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Friday, February 09, 2018

The certainty of the education reformer

In a recent interview with Reason, economics professor Bryan Caplan made the case against our education system.

Watching it sent me down and epistemological rabbit hole about social change and how we know what we know about its workings and consequences.

There's a ton in this interview that I agree with. I certainly agree that most students don't seem to be getting from their education anywhere near as much as I got from mine.

And I have a lot of trust in the assessment that for most people, much of the value of college, and even high school, comes from the signaling that a degree provides.

At Columbia University, I was often taken aback by how impersonal and anonymous the learning experience was in many classes. In one particularly frustrating computer science class, the professor refused to reveal answers to homework assignments when they were over (so students could, you know, learn from our mistakes), because then he felt he'd have to write new problems for future semesters. And after all, he wasn't really paid to teach; if he was the greatest teacher on earth but not a research asset for the university's brand, he wouldn't be there.

So to some degree, Caplan's right that even top universities are something of a diploma mill. And of course, many colleges are little but a diploma mill.

Still, more of the classes I took in my public and private education taught me something significant then ones that didn't, and I turned out as the sort of student I think we want to produce. Of course, that means analyzing education in general a strange and difficult thing for me--the experience of most people is much worse than mine, and I don't know how much of that difference is me and my background (and genes), how much is a difference in the schools I went to (in progressive, intellectual, diverse Cambridge, MA), and how much is chance.

When Caplan talks about people not coming away from their education with knowledge of politics and literature and such, it seems wildly out of step with what education was for me. I certainly have tons of complaints about the quality of my teachers, and there were lots of times that I wasn't learning much in this or that class, but by and large I did learn in a direction and rate that I would happily apply to society as a whole if I could. Thanks to my elementary school, I discovered Katherine Paterson, J. R. R. Tolkein, Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl, creative writing, and the BASIC programming language. Thanks to my high school, I discovered political activism, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Louise Erdrich, Eugene Ionesco, Man Ray, Huston Smith, Charles Dickens, Stephen Jay Gould, playwriting, theater production, electronic music production, photography, sexual orientation and gender identity, evolutionary psychology, the Pascal programming language, and reading the Bible as literature. Thanks to my college, I discovered newspaper writing, teaching programming, how to write a good essay, the nation of Georgia, the history of Iran, the Shahnameh, Virgil, Rachmaninov, Hume, Octavia Butler, Darryl Scott, Thaddeus Russell, my wife Kate, and how to tell an intellectually acute historian from a complacent one. (Bonus points if you can tell me which kind Alan Brinkley and Simon Schama are.)

Of course, I would have learned a lot and might have had just as much (or more!) smarts and skills if I had had less of a traditional education, or if it had been just mildly supervised, personally directed learning. Likewise, the kids who he's talking about who are graduating without skills or knowledge, or dropping out of college, are mostly people who would not be pursuing knowledge independently.

That's what I feel is most missing from his tone and approach: a recognition of the full landscape of the problem and all of the foolish traps that lie in the direction Caplan is pointing to. It's easy to look at the current direction and point out the existence of failures. And it's fine, even necessary, to make causal inferences, to some degree, that connect the current direction to those failures. But if you're not anywhere near the stage of actually trying out alternatives and trying to leverage their lessons for large numbers of people, then at some point these denunciations move past intellectual inquiry into something more like polemical masturbation.

Of course in the self-branding, publishing world, you need to be a promoter of a simplified view of your ideas, so I'm not saying Caplan can't have a more circumspect and skeptical approach in his actual work than he does in a brief online video! It's just that an awareness of these limitations feels glaringly absent in this interview, and in most loud denunciations of the education system.

That said, I basically agree with the incremental direction he's advocating: towards more student self-direction and focus on apprenticeship.

(And I think it should probably be easier for kids to drop out, and in fact to be kicked out, from school at a younger age; I think the simple fact that students haven't actually chosen to be in school, or at a particular school, or in a particular class, is a huge barrier to their engaging at the level necessary to improve themselves.)

I just think school in that apprenticeship-and-play direction, or in a more radically decentralized and non-coercive direction, has almost all of the same problems with outcome as school now. (I don't think it's the fault of school that there is such a high correlation between books a family has at home and long-term earnings of the children.) I've visited, or sent to my children too, many schools that have massive amounts of undirected time. I've also visited "no excuses" schools with a much more constantly active, regimented focus. My personal sense is that kids were about as happy and learned at both, and I don't know how much of a blessing it would be to liberate students from no excuses schools and send them to self-directed schools instead.

I appreciate Kaplan's looking at the outcomes of students with different numbers of years of college education in order to illustrate how much of the value is just in the signaling of the degree. But I think he could similarly look at the spectrum of educational approaches currently in play. I don't think there have been better outcomes from schools, or state policies, that are incrementally more in the direction that he recommends. He might argue that much of the value of his direction won't show up in earnings and test scores; I would say the same about college.

I'm not a big fan of Diane Ravitch's overall polemical writing, but a few years ago I read and enjoyed her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. The thesis is that there have been an endless stream of hyper-confident, publicly lauded reformers who have no shred of doubt that they know precisely which changes will obviously improve the education system. One after another, they have done their best to massively intervene in local interactions between children and the adult community members that attempt to educate them; and one after another, these reforms have flamed out and left a wake of destructive disruption.

Ravitch advocates much more caution before presuming that we know that revolutionary new education systems would be better than the systems they replace. This humility is frustratingly rare; there is seldom any reflection from the reformers or their backers that the confidence of the eternal reformist project itself may have been part of the problem. The conversation is instead about which other reform must be the unquestionably true, obviously correct direction.

This is all to say that, warts and all, the collective knowledge and wisdom that has gone into constructing the current system is much greater than your wisdom or mine. And the collective flaws and foolishness are much greater than yours or mine. I don't just mean that in aggregate, since obviously the number of people I'm comparing is wildly different! But I mean taken as a whole, there are thousands of tiny pieces of wisdom and policy correctives to incorporate empirical observation and adjust for unintended consequences.

(The same could also be said of our deeply flawed political and legal system--we might be quite unpleasantly surprised to find out what a popular revolution in America would give us instead, as we are somewhat finding out with the Trump quasi-revolution.)

There are certainly better ways we could be doing this, especially if you afford those alternative ways their own history of accumulated wisdom; such as when you compare our system to other countries'. The inertia of a current system is not a reason in and of itself to avoid changing it. But, that inertia contains information about the nature of attempts to change it that we are being foolish if we do not use to inform those attempts.

If Caplan has an inkling of these complexities and the importance of that sort of wisdom, I don't detect it in this interview.

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