Thursday, May 27, 2010

Deschooling Society: Where Do We Set the Bar

Formal public school emerged in this country in the middle of the 19th century. For 150 years, the purpose of School was to raise children to be laborers in city factories, or for the elite, getting them to College to be the next generation of doctors, lawyers, etc.

In my rural-Maine elementary school (K-8) high school was not necessarily a requirement to getting a job, if you were willing to work in the woods, fields or garages. We celebrated everyone graduating eighth grade! But "Graduate eighth grade, and you will have a job waiting" turned into "Graduate High School" then "Graduate College" then "Graduate with a Masters" and continues to escalate. The bar keeps getting raised higher and higher.

My kids are taking a course in Algebra right now and I find myself teaching them what they need to know to do the homework. So I'm planning to continue teaching them Algebra over the summer and into the fall.

I went online to a college website where they have published a Math Review Course for new students, basically what you should know from H.S. in order to succeed in college Algebra, Calculus, whatever. So I thought, hey, why not just get them to this level and they will be all set.

As I started reviewing the materials, loud warning bells started going off in my mind. When would anyone ever use this in the real world? Unless we are training our college students to be College Professors, this is absolute tripe! In all my years of working with technology in various companies both pre-Web and post-Web, nothing has gone beyond basic math and Algebra. I could do differential equations if I needed to; but I have never needed to. I use area and volume calculations at home, but never for work.

So I want them to have a solid understanding of Algebra and Geometry, and know those subjects enough to teach other people about them. Then we will stop. If there is a need for Trigonometry or Calculus, we will go there, otherwise, no.

I love hearing from people who want to argue about the value of these classes. "But if they don't take Trigonometry, how will they...." I like to cut them off right there. Calculating a tangent was something I had to learn to pass a class, which let me take another class, and so on and so on. It had no value unless I had decided to pursue #3, College Professor, and even then my field would not have been Mathematics. How many Math professors are we aiming for anyway? Where should this bar be in the real world?

Best Jobs in America, from CNN along with the current demand for these jobs from within 60 miles of New York City.

Ranking Career Opportunities Growth
1 Systems Engineer 219 45%
2 Physician Assistant 73 27%
3 College Professor 18 23%
4 Nurse Practitioner 68 23%
5 IT Project Manager 207 16%
6 Certified Public Accountant 26 18%
7 Physical Therapist 97 27%
8 Computer/Network Security Consultant 165 27%
9 Intelligence Analyst 59 15%
10 Sales Director 281 10%

Deschooling Society: School as a Religion

Morpheus: "School is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you're inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save...You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it."

I am taking small liberties with the movie script, to illustrate my point: I think School is a belief, a faith that people have. From Deschooling Society:
"School has become the world religion of a modernized proletariat, and makes futile promises of salvation to the poor of the technological age."

Why do I feel like I'm the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind? Why is this so difficult for other people to see?

I'm not trying to disrespect people who believe in School, because I believe in tolerance of other religious views. But I know I am in the minority because I do not have that School-religion any more, and I know that the struggle to free our world will be long and difficult. I think it will get worse before it gets better.

This is going to be a tough row to hoe. There are more than 74 million people in the US with a Bachelor's Degree or higher, 2 million+ owe their livelihoods to the School system. All of these people, including me, have a vested interest in protecting School, protecting the value of their Degree. Otherwise, why did they devote years of their lives and thousands of dollars? If we all agree it has value, then it does have value, right? I for one have lost that blind faith in School.

If all those people were not enough to block our path to an enlightened School-free future, let me add a few more layers. Many millions of people all around the world believe that:
  • School is the only way to success in the modern world

  • School will empower the powerless

  • School is the great equalizer, regarless of your skin color, economic background, caste, ethnicity, School will set you free.

The one area of hope I can see in this is through technology. As online learning is replacing classroom instruction, and more and more institutions make their secret sauce available on the Internet, students from all walks of life can explore and find areas of learning that make sense for them. Learning will continue without School, even in spite of School. And that is a good thing.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Deschooling Society: The Value of School

How do you value your education?
Do you look to what you earned, the certificate or diploma or degree hanging on the wall, or do you value what you learned, what you know, what you have retained?

I don't value the diploma on the wall as much as my Alma-mater would like me to. I frankly regret the student loans that I am still paying off more than 15 years after the fact.

I remember my father telling me that college would "teach me how to think." This is from a man who was self-taught his entire life, from dismantling and repairing clocks as a child, to building electric motors and radios as a teen, to a brief stint in the Navy as a radio guy, to a job in a radio station, to CB and HAM radio and his career as a microwave communications technician. So even he, who was essentially a C-average student from a rural poor family and who only could afford one semester in college, he so valued higher education that he indoctrinated me in its value.

