Saturday, December 11, 2010

Transforming education into Education

In a post at "Reboot Congress, 'Thoughts on Education'", Darin makes some good observations on the folly of the spending we throw at Education, and the pitiful results, which are utterly unchanged by the amount of resources thrown at the issue. When you look at the chart (from the Cato Institute, which I've included here) - it makes no difference the number of teachers or materials or standards or tests involved, the results are essentially unchanged. It's a good post, and I recommend reading through it, comments also. My post began as a comment there, but in typical long winded fashion, it outgrew the comments box four times over.

Among other things, he notes that,
“…historically educational institutions had a high degree of quality. That past quality has translated into current pedigree and so we wind up with graduates who are credentialed, but not educated…”
Which is true, It used to be that the President of a school or college, was someone who was a master of all the subjects… as in the old term “Head Master”. Now, whether or not they ever taught a class, and that’s 50/50, they are simply administrators, or the “Head Bureaucrat” – not exactly a term of distinction.

The cause of our educational problems however, I've got to differ with a bit.
“The historic quality of education was derived from the fact that educators of yore were at the top of the yet-to-be-named knowledge worker pyramid. Today, they're basically at the bottom--no one fails out of an early education degree and decides to go into engineering. What's happened is that there are a lot more job opportunities for the smartest people so they go work for Google or whatever while the marginal college students tack on the courses necessary to become a teacher as a fall back position.”
That… I’m not so sure of, or while I think that may have applied at the college level, outside of the colleges... not so much. Most of those who worked as teachers were either themselves just out of school and earning some money before getting established in a profession (as did John Adams for a couple years), or the were the classic ‘school marm’ or other parents and members of the community who filled in as needed until they found another to take the position over for a couple years before moving on themselves.

And while it’s true that for unmarried women or empty nester’s, a teacher’s position was the best career option open for them at the time, and that has definitely changed, I really don’t think that’s a key factor in the problem of education today; the position isn’t that intellectually demanding, and meaning no disrespect to teachers, it never was and never need be - any person of good average intelligence and character should be able to handle the job.

I think the problem is more to be found in the materials used in the classroom and the supposed purpose of ‘getting an education’, which has changed, and all of it for the worse. That's where change needs to be made, simply refining what passes for education today, is little different from refining arsenic... the better we get at it, the worse the results will be.

In the time leading up to, and for a while after, our Founders generation, if you had proposed building a school so that kids would learn what they needed in order to ‘get a job’, you would have been drummed out of town or directed to the nearest slave plantation. Such ‘educational’ notions of teaching useful skills were either for slaves, or were what apprentices and other low wage positions were for; Education, on the other hand, was to teach a youth what was important to know about your culture, the important virtues and values needed for someone to be a worthy member of it, and the intellectual qualities which were expected to be mastered in order to contribute to both and to become a master of yourself – a person worthy of and capable of self-governance.

To those ends, the materials which were taught from in schools, were progressively more substantial poems, fables, historical vignettes, and the doings and speeches of great historical characters… above all, they were imaginatively written and interesting, and either were, or age appropriately worked up to being, the hallmarks and masterpieces of western civilization. Aesop’s Fables, Homer, Virgil, Plutarch and so forth, and yes, most definitely, biblical passages as well.

If you’ve ever looked at a textbook, you know that they aren’t that!

In fact the very first targets of the modern ‘progressive’ educational movement, from its beginnings around 1800, the very first things they targeted for expunging from the classroom, was ANYTHING smacking of imaginative writing, especially materials such as Aesop’s Fables, Homer, Virgil, Plutarch and so forth. Their ‘ideas’ were to turn the classroom into a ‘more scientific’ operation, explicitly modeled on the ideas of Rousseau and as they later developed into the behavioral psychology of people like William Wundt, where educations was no longer considered to be educating the character and soul of a student about himself and his civilization, but as producing correct responses and skills from them. The textbooks that were written for teachers in teachers colleges, explicitly stated that the teacher needn’t be familiar with the subjects being taught, they only needed to be able to recite the lessons as if they knew the material, and the lessons would produce the necessary skills and responses in the students.

