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Academia can teach us a lot. But does it always teach the most important things? Through complex systems like math and languages, we are taught, albeit in a structured and linear way, how to solve problems and communicate in the world. And yet, with all of the questions we answer in academia, there is one that is rarely, if ever, posed: Whose problems are we solving? 

When we are young, we are often reminded of how powerful it is to have dreams for the future. But little by little, from K-12 to university, that sense of imagination often becomes lost. If we aren’t careful we eventually become little more than pawns in someone else’s game.

Not that leadership roles aren’t valuable, but at what point does being a founder of a company justify making two thousandfold more than your employees? If we crunched the numbers, I think it’s doubtful that the 50k salary of an entry-level tech employee would scale against a CEO’s $108.9 million-dollar per year income. No matter how much risk is involved in being a founder, in a single lifetime, no human being’s time and energy are worth two thousand times more than another’s.

CEOs who pay themselves disproportionately more than their employees do not provide exponentially more value to their companies. Rather, the power they’ve garnered is assumed to be insurmountably more. And while, without a doubt, economic inequality goes much deeper than the salaries of entry-level employees and CEOs in a given industry, the pattern of exploitation is always the same: the rich and powerful exploit others to fill their pockets, capitalizing on the fact that the lower classes rely on them to survive. 

To end exploitation in large industries, CEOs need to own up to the fact that their pay system needs major restructuring. But at its core, creating that change within our society comes down to reframing the way we value each other as human beings. Moving forward, instead of supporting founders whose only goal is to get rich on the backs of low-level employees, we should be supporting those who are collectively manifesting a vision in their communities.

While this change is needed systemically and at all levels, academia wouldn’t be a bad place to start. As it is, it’s not uncommon for institutions like the University of Michigan to cater to systems that serve the rich. But in preparing their students in this way, they fail the brilliance in their originality. Why? Because where original thinking exists in a system, so does potential liability for its beneficiaries. To question the system is to threaten their power. So in lecture halls, we spend our time answering questions that serve the system instead of posing our own. 

As children, we come into this world as observers. But as we grow, our perception is narrowed. We start to see things in ways that only benefit the system. From K-12, we are typically crammed into small classrooms and told to sit toward the front of the room, learning from a chalkboard to answer problems that have already been solved. 

In university courses, each lecture is framed to answer the professor’s questions. Rather than giving students the freedom to explore subjects on their own, a single path to learning is already laid out. As if we all learned in the same way, each of us is expected to read the same material at the same pace and pick up on the things that our superiors believe are most important, not what we find interesting or what we want to learn more about. It begs the question: If we are given a research paper to read, what makes the professor’s questions about that research take prominence over everyone else’s questions? 

Instead of thinking linearly in universities about a small subset of questions, which our instructors have already answered for themselves, we should be considering the student perspective as an asset. What is learned in academia should be determined not by what the system tells us is most important, but by what our own curiosity tells us. 

If we spend the rest of our lives answering someone else’s questions, it will always be their world and we’ll just be living in it.

Lily Cesario is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at