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Friday 05 March 2004

Darwinian Education

Woe is us, the Republic is doomed! We’ve got nothing to look forward to except a slide into mediocrity and third-worldness, and all because Johhny Can’t Read.

I’m not sure that there’s anything to worry about, in part because Why Can’t Johnny Read was published in 1955. As far as I can tell, there has never been a time or a culture where people were not moaning about how things are going to hell because the kids today aren’t learning anything. If American schools were already so terrible in 1955, you’d think we’d have seen some effects of that by now. Instead, we have the baby boomers — who were in school in 1955 — whining about how bad things are now. (I have written about this before.)

I have no doubt that there were some kids — maybe a lot of kids — who weren’t learning to read in school in 1955. There are certainly a lot of kids who aren’t learning to read today. I’m no fan of our system of education, largely because it seems to go out of its way to make sure that it doesn’t satisfy anyone involved. Children are incredibly curious creatures; effective teaching is mainly a matter of channeling that curiosity into certain areas. A child whose curiosity is thus channeled will, instead of fully understanding the fluid dynamics of mud pies, learn to read or to do math or whatever other useful skill is on offer.

This is, of course, hard to do. When you’ve got a room full of children, it’s very hard if not impossible to do any of this nurturing and channeling of curiosity garbage. To be able to do anything at all, you’ve got to maintain some kind of order, and this generally involves squashing curiosity. Once you’ve done that, you’ve got the class under control, but at the expense of making the real goal, education, that much harder to achieve.

There’s nothing wrong with Summerhill, but this is a very resource-intensive approach to education, and one that doesn’t scale very well. Summerhill is education, but it isn’t really a system of education. The entire Summerhill philosophy is that good education is something that is impossible, or at best very difficult, to systematize. If you accept that you have to do mass education — and, to keep costs low and for a lot of other reasons, I think that’s not an unreasonable conclusion — you have to systematize it. And everyone seems to be agreed on one thing: that the American system of education sucks. Even John Kerry and George Bush seem to agree on this point, even if they disagree about what should be done to change that.

And here’s where I disagree with both John Kerry and George Bush. I don’t think it’s necessarily true that there’s anything wrong with the American education system. Instead, I think that a lot of people are mistaken about what the system really does, and what we genuinely want and need it to do.

One hundred percent of educators are themselves well-educated white-collar workers, so they don’t see this; and this influences the way most of them see the world: they believe that the education system is designed to produce teachers — or some other kind of well-educated white-collar workers, anyway.

But it’s not. We don’t need that many teachers, or that many investment bankers, or that many lawyers, or that many novelists or computer programmers or architects.

As the saying goes, the world needs ditch-diggers, too. That’s an inelegant way of putting it, but the reality is that the world’s computer programmers, lawyers, and so forth need their garbage collected and their plumbing plumbed. Some people are also not well-suited to what is often referred to by the horrible phrase ‘knowledge work’; for these people, a career as a lawyer would be an algebra class that never ends.

Most countries handle this by deliberately sorting children at a certain point. Everyone gets more or less that same elementary education, learning basic history and to read and to do basic math. After the local equivalent of sixth or seventh or eighth grade, the kids are either put on a track that might lead to university, or what in the United States we generally call a ‘vocational’ track.

In the U.S., we’re culturally unable to do this. The United States has no established church, but it has what amounts to a state religion in our cultural belief in opportunity. There’s no way we could set up a system where children’s opportunities were curtailed in any official way. Mistakes would occasionally be made in the sorting, but even if the system were perfect, the Lake Wobegon syndrome has a strong hold here; we wouldn’t readily accept being told that any child was below-average. We still need to sort people into the smart and the not-smart, though, so we have a deliberately Darwinian system of education. It’s certainly possible to get a good education from any public school system in the U.S., but it’s by no means assured.

If you’re smart, and if you have the necessary cultural values to succeed in school, and if you are motivated to succeed, you will — no matter how ‘bad’ your school is. If you do not bring those things in with you, you will not, no matter how good the school: it’s that simple. Our schools are like the rest of our society in they provide opportunities for the people who can take advantage of them. In American schools, as in American society generally, success is up to the individual.

A lot of people think that there’s a problem with American society’s intense competitiveness; they say that it’s unfair, racist, sexist, or whatever else. But the strange thing is that everyone thinks that there’s a problem with the education system, even those who see the value of Darwinian competition in other areas of society.

Some schools have attempted to eliminate or curtail explicit direct student competition by banning competitive games on the playground and by eliminating contests like spelling bees. The thought is that such competition hurts the losers’ self-esteem, by proving that they’re inferior to some other kid in some specific thing. (Of course then there’s the question of whether it’s a good idea to maintain ‘self-esteem’ by simply denying the child the opportunity to understand his own limitations; but that’s a topic for another day.)

To the best of my knowledge, though, nobody has even attempted to address the real competition in schools, that between those who can get something out of the whole education system, and whose who cannot: the system is always blamed, despite the fact that ‘bad’ urban schools turn out the occasional success, and that ‘good’ schools in wealthy suburbs turn out some ne’er-do-wells.

It’s possible that we shouldn’t try to eliminate this competition, this individual scramble for an education, from schools. There’s probably a very good and tidy scientific word for this, but I don’t know what it is: so I’ll say that American schools work very well as efficient difference amplifiers. When kids enter school at age 5, they’re all at about the same intellectual level. Some of them can read, and some cannot; some can tie their shoes, and some cannot. But the ones who can read can’t, generally, read very well, and the ones who can tie their shoes are clumsy at it. The differences between the smarties and the dummies are small.

