Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The Center Cannot Hold

When William Butler Yeats put the phrase I’ve used as the title for this week’s post into the powerful and prescient verses of “The Second Coming,” he had deeper issues in mind than the crisis of power in a declining American empire.  Still, the image is anything but irrelevant here; the political evolution of the United States over the last century has concentrated so many of the responsibilities of government in Washington DC that the entire American system is beginning to crack under the strain.

This is admittedly not the way you’ll hear the centralization of power in America discussed by those few voices in our national conversation who discuss it at all. On the one hand are the proponents of centralized power, who insist that leaving any decision at all in the hands of state or local authorities is tantamount to handing it over to their bogeyman du jour—whether that amounts to the bedsheet-bedecked Southern crackers who populate the hate speech of the left, say, or the more diverse gallery of stereotypes that plays a similar role on the right.  On the other hand are those who insist that the centralization of power in America is the harbinger of a totalitarian future that will show up George Orwell as an incurable optimist.

I’ve already talked in a number of previous posts about the problems with this sort of thinking, with its flattening out of the complexities of contemporary politics into an opposition between warm fuzzy feelings and cold prickly ones.  I’d like, to pursue the point a little further, to offer two unpopular predictions about the future of American government. The first is that the centralization of power in Washington DC has almost certainly reached its peak, and will be reversing in the decades ahead of us. The second is that, although there will inevitably be downsides to that reversal, it will turn out by and large to be an improvement over the system we have today.  These predictions unfold from a common logic; both are consequences of the inevitable failure of overcentralized power.

It’s easy to get caught up in abstractions here, and even easier to fall into circular arguments around the functions of political power that attract most of the attention these days—for example, the power to make war.  I’ll be getting to this latter a bit further on in this post, but I want to start with a function of government slightly less vexed by misunderstandings. The one I have in mind is education.

In the United States, for a couple of centuries now, the provision of free public education for children has been one of the central functions of government.  Until fairly recently, in most of the country, it operated in a distinctive way.  Under legal frameworks established by each state, local school districts were organized by the local residents, who also voted to tax themselves to pay the costs of building and running schools.  Each district was managed by a school board, elected by the local residents, and had extensive authority over the school district’s operations. 

In most parts of the country, school districts weren’t subsets of city, township, or county governments, or answerable to them; they were single-purpose independent governments on a very small scale, loosely supervised by the state and much more closely watched by the local voters. On the state level, a superintendent of schools or a state board of education, elected by the state’s voters, had a modest staff to carry out the very limited duties of oversight and enforcement assigned by the state legislature.  On the federal level, a bureaucracy not much larger supervised the state boards of education, and conducted the even more limited duties assigned it by Congress.

Two results of that system deserve notice.  First of all, since individual school districts were allowed to set standards, chose textbooks, and manage their own affairs, there was a great deal of diversity in American education. While reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic formed the hard backbone of the school day, and such other standards as history and geography inevitably got a look in as well, what else a given school taught was as varied as local decisions could make them. What the local schools put in the curriculum was up to the school board and, ultimately, to the voters, who could always elect a reform slate to the school board if they didn’t like what was being taught.

Second, the system as a whole gave America a level of public literacy and general education that was second to none in the industrial world, and far surpassed the poor performance of the far more lavishly funded education system the United States has today. In a previous post, I encouraged readers to compare the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 to the debates in our latest presidential contest, and to remember that most of the people who listened attentively to Lincoln and Douglas had what then counted as an eighth-grade education.  The comparison has plenty to say about the degeneration of political thinking in modern America, but it has even more to say about the extent to which the decline in public education has left voters unprepared to get past the soundbite level of thinking.

Those of my readers who want an even more cogent example are encouraged to leaf through a high school textbook from before the Second World War. You’ll find that the reading comprehension, reasoning ability, and mathematical skill expected as a matter of course from ninth-graders in 1930 is hard to find among American college graduates today.  If you have kids of high school age, spend half an hour comparing the old textbook with the one your children are using today.  You might even consider taking the time to work through a few of the assignments in the old textbook yourself.

Plenty of factors have had a role in the dumbing-down process that gave us our current failed system of education, to be sure, but I’d like to suggest that the centralization of power over the nation’s educational system in a few federal bureaucracies played a crucial role.  To see how this works, again, a specific example is useful.  Let’s imagine a child in an elementary school in Lincoln, Nebraska, who is learning how to read.  Ask yourself this:  of all the people concerned with her education, which ones are able to help that individual child tackle the daunting task of figuring out how to transform squiggles of ink into words in her mind?

The list is fairly small, and her teacher and her parents belong at the top of it. Below them are a few others:  a teacher’s aide if her classroom has one, an older sibling, a friend who has already managed to learn the trick.  Everyone else involved is limited to helping these people do their job.  Their support can make that job somewhat easier—for example, by making sure that the child has books, by seeing to it that the classroom is safe and clean, and so on—but they can’t teach reading. Each supporting role has supporting roles of its own; thus the district’s purchasing staff, who keep the school stocked with textbooks, depend on textbook publishers and distributors, and so on.  Still, the further you go from the child trying to figure out that C-A-T means “cat,” the less effect any action has on her learning process.

Now let’s zoom back 1200 miles or so to Washington DC and the federal Department of Education. It’s a smallish federal bureaucracy, which means that in the last year for which I was able to find statistics, 2011, it spent around $71 billion.  Like many other federal bureaucracies, its existence is illegal. I mean that quite literally; the US constitution assigns the federal government a fairly limited range of functions, and “those powers necessary and convenient” to exercise them; by no stretch of the imagination can managing the nation’s public schools be squeezed into those limits. Only the Supreme Court’s embarrassingly supine response to federal power grabs during most of the twentieth century allows the department to exist at all.

So we have a technically illegal bureaucracy running through $71 billion of the taxpayers’ money in a year, which is arguably not a good start. The question I want to raise, though, is this:  what can the staff of the Department of Education do that will have any positive impact on that child in the classroom in Lincoln, Nebraska?  They can’t teach the child themselves; they can’t fill any of the supporting roles that make it possible for the child to be taught. They’re 1200 miles away, enacting policies that apply to every child in every classroom, irrespective of local conditions, individual needs, or any of the other factors that make teaching a child to read different from stamping out identical zinc bushings.

There are a few—a very few—things that can usefully be done for education at the national level. One of them is to make sure that the child in Lincoln is not denied equal access to education because of her gender, her skin color, or the like. Another is to provide the sort of overall supervision to state boards of education that state boards of education traditionally provided to local school boards. There are a few other things that belong on the same list.  All of them can be described, to go back to a set of ideas I sketched out a couple of weeks ago, as measures to maintain the commons.

Public education is a commons. The costs are borne by the community as a whole, while the benefits go to individuals:  the children who get educated, the parents who don’t have to carry all the costs of their children’s education, the employers who don’t have to carry all the costs of training employees, and so on. Like any other commons, this one is vulnerable to exploitation when it’s not managed intelligently, and like most commons in today’s America, this one has taken quite a bit of abuse lately, with the usual consequences. What makes this situation interesting, in something like the sense of the apocryphal Chinese proverb, is that the way the commons of public education is being managed has become the principal force wrecking the commons.

The problem here is precisely that of centralization. The research for which economist Elinor Ostrom won her Nobel Prize a few years back showed that, by and large, effective management of a commons is a grassroots affair; those who will be most directly affected by the way the commons is managed are also its best managers.  The more distance between the managers and the commons they manage, the more likely failure becomes, because two factors essential to successful management simply aren’t there. The first of them is immediate access to information about how management policies are working, or not working, so that those policies can be adjusted immediately if they go wrong; the second is a personal stake in the outcome, so that the managers have the motivation to recognize when a mistake has been made, rather than allowing the psychology of previous investment to seduce them into pursuing a failed policy right into the ground.

Those two factors don’t function in an overcentralized system.  Politicians and bureaucrats don’t get to see the consequences of their failed decisions up close, and they don’t have any motivation to admit that they were wrong and pursue new policies—quite the contrary, in fact. Consider, for example, the impact of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, pushed through Congress by bipartisan majorities and signed with much hoopla by George W. Bush in 2002. In the name of accountability—a term that in practice means “finding someone to punish”—the NCLB Act requires mandatory standardized testing at specific grade levels, and requires every year’s scores to be higher than the previous year’s, in every school in the nation. Teachers and schools that fail to accomplish this face draconian penalties.

My readers may be interested to know that next year, by law, every child in America must perform at or above grade level. It’s reminiscent of the imaginary town of Lake Wobegon—“where all the children are above average”—except that this is no joke; what’s left of America’s public education system is being shredded by the efforts of teachers and administrators to save their jobs in a collapsing economy, by teaching to the tests and gaming the system, under the pressure of increasingly unreal mandates from Washington DC. Standardized test scores have risen slightly; meaningful measures of literacy, numeracy, and other real-world skills have continued to move raggedly downward, and you can bet that the only response anybody in Washington is going to be willing to discuss is yet another round of federal mandates, most likely even more punitive and less effective than the current set.

Though I’ve used education as an example, nearly every part of American life is pervaded by the same failed logic of overcentralization. Another example?  Consider the Obama administration’s giddy pursuit of national security via drone attacks.  As currently operated, Predator drones are the ne plus ultra in centralized warfare; each drone attack has to be authorized by Obama himself, the drone is piloted via satellite link from a base in Nevada, and you can apparently sit in the situation room in the White House and watch the whole thing live. Hundreds of people have been blown to kingdom come by these attacks so far, in the name of a war on terror that Obama’s party used to denounce.

