WeWork has an unsettling vision for disrupting education by prepping kids to become the next Zuckerberg before they start learning their times tables. And while it’s a hell of a lot better than anything Betsy DeVos could dream up, the company’s technocratic, seemingly Shark Tank-inspired take on Montessori makes me fear for my unborn children.
This morning Fast Company and Bloomberg published articles announcing the new program WeGrow, which is the brain child of Rebekah Neumann, chief branding officer and a founding partner of WeWork. She was inspired to create her own educational system after she and her husband, WeWork CEO and fellow founding partner Adam Neumann, were disappointed with the elementary school options in New York and the West Coast for their “natural entrepreneurs.”
“These children come into the world, they are very evolved, they are very special,” Rebekah Neumann told Fast Company, explaining the realizations she had when searching for a school for her evolved and special children. “They’re spiritual. They’re all natural entrepreneurs, natural humanitarians, and then it seems like we squash it all out of them in the education system. Then we ask them to be disruptive and find it again after college.”
As she and her husband have helped grow WeWork from a Brooklyn co-working space into a communal-living real estate behemoth—or, as The Wall Street Journals calls it, a “$20 billion startup fueled by Silicon Valley pixie dust”—they have also been “witnessing the movement that started, the ‘we generation,’” according to Neumann. “Now that I’m a mom, I’m noticing there’s been a huge missed opportunity in the educational system, because children are ready to start creating their life’s work when they’re 5,” she added.
So last month Neumann created a pilot program of seven students, ages five through eight, including her eldest child. The program is run out of a New York City Chabad school as well as the 60-acre Linden Farm in Pound Ridge, New York, which the Neumanns purchased last year for $15 million. Students spend one day a week at the farm and the rest of the week in the classroom, where they learn from customers and employees of WeWork. “The curriculum is going to be, and already is, integrated with mindfulness and yoga and meditation and farming and farm-to-table cooking, and all these sorts of things,” Rebekah told Fast Company, explaining that pilot students are currently “learning reading and math and science through working on the farm, through coming to WeWork, and running their own farm stand.”
Of course, the idea for school gardens and farm-to-school programs are far from new in the US. Both movements trace back to the 1890s and get boosts every few years from federal initiatives or renewed national interest in environmental issues. But it’s not just agriculture-based business that these children are learning. Rebekah told Bloomberg that children learn from WeWork employees and customers about brand-building, sales tactics, and basic economics. One eight-year-old girl reportedly made T-shirts then sold them at the student-run farm stand. Now that girl plans to apprentice under a fashion designer who operates their business out of a WeWork space.
WeGrow plans to open its first school in Chelsea next fall, with about 65 students. Eventually, Neumann hopes to start schools at other WeWorks all around the world so that parents who travel for business can take their family with them. This way, parents can always work just steps away from their children, no matter where they are. According to Bloomberg, WeGrow says it wants to educate customers “from birth to death.” If its dream is realized, then WeGrow children can graduate into WeWorks entrepreneurs, live at WeLive communal housing projects, learn how to be healthy from the recently launched Rise by We, and raise even more WeGrow-educated children. And the cycle can continue forever and ever—at least until the AI singularity kills us all or the We Empire implodes and frees customers from its Borg-like grasp.
The original articles about WeGrow include criticism from education experts and advocates, like Samuel Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who told Bloomberg that “encouraging kids to monetize their ideas, at that age, is damaging” and risks “sucking the joy out of education.”
Gizmodo asked WeWork if it would comment on early criticisms of the WeGrow project, but a spokesperson said they would not “address the other voices.”
Instead, the company shared a draft of blog post from Neumann that will be published later today. “[Children] are in touch with the magical, that thing that is greater than any one of us, and they grow—every single day—physically, intellectually, and spiritually,” she writes. “It is with deep respect for this magic that we have decided to launch WeGrow: a new conscious, entrepreneurial school committed to unleashing every child’s superpowers. Through better understanding of their passions and the ways they can use their gifts to help other, children will grow as self-aware, empowered, compassionate creators.”
To be fair, self-awareness is important.