As they progress through the system, the smart kids — the ‘able kids’, really, because it’s not all about innate intellectual capacity — get smarter and more able at a much faster rate than do the dumb or ‘unable’ kids. By the time high school graduation rolls around, the differential is vast: the smartest kids are reasonably well-read, and they have a basic understanding of science, math, and history. The dumbest kids still can’t read — and in some cases, I’m sure, they still can’t tie their shoes. The smart kid goes on to university, and the dumb one to Wal-Mart or the Public Works Department. Society needs both of them.

I suggest that this differential-amplification is a necessary and proper part of any effective system of education, but that deeply-ingrained cultural values in the United States require that we not consciously acknowledge this. We believe that everyone has opportunity; and, given equal ability, everyone does. That abilities and thus opportunities differ from person to person is widely-understood and accepted.

We like to see limitless potential in children, though, and so we pretend that these realities of life do not apply to them; that they all have the ability to do anything at all, and to do it well. As much as we like to see potential in a child, we understand on some level that maintaining that illusion into the child’s adulthood would require some kind of Harrison Bergeron nightmare.

We cannot ‘reform’ education in the United States until we fully understand what we want education to do.

That the debate is thoroughly politicized doesn’t help: the teachers’ unions and the educational establishment in general say that more money and thus more educational establishment is the answer. Fundamentalists of one stripe or another, be they religious or political, complain that the schools are ‘indoctrinating’ the youth to think thoughts that the parents would rather they not think. Politicians and the general public are up in arms because the ‘quality’ of the schools — which in practice means the number of kindergartners who go on to be qualified to work in the education establishment — very directly affects the value of real estate and thus general tax rates and revenues.

A lot of our issues with education could be solved, I am convinced, by de-monopolizing the system: in short, by taking the state out of education, there would be more flexibility in education, and people would be more able to get an education that suits their individual needs. (Taking the state out of the equation would also eliminate a lot of the terrible second-order effects — a lot of them impacting urban planning — that result from the effective state education monopoly: but that’s another subject.)

Would every child then be college material? No, but this isn’t how we should measure the ‘success’ of education — and this shouldn’t be seen as a problem by anyone except those who have spent millions of dollars to build superfluous colleges.

Posted by tino at 12:28 5.03.04
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I know your topic only touched on elementary and secondary education, but I have to mention this.

I’m considering going back to school full time to finish my degree. Any degree, it doesn’t matter at this point. I’ve got the experience to get an excellent job, but the lack of a complete college education makes most HR departments circular-file my resume. And so, once more into the breech.

Tuition at Dear Olde State has more than doubled in the 10 years since I was last a full-time student. Sadly, the combination of loans and grants I might possibly be eligible for will just about cover tuition, books, and fees. I figure on being about $9000 short each year I attend. (Yes, the Stafford loan gives me an extra $2000 a year after my third year, but that still doesn’t cover my nut.)

As I have no rich relatives who are willing to lend me $27,000 to live off of for three years, I’m in a bit of a pickle. Unless I’m missing sources of aid, I have three choices:

1) Work a full job, taking one or two classes a semester as affordable, and finish my degree in six years or so.

2) Work a full-time job and a full load of classes, while taking any available loans, thereby exhausting myself.

3) Pray for a Powerball jackpot.

I’ve been doing both 1) and 3) for a while, now. :)

They talk about not wanting people to fall through the cracks regarding educational opportunity. $9000 a year is a pretty big crack, and it’s not going to be easy to fill.

Posted by: Twonk at March 5, 2004 02:32 PM

I have been planning to write something on the costs of higher education for some time now. You don’t see hordes of qualified people sitting around not going to college because there’s not enough capacity, so apparently the supply of college is meeting the demand. Yet the cost of higher education keeps rising much faster than the general rate of inflation, which makes no sense.

I think the explanation is that almost nobody actually pays the ‘sticker price’ for college; it would be interesting to see how the net outlay for college education has increased over the years, with some kind of discount factor for low-interest loans. My guess — and this is only a guess — is that this amount has increased faster than the rate of inflation, but not by much; that the actual expenditure for college has not increased much in terms of dollars, but that it’s increased enormously in terms of the amount of time you spend up to your elbows in B.S. applying for grants, loans, financial aid, etc., etc., etc.

Posted by: Tino at March 5, 2004 07:42 PM

I can at least tell you that tuition has more than doubled at Dear Olde State in the ten years since I was last a student there. They made the mistake of putting their tuition information on-line.

I know I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but I’m pretty sure that there aren’t many other things that have doubled in price since 1994.

Posted by: Twonk at March 8, 2004 09:29 AM

I’m sure that tuition has at least doubled. But my guess is that the immediate out-of-pocket expense for the majority of students hasn’t increased nearly as much, because as tuition has risen, so has the subsidy in the form of financial aid of all kinds.

You’re screwed, because you’re not a traditional student and so you don’t have access to certain of the subsidies. People without the right kind of social knowledge are screwed because paying for education is unnecessarily complicated.

I haven’t compiled real statistics on this, so I may be entirely wrong. But it seems to me that if the real, net price of higher education had been rising as fast as the gross tuition, room, and board prices that many people think of as ‘the price’ of college would seem to indicate, you would already see a serious backlash and declining enrollment because a large number of people would have already been priced out of the market.

Posted by: Tino at March 8, 2004 02:02 PM