Now of course that habit only makes sense if you’re willing to define young children and wedding party attendees as terrorists, which seems a little extreme to me. Leaving that aside, though, there’s a question that needs to be asked:  is it working?  Since none of the areas under attack are any less full of anti-American insurgents than they have been, and the jihadi movement has been able to expand its war dramatically in recent weeks into Libya and Mali, the answer is pretty clearly no.  However technically superlative the drones themselves are, the information that guides them comes via the notoriously static-filled channels of intelligence collection and analysis, and the decision to use them takes place in the even less certain realms of tactics and strategy; nor is it exactly bright, if you want to dissuade people from seeking out Americans and killing them, to go around vaporizing people nearly at random in parts of the world where avenging the murder of a family member is a sacred duty.

In both cases, and plenty of others like them, we have other alternatives, but all of them require the recognition that the best response to a failed policy isn’t a double helping of the same.  That recognition is nowhere in our collective conversation at the moment. It would be useful if more of us were to make an effort to put it there, but there’s another factor in play.  The center really cannot hold, and as it gives way, a great many of today’s political deadlocks will give way with it.

Eliot Wigginton, the teacher in rural Georgia who founded the Foxfire project and thus offered the rest of us an elegant example of what can happen when a purely local educational venture is given the freedom to flower and bear fruit, used to say that the word “learn” is properly spelled F-A-I-L. That’s a reading lesson worth taking to heart, if only because we’re going to have some world-class chances to make use of it in the years ahead.  One of the few good things about really bad policies is that they’re self-limiting; sooner or later, a system that insists on embracing them is going to crash and burn, and once the rubble has stopped bouncing and the smoke clears away, it’s not too hard for the people standing around the crater to recognize that something has gone very wrong.  In that period of clarity, it’s possible for a great many changes to be made, especially if there are clear alternatives available and people advocating for them.

In the great crises that ended each of America’s three previous rounds of anacyclosis—in 1776, in 1861, and in 1933—a great many possibilities that had been unattainable due to the gridlocked politics of the previous generation suddenly came within reach. In those past crises, the United States was an expanding nation, geographically, economically, and in terms of its ability to project power in the world; the crisis immediately ahead bids fair to arrive in the early stages of the ensuing contraction. That difference has important effects on the nature of the changes before us.

Centralized power is costly—in money, in energy, in every other kind of resource.  Decentralized systems are much cheaper.  In the days when the United States was mostly an agrarian society, and the extravagant abundance made possible by a global empire and reckless depletion of natural resources had not yet arrived, the profoundly localized educational system I sketched out earlier was popular because it was affordable.  Even a poor community could count on being able to scrape together the political will and the money to establish a school district, even if that meant a one-room schoolhouse  with one teacher taking twenty-odd children a day through grades one through eight. That the level of education that routinely came out of such one-room schoolhouses was measurably better than that provided by today’s multimillion-dollar school budgets is just one more irony in the fire.

On the downside of America’s trajectory, as we descend from empire toward whatever society we can manage to afford within the stringent limits of a troubled biosphere and a planet stripped of most of its nonrenewable resources, local systems of the one-room schoolhouse variety are much more likely to be an option than centralized systems of the sort we have today.  That shift toward the affordably local will have many more consequences; I plan on exploring another of them next week.


Greg said...
A question: we typically think of Canada as a more centralized system - certainly it has a more robust welfare state. On the other hand, I don't recall much federal involvement directly in education. What's your impression of the centralization of the Canadian system? It gave me a very good education relative to all but the best parts of the US system.
Similarly, many European countries have a high degree of centralization and have excellent educational systems. They are smaller countries though, as is Canada by population.

I can't help but feel there's other factors in play, and that while over-centralization is harmful, some other factor is more critical in the apparent decline of the US educational system.

2/6/13, 10:52 PM

Richard Larson said...
One can still find those tattered old school books at thrift shops. I have some and do plan to give them away to an enterprising teacher - when the time comes!

The USA is downsizing the Navy to one aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. With all the area represents, no small issue. This is an adams apple mover as I do hope this is not a Sun Tzu War Tactic. Otherwise, this really is the start of the major economic downside. A sure sign. Right here. Right now.

2/6/13, 11:04 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Greg, I don't happen to know much about Canadian education; maybe one of my other Canadian readers can comment. As for additional factors, of course there are -- I mentioned, in fact, that there are plenty of factors. European nations are much smaller -- roughly the size of a US state -- so they escape a lot of the worst consequences of very large scale societies with an overcentralized system.

Richard, I hadn't heard about the carrier -- fascinating. Will have to check out the details!

2/6/13, 11:18 PM

Snoqualman said...
Thanks for another interesting piece, JMG. Those old textbooks you mention are gems. I remember once reading the high school graduation exam from Kansas in 1918 and it was simply astounding, the level of knowledge required. Certainly fits with the theory espoused by some that we as a species reached the zenith of intelligence in Cro-Magnon times, and its been downhill since. Speedily downhill of late...

Another dismal result of centralizing education has been the rise of the "for-profit" degree mills. Essentially they are a means of harvesting student loan moneys. Another once-good idea gone bad.

I continue to enjoy your writings about our downsizing future. I must admit, there seems to be a lot more inertia holding things together than I thought possible 20 years ago. It seemed impossible then that we could much longer consume so much of the Earth's bounty here in the USA, but here we are, still doing so. Anyway, if something cannot last, it won't, even though it may do so for far longer than one thinks possible. Too bad so few are using this time to prepare. But, thanks again, and keep up the good work!

2/6/13, 11:28 PM

Unknown said...

Thanks for another great post.Your point about the inefficiency and failures of a centralized D of E in a country as large and diverse as the U.S. is well taken.Even I as a Britain I can see,looking in from the outside,that what would work well in urban N.Y.or L.A. is not going to fit the situation in rural Alabama(there`s a point about reality based education here that could be made,but....).I have often thought that once a department of government has been established,there is just no practical way of getting rid of it.It`ll have money and power and a bucketload of self-interested people who will fight tooth and claw to maintain those said items.Sort of a total collapse of central government how is it done? Whenever has it been done?
I have an example actually of,within a state,just such a devolving of power that has worked well.My own,Britain.Scotland ,even before it got devolved gov. had powers over it`s own laws(which are slightly different than those in England) and it`s education system,which is markedly different.It simply has better outcomes.I`ve experienced both and know which one I prefer.

2/6/13, 11:33 PM

Jeffrey Kotyk said...
I believe this same phenomenon holds true for Japan.

I recall an elderly professor in graduate school in Tokyo lamenting how PhD graduates in Buddhist Studies now just ain't like they used to be. They can't really read Classical Chinese, whereas in previous generations a high school graduate was expected to read Confucius with ease.

It isn't so much a matter of certain fields of knowledge becoming more valued than others (this has occurred of course), but simply that the education system has come to value standardized tests in a detrimental way. In the old days knowing Classical Chinese and Heian period Japanese was valued, and generally it seems educated people knew them fairly well (it was seen as a form of moral and social cultivation).

Nowadays English is valued a lot, but few really learn it well enough to use it at a functional level even with a BA degree in the subject, but nevertheless they pass tests which certify they studied English (those tests make some people a fortune).

This is actually detrimental to education across several Asian countries because youth just study to pass tests and get high scores. Nothing else matters. There is a whole industry around prepping youth to take tests and parents pay to see high test scores. If you suggest that education shouldn't be quantified in such a way you might hear them say, "Well, how else would you know that they learnt something?" So paper certification = capable person, and you end up with people who don't know English teaching English to kids.

2/7/13, 12:14 AM

John D. Wheeler said...
My prediction for the trajectory of the near future is that the psychology of previous investment will prevail and the failures of overcentralization at the national level will be met with by overcentralization at the global level. And while they will try to set up an Orwellian society, they will just succeed in making the decline go faster.

As to education, IF we can save computers and the Internet (and to me that is doubtful), I think one-room schoolhouses will offer not only fantastic cost savings, especially in terms of transportaion, but also high quality education.

2/7/13, 1:01 AM

Avery said...
In my hometown of Boston, a major public school is notable for teaching Latin. It used to be mandatory. Of course, there is no time for a mandatory classical education in public schools these days. Centralization has changed the entire game, and now the public schools must teach the national curriculum, and those who would want to learn the classics must go to a private high school, like my own alma mater, Commonwealth on Beacon Street.

The pre-centralized approach to education reflected a totally different approach, which is still seen in Japan today: when Japanese students go to high school, the public schools are the most exclusive and give you access to better colleges, while the private schools often specialize in important vocations for the region and don't expect students to go on to college at all. And no, I didn't mix those up-- entering a taxpayer-funded public school is seen as giving you a measure of added responsibility to do important things with your education, while being forced to pay for education shows that you didn't do well on tests.

The system is being beaten up a bit these days, with increasing urges to urbanize and overeducate, but the purpose it originally served is obvious.

2/7/13, 1:05 AM

Leo said...
Overcentrialisation,in its way worse than overdecentrialisation.

As E.F Schumacher said, man needs structures of all sizes, some big and some small.

At the moment to many structures are to big.

2/7/13, 1:28 AM

CGP said...
In Australia there is constant talk about the need for more funding to improve education so we can keep up with the rest of the world, especially Asia. This simply misses the point. You can throw as much money as you like at education but if the attitudes, values, incentives and practices are wrong then nothing will improve. It perfectly parallels our consumerist society which believes that all problems can be solved if we just spend enough money. It also parallels all the magical thinking that treats money as some panacea instead of what it really is; just a mere representation of wealth. Funnily enough, once a nation gets to this point spending more money on education just becomes an excuse for not delving deeper into what is really driving the rot.

