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?
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?