Friday, December 2, 2011

Never Name Your Blogpost "A Modest Proposal"

I recently had a conversation with a friend about homeschool. She used to be a public school teacher, but she believes the current system of public education is irredeemably broken. (She is right.) As the discussion continued, she sheepishly mentioned that she had already found a system that she would like to use for her son (who is currently 15 months old, so it's a way off yet). She beamed as she described it: "It's really focused on the classics, and they focus a lot on reading actual historical books. And there's no technology. They don't believe in technology." I was nonplussed*—how could that possibly be a benefit?

courtesy Hartlepool Cultural Services (CC BY-NC 2.0)


But I guess education and technology have always had a funny relationship. The push to get computers into schools seems to have led to a lot of fraud, waste, and abuse. My wife, who for a year taught chemistry recitations at Arizona State University, told me about a typical tech-hole called "The Thunder Room" (I know, sounds like a...nah, forget it). Six digital whiteboards, a Mac laptop (now a tablet!) for every student, and a powerful desktop for presentations for the teacher. The rumor is that it cost a quarter of a million dollars, and mostly ends in frustrating glitches and ruined laptops, and probably overtime for some IT guys. So, yeah, tech can be a wasteful distraction.

But then there's Salman Khan. The Khan Academy's bajillions of math and science (and other) videos teach essential topics for free, and many of these lessons have associated exercises. The whole thing's gamified, too, so some people are liable to learn calculus just to "level up". It's something that would be completely impossible pre-internet. (The idea of free, anywhere, anytime math/sci ed, that is. People have been learning calculus since it was invented, of course.) Khan seems to justify tech in education.

On the fringes of technologically-enabled learning, there's Wikipedia, which seems to defy categorization—it's a Rorshach test for people's opinions of modernity. Detractors point to the rampant factual errors, stubby articles, and blatant self-promotion and vandalism. Supporters point out the fact that it is the largest single repository of human knowledge in history, and that it's completely free of charge and free-as-in-speech. Either way, it's a fixture of modern first-world society, and it's probably not going anywhere soon, even if it's not a valid source for term paper footnotes.


Which brings me to the point of education: what is it? Is there something about the nature of education that would make a non-technological education preferable?

To my mind, there are three functions of a modern education. Note that these are not "purposes", so to speak. Talking about the purposes of education is a philosophically scary blind alley. The functions are: allowing a person to participate in society, creating opportunities for students to make money, and teaching a person information relevant to their self-awareness.

Allowing people to take part in society involves loading them up with culturally important information. Things like "O Captain, My Captain", the War of 1812, the finer points of good writing, the use of basic technologies, the rules of football (whichever type is applicable), et cetera. Of course, understanding The Allegory of the Cave isn't particularly relevant to someone who's going to be placekicking for the Chargers for the next 12 years, nor are the finer points of a 40-yard field goal essential to most Princeton philosophers. The information we give here is just that, info, and coverage is spotty by definition.

Opportunities for wealth creation usually come in the form of post-secondary degrees, although social networking and training in schools can also lead to non-collegiate methods of money making (the garage band members that met and learned chords in music classes, the entrepreneurs that started selling during lunch period, etc). The function of a homeschool in this case would be something more like a traditional high school—to teach students how to successfully navigate the collegiate universe with the end of a degree in mind.

Information relevant to one's self-awareness. That's a tricky phrase. Perhaps "teaching students how to think" would be more germane, if less accurate. You don't teach someone how to think; you teach them that there are many different ways to think, and that some are better than others, and that there isn't one that is perfect or best. The result of this is self-awareness, sapience, and consciousness, lending to this person the ability to willfully change the world for the better.

Finding a way to perform all three function is daunting; the desire for homeschool programs to focus on classics and fundamentals is understandable. In a world drowning in seas of data, a simple, clearly-defined canon of work untainted with the messiness of instant communication is very attractive. Beyond that, American schools have been falling behind, or so nearly everyone is telling us. They used to be the best in the world, so returning to the Golden Age seems like a good idea.


Before we jump on the paleo-educational bandwagon, though, let's consider what all that "messiness of instant communication" is all about. It is believed that the world will have produced 1.8 zettabytes of data in 2011. (A zettabyte is a trillion gigs.) That is almost an order of magnitude greater than the amount created in 2006, which was at that point 3 million times more data than is contained in all the books ever written. And out of that, a few important pieces can be gleaned—the signal-to-noise ratio is infinitesimal.

All three of the functions of education I described depend upon a student's ability to navigate the world around her. No one has ever taken part in a culture, made money, or learned to be self-aware without other people. This is not because humans are social animals, it is because the human world is a social world. We are not particularly strong or particularly fast, but we're smart and when we get together we can build a lot of things that make life a lot less difficult and painful for ourselves. The world we now inhabit has become a new world, the world of crushingly large amounts of information. The successfully educated can navigate it.

(It is important to remember that I am not advocating relinquishing any of your educational duties. This is not "it takes a village to raise a child". The model is to take what you need from the resources that are available—"raid the village to raise your child".)

Unfortunately, most college grads cannot distinguish fact from opinion, nor can they search for information successfully. It is as if humanity has become aquatic, and schools have not taught students to swim.


The modest proposal is this: fill young children with as much knowledge—arm them with as many tools—as possible (language, math skills, etc.), and when they're older, present them with the problems they will actually have to solve in their lives, and allow them access to means by which they can find solutions. For math and science, this will probably mean pointing them to Khan (and to Wikipedia). For information literacy, unfortunately, the tools have not yet been built. I'm sure the world would love it if they were, and you may be able to join with others to do so.

Those tools would require students to find information, read it, and analyze whether they trusted the source or not. The best way to do this, again, would be to ask the student a question and let them answer it using any resource they can. Closed-book tests on simple facts are memory exams, not useful assessments of learning.

*Footnote: While I personally think technology is essential for an education, I completely respect the decisions of my friend and anyone else who decides to avoid it in schooling their children. Frankly, if you're at least halfway competent and love your child, you'll almost certainly beat the crap out of public school.