2/7/13, 1:59 AM

Georgi Marinov said...
Education is a topic very close to my heart so let me list a few points where I more or less disagree with you.

1) There is very little to admire in the educational system of the past. For the simple reason that it has by definition failed. If it had succeeded in properly educating people, the US and the world as a whole would not be in its current state. So while it might have been better than the current one, it was most definitely not good by any objective measure.

2) That education in the US has been terribly governed on the federal level is not a good argument against centralized control of education. It need not be terribly governed.

3) Fundamentally, it is a disastrous idea to leave so much control over education to people at the local level. This assumes that people locally are educated enough to make proper decisions what should be taught, and that's pretty much never the case, exactly the opposite. If it was left entirely to local communities to decide what should be taught, schools in more than half of the country would be teaching young earth creationism and all sorts of other anti-scientific nonsense. They already do that in fact, for that very same reason while that's not the case in any other non-Muslim, non-Third world country in the world as all those countries have completely centralized educational systems (and most of them give much better education to their students than the US has ever done). In fact, the rest of the world thinks that US education sucks so much precisely because it is so decentralized. Scientific facts simply can not be voted on by people on the local level who usually no nothing about it.

2/7/13, 2:05 AM

YJV said...
One major problem I have with the US education system (living outside of the US, mind you) is that the closest thing to a national examination (SATs) is actually set by a private enterprise that clearly operates as a profit producing institution. Despite the over-centralisation of the US education system from my (limited) knowledge is that there is no federal standard set across the country, however that in the first place is a daunting task for a country the size of the US.

However developing countries such as India and China do have centralised standards which have been relatively successful at producing a large amount of trained citizens, although the education systems of both countries leaves a lot to be desired.

In the small nation-state of NZ where I live, the education system have been quite good in the past, and despite a national standard still remains relatively decentralised. However the centre-right coalition here is determined to emulate the US's draconian raise-results-or-get-fired style of dealing with teachers, and I predict it will have the same results here as it did in the US.

I think a national standard, for at least a state where intra-country migration (in labour and resource) happens, is absolutely essential. How else is a university supposed to know the relative capability difference between the kid from a rural town in Nebraska and one from an affluent neighbourhood in Boston? The means to achieve that national standard can be decentralised, as it was till now in NZ. In terms of a developing country or a small nation-state this makes much more sense. However, it is not necessary that the same formula would work in the US of now, let alone the deindustrialised, fragmented and energy-poor US of tomorrow.


2/7/13, 2:36 AM

Cam from Oz said...
Hello John, your comments about the distance between the doers and the managers struck a real chord with me. It is oh so easy for managers and bureaucrats to implement changes from a distance without understanding the impacts, often detrimental, to the people who physically have to make the changes. And as is so often is the case these changes leave less time to actually peform the core role even though they are advertised as being beneficial (the question is of course, beneficial to whom?) as your education example illustrates. There are oh so many fifedoms in organizations (health and safety, training development, risk management, equity and diversity, auditing etc) these days that I sometimes wonder how anything gets done. In fact I would argue that things get done in spite of said fifedoms rather than because of them. And I guess that's an upside to decline, bring on peak management!

Cam from Oz

2/7/13, 3:33 AM

void_genesis said...
Here in Australia our state run education system is currently following the US lead of centralising, bringing in a national curriculum. Interestingly the document in the end (about to be followed soon) is such a vague standard that is a national curriculum in name only. We are also putting in national student testing supposedly to identify good teachers and schools that of course do nothing of the sort and bring in all sorts of perverse unintended consequences.

Is the other element of schooling perhaps social conditioning and control. John Taylor Gatto has his own perspective on this.

Do you see the emerging movement in home schooling acting as a nucleus of reforming small, functional local schools?

2/7/13, 3:42 AM

phil harris said...
Riveting essay!

The same moment has arrived in spades in Europe. We face stark contradictions between the smooth-faced centralization (homogenisation) implied by a 'one-size fits all' rule-based free-market, and the dramatic untoward collateral effects as districts / regions / whole countries fall apart. The 'invisible hand' beloved of Adam Smith is supposed to solve the problems in favour of the growing good, but was always nonsense (Kumhof et al., IMF, 2012).

Our history is very different from USA, including I guess our histories of mass education. Continental Europe was different from Britain, but long-standing strong 'dirigiste' tendencies in France in particular, illustrate a common tendency in education as in much else. The regimented classroom backed with brutal discipline was a commonplace by the end of the 19thC. In Britain we had something of a breakthrough in the 1960s and a brief flowering of more imaginative methods, especially for connecting with a then still very large and rightly sceptical working class. That did not last long and we have since copied standardised testing and management concepts from, guess who! Now we in Britain are trying to import the concepts of a competitive free-market into the school system to solve ‘the problems’, using corporate providers. (The latter, sometimes the same corporations, are to provide much of our health, police and prison systems at the same time.)

The need for us Europeans to consider very carefully our own history, constitution, government, centralisation, education and etc., along the lines you have sketched for the USA, is staring us in the face right now. Our phases of more recent ‘modernisation’ of all kinds, certainly in Britain, have involved mostly taking handed-down versions from the USA. If your model has not worked, from deploying military ‘drones to personal motorized transport to management of our education, then we have nowhere to look for any next move. Our crackpot versions show every sign of falling over, perhaps faster than yours?


2/7/13, 3:57 AM

ando said...

Every paragraph in the Report IS a learning experience...and appreciated.


2/7/13, 4:05 AM

Odin's Raven said...
As resources diminish, the parasites and special interests will cling all the tighter to their gains. Bad results for the public are good for them. Can they be removed before the whole system implodes?

2/7/13, 4:17 AM

William Zeitler said...
An easy place to start to see what education in the 'little red schoolhouse' of yesteryear looked like are the McGuffy Readers--a series of graded reading primers. A Google search yields many free sources of it online, and the Wikipedia article gives a good background. They had their problems, reflecting issues of the day (not very Politically Correct sometimes). Nevertheless, the level of reading kids were expected to accomplish in grade school is mind-boggling by modern standards.

2/7/13, 5:01 AM

thriftwizard said...
You may find it worthwhile to look at the work of John Taylor Gatto with reference to what has happened to your (and our) education systems. As a parent forced into homeschooling by the inability of our system to recognise my youngest child's needs, I found his ideas somewhat paranoid when I first came across them. But gradually, horrifyingly, the more I dug around & thought for myself, the more his ideas made sense. Particularly with reference to the number of my university friends who went into teaching with the highest of hopes & loftiest of ideals, but have come crashing out, broken & sick with stress and "battle" fatigue, manifesting as "anxiety disorder" & actual cancers. Yet still they defend the system that broke them, and blame themselves for being weak or inadequate.

My daughter would have been fine in an old-style village school, with an old-fashioned teacher & some sense of order. And she has done just fine at home, despite my lack of teaching qualifications. She's about to launch herself into the big wide world armed with intelligence, enthusiasm & common sense, attributes that are no longer considered necessary, or even desirable, in modern British classrooms. Sadly, to get full marks in most of our qualifications, children must parrot phrases in the exact order that they were taught them or get zero marks, which means, for example, that you can only quote Ohm's law one way round if you want to get any marks for knowing it, although it is an equation... this, according to an ex-teacher friend, who was puzzled by my dismay, is "to ensure uniformity in marking the papers!" And of course, the teachers are the ones who are being judged the hardest by the results; they cannot stray from those scripts, or even see that maybe they should.

Oh dear...

2/7/13, 5:16 AM

Michelle said...
I have been torn for years about sending my children to public schools. My town has a 'good reputation,' whatever that means, and can offer courses like languages I do not speak, math at levels I can't keep up with, and lab sciences. Still, even the elementary teachers decry the 'teaching to the test' that they're required to do. In the five years between my eldest and youngest, I've seen what goes on in the classroom change dramatically - and my youngest is having a lot less fun. Fewer field trips, fewer non-testable activities in school, and a longer wait to begin music lessons (though I'm thankful they're offered at all!). All this is further complicated by the "diversity" in the classrooms, which means that undisciplined brats as well as children with genuine organic problems take up an inordinate amount of time in crowd control, reducing actual learning time. And my second-youngest, who's great at math, is burdened by having to learn two or three ways to work each problem, even though he understands how to do the work on the first try with the first method - just in case some other student needs alternative strategies. I find myself resentful that my children's time is being wasted.

2/7/13, 5:17 AM

deerlily said...
One of the results (or causes?) of centralizing education seems to be the opportunity for private profit. Here in Indiana, many of our legislators embrace private schools, vouchers to take money from public schools to give to private schools and private educational consulting firms empowered to take over 'failing' schools. Add that to the money to be made creating and administering testing and we can see tax money once again flowing into corporate pockets.

The electorate seems a bit perturbed with the trend - the pro-privatization Superintendent of Public Instruction was voted out in the last election (undoubtedly by way of a ton of split tickets). It's a start.

2/7/13, 5:37 AM

Thijs Goverde said...
About the US educational system I know next to nothing, but I do know that if I'd read a high school textbook, on almost any subject, from the thirties I would mostly be struck by how little was in it.
No genomics, no quantum mechanics, no awareness of gender roles, no meta-history... I'm not certain, not having one to hand right now, whether '30s maths textbooks treated set theory; today's do so, at least a little.

