It seems like there have been calls to “fix” our education system in the US for decades. The Apollo program’s Saturn V engines were largely built by young engineers and scientists. Their educations were influenced by the Sputnik-inspired National Defense Education Act of 1958, which despite its codified McCarthyism was probably a good thing. Those kids of my parents’ generation were probably also directly inspired by Sputnik, and the Amazing Stories of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Even my Seventh Day Adventist dad wanted to study physics in college, until he encountered the associated math.
If it takes a Sputnik moment to “fix” education, we may be out of luck this time around.
This burst of attention to (and funding for) science and mathematics education was, like the entire Apollo program, the product of a nationalist fear that we were “falling behind” the Soviets. Despite Thomas Friedman’s ongoing attempts to frame China’s production and adoption of clean energy technologies and as a modern Sputnik Moment, I doubt it’s in the cards. Not without some pretty dramatic focusing moment, and not without exiling the fossil fuel industries from US politics. It’s also just not the same kind of story as your newly atomic ideological arch nemesis lobbing rocks over your territorial boundaries, well out of reach. We will not be terrified by China’s solar panels, nor even, it seems, by their monopoly on the production of rare earths.
The word “fix” suggests that things used to be okay, and we just need to somehow get back to that okay place. I think that’s probably the wrong way to look at the situation for two reasons. First, the world we’re trying to educate for is different now than it was in the middle of the 20th century. Human labor, especially relatively unskilled human labor, is worth less now than it was then. This is both good and bad. It’s good, because it means that at least hypothetically, we could decide to enjoy the same standard of living while working less (unfortunately for those of us who like bike touring, this isn’t what society has decided to do). It’s bad because it means it’s more difficult for any individual to be confident in their ability to produce something of relatively high worth, especially decades into the future. A globalized economy which relies heavily on automation and information will tend toward a winner-takes-all, tournament structure, in which those who win, win big, but in which most participants lose at least in relative terms. In other words, the mean income is much higher than the median. This is an inegalitarian kind of world, and while it’s a meritocracy, it’s not a particularly good one. Random chance and initial conditions can result in two very similarly qualified people ending up at very different places in the income spectrum. And so even if we could get back to this:
it would not “fix” our problem. The education system that grew up in the US in the first half of the 20th century created very good factory workers, but unless you’re looking to take low-wage factory jobs from China, going back to that arrangement seems like a bad idea. And don’t imagine that the Chinese are only capable of making cheap plastic crap. We said the same kinds of things about the Japanese in the 1960s and 1970s. Our economic system is demanding that the Chinese make cheap plastic crap, because it’s the disposability of that crap that keeps the money and materials flowing on short timescales, and most western consumers are unable or unwilling to pay more up front, even if it represents a better value proposition in the long run. If we suddenly decided that we cared about well-designed durable goods, I have no doubt that the Chinese would emulate the German manufacturing sector.
The second reason we’re not going to “fix” our education system, is that the US federal and state governments are have become catastrophically dysfunctional, and are mired in a legal thicket of our own making. There are simply too many laws (something like 100,000,000 words of law just at the federal level) most of dubious quality, most unread by the legislators (or anyone else), and no politically tenable way to clear the slate. We’re all terrified of those in power making bad decisions, so we’ve made it virtually impossible for anyone to make any kind of decision — good or bad — at least within the purview of the law.
Now, obviously this doesn’t mean nobody is making decisions. I’m just saying that many interesting and momentous decisions have been taken into a somewhat extra-legal realm. Corporations are legal constructions, but in a lot of ways they operate pretty independently of the law. In their interactions with each other, it’s rare that litigation actually runs to completion. Usually, some settlement is reached outside of the courts. Corporate litigants will size each other up and play a negotiating game, rather than burn money out of spite, or to make a point. In their interactions with the public sphere, corporations often write the laws that end up governing them, and have their hands in the pockets of both parties when it comes to appointing regulators. This legalistic incest is resulting in markets of indeterminate legality. Or the nation states end up playing their own negotiating game with the corporations, as beautifully depicted in Stephen Gaghan’s film Syriana, in which the “illusion of due diligence” is synthesized, allowing two large petroleum companies to merge, despite illegal dealings in the background.
Getting a high quality gray-market education
I believe that successful education is also shifting away from being the result of any particular large-scale policy, and toward being something you create on your own if you want it. Thankfully this is getting easier and easier to do, for all the same reasons that the familiar economy of mass production by well-paid semi-skilled labor is getting more difficult to sustain. An education is at its base a large and complex collection of information, and now more than ever, Information Wants to Be Free.
I’m a fan of Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia tutoring centers, and of course there’s Ye Olde Wikipedia. There’s the Maker movement and their hackspaces too. These examples are centered in the Area of Bays, but it turns out you can get a Fab Lab up and running in Jalalabad, Afghanistan too.
These tools and organizations aren’t exactly new (in internet time anyway), but as with so many things, knowing isn’t quite the same as doing. Recently (due to my ongoing “retirement”) I’ve been working through the Software Carpentry lessons on databases. At my friend Aaron’s suggestion I’ve also been using Anki to study Spanish grammar and vocab. I last came across the Khan Academy videos on YouTube when I needed to review some linear algebra, but the other day I saw that Khan has now been funded by both Google and the Gates Foundation to build better software infrastructure around the videos, allowing the whole system to scale up arbitrarily, and really become a self-guided mathematical learning system:
Critics or naysayers suggest that it’s much easier to create these kinds of systems for fact based learning (languages and math) than for more creative humanistic skills like writing. They also claim that while this kind of automation might work well for motivated, self directed students, it won’t work for everyone. They’re probably at least a little bit right, but I think it’s foolish to assert that it’s simply not possible to adapt such systems to the more nuanced educational goals, and even if that did turn out to be the case, guess what: most of our existing in-person education also sucks at dealing with those nuances. At the same time, mass education ends up being torture for both the gifted kids who are bored out of their skulls waiting for everyone else to catch up, and for the slow kids who always feel like they’re behind and need a little extra help. It’s also unclear that un-motivated students whose learning is not primarily self-directed really end up learning much in the current system, even at the university level. We should be comparing this model of learning to the Actually Existing education system we’ve got, not some Platonic ideal of an education system we’ve never had. In that context, I’m very hopeful. I think we really do seem to be getting closer to the grandiose goals of both the Wikipedia and the Khan Academy: free access to all humanity’s knowledge, at least for anyone with a ‘net connection. And thank goodness it doesn’t seem to be particularly contingent on any bureaucracy anywhere getting anything right.
Edward Glaeser has been making the rounds in the last few weeks for his book Triumph of the City, pointing out that cities are greener, richer, healthier and even (gasp!) happier than the ‘burbs, and so we should as a nation stop biasing our policies against them. Inevitably, interviewers point out that Glaeser himself lives in the Boston suburbs, amidst the white picket fences he apparently despises. His reason? Most urban public schools are awful, and urban private schools are exorbitantly expensive, so if you want your kids to get a decent education and you’re not loaded, your family will usually have to flee to suburbia. Given the tools that are out there, I don’t see why a good education needs to be expensive, whether it’s public or privately organized. I can only imagine there are plenty of urban home school groups taking advantage of the new educational media, helping new families avoid this dilemma.
However, no amount of access to education is likely to fix the pyramid-scheme organization our new economy seems to have. It just makes it easier for anyone to enter the tournament if they so desire. I suspect we’ll either have to make our peace with enormous income disparity, and hope that life much closer to the bottom isn’t actually as bad as we’ve heard, or (horror!) embark on some kind of modest income re-distribution. Seems like we’re intent on giving life at the bottom a try first though.