The Exploding Car

Bill Watterson realized it in 1992. Hipster.

A common notion I’ve heard and often wondered about is the one that real learning happens after school is over, in the “real” world. It’s an idea that is really puzzling, kinda like quantum mechanics, the US legal system, or no bake pies. Something about it just didn’t make sense that kids would spend up to 19 years in school and then have no idea what to do afterwards. Why are we spending all this time learning stuff only to never use it again? It’s easy to brush it off that it’s individual failure, because 19 years of school has to mean something, right? Consider this, that 85% of 2011 college graduates are forced to move back home, many of them thousands of dollars in debt. That’s a whole lot of people that are unemployed and can’t find a job that they were promised schooling would provide. Surely it must be the funding or the teachers. Perhaps too many kids in a class. Maybe the kids aren’t working hard enough. The system is broken!

I’m no scientist (I’m a new grad living at home of course), but one of the few things I’ve learned in life is that systems work exactly as they are designed. We often blame malfunctions as the reason our systems don’t work right, but more often than not it’s working exactly as it was built. It’s like getting mad at an apple tree for not giving you oranges. Yell and scream all you want, but the system works exactly as it was designed regardless of how you feel about it. When a car breaks down, we blame poor car designing, but of course many of us forget that cars need regular maintenance. So who cares to save money that you haven’t changed the transmission oil in 50k miles and mixed water with your engine oil? These damn Fords are never built to last!

Relatedly, when the 70s Ford Pinto exploded upon rear impact, Ford chalked it up to a bad design. But let’s take a step back first. Most natural systems evolve – wait for it – naturally, but most human designed systems are different. Our systems are designed intentionally for inputs that turn them into our desired outputs. Human built systems are designed for an end game. The output Ford desired was a safe, cost effective car made for mass production to customers and set about making a system to create such an output. What they got was a cost effective car that exploded upon rear impact. The knee jerk reaction is to argue that the Pinto was designed poorly, but that reasoning is based solely on the desired outcome, not on the system design itself.

The distinction to understand here is small but critical. The Pinto’s design created an exploding car because it was designed to be an exploding car. We wanted a different outcome, so we say the design was flawed, but the design that was implemented worked exactly as it should have. If we wanted a car that would explode on rear impact, then it worked perfectly. What’s important to understand is that a design of a system is never broken or flawed, only our expectations of the implementation.  Read that last sentence again.  Go on, I’ll wait here.

Once this distinction is made, things start to make more sense. Maybe doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results doesn’t make any sense. If the system doesn’t produce the results we wanted, maybe we need a fundamentally new system. If the goal of modern education is preparing students for work life and it’s not working, how do we fix this? If the government had the wrong implementation, surely they have tried changing the system design to produce their desired output.

But, what if they actually wanted an exploding car?

Even Michael Bay couldn't make this up.

I recently read a book called “Stop Stealing Dreams” by Seth Godin (available here for free download from his own site), that really breaks down everything I thought I knew about the education system. What is school for? It seems like an incredibly obvious question, but a surprisingly hard one to answer, almost on the level of “what’s your favorite food?”. I still don’t have anything close to an answer on that one, but I have narrowed it down to food from the northern hemisphere. Godin categorizes an answer into four parts, the first three being: human socialization, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and the tools to make smart decisions.

School has categorically failed miserably at all of these components. Schooling has developed unknowledgeable people that can’t work together all while making poor life choices. Most people’s understanding of science and math are tenuous at best, and if you think school at least prepares its students for good life decisions, well then I have some mortgage backed securities I’d like to sell to you. There is far more real world learning in half an hour of recess than in a month of schooling. Godin’s fourth category was to train people to become productive workers. And that’s where school has succeeded magnificently. Plot twist!

School as we now know it was implemented in the US after the Civil War for the every man’s child. But they failed at the first 3 reasons. At the turn of the industrial revolution, thousands of discrete jobs were created as part of the production process. Industrialists supported the education cause, since the system would provide them with a consistent flow of assembly workers that knew how to complete tasks and follow orders. If it all sounds like liberal poppycock to you, look a little closer at your own experiences. Quick, what’s the capital of Maine? How many amino acids are there? What’s the 14th amendment? When did Andrew Jackson become president?

There definitely is value in having a base level of knowledge to improve society’s culture and understanding, but all that we retain from schooling are broad themes. The things we memorize in school are never used in the real world, a point that most of us would concede. Then why are we memorizing it? Well, I memorize a fact to pass a test. I pass a test to pass a grade. I pass a grade to go onto the next grade, where I then memorize facts to pass tests, to pass a grade, to go onto the next grade… and if that sounds like a replaceable part of a machine, you’re finally getting it.

