Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Thoughts on Education

     It matters what children are learning. But it also matters why they're learning it.
     Why do we send children to school? Is it to “compete in the economy” and “compete for jobs”? Well, whom are they supposed to compete against? What if they'd rather cooperate to get what they want? What if encouraging a culture of competition in school, and the economy, and sports, and our militant culture, is actually harming us, and we need a dose of cooperation to balance it out?

     Children will never learn
anything – especially not critical and abstract thinking skills - as long as they are expected to learn most information in the context of “how can I use this information to climb the socioeconomic ladder?” After all, nobody should be willing to compete against their own neighbors, friends, and family for resources, for the bare scraps of survival. Yet many of us are, because of what we're taught in school, and how we're taught.
     In rich and poor districts alike, youth culture glorifies raking money in through whatever means necessary, and in an educational system which decreasingly teaches valuable practical hands-on skills, that could very well mean more young people becoming unskilled janitors and food service employees, failed rappers, drug dealers or prostitutes, or sellouts to the interests of exploitative companies.
     Education should be about transmitting knowledge and skills, and teaching students how to think critically, think for themselves, and independently investigating what other people are teaching them is the truth.

     Schools and economics textbooks assume and teach that there is not enough to go around, and that therefore government and markets need to distribute and allocate what scarce resources we have. However, the study of economics – and economizing (that is, saving money) – do not need to be applied to resources which are abundant, because they are not scarce, and there is enough of them go around. The resource in question might be fixed (as in the case of land), but fixedness does not necessarily guarantee that the resource is scarce.
     Between one-third and one-half of all food in America is thrown away, and without food waste there would be enough food to support 2.5 billion additional human beings. Not only is food not scarce; air, water, land, and many other of our basic needs, are abundant, or could easily become abundant or free (or at least cheaper) by removing government interventions and cronyist privileges.
     It makes absolutely no sense for a child to go hungry at school, and be expected to concentrate while hungry, because their parents have failed to keep current on their lunch payments. Teaching kids that we have to work and compete for everything we want, and that even food is a privilege that can be taken away from us, might prepare them for a cruel world, but it also normalizes such a cruel world in the process.
     Our society has chosen short-term financial gain over the real purpose of living: learning how to live a long, healthy, fulfilling life, doing so comfortably, and helping others to do the same. Nobody is going to care about truth over money, nor people over profits, until they stop prioritizing short-term gains, and keeping up with the Joneses, and frantically saving and stowing away for the future, refusing to share what they have earned with other people.

     As far as my thoughts on education policy go, education vouchers (just like housing vouchers) could serve as a popular multi-partisan compromise. Libertarians, progressive Democrats like Elizabeth Warren, progressive conservatives, conservative Democrats, and maybe even some neoliberals, could be convinced to support vouchers, if the proposal for it were triangulated right.
     During his 2016 campaign, Gary Johnson suggested that students engage in a year-long nationwide boycott of colleges and universities. This, he says, would increase colleges' demand for students (and their money), thus drastically lowering the price of tuition as soon as the boycott ends. Hopefully, this would lead to at least a few good years of low tuition, driven by people engaging in voluntary exchange through the market. Of course, that only works for privately funded schools, because publicly funded universities can only be fully boycotted once the flow of taxpayer money into them ends completely.

     The decline over the last few decades in the number of wood shops and auto shops in high schools concerns me. While I understand parents who say they're concerned that their children might get injured while taking wood or auto shop classes, acquiring hands-on skills is a valuable professional skill to have; especially now that trade skills are in higher demand. While students should not be pressured to take these classes, students who are enthusiastic about taking them should be asked to sign forms and waive the right to hold the school responsible for any injuries they sustain while taking them (but within reason, and with the schools' and teachers' responsibilities to ensure safe operation clearly defined).
     I personally spoke to a former high school shop teacher, who told me that his classroom equipment was removed without notice, after the course was terminated, on account of wealthy parents who were concerned that trade skills would lead their kids into “low-class jobs” like carpentry, electrician work, H.V.A.C., and plumbing. Of course, that is nonsense, because these are needed and valuable skills, there is no shame in providing them.
     Additionally, students introduced to such skills early could easily become interested in more advanced fields; specifically S.T.E.M. fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), which often pay even more than trade jobs. Getting more people into the trades, and into S.T.E.M. fields – and making sure that everyone owns, or at least has access to, means of production - could very well be the only way to protect our nation's future when it comes to jobs, technology, and industry.

     I hope that America's educational future is one which features the inexpensive and efficient transmission of knowledge and skills. It's not that teachers owe students an education; teachers and students each deserve a seat at the negotiation table when it comes to the costs involved. Online learning, distance learning, PDFs, e-catalogs, and other technologies have made education less expensive, and if universities expect to survive, then tuition must fall.
     Additionally, I hope that America's educational future features the dissemination of knowledge through decentralized learning. Little could be more effective at ensuring that such decentralization of knowledge becomes possible, than encouraging people to not only read, but to question what they read; to do their own research, verify facts independently, and come to their own conclusions.

Written on July 4th, 20th, 26th, and 27th, and August 1st through 4th, and 6th, 2018
Edited and Expanded on September 4th, 2018
Originally Published on September 4th, 2018