Saturday, July 24, 2010

We Don't Need No Education

I've always liked fields of study that lead to bigger questions. I got my B.S. in Psychology (cognitive/biology emphasis). and I almost chose Anthropology (evolutionary emphasis). The 'human condition' was a big question for me when younger (but that's another blog post). I've also liked Physics and Economics which seek answers to big questions on rules defining our surroundings. I've never had interest in studies testing rote memorization of formulas, names, numbers, and dates. Those can be looked up; concepts and heuristics can't. Take History... what I learned in school was generic and cherry-picked. I studied History best later on my own, seeking answers with past analogies to present day. I minored in Computer Science and work in that field, however the technical skills on my resume were self-taught. Not everyone is like me though. The other kids  can have their chemistry, biology, and quadratic equations.  I was never one of those kids who decided to be a lawyer or doctor, and studied accordingly. I worked at what interested me, and somewhat slacked on the rest... and I turned out fine.  General schooling was perhaps a decent framework, but 75% of it has not been useful in my life. I would have rather studied the things I was curious about earlier on.

It's interesting that many entrepreneurs don't have advanced degrees, most rocks stars have never taking guitar class, and many geniuses underperformed in school. Richard Feynman did terrible in history and language, but surpassed his own mathematics teachers from early on. So, what is the right balance of "well roundedness" and forcing kids to do things they don't like? What is the most efficient and valuable form of education system? Why should we trust bureaucrats to tell us what education our children need, when they do a terrible job deciding what our economy needs? What is the minimal education a parent owes their child, beneath which we consider it "neglect"?

To answer these questions, one has to weigh whether education serves: 1) the individual, or 2) "society"(whatever that means), or 3) some combination thereof. I've heard people argue that even childless taxpayers benefit from public education, because 'it prevents civilization collapsing into unskilled chaos and helps prevent people from resorting to life of crime'. This is completely bogus. The hooligans in street gangs are surely not there because their algebra teacher isn't good enough, and history class isn't going to help them straighten out. Those problems mostly result from the home, and perhaps from being bored by algebra. In fact, these kids would do better if they could focus on something that kept their interest and productivity. However, let's face it, there are some kids who aren't that bright. What serves them best? To try and struggle through school OR taking a job early on they can grow into? Since every child is different, we do a disservice to children, parents, and taxpayers by "standardizing" K-12 and pushing everyone to go to college. Nearly half of college students drop out. What does that tell you? Too many kids are going to college. Government subsidies have driven up costs for everyone, including smart kids who could benefit most from college. Even with K-12, parents should make the choices... not administrators or bureaucrats. The three R's, Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmatic has in the past been considered a basic education standard, and should be the minimum we expect parents to provide to avoid "neglect". Let' face it though, most parents want what's best for their kids and will go far beyond that 3 R's literacy minimum. As for the neglectful bad parents... well, sadly you're not going to regulate them into being good parents, ever.

What can fix education? I'd refer to Milton Friedman's ideas here. He advocated requirements for minimum general education, but desired that parents own the choices and costs. Charter schools are a step in the right direction, by introducing variety and competition into education. Vouchers are even better, allowing parents to "upgrade" their child's education and add variety by ending the neighborhood-school pairing. Perhaps if those ever happen, we could migrate towards complete private choice in education and phase out the socialist tax burden of public schools. Around the globe, the next generation will have the Internet and Wikipedia. Knowledge and education worldwide will equalize as bright self-taught kids everywhere will have access to information. Either the US becomes competitive, or it will continue it's present decline via a bureaucratic centrally planned public school system. We've seen that private control and competition always breeds quality, and that is no different with education.