Earlier today, Tony Baldasero posted this:

There are times when I think #pawnstars on the History Channel is more relevant than many history classes I have been inTue Jun 08 02:43:02 via TweetDeck

As his posts tend to do, it got me thinking about what I’ve learned from the show, not about history, but about teaching and learning.

For those readers who haven’t seen Pawn Stars, it’s a reality show about a pawn shop in Las Vegas. In each episode, customers bring in various objects they want to pawn or sell. The shop owners have to appraise the value, negotiate, and sometimes spot the fakes among the real items.

At first blush it seems like an odd fit for the History Channel. But the items that people bring in are such things as antique firearms, historical documents, sports memorabilia, even Jimmy Hoffa’s photo album (in the Backroom Brawl episode). As the series star and store owner Rick Harrison says, “Everything has a story.”

The stars of the show are a collection of not-so-sophisticated guys who are more likely to trade an item for a new tattoo than to appreciate the cultural significance of a native artifact.

But there is no denying that these guys know their stuff. Rick, his dad (the “Old Man”), and his son “Hoss” all have a depth of knowledge about history and antique objects that never ceases to fascinate me. In one episode, a customer walked into the shop with what looked like a rusty hunk of metal, and Rick immediately identified it as a set of 19th century Froggatt Plug 8 handcuffs.

A few semi-random thoughts that came to mind as I considered the show:

  1. Learning is not the same as academics. Rick Harrison dropped out of high school in tenth grade, but he probably knows more about history than most college graduates. Rick has obviously learned an incredible amount in the years he has been in business. He works in a particularly unforgiving field, too—if he’s wrong about an object or its origin and pays more than it’s worth, no one is going to buy it from him out of pity. He’s out of luck. The only way to be a success in his business in the long term is to know what you’re doing.
  2. You can’t know it all. Despite the extensive knowledge and expertise of the pawn shop staff, they don’t pretend to know everything. When an item comes in that Rick questions, he calls in a specialist. He has a collection of experts who he asks to examine items and verify their authenticity. He’s not afraid to tell a customer, “I have no idea if this is real or what it might be worth.”
  3. There is no “proper” expression of an intellectual gift. Some might say that the Harrison family’s talent is “wasted” in such a low class operation as the pawn business. But who are we to judge the value that this shop and its owners contribute to the community or society? Who or what determines if someone is a success, or is achieving at his or her potential? Rick seems to love what he does, and he is good at his chosen profession. If we have a student who is a talented writer, who’s to say that we have to guide that writer to producing “great literature?” What if his or her passion is to write slapstick cartoons? Isn’t South Park just as valid an expression of writing talent as Mansfield Park?

I believe we spend a lot of time in education trying to cram students into the molds we have predetermined are best for them. While we do have an obligation to take raw talent and shape it, perhaps we need to look at it the way Michelangelo looked at sculpture:

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.
Our job is to discover the potential that is already inside the student and help them realize it, not to maneuver the student into becoming what we believe they should become.