to strike a similar deal.In a sometimes rambling—but always entertaining—interview with author and educator Robyn Jackson at ASCD Empower19, an education conference, Kutcher oscillated between sharing his personal struggles as a student, and proposing far-fetched ideas that some called privileged. (Hey Ashton, mind sharing Elon’s number?) It’s no wonder that some teachers were a little confused by his talk.Kutcher may not be in touch with today’s teachers. But he’s not to be entirely dismissed, either. He’s funded classroom projects, edtech startups and started nonprofits to protect children. During the keynote, Kutcher offered a glimpse into the personal experiences that shape his involvement in education.Growing Up KutcherIn the years since he graduated high school, Kutcher, 41, has become one of the most popular actors of his generation, and has circled back to education in recent years as an investor through his firms A-Grade Investments and Sound Ventures. For much of the conversation with Jackson, he drew from his own checkered history at school to loose a quiver full of criticisms on where schools should do better.Kutcher’s point about Musk and Chesky, which he later clarified on Twitter, was that schools and businesses could do a better job incentivizing what he called purpose-driven, project-based work. The idea, he said, is to get kids working on things that matter to them. “I think schools are abysmal at helping kids find their purpose,” he said, repeating an adjective he’d return to often when searching for how to explain the many, many ways schools are failing students. Among his gripes: Teachers aren’t vulnerable enough with kids. Guidance counselors don’t have good answers for students who don’t know what they want to do with their lives. Schools don’t do enough to help kids take down compromising selfies. And education too often incentivizes getting the answers right, instead of rewarding students for trying their best. Yet Kutcher also admitted he didn’t make much of an effort himself at school. He was noticed for his talent in the arts, but was kicked out of the school play for drinking. He started a school-wide petition so that he could wear his baseball cap indoors. But he also broke into his own school and received a third-degree burglary charge. He worked odd jobs during the year and said—fittingly enough for a venture capitalist—that he was motivated primarily by money.“I was trying to rush through my homework during school so I could go to work so I could buy something,” he said. He briefly attended college but dropped out and moved to New York to become a model. Kutcher took time to praise teachers as “superheroes” for taking on the challenge of raising kids as parents work longer hours, and for giving him attention when his own parents were busy attending to his brother, who has cerebral palsy. But it seemed as if Kutcher never truly connected with teachers or his education experience.Cautioning that he is “a data-set sample of one,” he said he didn’t “think teachers were ever vulnerable with me so I was never vulnerable with them. And you can’t even start to get a sense of purpose until you’re willing to get vulnerable.”Five And A Half InvestmentsKutcher lamented that as a teen, he was never exposed to careers in technical or artistic fields. The jobs around him—being a butcher, construction worker, police officer, doctor—were the only ones he really considered growing up. That could pose a problem in the economy of tomorrow. As an investor, he noted that he sees companies aiming to use technology to replace many of the manual, repetitive jobs that exist today. “In the future you’re going to have jobs where you’re telling a computer what to do, or a computer is telling you what to do,” he said. The better jobs, he added, will be for those in the former category—which in his mind involve solving issues that computers haven’t yet figured out, and which will involve a lot of trial and error, and failure. That idea then reminded Kutcher of how bad schools were at the twin goals of helping kids find purpose and dealing with failure. Kutcher has notably failed at least once, by his own admission: when first starting the nonprofit Thorn, which uses software to track human trafficking in children, with ex-wife Demi Moore. (Notably, Kutcher did not mention his 2013 Steve Jobs biopic, “Jobs,” which was panned by critics.)Inspired by a “Dateline” special, they launched a confusing, ineffective public awareness campaign around “Real Men Don’t Buy Sex.” It never took off, but it spurred them to look into how technology might be used to locate victims in tandem with local law enforcement. And it was made possible because he believed in it.“Purpose comes first,” he said, “and how to deal with failure comes second.”Kutcher also shared how he values new ways of thinking in those he works with—specifically the concept of “up thinkers.” “One of the things I look for in entrepreneurs and mentors are people who come across a fork in the road, and instead of thinking immediately the two choices are to go right or left, they also realize we can go up,” he said. “And once you go up, you can see where right and left terminate.”On Twitter, reactions to the talk were mixed. Many praised Kutcher for his willingness to tackle tough questions and for pushing educators to do more for their students. Some were confused by the talk, and called it out of touch and privileged—comments Kutcher has since replied to personally. At the end of the session, Jackson asked him for his favorite tech tools for teachers. Kutcher, who was once banned by CBS from displaying stickers of his investment companies on the show “Two And A Half Men,” dutifully rattled off a list of his choice picks. There was Albert.io, a resource bank for test questions, and Lambda School, a coding bootcamp. He also plugged Clever, Imbellus and Panorama Education. All five, of course, are companies he has personally invested in.