The experiments in 'animal psychology' and training lab rats has far more to do with what and how our students are being taught today, than anything having to do with what was once thought to be the purpose of Education.

Visit any school, public or private, and you will be able to find that very same ‘guiding principle’ in practice in most of the classrooms.

That is why textbooks are the flat, meaningless and incoherent pap that they are, and the well-meaning efforts of concerned parents and other people to ‘improve’ them, IMHO, are pointless and doomed to failure… if actually Educating their children, rather than producing responses and skills in them, is what they, we, are after, we don’t need more or new and improved versions of what has been in use all along, we need to chuck such things and ideas out entirely.

Look at the Cato chart of performance across the years… the lesson to learn from it is that no matter what ‘strategy’, format or ‘standards’ or tests are followed, or how the classroom is arranged or stocked with various electronic gadgets or graphically enhanced textbooks… the materials taught from, and the purposes of the lessons themselves, are uninteresting, unintegrated and entirely uninspiring. No matter how much money is thrown at whichever part of the modern educational process, so long as the purpose of education is taken to be to impart skills and responses, it will fail. Or as the more cynically minded have said, it has succeeded, succeeded in producing people who cannot hope to be self governing, and who therefore welcome the government stepping into their lives to fill the gap.

Those lines along the bottom of the graph are the very best achievements possible of students who are expected to memorize uninteresting details in order to learn what every student in the nation will tell you are ‘stuff that doesn’t matter to me’. They instinctually know that they themselves, their life and spirit, have nothing whatsoever to gain from what they are being taught. As long as that’s the case, there will be no improvement in the lines along the bottom of the chart.

If you want a good overview of what it once meant to become Educated, and why so many people, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, etc, were able to be self-educated, these two links might be useful.

part iii: An Essay on Liberal Education - Observations upon Liberal Education, in All its Branches by George Turnbull – 1742,
“ ...We have been recommending history as the best basis for building moral instructions upon, yet other arts, which can be rendered subservient to virtue, ought by no means to be neglected. And how proper fables (by which I would be understood to mean, not barely such Aesopic tales as are properly so called, but all fables, allegories, visions, every specious fiction, in short, by which any moral truth may be conveyed into the mind under the ingenious and agreeable semblance of aiming at nothing higher than mere amusement) are to attract the minds of youth, and gain their attention to useful instruction, the unanimous consent of the wisest instructors in all ages of the world, in the use of them, sufficiently demonstrates? In a collection of essays, which abounds with most excellent fables and allegories, this subject is thus discoursed of….”
And for higher education, and our utter lack of it today, especially in institutions of higher education, “Education of the Founding Fathers of the Republic” by James J. Walsh, 1933
"What would seem to be undoubtedly the most important group of documents for the history of education during the colonial period in this country, but also for a full generation after the Declaration of Independence, has been strangely neglected or profoundly misunderstood. These are the so called Commencement theses printed on broadsides (large sheets of paper some 20x24 inches) and comprising lists of Latin propositions, one hundred or more in number, in logic, grammar, rhetoric, as well as in natural, mental, moral philosophy and mathematics. The thesis sheets were printed for distribution among members of the audience who on Commencement morning might choose to take part in the Public Act which was held as the culminating exercise of the examination..."

If we don't even recognize our current system of education in either of those descriptions of Education, which were once upon a time commonly held, and which enabled our Founders generation to become our Founding Fathers generation... maybe there's a clue there that we should pay attention to?

With this last comment though, I mostly agree,

"Well, that's how I think the education bubble will pop. In practice, what will happen is that a town or city facing a huge budget hole will notice a free alternative and implement it while firing their teachers and education administrators. That process will repeat, if the free alternative adequately meets the educational needs of the community, so maybe the bubble has a slow leak instead of just popping. "
The materials - all that are needed - are available for free right now, through the Internet. If you read through those two links above and note what they reference, you can google them up and download what was considered to be the absolutely necessary materials of a good Education, through places like, the Online Library of Liberty, and more. But those materials still need to be utilized by someone familiar with how to teach them, and unless you have the time and inclination for Homeschooling, you're going to need to pay someone who can. When we find a way to enable real teachers to provide their services, and include parents in participation with them, and provide the materials in such a way that the teachers themselves can Teach as they see fit, where they wish, and how they wish, and Parents can send their kids to those ones who most reflect their values and wishes... then we'll see a revolutionary change in Education.