There is so much more to know now; a 15-year-old kid educated today knows (and, as often as not, understands) stuff that a college graduate in the '30s wouldn't have had the vaguest inkling of.

There seems to have been a trade-off of knowledge vs. the skills you mentioned.

2/7/13, 5:48 AM

Nestorian said...
JMG, you really should read John Taylor Gatto's Underground History of Education. It can be found in its entirety online for free.

Outside of Massachusetts, compulsory public schooling was largely imposed during the decades sandwiching the year 1900. As the contemporary sources cited by Gatto make clear, the purpose of this institution's establishment was not education, but social control. To quite a significant extent, in fact, the purpose of public schooling and its associated centralizing tendencies was explicitly to PREVENT education from taking place by means of public schooling. The system was deliberately devised in part to prevent certain kinds and levels of learning from taking place.

In this way, public schooling could be used to mold the kind of undifferentiated mass human being that the elites in a rising industrial society found congenial to their purposes. If the true purpose of the system is thus recognized, then centralization was in fact a very effective means of carrying it out.

In a similar way, the fact that Obama's drone murders make no sense as a means of waging a war on terror should only be seen to prove that this is not their real purpose. The tactical and strategic purpose of the drone strikes is to grab resources for the US. The fact that this in reality inflames terrorists is in a real sense a beneficial secondary effect in terms of the true aim of the drone strikes, since a certain amount of "blowback" is helpful in whipping up the kind of mass hysteria that renders increasing levels of violence in the service of securing resources more politically tractable.

Broadly speaking, my general point is this: Centralization makes a lot more sense when it is recognized that the stated purpose for it is usually not the real purpose.

2/7/13, 5:56 AM

JacGolf said...
Thank you Mr. Greer. I have had a gut feeling for a long time that the problem is not 'centralization' per se, but the sheer scale and distance of a federal operation of education. there is no way, no matter how well intentioned the person/s may be, that a federal 'standard' will do much of anything. The NCLB amounts to a lowest common denominator mentality that does not celebrate the diversity of education you talk about. Kind of ironic in an era when 'diversity' is being rammed down our cultural throats but in school, business and government, we are asked to toe the line.
All of this leads to a 'it's not my fault, it is the guy in....' mentality that pervades every aspect of the global/centralized model, thereby allowing everyone a way to get off the hook (see global corporations). Which means that ultimately, it is a crap shoot on what happens within each model of education and certainly, this is no way to develop citizen leaders (on a local or national scale).
Once again, thanks for tweaking my suspicions!

2/7/13, 6:07 AM

BruceH said...
I appreciate applying the idea of “The Commons” to education. The problems in education, however, go back much farther than the creation of the US Department of Education. In my late thirties, I attempted to break into the field in the 1990's after encouragement from many friends who were teachers.

The certification process required the learning of so many acronyms that I told friends it left me with a severe case of acronymophobia. These were usually short hand for all the latest trendy methods and gimmicks that had been concocted by professors of education since the 1970's and sold to school boards or politicians as the latest answer to all their problems. These ideas also usually required new textbooks which text book publishers supported wholeheartedly, of course.

Our schools were already teaching to the test but with higher stakes of state funding involved. This was half a decade before NCLB. The major problem here is that most students have little incentive to do well on these tests since they don't affect their grades. That led to more gimmicks. Our principal, for example, learned that other districts were offering incentives like throwing pizza parties in order to get kids to even show up.

This and the general state of affairs in education led me to wonder how things had evolved the way they had. That led me ultimately to John Taylor-Gatto's book, "The Underground History of American Education." He also had many of the same questions I had. He was selected as “Teacher of the Year” in both the New York City system and for New York State. But things never got any easier for him even with this recognition.

The reason the Lincoln-Douglas debates put to shame anything that passes for a debate these days was not just the eighth grade education of the listeners, but their desire and need to be literate. Many of the listeners had no formal education whatsoever. There is even ample evidence that literacy in American had already reached it's peak well before the imposition of compulsory education in the mid 1800's promoted by “reformers” like Horace Mann who came back from a trip to Prussia much inspired by their highly centralized school system designed mainly to teach obedience and produce good soldiers.

Education is a good example of a “commons” but there is more involved than just the level of control over the system.

2/7/13, 6:07 AM

Jim Brewster said...
I'm sure I'm not the only one here who is reminded of Hagbard's Law in this instance. The bureaucracy of education has so many hierarchies, how can it not fail?

2/7/13, 6:12 AM

shadowheart said...
I read your blogs as they are posted and agree with most of your observations, but, one of your comments early in this post perplexes me and I'm inclined to think that you inserted it in order to appear non-partisan, which, while commendable, in this instance is misleading.
The comment in question is:
"bedsheet-bedecked Southern crackers who populate the hate speech of the left"
Apparently a referrence to the Ku Klux Klan and similar organized bigots.
My question is: how in the world do you associate them with the political left? I don't think any of those sub-humans voted for Obama.
I recognize that today's Democratic Party is a shadow of its former self and can hardly be considered "left" by those of us who still hold to progressive principles, but, they haven't exactly succumbed to Klan-style hate speech, either.
I admire your standard of balance, but, associating the left with hate-groups is a fire-and-miss in this instance.
If I've misspoken and have overlooked something in my response, I apologize.
That being said, you're still the best writer and social analyst on the internet in my opinion.

2/7/13, 6:25 AM

Cathy McGuire said...
Lots of food for thought here; I probably can only manage a quick comment. From speaking with many school-age families, I believe that the one (max. two) child family has also very much changed education - parents don't have the "luxury" or even awareness to "change what's wrong" and then see if their next child has a better experience. (I remember going to school with the older siblings that my younger sisters and brother did - matched like bookends. Ah, the Irish, Polish and Italian families of the past!) They've put all there eggs in one basket (literally) and expect that basket to be perfect. Their expectations have an impact on the way the school system has changed, though I agree with you that centralization (that insane desire for "efficiency of scale" without the understanding of that process)has had a greater impact. I hope I get to read most of the comments this week.

2/7/13, 6:37 AM

morenewyorknews said...
While american president lauding Indian education,what i am seeing here is nothing spectacular.
Indian education combines worst of British education with Indian mindset.Students are not allowed to learn logic,critical thinking,communication skills,civics.Rote learning destroys joy of learning.
It is only the extraordinary drive of parents and children which have produced some good engineers,doctors.
The type of localized education existed in India till 1990.Now our education is close mirror of american education i.e.,failed public schools and very costly international schools.As with most of the democracies,education is highly political issue in India. States used to have autonomy but the current trends suggest states will give up authority on everything in next 10 years(Indian central govt is close to USSR model due to influence of russians from 1970 to 1990).So in state like west Bengal,students learn communist dogma of karl marx,engeles,hagel and in schools of delhi students learn mughals.Now everybody learns american,russian and british history.
The for profit sector for engineering and medicine have eroded quality but produces 15 lakh i.e.,1.5 million engineers per year.Nothing to speak of quality.Indian education sector have lost its best teacher in 1990-2000 and young generation is not that effective and dedicated.
BTW,JMG:I have seen our states asserting politically against centre.It used to happen earlier but the trend has picked up.India is no less dysfunctional than US in policy paralysis. Atleast Americans pretended to have limited federal govt, Indians started with aim of centralizing everything.So the state chief ministers and MP wield more power in parliament.Somehow our states are slowly moving away from center while central power grab has reached it pick.

2/7/13, 6:47 AM

Renaissance Man said...
The comment about Orwell the optimist made me laugh. Thanks.

The Canadian education system is the exclusive purvue of the Provinces, who pay for all the budget. The constitution clearly delineates who is in charge of what and the provinces have been much more successful at vigorously defending their political territory during the 20th century than have the various states.
The only role the Federal government plays, generally, is the setting of standards and ensuring funding across the nation. It's up the the provinces to meet those standards.
Within the provinces are different educational boards and each province is different in its makeup.
The province of Ontario, for instance, funds and runs four school boards in every region, viz., English Public, English Catholic, French Public, and French Catholic. These school boards are locally elected, but paid for by the province. (They are supposed to funded by subscription on our tax forms, but since the government 'tops up' the funds out of general revenue, these distinctions are functionally meaningless.) There are also separate private (i.e. wholly non-government-funded) school boards, e.g. Jewish and Muslim, that fund and run their own schools. The only caveat is they must teach certain subjects to certain standards.
Education and Health Care are the two big-budget, hot-topic items for the provinces.

2/7/13, 6:51 AM

Edde said...
Good morning John Michael,

Another fine post. THANKS!

Yep, local politics is the BEST place to work. An individual or a few organized folks can actually have a real impact.

Back in the mid-'80s, a group of us got organized as "conservation voters" and were able to impact local elections for years, even winning majorities of environmentally conscious (more or less;-)politicians at city and county commissions.

So this one is right on target. I'm a non-parent so getting into school board issues is problematic, eh.

Best regards,

2/7/13, 6:51 AM

Gretchen said...
Long time reader here, first time posting - first of all I'd like to say thanks for your wonderful thought provoking writing.

