Public Self-Education

Andrew Wetzel of Madison, WI, and KDWashburn of Pelham, AL, asked me about the future of schools post I wrote a few days ago on Twitter.  Andrew, in particular, pointed me to this article on newspapers and why the model of news-processing is changing, by Cody Brown.

Andrew then asked me this question: Can the public educate itself?

Oh, gods.

Andrew, I think you’ve hit on something.  See, newspapers have all this massive investment in infrastructure. They have trucks to deliver papers.  They have printing presses.  They have expensive newspaper reporters with expense accounts and mortgages in nice neighborhoods and lots of connections to politicians and wheeler-dealers about town.  They have vehicles for chasing stories and they have computers for research and…

Ok, you get the idea.

But at least nominally, these newspapers have to turn a profit. The fact that they’re not turning a profit has sent all of their owners into a serious tizzy, suggesting that they need to adopt all sorts of strategies to remonetize their content and create a payments plan of some kind that allows them to pay off all these fixed costs, like newsprint and reporters and amortization of presses, and so on.

I think I’ve bought two copies of the New York Times in the last five years.  Maybe I’m misremembering, but about five years ago, I started reading it all online.  There have only been a couple of times when I’ve needed the physical copy of the paper, and in truth, my dad still acts as my own personal clipping service — he sends me articles from the NYT that he’s cut out of the paper and saved, and they usually arrive… several days after I’ve read the story online.

But in truth I get my news from other sources now: Twitter. Blogs.  My colleagues.  Email.  Facebook.  (I’ve created my own list of about 25 webcomics that I read instead of installments of Garfield and Doonesbury on the funny pages. Comics with continuing story, like Erfworld and Devils’ Panties [it’s not Satanic Porn, really] and Girl Genius.)  Part of me misses handling paper.  But you know… not really.

Now apply that same modality to schools. For the purpose of this model, whether it’s a public or private school doesn’t matter much. They have massive infrastructures, in the form of elaborate buildings that have to be mantained at a very high level to support operations.  They have expensive clusters of computers and materials, elaborate collections of books that must be managed and maintained, and they have a staff of employees who are either well-paid and well-pensioned (and therefore expensive and demanding) or they have a low-paid, low-pensioned staff (with low morale) who are dominated and cowed by a whip-cracking administration.

We managed to get government to give us a monopoly on customers almost a hundred years ago. There are some cracks in the façade, in the form of charter schools and start-up tutoring programs and more, but really? We’ve had tight control over our customer base for a century, and we’ve gotten sloppy. We teachers and administrators have bought into the idea that the kids will show up every day for school, and our curricula have gotten more and more divorced from reality.

Parents have gotten sloppy, too.  They haven’t demanded the best for their kids.  They’ve let state and national educational programs bully them into testing systems they don’t want. They’ve let their neighbors argue or vote them into low taxes so that the schools starve for want of funds, and they’ve ceded control of school boards to crackpots, wackos and ambitious fools — or ceded them altogether to professionals.

But a former student of mine said recently, “I didn’t learn anything in school except from you.  Most of my teachers were boring, and I got more out of what they had us read or look at than out of what they said.”  Another student was even more blunt. “You’re a nice guy, Mr. Watt, but you didn’t teach me anything.”  And a group of Boy Scouts at camp this summer reached a similar conclusion — everything they regarded as useful or important in their lives came from a merit badge instructor rather than a schoolteacher.

A lot of our students get info from other sources now, too. They check Facebook, they use Google and Wikipedia for finding answers, and they cruise YouTube for information and entertainment.  BitTorrent is a favored method of acquiring film, I imagine, and growing all the time; they seem to watch movies that I can never find the DVD for later on.  Is it iTunes? I don’t think so.

And the curriculum of modern schools is looking more and more irrelevant to life in America.  Who will teach financial literacy in an age when a market meltdown rewards Goldman Sachs and throws the average homeowner to the wolves? What should we include in the curriculum of an English literature class when our schools don’t teach a substantial number of children to read?  Why is our mathematical literacy dying off?

Pulling your children out of school, and doing something else with them to teach them about the world begins to look like a more and more attractive strategy.

But here’s the thing.  The state still compells attendance in school, and the state still makes it very difficult for homeschoolers and others to pull their children out of school and educate them in an alternate way.  Some of this pressure is financial-economic, and some of this pressure is political-legal.  The effect is the same.  You get your kids up early and send them to school.

But the state can only compel attendance in school for as long as it can sustain the educational model, and force compliance on citizen and resident alike.  That ability to coerce compliance is under serious challenge right now with the continuing (perhaps deepening) financial crisis.  Friedman suggested that public schools probably need another $2 trillion.

We probably don’t have it.  And it’s increasingly likely that the rest of the world won’t lend it.  Not for America to recover its educational advantages, no.  Probably not for anything else, either.

Let’s look at a private school example, one I know only moderately well — my own old high school.