When teachers can combine face to face teaching, as well as various tiers of participation across the Internet, and are able to earn a substantial income from it in the same way that actors and athletes do, through relatively cheap tickets sold individually... but to a lot of individuals... then we will see the transformation of our system of education into one that helps to provide an Education,,, as well as turn teachers from opponents of Capitalism into eager participants in the Free Market and free speech.

I'm working on one set of software that may lead in that direction... agonizingly slowly... but I'm trying. However, the real difference in Education itself will not come from any new technology, or quantities of materials, bodies or standards which continue and even accelerate what is being followed now; our system of education will only be transformed into a system which provides Education... when it returns to that as being its primary purpose.


Ex-Dissident said...

Van, I thought of you during a dinner conversation today. We had some friends over and were discussing international popularized crimes when a case of some poor speeder in Europe being fined a million dollars came up. The friends felt it was appropriate because a typical fine would not be enough of a deterrent for someone very wealthy. The argument was that if you want to prevent this person from repeating the crime, his punishment must be severe enough and must therefore be a certain percentage of his income. I made several arguments including that driving is similar to using a service and that it is not appropriate to charge people variable rates for the same service or same good - this particular good being able to arrive at your destination faster but running the risk of a penalty if you are caught. I also see this progressive penalty as justification that allows a government agency to rob someone more because that person has accumulated more wealth. I wonder how you would argue this case.

Van Harvey said...

I suppose the first question to ask them would be, what do you want, a govt of laws or of men? Do you want the figure of Justice to be blindfolded or peaking?

The first provides an objective map for respecting Rights and providing rules that enables people to know what is acceptable and what is not, in that society. The later seeks to selectively reform the souls of men, to improve them and make them 'better'.
Ask your friends how comfortable they would feel, when the power they seek to put in place is in the hands of those who have very different notions of 'acceptable behavior' than they do?

Maybe they think there's a fundamental difference between heaping heavier fines upon speeders based upon their wealth, and heaping fines upon diner's based upon their weight or preference for salt or sugar in their foods? Or even upon unfairly dating too many blondes and not enough brunettes?

There is no fundamental difference between them... if you do away with the upholding the rights which would prevent the first, there's nothing left to prevent the rest, and worse.

The real issue is in the concept of Justice that is to be followed, is law going to be there to protect and uphold the rights of individuals so that anyone can be free to make reasonable choices in order to live their lives as they see fit within society... or is law there to force people to conform, or be reformed, into an ideal chosen by those with the power to do so?

Should the Law exist as principled rules to defend rights, or as regulations enforcing the preferences and tastes of those in power... and with no restraint upon the powerful whatsoever?

That being said, it shouldn't be forgotten that the reason why we have Judges, is that it is understood that Reason and Justice are not matters that can be applied by simply following a flowchart of options... that'd be artificial intelligence... sometimes a situation requires someone deemed to have the requisite character and wisdom, within reasonable parameters, to bend or tighten the penalties as the situation merits. There is a certain latitude we've traditionally allowed to judges in order to deal with individual cases based upon the merits, but that's a far cry from prejudicially targeting entire groups or classes for unequal treatment, based upon their belonging or not belonging to a particular group, and disregarding their individual rights to equal treatment before the law.

There's nothing wrong with a Judge looking at a chronic repeat offender and concluding that the issue at hand is not simply a speeding ticket, but a complete disregard for the law, and then (within predefined parameters) either upping the fine or even charging them with 'contempt of court' and tossing the bum in the clink.

But, again, such actions need to be... er... justifiable, and the people had better keep close tabs on who they allow to be their Judges, and getting back to the topic of this post, that requires an Educated people, rather than an indoctrinated one.

(Sorry so late getting back to you on that)