I have recently gotten to experience first hand some of the absurdities of both our centralized health care and educational systems. While our small town has both a hospital and numerous doctor's offices, our insurance company mandates that we must travel to a city 30 miles away for our health care. I also have children in our town's public schools, whose policy it is that in order for an absence due to illness to be excused, a note from a doctor is required, a parent calling to let the school know that a child is sick is not sufficient. So, you can easily end up with a situation where, say, your elementary school student has the stomach flu. If you want this child's absence from school excused, you are expected to load up your vomiting child into your car and spend an hour driving them to see a doctor, spreading the germs to the other poor patients and workers in the doctor's office, all so that, while the doctor can do nothing for the illness, they can provide an excuse to the school. I would be hard pressed to come up with a more insane system.

2/7/13, 7:01 AM

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...
The piece that immediately came to mind when you talked about education was the money trail. Many local school districts have become dependent on outside money, whether it comes only from the state or from the Federal government by way of the state. Acceptance of that money brings with it strings attached (or maybe I should say, chains attached) that now the state or Federal government can dictate their standards.

The same is rampant in higher education (where I work). To participate in the offering of Federally backed financial aid to students means that you must now deal with accrediting agencies in much bigger ways than you did before. The regional accrediting agencies are forcing performance standards on higher education which are dictates also out of the Department of Education in Washington. What was once a trust that the education and degrees you provided were good and sufficient are now being micro-managed from afar, right down to having to assure identical notions of term length and contact hours in the classroom, and study expectations outside of the classroom.

I would love to see all of this disappear again (which it might as higher education implodes anyway with the loss of students). Much of my time as an administrator can be loosened up again to focus on providing the education itself, and not having to continually justify ourselves.

2/7/13, 7:20 AM

Richard Clyde said...
In Canada education is handled entirely at the provincial level. Other than providing funding to post-secondary institutions, the federal government has nothing to say. And the system is in fact fairly decentralised, in the sense that especially larger cities can adapt their schools to their purpose. Toronto has immense ESL resources, Vancouver has Mandarin-immersion, Edmonton has a strong International Baccalaureat program, and French immersion and gifted programs are available in a large number of jurisdictions.

2/7/13, 7:24 AM

Jamie McMillin said...
I completely agree with you regarding the unhelpful centralization of our education system.

I believe another factor is parental involvement. All teachers notice this. My mother was a teacher for 20+ years and she could tell right away which children had been read to (some children never have this experience until school!), and which children craved attention above all else.

I don't know of any research that compares parental involvement of the past with the present, but I'm guessing the rise of single parenthood and dual working families (with no extended family nearby) has made it tougher to spend time with kids.

Please note that I'm not advocating a return to 1950s domestic arrangements. But perhaps as we move from office, factory, and retail jobs back to more cottage and farm industry in the future, parents and kids will get to spend more time together (probably working).

2/7/13, 7:45 AM

Cat Strickland said...
Long-time reader, but today I feel I must respond to your comments.

Local de-centralization was not only appropriate but was the only option during the days of one-room schoolhouses. Communication was difficult if not impossible, travel took long times, and folks of a particular culture or ethnicity normally remained in the same geographic area for their lifetimes. I don't disagree that kids then had a better grasp of the three R's, but there was no special education for special kids and no opportunity to explore the varied careers that are available today. Just how well did a farmer need to understand anything beyond the basics?

Today our world in much smaller and more nimble: we communicate instantly and inexpensively; travel can be done in hours as opposed to months and video-conferencing has replaced a great deal of travel. We are a mobile people today and think nothing of relocating nationwide which has given us a well-mixed society. Therefore, not only do we have the ability to centralize operations, but I think that centralization is necessary to provide an equal opportunity for all children to expereince the same level of educational opportunity.

If we have anyone or anything to blamce for the failure of our children's education, let's start at home -- we have uninvolved parents, mom works and isn't available to supervise homework and attend PTA meetings. What ever happened to room mothers? And let's take a swipe at our current culture as well - kids watch TV shows that portray the dad as a buffoon, unworthy of any respect. The media teaches our kids to have an attitude of "who give a sh** -- you can't make me do anything because I know my rights". That's why we have a "soundbite level of thinking" today.
Finally, regarding the use of drones, I struggle to see the difference between the crew of a big bomber plane dropping bombs and a soldier piloting an unmanned drone via a satellite link from a base in Nevada. Perhaps the only difference is the distance between the pilots and their targets? Does this make drones unethical? I doubt it. Not that I condone any form of violence (particularly in the cause of oil), you understand.

2/7/13, 7:57 AM

Cat Strickland said...
Final thought: the No Child Left Behind program was designed with the best of intentions -- to continue to upgrade our children's educational level every year. However, if "what's left of America's education system is being shredded by the efforts of teachers and administrators to save their jobs in a collapsing economy by teaching to the tests and gaming the system", then let's put the blame again where it belongs -- on the teachers and adminkistrators who are distorting the program to save their own butts, rather than taking the high road and actually teaching the kids as they are being paid to do.
-- Cathy

2/7/13, 8:02 AM

PRiZM said...
This is a topic that you've been building up to for awhile, and perhaps a little why it has been on my mind in the past weeks. But also the fact that while I've been in China the past two years, I've had the opportunity to learn a bit about the teaching profession as I got a crash course in teaching English as a second language. Through this experience, I've learned a lot about the Chinese education system, which basically consists of a lot of a rote memorization, and a lot of cramming before exams. Perhaps the fact that the majority of parents bring their children to tutors or some other education center outside of school reflects on how much the standardizing of education has accomplished. From personal experience, the kids can add, subtract, and recall any number of facts much faster then I, but when it comes to practical application of the things they've learned, of real world experiences .. it is sadly lacking. With this in mind, I'm scared to send my step-son into the education system here, and I recall from not that long ago how useless my education in American schools was, which led me to search for an alternative. There is home school, but that is not for everyone. There is also Waldorf education, something I think you've mentioned before, and something which I am discovering more and more to fit in with the grassroots changes, on a societal level, we'll need to have a brighter future. With the experiences I've gained here in China, I've been considering what I will do upon my return .. and perhaps it is not just coincidence you made this point at this time. As always, thanks for the weekly words of insight and wisdom, and meditation topics.

2/7/13, 8:06 AM

Jetfire said...
All this relocalization talk would be music to the ears of many of my fellow Texans. But of course, your reasoning for doing it is a bit different than theirs would be.

Moreover, it almost seems, from reading this, that the best way to really start helping our own communities, or even up to our own states, is to take the Newt Gingrich-Denny Hastert approach and start at the level of the school boards. At the very least, we could all make a point of attending our local district's PTA meetings more frequently.

2/7/13, 8:15 AM

Yupped said...
I spent most of the 80’s and 90’s working as an IT consultant in large corporations and government agencies, and witnessed the centralization process up front. Most people working in the front-line operations of any organization are generally quite content to be left alone to get along with whatever they needed to do locally. But the people running these organizations, mostly alpha left-brain executive types, saw their mission in life as standardizing operations in the name of quality. IT systems, powered by plentiful energy, were key to enabling all of this. Without the IT, there would be no ability to take names and enforce standards.

As a just-out-of-college kid doing the automation work I thought I was contributing to the march of progress and quality. Efficiency and effectiveness was the mantra, and I was taken in by it all for quite a while. It took years for me to realize that pretty much anything rolled-out from the center by strong executive personalities rarely went well, and certainly never as advertised. All the industries I worked in – healthcare, energy utilities and government services – became more complex, expensive and unsustainable during this period of centralization and automation.

Perhaps it’s a nice example of the law of balance in action that deploying all of these IT systems led to technology becoming so pervasive in life that the Internet evolved. And the Internet, while a major enabler of centralization, is also a vehicle for decentralized expression, primarily through access to information and different narratives.

2/7/13, 8:50 AM

GHung said...
Interesting that you mentioned Eliot Wigginton. My brother was part of the Foxfire project in the early '70s and idolized the guy. Later, in 1992, Wiggington entered a guilty plea to one charge of child molestation (to avoid facing 20 other accusers).

It's a sad tale, how someone who got so many things right went so wrong, a bit like the U.S. as a whole, perhaps. I still cherish my collection of original paperback Foxfire books. The discovery that their creator was flawed in such a way hasn't diminished their value. There's a lesson in this somewhere.

The Rabun Gap school, not too far from here, has become an exclusive, private Christian-oriented prep academy, very different from its original role in bringing a superior and broad level of education to rural students who weren't likely to have the opportunity otherwise. I have no doubt that the school, as it was, contributed mightily to delivering Rabun County from the fairly accurate sterotypes portrayed in "Deliverance", the movie. Again, there's a lesson there.

Both of my parents were educators who died saddened by the declining state of education in the U.S., though they never lost hope or stopped working for the betterment of the process, albeit, on a local level.

2/7/13, 8:53 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
Excellent post.

I'd like to point out one of the "drawbacks" of decentralization that comes out clearly here.

The first thing that popped into my mind at the prospect of the return of full authority to local school boards is that "they" will start teaching Creationism as science in Kansas. The thought that followed right behind that was, "So what?"

A key feature of any decentralized system is diversity, and diversity is as much about boneheaded failures as it is about adaptive success: it's about posthumous Darwin Awards. You cannot prevent autonomous portions of a decentralized system from failing. That's how the classical model of evolutionary adaptation works. Not every adaptation is a positive adaptation: if it's negative enough, it kills the organism before it reproduces, and thus removes itself from the gene pool.

That's happening to the US as a whole right now: no centralized international authority is going to prevent the US from becoming a benighted, third-world backwater.

That's precisely what decentralization means, as you've pointed out. It obliterates the centralized, abstract commons (that is poorly managed, because its leadership is far away and not vested) and creates a local commons that might be better managed. Or might not. The point is, it's no one else's commons to manage.