The system was not designed for best preparing us for today’s world. At a fundamental level, it was to make people that listened to orders. Color inside the lines. You have 5 minutes to do this, and if you don’t you get in trouble. Don’t wear colored socks, it’s not fair to everyone else. Follow the directions at the top of the page carefully. As much as it is hard to admit, school is by design about crushing individual creativity, not promoting it. The multiple choice exam was created in 1914 by Frederick J. Kelly, a professor in Kansas, during World War 1. The government had made 2 years of high school mandatory, and with so many men sent overseas, the factories were low on workers. In order to quickly process and pass men through school, the multiple choice test was created as a “test of lower order thinking for the lower orders” according to Kelly. Later, when Kelly tried to remove the system, industrialists and mass educators exiled him from education. That same system designed (you’ve heard that word before) for temporary throughput is now the basis of the SAT.

Up until the last few decades, the largest employers in the US were large manufacturing companies, where workers started low and worked their way up the corporate ladder as a cog that fit into its structure. The regimented school system produced an output just as the government (and the rich industrialists) wanted, and the economy matched it. But no longer. The economy is now a large, agile, and ever changing beast that depends on teamwork and problem solving to create innovative solutions for today’s problems. Yet our schools have remained the same. In a world where following and doing tasks is no longer rewarded, we have tons of young adults that can follow orders and do tasks but can’t think for themselves in a world that demands it. We no longer need or want the current system, but most of us don’t even know it was designed intentionally this way. There is little value in tweaking a system that fundamentally produces the wrong desired output. Progress is achievable only once the system is fully understood for how it implements the change of inputs to outputs.

I’m not here to talk about what we should do, or what we could do, but I will leave you with the notion that higher learning institutions no longer control information. Anyone with an internet connection now has more information access than anyone else in the history of the world.  Rather, I pose a much more interesting question that I hope inspires some thoughts.

If everything that society has produced today is a by-product of an outdated, uniform education system, imagine, what can we all achieve once the car no longer explodes?


17 thoughts on “The Exploding Car

  1. Most people are not smart enough to learn for real. School is a scam to make them feel competent.
    Maybe one in a thousand could actually understand the real concepts behind
    calculus. let alone differential topology or algebraic geometry or quantum field theory or general rel etc.
    So, instead, we give them monkey-tricks, and call them computer scientists, or
    engineers, or physicists etc.
    If they even stupider, they get trained in business, or, the liberal arts.

    “Now we build our brave new world: made from the same old stuff. ” –H.G.

    • Susan, you are wrong in so many ways.

      Anyone can understand Calculus, it’s not that hard. I know because I’m a middle school math teacher who has taught the basic principals of first semester calculus to sixth graders in ten minutes. In fact, the only thing that makes math seem hard (bad curriculum or teachers not withstanding) is that grade-level standards require students to learn it too quickly. A confounding factor to this is that grade-level standards in all subjects are overloaded, so students are being rushed through material in multiple content areas simultaneously. Like the author points out, the design does not accomplish what we expect it to. Instead it successfully creates students who believe they are bad at math (and therefore stupid), and who have totally forgotten that deep, constant learning is one of humanity’s distinguishing features.

      Secondly, your disparaging remarks about physicists, engineers, and computer scientists only reveal your ignorance, because petty interdisciplinary rivalries aside, all of these fields require an understanding of k-12 grade-level math.

  2. The American education system values creativity and other intangible qualities far more than the Chinese or Indian ones do. How then do you explain all these metrics that say Indian and Chinese students are stronger in math/science… than American students?

    I think the fundamental problem is cultural. There are a lot of ethnic groups in the United States that don’t value education, for whatever reason. Part of the reason, as you explained, was because historically there were always jobs for Americans with limited education, which in most cases paid pretty well. Today, however, Americans have to compete in a global market with laborers who can have comparable levels of productivity for a significantly lower cost. As a result, the only Americans who succeed are those who can differentiate themselves with creativity, analytical ability as you note.
    While I agree with your assessment of the problem(s), I think it really has more to do with the input being bad (unmotivated students with limited parental involvement) and not the system.

    • “The American education system values creativity and other intangible qualities far more than the Chinese or Indian ones do. How then do you explain all these metrics that say Indian and Chinese students are stronger in math/science”

      Creativity exists in all subjects. Not only the humanities. Students who master mathematics and sciences can be (and are) creative individuals.

      “There are a lot of ethnic groups in the United States that don’t value education, for whatever reason.”

      That’s… like your opinion, man.

  3. It made no sense to me, until at 24, with two PhD degrees, and a membership at the Institute for Advanced Study I realized:

    1) I was not brilliant, in fact, barely educable.

    2) Most of the human race is retarded.

    Not politic, but it clarifies our entire culture.


