Thursday, April 21, 2011

Elevator Speech #6--Education--what folks must know

In spite of the fact that I spent nearly 20 years inside of classrooms, I don't even claim to understand what schools are trying to accomplish.  I have this notion that folks attend school to learn things but in truth, I learned almost nothing from my formal education.  

Part of this was a function of geography--K-11 was whatever a tiny town on the Minnesota or North Dakota prairies could afford and often that wasn't much.  Part was religious--my father thought it was a splendid idea to send his children to a school run by Mennonites K-6 as cultural enrichment.  It was an interesting cross-cultural experience all right--the kind you never really recover from.

But I spent my senior year in one of those luxo Minnesota High Schools and discovered there really were teachers that hadn't just graduated from college or that libraries could have more than 500 books, etc.  It was just enough to make me believe that school could be something other than an endurance contest with crushing boredom.  

College was at a mega-university that resembled an intellectual smorgasbord with an infinity of choices, but between too much work to feed myself and too much anger at the complicity of some of the big-name professors in the "design" of such lovely war crimes as the Phoenix program, I probably missed those moments when someone actually explained something that was important to know.

Fortunately, this is Minnesota.  Remember that wonderful Matt Damon line in Good Will Hunting where he tells the Harvard prick that someday the prick will discover that he paid "$150,000 for an education he could have gotten at the public library for $1.50 in late fees?"  Well, our public libraries are so well organized, they render bogus any claims that someone has a valid excuse for ignorance.

Damon is right--you CAN get a Harvard education down at the public library (or on the Internet) if you have a bit of curiosity and a well-honed set of skills at soaking up the contents of a good book.  And usually it's better than the Harvard experience because when you read on your own, you typically read only one or two books at a time.  In college, you may read five books for four classes per semester. (20)  Obviously, one cannot explore in much depth with that much simultaneous competition for brainpower.  (Every once in a while, someone will tell me they read Veblen in college.  I have yet to meet anyone who actually absorbed any Veblen in college--including me!)

So in spite of considerable effort and expense we find that schools are not an especially good place to learn anything.  There are exceptions--usually associated with degrees that most resemble old-fashioned apprenticeships like medicine or engineering.  But the schools most of us attend are usually underfunded and poorly staffed--although in fairness, their graduates are usually no more ignorant than those from the luxo schools that are primarily designed to inculcate a proper respect for money and what it can buy.

Since we are mostly on our own when it comes to education and our learning depends on our own initiative, it becomes critically important to understand why anyone wants an education in the first place.  This is especially true for those of us who reject the notion than a degree should be an indicator of status.  So here's what I have learned is important to know.
Reading is still the biggie.  It's the ultimate intellectual shortcut--in a few hours you can read a book that may have taken the author a lifetime of learning to write and when you are done, you know roughly as much about the subject as the author.  If you can extract good information from books (and now the internet) it doesn't make a bit of difference how poor you were or how crappy your schools because you can still find out the important stuff on your own.  Even better, reading is self-reinforcing--the more you read the better you get at it.
Writing is still important but these days, other methods for getting an idea from your head to another's should be learned as well.  These include illustrations, charts, schematics, and video production.
Knowing basic math is essential to understanding your surroundings.  This does NOT mean you are a failure if you never quite understand calculus.  But you should know the difference between a million, a billion, and a trillion, how to calculate and understand percentages, how statistical sampling works, and the rest of the skills one must have to extract meaning from news, government documents, and campaign literature.
Knowing history is critical.  If you don't know history, you must think that that world was mostly complete (transportation, buildings, governments, etc.) the day you were born.  This is the perfect prescription for infantile thinking.  Worse, if you don't know how the world got the way it did, it is impossible to understand your point in human development.  If you don't know where you come from, you cannot know who you are--and if you don't know who you are, you cannot know where you are going.  Historical illiteracy leads to personal aimlessness--every time.
There is a Predator lie that claims that "educated" people don't have to understand tools.  And while everyone doesn't have to operate tools on a daily basis to understand the lessons that technological gracefulness teach, it is also true that people who never learn to use tools and in fact, look down with disdain on those who do, are usually confused about very basic issues.  Not surprisingly, technological illiterates cannot contribute much to a discussion of technology-based issues like Peak Oil or climate change.
So if you must educate yourself for sociological or geographical reasons, concentrate on history, arithmetic, the use of tools, the ability to learn and extract meaning from your surroundings, and the ability to communicate what you have learned with your fellow humans.


  1. The original purpose of public education, as envisioned by Madison, was to teach people what it means to live in a democracy. That is the one glaring omission from your list. Notions like the protection of minority rights are not ideas that come naturally to most people. They must be taught. Madison's prediction of what happens without this sort of education has, unhappily, turned out to be dead on:

    "A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." -- James Madison

  2. Yeah, I left out some categories my friends find important such as the need to learn music. Even so, this post still got longer than my guidelines.

    Your quote from Madison reminds me that education also has a "why" in addition to "how."

    In my defense, I would put Madison under my need to learn history. If you know a lot about history, it is probable you will be a good public citizen.

    Thanks for your comment!