So if Kansas wants to teach that Creationism is science, that pi has the value of 3.0, and that women cannot become pregnant through rape, it's their educational commons to ruin. Most competent teachers will flee the state, most bright children will flee the state, most jobs that require a bright workforce will flee the state.

The boards of education might figure out there's a problem: more likely, not.

This is a general downside of all decentralization, and isn't much commented-on. Relocalizing school systems means some school districts will have terrible schools. Relocalizing food-production will mean that some communities will starve. Relocalizing government will mean some governments will be miserable to live under.

2/7/13, 9:07 AM

T.S. Warner said...
Greg,the education system in Canada is almost entirely run at the provincial level. During my experience in the Canadian education system the only standardized tests I wrote were called 'Provincials' (short for 'Provincial Examinations'). Consequently, the curriculum differs widely across the country, for better or worse. In fact, although many people think of Canada as being highly centralized this isn't really the case. For example, universal access to healthcare is a federal policy, however, the means to which that is achieved is up to the provinces.

2/7/13, 9:17 AM

Nano said...
My wife works at a charter school and those things are run JUST like a business. They test, test, test and test these kids and teachers to unhealthy stressful levels, all to get the funding they want. Forget learning, critical thinking or a good other chunk of usable skills. Just make sure they remember the stuff and spit it out on the test to get the funding; and then the courting of kids with disabilities start, so more funding can be accessed. That's another business move that is just disgusting.

Meanwhile the teachers and counselors continue to get overloaded with kids and responsibilities. Same old same old, with a new layer of bureaucratic BS.

The scariest part is that it seems that the majority if not all these kids aren't really learning mjch at the end of the day, not blaming the teachers but more so the system.

2/7/13, 9:21 AM

James Fauxnom said...
Canada has a more centralized system because historically it has been dominated by Ontario and Quebec. It formed in 1867 so there was a good case for a strong central government.

Education is controlled by the provinces and territories and is centralized at that level. However, our population is quite small compared to yours. Maine at 1.3M would be the 5th most populous province were it Canadian.

America is less centralized than we are in many regards. Our provinces certainly don't have their own militia, most don't even have their own police force.

2/7/13, 9:41 AM

Moshe Braner said...
"... sooner or later, a system that insists on embracing them is going to crash and burn, and once the rubble has stopped bouncing and the smoke clears away, it’s not too hard for the people standing around the crater to recognize that something has gone very wrong. In that period of clarity, it’s possible for a great many changes to be made..."

- Wow, JMG, this is a surprising statement, given your repeated insistence that apocalyptical thinking is not useful and that gradual changes are more likely in a large system with much intertia. Can you clarify this? Perhaps you mean for this crash and redesign to happen over many decades?

2/7/13, 9:45 AM

Laura said...
Your argument seems to be that the education system would better be served if responsibility for it were transferred to the people whom it served. While *I* agree that this would be a good thing, I worry about the transition. In my community, many people are stressed already by the responsibility of feeding and housing their families. Most people don't know how to deal with being a responsibile school district voter, and they often don't have time or energy to learn. I know this sounds arrogant of me, and perhaps it is. Maybe I will be pleasantly surprised by the receptiveness of parents and other community members to the responsibility. I do know that there is a trend among people who are able, to move to an area with a well-reputed school district, rather than to try to help the schools improve in their home area. I wonder if this is a result of not knowing how to help, or of seeing the effort as more difficult or even futile.

On a more pleasant note, I once did a little reading on old school textbooks, and found a wonderful summary of 19th-century American education at . The full text of his work is posted there at the univerity's website, along with the full texts of a bunch of old textbooks themselves.

So how did the Department of Education come into existence, if its authority is unconstitutional? What motivated the people who created it? Was it an outcry from the populace, complaining that the people on the ground in many areas were failing their jobs? Was it a group of bureaucrats who were honestly trying to make supporting roles for themselves in a (however misguided) effort to help? Was it a simple, cynical power grab; was the old system's failure manufactured to justify the grab? Or perhaps it was seen as a logical continuation of an established pattern of federalizing power? My guess is that it was a combination of these things.

I'm not surprised to see the No Child Left Behind act brought up. The mandate that test scores must improve every year smacks of the myth of constant progress to me. There's no provision for statistical noise, no allowance for a particularly difficult class of kids one year, or particularly bad testing conditions, or anything like that. It's no surprise that cheating is rampant. And the people in the best place to detect cheating -- the school's administrators -- are the least motivated to report it. Sometimes they even instigate it. Beatings will continue until morale improves, I guess.

The American habit of using attack drones seems to be another example of the idea of the myth of the machine, one which is especially beloved of our military.

2/7/13, 9:49 AM

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...
Although one hesitates to disagree with JMG, it might be pointed out that his particular example (in which schools teach children to read) is a little problematic.

In pre-war Estonia, parents were placed between two millstones. One the one hand, schooling was compulsory until some reasonably high school-leaving age, as in the USA. On the other hand, schools would not admit a child to the first grade (normally at age 7) unless the child could already read and write.

This meant that parents were obliged to teach reading and writing to their child themselves, or else risk depiction as inept parents by their gossiping neighbours. Neighbours would of course be only to quick to note that dull little Martin or sullen little Juku was going have to wait till next year to retry his school-entry read-and-write quiz.

I do not think this system is unjust.

But JMG's broader point, that the real work of education is done locally (JMG does mention parents as well as teachers), stands.

Signed respectfully,

Toomas (Tom) Karmo

Toomas dot Karmo at gmail dot com
www dot metascientia dot com

2/7/13, 9:50 AM

Steve in Colorado said...
Thanks for this one.

David Graeber has an interesting essay on the idiocy of bureaucracies here that some folks might enjoy. Among the points that he makes is the idea that intelligence includes the ability to use models and simplifications but to shift between them, while bureaucracies by their very nature can only simplify and them impose their simplifications onto a complex system by force. (Graeber has his own biases, of course.)

Of course the counter is going to be that students left to the mercies of the Local Hillbilly Stereotype will grow up believing that the Earth was created in six days and women have one more rib than men do. And someone will probably argue that schools are in bad shape because of the limited funding available to local governments. I don't know how you can respond to those, other than to point out that the system as-is does quite poorly in comparison to the decentralized system of the past. Meanwhile, interventions from Washington by their very nature can't result in anything more than ham-fisted solutions that make the numbers go up on the reports but make the situation on the ground significantly worse.

An archive here contains more than a hundred 19th century schoolbooks. Reading through them is certainly interesting!

2/7/13, 9:54 AM

Jimmy Z said...
Hi Greg,
The educational system in Canada is strictly under the purview of provincial governments. Every province has a different numbering system , compulsory courses,etc. Quebec has a very quirky system by North American standards.

The system as a whole is relatively non-political, although I remember my Secondary 4 history teacher discussing the history of the French and English in fairly passionate terms.

In Quebec at least, standardized testing following the French model applies from grade 7 and on, until Cegep (something like college).

2/7/13, 9:59 AM

rlb said...
It seems like there should be standards for what is taught and what is not taught in public schools. If parents don't like those standards, then they need to opt for a private school of their liking, or home schooling. But my question is: who should set the standards? the school district? the state? the federal government?

2/7/13, 10:00 AM

elsiereally said...
Another reason why a European country like Finland has such a great education system despite centralization is that it chooses to give its teachers a great deal of autonomy:

The relevant quote:

Because Finland is understandably satisfied with the job its teachers are doing, it is willing to trust them and their professional judgments to a degree that is rare among the nations of the world (a sign of which is the fact that there are no tests given to all Finnish students at any level of the system that would allow supervisors to make judgments about the comparative worth of individual teachers or school faculties.)

2/7/13, 10:06 AM

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...
Thanks, JMG, for inviting comments on Canadian education. I'd like to offer a few comments here, in the hopes that other persons living in Canada can offer more.

(1) I see literacy levels each year as a scorer for the Province of Ontario Education and Accountability Office (EQAO) circa-grade-10 compulsory literacy exam. I think that I am not breaking the terms of my employment by saying that EQAO demands are fairly modest, and that the kids for the most part do seem to rise to the rather modest challenge, and that the whole exercise is a bit depressing. I seem to recall press assessments putting Ontario into a reasonably good position internationally on literacy.

(2) Recent press has suggested that Ontario does worse, on the international scale, in maths and science than in literacy.

(3) My own 1991-September "frosh" cohort in University of Toronto, at least in my own tutorial room, was generally disenchanted. Their general feeling was that Ontario schools had been handing them Grade 12 physics marks in the high 90s while in reality preparing them poorly for UofT.

(4) My experience as a Nova Scotia pupil matriculating in 1970 (I became a 1991 UofT "frosh" in later middle age, having as a young man gone into humanities, at Canadian and British universities far from Toronto) was adverse. The Nova Scotia curriculum had at that time not a scrap of calculus. I am reasonably reliably informed that the former USSR, by contrast, started calculus in Grade 9.

(5) A friend of mine who left Leninland not long after the 1991 collapse was examined by Canadian immigration authorities to determine his academic placement. His USSR degree, in cybernetics and electronics - I think a three- or four-year degree - put him somewhere into Canadian graduate-school territory, albeit short of a completed PhD.

Signed, a little grimly,

Toomas (Tom) Karmo

Toomas dot Karmo at gmail dot com

www dot metascientia dot com

2/7/13, 10:10 AM

Jon said...
I was just discussing education with my 80 year old uncle yesterday. Uncle Jack was born in 1933 in a small farming community outside of Decatur Illinois. He was educated in a one room school house, grades 1 - 8, with 30 other kids of all ages.