I looked through the yearbook and the newspapers of my high school from 21 years ago this week.  A current student is thinking about applying to my alma mater, a bastion of New England preppiedom in the hills of Connecticut.  And I was struck by how different the school looked then, and how it looked now.  Then, out of a class of around a hundred and fifty, more than a hundred and thirty were American. They came from families of America’s upper middle class.  Today my high school, once a bastion for privileged Americans, serves a primarily international student body.

The money necessary to send kids to these phenomenally expensive private boarding schools? Well…  It’s not really in America any more.  It’s in the Asian Tigers, or Mexico, or the BRIC nations; the People’s Republic of China is the fastest growing population group in American boarding schools right now.

The money that America’s richest and wealthiest families invested in these schools a century ago, or even fifty years ago, or even twenty years ago, is serving a different kind of elite than it used to.  It’s serving an international — not necessarily an internationalist — mindset. And while they still try to cultivate an American point of view, it’s hard — there’s a lot of cultural assumptions the teachers hold, which the students that are simply missing.

I think this is sort of like saying the Emperor is naked, not merely clothing-less.

The point is, though, that the parents of these children don’t necessarily require the boarding schools to be American. Even so, currently, these American schools have the cachet and brand recognition, and the schools act as immersion programs for kids who don’t speak English very well.

But this international educational audience doesn’t really need JFK Middle School in some town in middle America.  It doesn’t need P.S. 14 in Seattle or San Francisco or New York.  It doesn’t need the Science Magnet School in your state capital.

And it’s easy to suck talent and ability out of these schools and pull it to places where it can be better used; or to fire the innovators who don’t fit a rigidly scripted role. We’ve stripped our schools of artists and writers and thinkers and tinkers, and forced everyone who stays to work longer hours for less pay and with more oversight and (mis)management than ever before. We’ve turned our schools into over-bureaucratized beasts staffed with people who care for and coddle children, and we’ve fed them with public money for decades, and we’ve coerced parents financially and legally into accepting this as the status quo… and we wonder why they’ve gone soft and limpid and rotten.

More and more kids are catching on to this mug’s-game.  And they’re learning in places outside of school as a result.

And sometime in the next ten or twenty years, some politician is going to make a name for himself by successfully decoupling the state dollar-tube (whether at the town, state or federal level, I don’t know) from the public school.  Or maybe the parents will simply decide that their kids deserve a better education than the one they’ve been getting, and no one will show up on the last Wednesday in August to drop their kids at the schoolyard gate.

And at that point, the school system as we undersand it, will melt away because the state will refuse to continue to support it — it will need the funds for other mission-critical activities, and it will throw the burden of education back on families. “The internet’s free,” they’ll say. “Go learn there.”  And the kids will.  It may be tragic, it may be dark. There will almost certainly be suffering and quite possibly riots.

But in fifteen years, public and private brick-and-mortar education may well be the newspapers of today — a dying dinosaur breed trying to figure out how to get one more class graduated with everyone paid up.  It’s not going to be pretty.


Or we can embrace the idea that we need to be lighter, more flexible, faster, more expedient.  We can toss 95% of our processes of assessment now, in favor of short, fast flexible courses taught by a range of instructors in a range of disciplines. We can drop science courses based on reading in favor of science courses based on “what plants and animals live in our neighborhood?”  We can reacquaint students with primary sources from history, and turn every school into America into an arts guild for music, drama, local performance, and design schools, for free.

Will there be pain and suffering? Yes. Riots? Quite possibly.  Will some schools close in a state of utter failure because they can’t change fast enough? Very likely? Will some close in a state of utter failure because they change too fast? Almost certainly.

But they will not die all at once, huddled together for warmth like endangered cold-blooded reptiles at the start of an Ice Age.  And some might even survive, transformed, for the new era.  Maybe.

(yes, I know Dinosaurs are warm-blooded, and they didn’t die huddled together for warmth. Sheesh, I’m I storyteller, not a paleontologist.)

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  1. Andrew, included on this site is my new main blog address as well as my different class blogs.

    Interesting thing about newspaper is how one views the news in the intended order of the layout editor, and then one can reflect on the merit of a story’s placement or notice how a story may be purposely buried in some sections. Yet, does that happen with RSS feeds? Does one discover news stories as much through feeds or do we set up our internet hoses to spray into our screen as we please. How about editorial pages? Do we glance over at a position we disagree with on the internet as we might with a hard copy? Blog on–Bill

    • I think that RSS isn’t going to go away. If anything, I think it’s going to be more likely that new techs will appear that allow us to further slice and dice the news into its individual components.

      It’s definitely a lot easier to look at the firehose of your own chosen story-set, as opposed to a range of your own opinions. We definitely need to teach the dangers of confirmation bias now.

    • My classes actually looked at comments on your page today … it may have even been this one… in order to get a sense of how to write longer responses to questions, and how to include quotations. The quality of student work just jumped through the roof in response to that one bit of observation — “oh, that’s how high school students do it?” and suddenly… BOOM, instant improvement.

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