Let’s talk about education, not in terms of how much it costs or who’s footing the bill. Let’s talk about education in terms of what it’s for, how it’s currently achieved and how it can be done better. And by better, I mean giving people the tools which will prepare them for an economy and a world that those my age wouldn’t have dreamed of when I was in school.
A big part of last week’s Ricochet Podcast dealt with education. The participants touched on the major problems confronting us, such as cost, access and the issue of credentialing non-traditional educational methods. The conversation starts at the 32:30 mark and begins with a mention of a 2011 City Journal article by Heather MacDonald about The Great Courses series (full disclosure: Great Courses is a sponsor of the podcast), and goes on to talk about other non-traditional avenues of education such as Khan Academy, Coursera and EDX.
As was pointed out in the podcast, we are ever more becoming a skill society, where the skills needed for a particular vocation, be it quantum physics or welding, can be learned in ways that don’t revolve around sitting in a classroom or racking up huge student loans to pay the tuition.
Glenn Reynolds, in his wonderful book “The New School” points out:
“When our public education system was created in the 19th century, its goal, quite explicitly, was to produce obedient and orderly factory workers to fill the new jobs being created by the Industrial Revolution. Those jobs are mostly gone now, and the needs of the 21st century are not the needs of the 19th. Perhaps there’s still a role for teaching children to sit up straight and form lines, but perhaps not, and this role for public education is undoubtedly less important than it once was. Certainly the rapidly increasing willingness of parents to try homeschooling, charter schools, online schools, and other alternative approaches suggests that a lot of people are unhappy with the status quo.”
We can start the process by describing our current system of government schools, and the medieval guild that runs it for what it is: bloated, self-indulgent and counter to the needs of us, our children and our country. Rather than complain about the current state of education, we should tear it up, root and branch. Schumpeter’s notion of “the perennial gale of creative destruction” is no less applicable to education than it was to the buggy whip industry after the introduction of the automobile.
The explosion of access to educational paths not rooted in the traditional government school model is going to produce both winners and losers. As Glenn Reynolds goes on to say:
“The current system isn’t working. If it is replaced – as I think likely – by a system that is faster, cheaper, and more focused on delivering what students need, they will be much better off than they are now. Instead of entering the adult world at 22, or 25, they will be able to work and earn and direct their own lives at 18, or 20, and without the burden of student debt faced by so many young adults now.
The losers, on the other hand will be…tenured academics or unionized K-12 teachers, those who…are making out all right as it is. The comfortable life that the previous arrangement’s quasi-monopoly profits permitted will, most likely, grow less comfortable.”
In his book “The Conservatarian Manifesto”, Charles Cooke writes:
“American popular culture simultaneously celebrates two ideas that are at odds with one another. The first: that one might rise from anywhere to be president or to reinvent the wheel. The second: that all of our children should rise through the public schools, attend college, and come out waving their certificates in the air as if they contained the cure for cancer.
We have bought heavily into an educational model that is extraordinarily rigid, worshipping at the altar of official credentials to the extent that we have begun to ascribe class values to educational attainments and to determine people’s future opportunities on the basis of whether or not they are in possession of the “correct” pieces of paper. We do not object if someone quits Harvard to found Dropbox, nor if they leave school at age thirteen to make millions in Hollywood. But, equally, we wouldn’t want them working at our reception desks or in our public schools. A non-college-educated American has an ever-narrowing range of options. He is permitted to become a millionaire but not to work at the DMV.”
Of course, there’s another constituency that would benefit from having our government schools churned up by a wave of creative destruction: the long-suffering taxpayer who is being taxed out of his house to pay for that sclerotic system.
If there’s one silver lining around the dark cloud that is Illinois, it’s that there’s no place to go but up. With some imagination and will, we could make our education system a model for how to educate in the 21st century. Forcing government schools to compete with methods of instruction that are tailored to the needs of the student instead of the teachers and administrators that have such a stranglehold on education can do nothing but raise the bar.
I hope to use this post as a jumping-off point for a discussion of how we can create a 21st century system that meets the needs of students, taxpayers and our society. Stay tuned.