He considered that to be a superior form of education. From his point of view, you know the teacher better, the teacher is a generalist who can tie together current studies in math, science, history and literature. And knows your parents, and was accountable to your parents.

Uncle Jack retired a self-made multi-millionaire and is one of the brightest guys I know.

2/7/13, 10:18 AM

Zach said...
John Michael,

Very nicely put. I especially like the way the last few weeks posts have laid the groundwork for this week. I suspect one of the reasons that the centralization of education in Washington, D.C. has happened is precisely the dynamic you outlined regarding localization - the fear in [Massachusetts | South Carolina] that if we left it to local control, the school boards of [South Carolina | Massachusetts] would do it wrong!

As to the NCLB Act, I refer to it as the "No Child Left Untested" program. :)


2/7/13, 10:32 AM

escapefromwisconsin said...
Funny, I always thought the problem with American education was it's decentralization. The local control factor means that the quality of education you receive is virtually a lottery based on your parent's ZIP code. Our balkanized habitation patterns based on class and income means the wealthy are able to move to exurbs and pool their resources while cities and legacy suburbs are starved of funds. This, in my experience, has been one the major overlooked factors driving suburban sprawl in the U.S. Where I live, it's pretty de rigeur for uban couples to move to a distant exurb once they begin breeding, because their kids need to be "in a good school district" to succeed and remain comfortably middle class (what every American wants for their kids). To get into these school districts, they often have to buy much more house that they can afford, so I believe this system was also a major factor in the housing bubble. If you ask people why they bought such expensive homes, often times it was to be in a good school district for their kids.

Many European countries have national standards yet achieve good results, and here I'm primarily thinking of the Nordic countries (Germany, Finland, etc.) and East Asian countries (Japan, Korea, etc.). This ensures a uniform quality of good education for all citizens no matter your place of residence or social class. Not so in America. As others here have pointed out, these countries are typically much smaller than the U.S. I think a state-level redistrubution would be a good idea, but the extreme locality of U.S. education I think is problematic. But I admit, I'm far from an expert in these matters.

I think the dumbing-down of American education is a feature not a bug - politicians want a dumb electorate, to paraphrase George Carlin, just smart enough to do their jobs, but not smart enough to question what they're doing. There's an attempt already to deny student loans for anyone not in college for strictly vocational purposes. I think we can all agree that NCLB is an abomination designed to further this agenda. Many American schools have become little more than pre-prison holding pens.

I think American leaders recognize that the vast majority of future new jobs will be low-wage McJobs, and are intentionally pursuing an economic model of a large workforce of poorly educated quasi-serfs competing against one another for bargain-basement wages (unlimited immigration is also a part of this) with good education reserved for elites, rather than the human-development model of a small, highly educated populace engaged in high-value activities pursued by places like South Korea or Denmark. I'm sure you would point out that the latter model anticipates a future of plentiful fossil fuels, however.

FYI - Why Finland's Education System Is the Best in the World (Business Insider):

2/7/13, 11:06 AM

Tony said...
I still remember the best teacher at my high school in the mid 2000s, teaching numerous physics and thermodynamics courses. On the first day of class in freshman year, he made things completely clear: "The county stops at my door." He had no time for the standardized anything. In later years of my high school when the school boards started demanding detailed plans from teachers of how they would teach to the standards and tests, he simply wrote very long obfusticating reports that he knew no-one in the bureaucracy would make it through such that he could do pretty much whatever he wanted. And nobody in the school dared encroach on him because they knew how good he was, rules or no.

Having been a Navy communications technician in the fifties before teaching for at least 35 years, he knew his stuff practically as well as abstractly. And he knew the history and theory behind *everything*. He fought a rearguard action against the encroaching state and county school system before finally retiring shortly after I graduated, and then worked to keep the school program sane from outside. Dedicated people like him are rare gems these days; my class and I all owe him for a job well done. Dedication on a personal level trumps a lot, in some cases even centralized interference.

2/7/13, 11:16 AM

blue sun said...
Department of Education illegal! What are the odds of that little tidbit making it into the required curriculum for high school history classes......?

2/7/13, 11:17 AM

Mary said...
"No child left behind" and "Teach to the test" is an utter disaster. Obama has been a huge disappointment in his thrall with Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan (not to mention the Drone and his extra-judicial power grab). On the other hand, and in fairness, $81B spread across many millions of students, works out to just a couple bucks/per.

Also in fairness, hard working and smart high school grads today are able to do mathematics and science that had yet to be discovered way back when. A high schooler recently created a noninvasive (urine dipstick) test to detect pancreatic cancer in its earliest stages, at only 3 cents/test. He hopes to be able to expand his test to detect other cancers. The amount of biochemistry and physics knowledge that went into his effort is enormous. I've seen other high schoolers with similar levels of achievement.


2/7/13, 11:38 AM

Juhana said...
While I agree about need to relocalize as soon as possible, I afraid that there is going to be problems before we get to that point.

What happens in everyday lives of ordinary people and what is projected to us by establishment media are concepts slipping apart at accelerating pace right now.

When hopes and dreams of powerful elites (and rest of us too) hit the boundaries of actual physical reality, history reveals to us that correction movement is paid by suffering of ordinary people, without exceptions.

Watching establishment news in my native country has degenerated to observing political witch-hunts conjured from thin air. Hunting down imaginary cartoon villains called "far-right" is latest Stahanovian endeavor by Powers Behind the Throne to make people think righteously. This strangely ethereal and shadowy "far-right" happens to be linked by media with one and only political party opposing centralization and deeper integration of EU. What an fascinating coincidence.

While particulars vary from country to country, I believe this bizarre climate of fairytale politics is familiar concept for many readers of this blog.

In Western Europe contraction and separation of expectations from reality has lead to fast tightening of political climate; labyrinthine demands of political correctness are such that no ordinary person without university degree cannot open his/her mouth anymore about "hot issues" without insulting some sensitive pressure group. Liberalism where mouth of citizens is sewed shut; history truly has sense of irony.

This situation is contradictory compared to original idea of liberal democracy. If you have to watch out everything you say, there cannot be free debate; without free debate, there cannot be true democracy.

This kind of situation also tends to make people more extreme in their opinions; modest, compromising versions of different political views slowly wither away, while people adopt more black-and-white positions; this is not good thing.

Elites want deeper integration; ordinary people do not. So every trick is used to coerce majority of people to submission. It astonishes me deeply how fast European Union has degenerated to this perverse anomaly of true democracy it is today.

Only one solution is left for "good" people: full integration of European nations into harmonious bureaucracy without ethnic or national boundaries. The inconvenient reality where most persons below certain class line actually WANT to be divided by these divisions is just ignored and broomed under carpet.

Of course this purely elitist dream will fail spectaculary if fully implemented to reality. Hubris is one of oldest sins of mankind; without it, many great tragedies would have never been told.

So if we are going to get more localized environment somewhere down on the road, I believe we must pass through very dark times before it. As old system of doing things fails repeatedly, answer from the mighty ones is bigger doses of same medicine.

More centralization, more regulations, more control.

People have been kicked to earthly paradise by central administration apparatus couple of times in history; this round of bureaucratic commands instead of grassroot democracy shall not offer any better results.

So I agree with you; empowerment of people and rebirth of true local communities is what prevents poor future turning into monstrous future; but first we shall see last attempt by ancien regime to "correct" it all. And the historic period when ancien regime of Western Europe and her old colonies tries to "correct" things shall be very, very insane time to live through, and it is right in front of us. Before any new ways of doing things can be brought in, that storm must be faced. Ducked and covered, hopefully.

2/7/13, 12:05 PM

Denys aka Mommy said...
New reader - thank you for your thoughtful essays.

I am sharing this gem of an article about the problems of public schools, published in 1880. It could be written today, except that they language of course would need to be simplified.

As a country we have been trying to "fix" public schools for over 150 years. Is that not proof enough that centrally controlled public schools can not be what we want and need them to be?

Serial: The North American Review Volume 0131 Issue 289 (December 1880)
Title: The Public-School Failure [pp. 537-551]
Author: White, Richard Grant;cc=nora;rgn=full%20text;idno=nora0131-6;didno=nora0131-6;view=image;seq=0583;node=nora0131-6%3A8

2/7/13, 12:05 PM

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...
Sorry, JMG, but I should correct two mistakes in my last posting.

(1) I wrote "Province of Ontario Education and Accountability Office (EQAO)" where I should have written "Province of Ontario Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO)".

(2) I did not make it adequately clear that my experience as 1991 University of Toronto "Frosh" was in the first year of the honours-stream physics programme. It was the aspiring UofT honours-physics students who were complaining that their high schools had handed out meaningless grades, just a few points short of 100 per cent, while in reality preparing them poorly for the more rigorous of two basic frosh-physics streams.

Toomas dot Karmo at gmail dot com
www dot metascientia dot com

2/7/13, 12:23 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Snoqualman, a lot of people missed the inertia. Still, look around you and you'll find that a huge amount of contraction, disintegration, and outright decline has taken place over the last couple of decades; the collapse is happening, it's just not as fast as people tend to think.

Unknown, devolution normally comes about either as a result of serious political crisis, or because important political interests decide that they can get something by acceding to it. It's far from unknown in history, as the recent devolution of Scotland and Wales demonstrates.

Jeffrey, I've heard the same thing. Sorry to hear it, too -- there's no substitute for fluent mastery of at least one ancient language, to pop people out of the unthinking mental habits of the present age.

