Our education and economic systems are broken in the exact same way

Why has our economy stalled?  Everyone has a different answer.  Economists will blame politicians, politicians will blame other politicians, and the public will blame politicians.  The blame game continues, and so does the ineffective policy.  Very few people understand how economies work, and so they jump on the bandwagon of yet another hypocrite year after year, only to see the situation worsen.

So goes the story in education.  People blame each other for high tuition prices, ineffective K-12 instruction, and weak numbers of STEM graduates.  Teachers blame superintendents, who blame politicians, who probably find some way to blame the economy.  Another blame game ensues, and so does ineffective policy.  Yet very few people understand how education should work, and so they continue the same policy every year, only to see the situation worsen.

I am not an expert economist or an expert educator, but considering all the bonehead ideas from people who claim to be experts, I think it’s good that more and more non-experts are talking about these topics from a common-sense point of view.  So, what follows is not an expert opinion but a personal opinion gleaned from a range of texts, papers, and people.

US Economy

A core American notion is that truly free markets in which people are free to pursue ventures of their choosing to make productive use of their unique skills are the single most potent source of prosperity in a society.  This notion is rooted into the very freedom with which we pride ourselves as Americans.  Individualism rules.  It is the reason we tell our kids they can be anything they want to be when the grow up–we know nothing will get in the way of someone driven to achieve.  It is the reason entrepreneurs put everything they have on the line to build great enterprises–they know that superior offerings win in the marketplace.  So many of the greatest companies ever created by man were created here in the US because of this driving belief.

Freedom, however, is a double-edged sword.  Freedom allows for the making of good decisions and bad decisions, but freedom can only be sustained if good decisions are rewarded and bad decisions are penalized.  If those choices are distorted, problems arise.  This is the root of our economic woes right now.

How so?  Here are some examples.  Banks that made bad loans and bad trades should not require taxpayers to sympathize with them.  You took the liberty to make billions of dollars in bad loans–so you should pay the price.  The Federal Reserve should not exert so much control over interest rates and money creation–purposely maintaining low rates for long periods of time cause irrational investment decisions (i.e, bubbles).  Money doesn’t grow on trees, and that’s actually a good thing for the economy.  Politicians should give businesses more certainty on future tax rates–uncertainty is causing businesses to maintain record cash balances by curtailing investment spending.  Can you really blame those businesses?

You get what you pay for, and you shouldn’t get what you don’t pay for.

Bad policy (i.e., policy that distorts decision-making for market participants) causes people to make irrational choices.  Banks continue to make trades with outsized risk.  Artificially low interest rates facilitated by money-printing allow a gridlocked Congress to fund a bankrupt government.  Tax uncertainty precludes businesses from hiring people and making big investments.  None of this is good.

Avoiding bad policy should not be confused with calls for ‘no policy’ or ‘more policy’ or ‘less policy’.  I don’t know how much policy is good or how much policy is bad.  I am not trying to promote a ‘liberal’ platform or a ‘conservative’ platform.  All I really care for is effective policy that allows for rational decision-making.  Clearly current policy is ineffective, as irrational activity continues under bad regulation and harmful activity continues under no regulation.

US Education

What’s the problem in education?  Well, there are many problems in education, of course, and a new wave of enthusiasm from entrepreneurs and investors has brought online a wealth of learning tools focused on some of the many problems.  But, as great as these tools are, I have a hunch that the core problem in education is identical to that of the core problem in economics: bad policy is distorting choices and resulting in bad outcomes.  And the root of this problem: an unwillingness to embrace the double-edged sword of our old friend, freedom, and its impact on unleashing the creativity of the human spirit.

Just as a free market enables people to pursue endeavors that make productive use of their unique skills, good education should nurture and cultivate peoples’ unique backgrounds.  Some people are better at math than others, while some people are more artistic than others.  Some people are more athletic than others.  And of course, some people are passionate about adapting unique simplified hydroponic methods to help poor Swazi subsistence farmers.  The point is: in education as in economics, humans are a varied species.  Properly-sanctioned freedom should be at the root of education as it should be in an economy.  It facilitates proper decision-making.

Educators agree.  Two weeks ago, I was in a breakout session in a room full of 35 education experts, mostly people involved with founding and running ‘alternative education’ schools throughout the country.  The event was part of a conference hosted by the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), a nonprofit organization that promotes more effective, learner-centered education models.  The prevailing theme throughout the conference was that children’s talents naturally vary, and proper education methods should recognize this and nurture and accentuate children’s talents as they grow (a theme popularized by Sir Ken Robinson).  The method starkly contrasts with the conventional method of slamming kids with lectures, worksheets, and bookwork in 7 different subjects for 12 years and and hoping something sticks.

It’s almost like a fire was lit after the speakers at the breakout session finished speaking: the passionate and emotional frustration that poured out from these people was moving.  One teacher, in tears and uncharacteristically NSFW language, simply could not make sense of how bad the system was damaging kids’ lives and how helpless she felt as a lone agent of change in a sea of ignorance.  Another man could not understand why, after decades of knowing the root issues in education, nothing has changed.  The ideals of nurturing creativity through educational freedom are just as true and effective now as they were decades ago.  Yet, conventional education continues to fail: record numbers of students are dropping out of high school, and as a country, our workforce is not as highly-skilled as it needs to be for the digital age.

And yet, the system continues to implement bad policy.  Blatantly ignorant of human nature, governments decide what they think kids should learn and how it should be learned with input from virtually no one else.  They mandate attendance to schools that teach only what they have determined is important.  Kids are then required to go to school.  Kids must conform themselves to the ideas, perspectives, and relative performance prescribed by their teachers and peers.  The system makes it a foregone conclusion that those who do not spend tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to college will be failures.  In the end, the groups of vibrant, creative minds set to tackle different disciplines have been dulled into a conforming, like-minded herd taught the same material and held to the same standards.  It amounts to a squashing of human spirit, human potential, and independent reasoning.  If you think this is an extreme perspective, I encourage you to read this excellent paper on the history of compulsory education and its origins.

What’s being distorted here is the human spirit, and it’s leading people to unconsciously make bad decisions.  Kids and parents accept all the schools’ activities, teachings, and perspectives as unquestionably necessary and useful–independent thought and reason are rarely encouraged.  Subjects, habits, schedules, behavior, dress, attitudes, feelings, relationships and all kinds of other perspectives are gleaned from the group throughout childhood–here again, individuality is crushed as pressure to fit in continues.  Creativity is curtailed in favor of conformity in the name of arbitrary standards set by sound-bite-driven bureaucrats.  Do we need to be around people as children?  Absolutely, but the pressure to fit in to society in the prevailing social and academic ways is way higher than it should be.

The human mind is naturally dynamic, emotional, and creative.  It’s this individualism that powers capitalistic success.  It’s this same individualism that our economic system supposedly promotes but our education system squashes. Kids need some element of direction as they discover what life has to offer, for sure, but any means to help them through discovery should not strip them of their spirit.  That’s just cruel.  Everyone is born crazy enough to think they can change the world.  They should stay that way!

So what?

All the focus on educational iPad applications, online video tutorials, and community marketplaces for skills is great in utilizing technology to make education more accessible.  This is a good trend, and it needs to keep on happening.  Really ‘fixing education’, however, is going to require much, much more.  You can give kids as much as you want, but you must unshackle them from the arbitrary demands of others so they can really come into their own.  The system must give kids more freedom if it wants them to thrive.  The human spirit is insatiable, and its potential is enormous.  It’s just as true in education as it is in economics, but you have to structure the system correctly to embrace that spirit.  I’m sure technology can help, but it will require much more than an iPad app.

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