My aunt, who was a teacher at the time, encouraged me to study Engineering. She was adamant that with a degree, you would be able to "write your own ticket." Foolish me, I listened, and signed on the line. Four years after I sought the path to writing my own ticket, the U.S. entered the toughest job market since the Depression.

Seth Godin warns of a coming meltdown in higher education. Tuition is rising faster than the potential income one would get if they graduated with a degree - so there are degree mills out there which work around this problem for those with gaps in their moral armor. Thank you Scott Adams:

But that raises a great question, why would someone work so hard to get those letters on their resume? Is there discrimination in the workforce against people without those letters? Why, yes there is! Without those magical letters your resume will not even be looked at by a recruiter. You not only need the key words (Project Manager, Finish Carpenter, Phlebotomist) but also the key letters: BA, BS, MA, MS, MBA or even PhD.

These letters say that you spent four or eight or twelve years of your life at an institution. It means you could afford to spend those years out of the workforce, through your amazing scholarships or generous relatives or bountiful student loans. These letters may even say that you can conform, you will fit in, you can ease into the culture of the new company because you could conform to the artificial society which is a College or University.

These letters don't say that you can do a job well - but they open a door that will be closed in your face if you don't have those letters. In Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich calls for a law "protecting the citizen from being disqualified by anything in his career in school" in order to prevent "discrimination in hiring, voting, or admission to centers of learning based on previous attendance at some curriculum."

Imagine that, you wouldn't need those letters at the end of your resume or after your name in order to be good at a job! Lest you think this opens the door to incompetence, the author does qualify his statement to say that "this...would not exclude performance tests of competence for a function or role, but would remove the present absurd discrimination in favor of the person who learns a given skill with the largest expenditure of public funds or what is equally likely has been able to obtain a diploma which has no relation to any useful skill or job."

So with the letters, you aren't an expert? If I have an accounting degree, can't I go off and be an accountant somewhere? Maybe, yes. But how well you do that job is more dependent on your internship / senior project / professor and peers than the actual degree.

I work with a person who has a PhD in Economics. He spends his days using MS Excel and MS Access to wrangle data from disparate systems, building business reports. He's not running an Investment firm or whatever one is supposed to do with that degree, he's doing a job that some minimally skilled person with a few Microsoft courses under their belt and some good reporting writing skills could do.

Godin says "we won't be fooled again," but I know many in my generation are the helicopter parents pushing their kids up the great cattle-chute which is higher education. Why would otherwise rational people commit their lives and their children to a system which is failing? Maybe because, in my next post, School is a Religion!!!

Deschooling Society: Introduction

Part 1. Why We Must Disestablish School

A great resource has been recently brought to my attention, and in (what I hope to be) a series of posts, I will explore the themes in the book, Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich. Here is the Wikipedia article about the book and author.

If you are unfamiliar with this work, you can read the full text online at the link above, or order a print copy of the book.

It was written in 1970, and it is amazing to me that many of the themes and principles in this book are things I have recognized to be true and which many in the greater non-schooling community have recognized to be true. The author sets forth a series of arguments that school is a institutionalized form of social control.

Will you join me and take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes?

Matrix, red pill or blue pill

How can I say that school doesn't work?

School is not good at doing what it was designed for.
We are in a post-industrial world and we have an pro-industrial education system. Those factory jobs are not coming back - the world needs Web Ninjas and Entrepreneurs - people who think outside the box, who color outside the lines, who don't sit still in class! School however demands uniformity, act this way, dress this way, think this way.

Unless you have joined the military or served time in jail, school may be the only time in your life when you are kept isolated with same-experienced peers (prisoners) and an adult/expert chaperoning your day (guard).

I say that I survived school.
I survived bullying in the elementary and middle school years, which included teacher bullying and domination as well as student physical and emotional bullying. I arrived at school with a desire to learn and an ability to read, and I kept that intact. I made it through high school and college, and still have that desire to learn.

School is not the great equalizer
"It should be obvious that even with schools of equal quality a poor child can seldom catch up with a rich one. Even if they attend equal schools and begin at the same age, poor children lack most of the educational opportunities which are casually available to the middle-class child. These advantages range from conversation and books in the home to vacation travel and a different sense of oneself, and apply, for the child who enjoys them, both in and out of school. So the poorer student will generally fall behind so long as he depends on school for advancement or learning."

The author calls for a flexible lifelong learning system, where people can take courses to learn skills throughout their lives. Need to learn more about blogging? Want to learn French? Take the courses you want in order to learn the skills you want, when you are ready to learn them. If the teacher is bad, drop out and ask for a refund! Take a course from a different teacher or in a different program. Imagine doing that in a compulsory elementary school:

"Excuse me Ms. Glidden, I don't like the way you are teaching this class, I'm going home now. I think I'll try second grade in the school down the road. Please send the refund to my home address. Bye!"

In my next segment, I will explore the value of education.