The Trajectory of American Education

From “Our Educational Colonialism” by Chris Arnade:

Yet it is the kids sitting in middle row I have the deepest sympathy for because they are the most harmed, and the ones you hear the least about. They are mostly working class kids who don’t really fit into the back row because they are very disciplined, eager, and want do what they are told, and especially want to do the right thing. Which now means going off to college to better themselves, so they go off to college to better themselves, regardless of the cost.

They buy into our faux educational meritocracy the most, swallowing it hook, line, and sinker. They buy the dream peddled by every successful person they have ever run across or heard, from Obama down to the middle school guidance counselor: Education is the pathway to a successful and meaningful life.

So they apply for loans and eight years later that child is a young adult with 100K in debt working in a government bureaucracy five hundred miles away and missing the weekly family backyard BBQs.

When I researched the history of student loans, one of the most striking currents underlying our educational debt crisis is the sad fact that student loans basically function as a subsidy for universities paid as a crippling tax on a generation of young Americans.

Education is wonderful, so is bettering yourself by getting as much of it as possible. But done on your terms and because you want it for your reasons. Not because you, your community, and everyone else you know, is competing with the Chinese, or the Germans, or the Indians. So you have to take countless standardized tests so you can win a golden ticket to ship off to Princeton and hang with others who are good at taking standardized tests, to then be taught more stuff, to then go to grad school to learn even more stuff, so you might, if you are lucky, get to go to San Francisco and live in an a small room hundreds of miles from your family to start in a firm trading bonds, or helping Google sue someone, or running from teaching one introductory writing course at one school to another introductory oratory course at another school, or maybe so you can write papers for a non-profit funded by a billionaire arguing that we need more education. That isn’t good.

What we have now is a top-down educational system that intellectually strip mines America and humiliates everyone. What we need is a democratic educational system that provides pathways to dignified lives for everyone. That provides Shakespeare and differential topology to those who see the beauty of each, but also provides skills to those who would rather focus on things like music, mechanics, nursing, parenting, farming, or whatever.

Education is wonderful. But right now we have an educational arms race, and we’ve forced people to mortgage their brains and futures to get degrees that simply function as overpriced old-fashioned card punches: just a ticket to enter the workforce.

The Machinery of Skepticism

Carl Sagan, famous astronomer and author of Contact and Cosmos (among others), writing about “The Burden of Skepticism” way back in 1987:

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress. On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future.

That summarizes so much.

Flywheels and Doom Loops

Jim Collins, author of Built to Last and Good to Great, talking on The Knowledge Project:

What we found is that the most durable results happen as a series of good decisions that accumulate one upon another over a very long period of time, that create a massive compounding effect. And just like investing, where it’s buy quality assets you would presume to hold forever, then largely do and let them compound, this is the idea that you get a really good thing and you build strategic compounding over a very long period of time, and then you end up with this spectacular result.

He calls that the “flywheel effect.” And, as you might expect, there’s an opposite phenomenon:

Let me just describe the inverse of the flywheel, which is the doom loop. Something happens that produces disappointing results. And it could be that it was a random event or something just happened that was out of your control or something that you just made a mistake or you bungled something, whatever. You get disappointing results. But unlike really understanding why that happened so that you can correct, what happens is a company reacts without understanding. “Oh my gosh, we had disappointing results,” and often what happens is they panic. They look for a new direction or a new program or a new leader or a new acquisition or a new technology or something, and because that never really produces a great result, it produces a burst of false hope, but it’s like drinking a sugar drink as opposed to getting back to your core training. It doesn’t give you any accumulated momentum, which then creates another negative inflection, more disappointing results, which then more reaction without that understanding. Then another new direction, new fad, new program, new whatever, and then another failure to build momentum, more disappointing results, and then you’re in the doom loop.

If you’re honest, how many quality initiatives have you seen as a true flywheel of progress and not just a spoke in the doom loop?