I was pleased to see this on a friend’s Facebook wall: “To all my Facebook friends, if you had all the money and connections to design the world’s best educational experience in three months, WHAT would you learn? HOW, WHERE, from WHOM would you learn it?”

Perhaps I’ll answer this question in a future column. Before that, I’d like to prove it’s a question worth answering. Consider the following four reasons:

First, it encourages you to step back from barriers that may be real or exaggerated. It defines what skills you really want to acquire and why. The time horizon forces you to prioritize options that seem to be endless. When time is limited, and it is limited, you realize that if you really want to do X, it doesn’t make much sense to take that class on dinosaurs.

Second, it answers not only who you want to become, but also what type of society you want to live in. Does your ideal experience focus on individual or collective development? Is success measured by economic growth or widespread contentment? A better question: To what extent is it both?

Third, if you’re passionate about any cause, you probably think the root of the problem can be solved through education. Some people want to mitigate education inequality. Others don’t want to stifle “gifted” students. Some want students to be more creative. Others prefer that American students to beat Singaporean students on math and science exams.

Fourth, important people are already answering this question. It seems as if society is constantly debating the point of education and what’s the best way to implement it. Should it be humanities or vocation based? Steve Jobs believes a liberal arts foundation induces creativity. Bill Gates thinks it should be measured by how many jobs it creates.
Perhaps again, a better question is to what extent should it be both?

Last week a column appeared in the Wall Street Journal called “How To Get a Real Education in College.” Even though I believe in the concept of entrepreneurial education — how education can develop more creative and engaged students — I disagree with a large part of the column. It emphasizes implementation of ideas at the expense of the mindset that generates them.

Entrepreneur and author Ben Casnocha has blogged about a concept he calls Real Life University. I understand his concept as customizing an education to one’s specific talents and desires. For Ben, RLU entails reading voraciously and eclectically, exploring places and adapting to different cultures and surrounding himself with interesting and inspiring people. He’s assembled an informal board of trustees, people he respects to serve as advisors and mentors, to guide him as he designs his own path.

Ben isn’t alone. Anya Kamenetz’s book “DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneuers and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education” chronicles students who are designing and implementing their ideal education experiences. “Life-to-text” program College Unbound assembles personalized learning networks — the equivalent of the University’s living learning communities — to join in informal classes and formal work experience. Learning, Freedom and the Web, a community dedicated to revolutionizing education, hosts the Drumbeat Festival, where hundreds of people share ideas and teach each other tangible skills.

I, too, have been captivated by the concept of RLU. My friend and I have been brainstorming a curriculum for the next month, from what we want to read, to whom we want to include in our personalized learning networks, to what goals we want to achieve.

He wants to prepare for the LSAT, undergo a self-designed study of basketball statistics and prepare for his senior thesis on the economic implications of philosopher John Rawls’s theories.

My senior thesis will answer the initial question as well as others: What should education look like in the 21st century? What skills should students acquire, and how should they acquire them? What is the best way to incentivize students? How can schools accommodate different learning styles, different cultural values and ultimately competing visions as to what society should look like?

I want to read up and talk to experts on pedagogy, neuroscience and organizational design. I’ll also be working with eRes, an entrepreneurial living learning community to directly implement some of my theories, as well as brainstorm a potential University of Michigan version of the Drumbeat Festival.

For a month, I’ll be experimenting with the people, projects and information I want to surround myself with, so that I can recreate it when all structure is taken away. Throughout the process, I’ll be asking: Is this sustainable? Am I getting the results I want? This concept is a bit peculiar, but also telling. I want to have a real life University experience, in a real live University.

We might all be a bit more deliberate if we answered the initial question. As for time to experiment, there’s always the summer.

Erik Torenberg can be reached at erikto@umich.edu.

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