Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why We Can't Have Nice Things, Part Duh

One might at least creatively, rhetorically, make the argument that certitude is not bulletproof and absolute about, say, how precisely the universe "began," or the exact process by which species of biological organisms have developed over hundreds of thousands or millions of years. I wouldn't want to bother to engage in any sort of intellectually honest "debate" with such a person, because right away their motives would have to be in question. But it's at least theoretically conceivable that a person could raise some (again, intellectually honest) questions as to the specifics of such theorized processes.

But there's no excuse for this, there's no rationalizing how a grown-ass adult, even if English is not their first language, cannot understand how the sun appears in the east every morning, and disappears in the west every evening. We are supposed to be beyond the times where we told ourselves and each other various stories about that process. There is no chariot, pulled by celestial beasts and driven by a heroic mythical demiurge, laboriously towing the giant golden ball across the sky in slow motion day after month after decade after millennium.

As easy as it would be to drum another cynical eye-roll about how stupid these "1 in 4" are, this pseudo-statistic (and while I believe that 2,200 is too small of a sample, any contingent is still too large, on a subject like this), larger questions are begged, if we pull back far enough. One question we might ask, in the context of, say, "who the hell is educating these people, and how?" is what we expect our educational system to do, in the most general sense. In other words, if we expect our archaic Prussian model to merely churn out compliant workers, people who dutifully vote and pretend it made some difference, then hell, that's what you got. Keep on keepin' on.

But if we harbor notions of "greatness," however one chooses to define that, whether "continued" or "restored," we have to revisit that model, and its extenuations, accordingly. For one, even if we did decide we simply want our compliant-worker-drone model, one must ask, doing what? Considering the factors of overpopulation, leveraged comparative advantage in emerging markets (that is to say, cheap labor in overpopulated Third World countries), productivity gains (accruing primarily to owners, almost completely at the expense of labor), automation and commodification of routine tasks, and hypermobility of capital, the irrefutable issue facing Americans is the cold fact that there are simply more people than there are things for them to do to secure a living.

So what do you do with them, what do you "teach" them in the institutions of learning, the highest of which have devolved into a naked racket, a system of indentured servitude where one rolls up six figures worth of loans, and scrambles to pay them back down, in 10-15 years (of their prime years of life) if they're lucky (and they frequently aren't)? What is to be expected of such an "educational" system, frankly, when there are fewer and fewer options for them as employable drones?

I observe the experience of my daughter, who is in seventh grade, and I can only wonder, what is the point? To take but one example, her math class is something called Common Core. There is no textbook, only a series of worksheets that comprise the homework. "Notes" are taken in class, but for some reason are collected afterward by the teacher, presumably to show the accrediting body that notes are being taken.

However, as any of us who have learned a new concept already know, things like notes and textbooks are useful for reference, a way to preserve those oh-so-valuable experiential moments in the classroom for future study and guidance. It is a persistent assumption that those experiential moments cannot be replicated by the mere hunting and compilation of data, that there are interactive and interpersonal dynamics that must be internalized to attain true educational self-actualization.

There is some truth to that assumption; there are experiences in bonding, socialization, and team-building that are difficult or impossible to transfer to a wholly online paradigm. But again, a live interpersonal experience that mostly involves the mindless ticking of boxes, without understanding how the process of learning continues apace, becomes, while not completely valueless, certainly a process with diminishing value. Rather than instilling a love and appreciation for the edifying experience of learning a useful skill or idea, one learns how to navigate a bureaucratic maze posturing as a learning institution; instead of mastering a concept, one learns how to pass the test.

So we have to decide, at some point, probably when it's too late, that we would rather not be a society that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, that while the things we can optimize and quantify and goal-seek on a spreadsheet have and add some value, they do not comprise the entirety of that value. They do have some value, don't get me wrong. But we have been misled to believe that it's the be-all-end-all, the ultimate goal of the process. And in a world where the knowledge is free, if you know where to look for it, if we can pull up a Khan Academy or Academic Earth video and learn something cool, what the hell are we going to "school" for, and worse yet, paying for an experience that has less and less meaning and value?

1 comment:

Tehanu said...

Improving the educational system is only part of what's needed. You put your finger on the real point: there are too many people for not enough jobs. We should be working toward a world where everyone has as much work as they want -- which means way less than the ridiculous 14-hour days our lords & masters insist are vital to their profits. In fact, we may already be past the economy of scarcity and looking at the economy of abundance, if only we could figure out how to keep a tiny minority from hogging it all.