  4. As someone with a degree in liberal arts, and an educator for the last twenty years, I can certainly say that the smartest, wisest, most creative thinkers I have ever met were Dust Bowl farmers I knew when I was a boy, all of whom had less than a sixth-grade education. And the reason they were so smart was because they lived through a time when their very existence or demise was determined by the choices they made on a daily basis. Their key was adaptation and improvisation. If you couldn’t fix the grain harvester, you couldn’t harvest the grain. If you couldn’t harvest it, you couldn’t sell it, and if you couldn’t sell it, you made no money, and you went hungry. If you didn’t have the money to buy the part to fix the machine, you had to adapt something or come up with some workable solution. Throwing in the towel and hoping a colleague could finish for you was not an option. Going through that kind of a series of events successfully bred wisdom, and you were better prepared to meet the next challenging situation.

    I agree that memorization of facts is not learning. Understanding the linking of concepts and making predictions based on experience and knowledge is the key. We teach facts because we, as a society, need to have a common basis of knowledge. These facts are the language that help us move beyond trying to create a common language. What would life look like if one state taught the concept of volume by how many jars something fills while another taught volume by how many words make up a paragraph? The facts are our common area of understanding what the hell the other guy is speaking about. We do this in classrooms because you can teach a lot of people the same thing at the same time – it’s efficient, but not effective. Don’t look at school as the basis of knowledge, but as the place where we establish the language with which to understand each other. True learning then begins when we start doing. No class I sat through taught me how to teach as well as just jumping in and teaching did. But I had to learn the language of teaching, and that is what school did for me. Experience did the rest. The degree is not the goal; it is the language of your craft. It is your apprenticeship.

  5. Agreed! I have always said, “I don’t want to learn what 2+2 equals, I want to learn how to add.” I didn’t want to simply become a walking Wikipedia full of facts useful only in certain situations, while never understanding the correlation between all of the things I supposedly “know.” I wanted to be able to think for myself, connect the dots (so to speak), and make sound/informed decisions based on the knowledge I have gained.

    My father always said that you go to school to ‘learn how to learn.’ Some people see beyond the facade of the current system and take what they can get out of it, the others get sucked in completely or don’t even try at all.

  6. Ben,
    I meant CALCULUS– Not the manipulative drivel you think is calculus.

    Things like:
    Uniform convergence, swapping limits with derivatives,
    Lebesque and Daniel integration, measure theory, a proper
    definition of surface integral that avoids the Zaremba example (Lebesque Surface Area or Hausfdorf measure), Fubini’s Theorem, differential forms
    ( aka germs of sections of tensor products of the cotangent bundle) etc.

    AND, it is Math, so we include rigorous proofs and definitions of everything.

    Same, for my comments on physics etc.

    What we teach engineers as calculus are monkey tricks.


  7. Ben wrote:

    Secondly, your disparaging remarks about physicists, engineers, and computer scientists only reveal your ignorance, because petty interdisciplinary rivalries aside, all of these fields require an understanding of k-12 grade-level math.

    Physics done correctly involves non-linear partial differential equations on
    manifolds (consider the einstein field equations or the yang-mills–higgs equations on vector bundles), functional analysis in quantum mechanics
    such as the spectral theorem in Sobolev Tensor Spaces or the theory of
    C-star algebras, spinor theory, group representation theory, clifford algebras,
    metaplectic groups.
    Want to understand string theory, then add supersymmetric lie algebra,
    structure sheaves, the atiyah-singer index theorem, calabi-yau manifolds,
    transcendental algebraic geometry of Kahler manifolds.

    Computer science, not coding in Java, is similar.


  8. Wow, Susan… All I can say is that I’m glad my parents and teachers are not as cold and jaded as you are. And that if you were ever a patient of mine, I’d be sure to prescribe pointless medications and administer them in the wrong amounts, just so you could feel correct about my intelligence, despite being a doctor. My mother is a teacher and she and some of her colleagues are some of the smartest, most underpaid, and under-appreciated people I’ve ever met. They all went through years of school, and have other degrees under their belts, and they choose to educate others. Regardless of the fact that you don’t consider yourself brilliant (and good on you, you’re clearly not), you have teachers to thank for much of the knowledge you possess. You may have two PhD degrees, but you obviously lack any sort of emotional intelligence, and for that, I pity you. Have fun with your calculus, I’ll be off making a difference in people’s lives and learning how to be a functioning member of society, regardless of the fact that I’m “retarded”. Which brings me to my last thought: the use of that term alone also shows your ignorance when it comes to how to communicate with others effectively and gracefully. I would love to see someone with a chromosomal abnormality shove your degrees into any one of the holes on your body.

  9. cece wrote:
    // you obviously lack any sort of emotional intelligence//
    I would love to see someone with a chromosomal abnormality shove your degrees into any one of the holes on your body.
    You are clearly a paragon of emotional intelligence and civility. If you are a
    physician, that’s sad.

    Like the others on this thread, I got little from school teachers or school.
    I was at about the tenth grade level at age six. School was a boring prison.
    Even in graduate school, I ignored teachers and just studied books.
    And, yes, I am not brilliant.


    • Susan, you’re so right! Don’t let common people judge your vast understanding of the big picture. Congratulations for being smarter, it’s really a matter of dedication and talent. You’re so brave! Cheers!

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