John, my bet is that the age of globalization is passing. The energy sources needed to maintain a global state simply don't exist -- and a good thing, too.

Avery, the old Latin high schools were a welcome bit of dissensus in American education; too bad that most of them have been gutted and abandoned. Restoring them might be a good first step.

Leo, bingo. You might have noticed a bit of Schumacher's Principle of Subsidiary Function in this week's post!

CGP, excellent. That's exactly what happened here in the US, of course.

Georgi, that's always the argument for tyranny -- we can't let people make their own decisions, they might do something we don't like! Centralization sells itself by promising a better outcome for all; what it usually produces, as in the present case, is a bad outcome for all.

YJV, why not let the university make its own decision about which of the students it wants, on the basis of something more meaningful than easily-faked multiple choice tests? Somehow, back in the day, universities managed to get by just fine without national standards.

Cam, true enough -- it's interesting to note that historically, bureaucracies gradually stop doing their jobs, and have to be circumvented by the establishment of new bureaucracies, which then stop doing their jobs and have to be circumvented with new bureaucracies...rinse and repeat, and you've got today's US government.

Genesis, to my mind the home schooling movement is a very promising thing -- it's among the few really successful modes of dissensus in today's society. It could very well lead to a revival of decentralized schooling, which would be a good thing.

2/7/13, 1:22 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Phil, wouldn't surprise me. One of the reasons I focus on the US is that the last thing the world needs is any more encouragement to follow the proposals of yet another clueless American...

Ando, thank you.

Raven, nope. It's the implosion that will take them out, as it usually does.

William, that's an excellent point. Thank you for the link!

Thriftwizard, I've read Gatto, and the phrase that comes to mind is "never blame conspiracy for what can be adequately explained by stupidity." That said, glad to hear you got your daughter the home schooling she needed.

Michelle, in your place I'd look for other alternatives, whether that amounts to home schooling or a private school. Still, you have to choose what works best for your children.

Deerlily, and of course that's also a problem -- another form of abuse of the commons, the kind of thing corporations these days do all too often.

Thijs, maybe that's true in the Netherlands, but here your average high school graduate can't spell "genomics," much less know anything meaningful about it.

Nestorian, see my response to Thriftwizard above.

JacGolf, exactly. Those who talk most about diversity are usually the least willing to tolerate any diversity of ideas or choices at all.

Bruce, of course there's more involved than centralization, as I said in so many words in the post. My point is simply that centralization tends to make things worse, since the people making the decisions have no exposure to the consequences and pay no penalties for failure.

Jim, excellent! You get a golden apple -- that's the Discordian equivalent of a gold star.

2/7/13, 1:37 PM

onething said...
Certainly I hope that the centralization of power is waning rather than waxing. What am I to think of the new presidential powers to assassinate American citizens based upon secret intelligence reports?

The Soviet system produced far better results than ours, but they did not have lobbyists and private companies horning in on the process.

Dmitry Orlov blogged about this recently, and he attributes our literacy problems to the nonphonetic English spelling, but I think that is just a small part of it.

Unfortunately, this bit:
"...used to say that the word “learn” is properly spelled F-A-I-L. That’s a reading lesson worth taking to heart, "

I didn't get at all.

2/7/13, 2:59 PM

Unknown said...
Some various thoughts.... I think the decline in education can be ascribed to television and other attention grabber. Entertainment at the time of the L-D debate was limited to reading and conversation for most of the population.... compare to 50's and on.

When I had kids in school, involved in PTA, etc., calling kid's parents to round up help for a Valentine Party, Field Day, etc. was easy in early 80's... trying in late 80's was like night and day. Mom's were at work, not in and out of the classroom as previously. Something to do with the economic condition... wages not rising since 70's?

I was amazed when I asked if best teachers would be assigned to the struggling kids.. and was told, no, they were rewarded with the class of advanced kids. ??

I also ran across a program called HOTS - Higher Order Thinking Skills. 'Behind' students had 30 mins per week in a small class, with a generic problem to solve, and LOTS of attention from the teacher... and not allowed to quit until they had achieved the solution. Results leaked into more achievement in subject classes.

I saw the local school district fail to adopt successful pilots like this, but enact others, which faded away after a few years, with no final report, etc. When more money was available as levies passed, I saw management swell but classrooom size did not shrink. I think the problem is with the local management and some aspects of the unions. Yes, voters should pay attention and vote better boards.... but that's another result of every parent working... the economic conditions, and the larger cultural manipulation by the boob tube messaging.

Back in 1968, in a 101 PolySci class, I learned one thing that surprised me.... more corruption at local level than the federal level. I don't think that has changed! I also learned of our founder's idea that competition for power might keep the field fairly level, which doesn't seem to be working as gorillas seem to be hanging off the 'chandelier'.

To end, in the late 80's, I began randomly asking teenagers I ran across what they learned about voting in Civics class. If they remembered (or even had a half semester of Civics) I was astounded to hear the same word over and over in reply..."Uh, it's a PRIVILEGE." I was taught it is a duty... but curriculI must have changed since the 60s.

2/7/13, 3:07 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Shadowheart, since this post is on education, I'd like to offer you a lesson in reading comprehension. The phrase "bedsheet-bedecked Southern crackers who populate the hate speech of the left" does not mean that the crackers in question belong to the left. Break it down, starting from the end of the sentence -- that's usually the best way to parse a complex English phrase. So we have:

"the left" -- yes, that's the Democrats and those people further in a liberal-to-radical direction than they are.

"the hate speech of the left" -- hate speech can be defined as bigoted utterances that classify people negatively according to ethnic, cultural, or other stereotypes. People on the left engage in this as much as people on the right; it's just that they use different stereotypes.

"who populate the hate speech of the left" -- that clues you in that we're about to talk about the stereotypes that people on the left use when they engage in hate speech.

"Bedsheet-bedecked Southern crackers" -- that's the stereotype used by people on the left who engage in hate speech: poor white Southerners ("crackers" is a slang term for them) who are presumed to belong to the Klan (thus "bedsheet-bedecked").

Got it? You're welcome.

Cathy, that's a fascinating suggestion.

News, one of the odd things that can happen in an overcentralized system is that the center continues to push for more overt control, while the states or other subgroups are quietly extracting themselves. That happens because too much centralization makes it impossible for the people running the center to notice that the whole system is slipping through their fingers. More on this in a later post.

Renaissance, that seems sensible enough -- and not at all unlike the system we used to have in the US.

Edde, don't worry, I'll have some other suggestions in a forthcoming post!

Gretchen, it's bizarre demands like this, ramifying outward on a larger and larger scale, that bring complex systems crashing down in a hurry. Hang onto your hat.

Kevin, that's an excellent point. It's usually the lure of outside money that gets local communities to fall into line, only to find that they've become addicted to it and get jerked around by the pusher.

2/7/13, 3:38 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Richard, thanks for the details.

Jamie, yes, that's also a factor. As I said, plenty of factors have contributed to the mess that is modern American education.

Cat, the ideas you're offering have been the conventional wisdom in American education for more than fifty years now, and have given us the steadily worsening mess we've got today. They haven't worked, they're not working, and there's no reason to think that they will work any better in the future than they do today. Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results, is a functional definition of insanity, you know.

Prizm, Waldorf is an option, and there are other alternative teaching systems out there. A lot depends on what you can access in the community. Glad to have helped spark some thoughts!

Jetfire, yes, starting at the level of the local school board is one way to do it, though some pressure on state and federal representatives to get state and federal bureaucrats to back off a bit would also be needed. I'll have some other suggestions as we proceed.

Yupped, I've come to think that computer technology is going to play a massive role in the decline and fall of industrial society. It allows centralized control to go so much further, and thus amplifies the inherent failures of overcentralized systems so much more dramatically, than any previous system ever could.

Ghung, ouch. I hadn't heard about that.

Joseph, exactly. If you give people the freedom to try new things, some of those new things are going to fail. Others may succeed beyond anybody's wildest dreams. That's the principle of dissensus -- accepting the fact that some people are going to do things you don't like is the price you pay for having the freedom to follow your own path, and the evolutionary flexibility to find new options for everyone.

Nano, if they're blaming the system at least they're putting the blame in the right place.

James, that's why I was talking specifically about education. I discussed in my earlier post about relocalization how easily the US states could function as quasi-independent entities.

Moshe, you're oversimplifying what I've said considerably. I've discussed at quite some length how political change can take place in a hurry -- did you read, for example, the fictional narrative last October, which had the US going completely to pieces over a two-year span? My point is that such crises aren't the end of the world; in the present case, they're part of the long, ragged, fractally structured process by which a civilization grinds to its end -- a process that involves a lot of sudden localized breakdowns, from the individual scale to that of whole nations.

2/7/13, 3:52 PM

Georgi Marinov said...
John Michael Greer said...

Georgi, that's always the argument for tyranny -- we can't let people make their own decisions, they might do something we don't like! Centralization sells itself by promising a better outcome for all; what it usually produces, as in the present case, is a bad outcome for all.

That argument does not apply to science. Science is inherently not democratic - as I said in the previous post, scientific truth is not up for vote, it is determined by data and evidence. And as I will once again have to repeat myself, the fact is that the majority of people if left on their own would not do a good job of educating their kids.

It's hard for me to understand how you can support such a position. After all, the abysmal level of understanding of basic scientific concepts such as the laws of thermodynamics and the theory of evolution is a major reason why we're where we are now. And it is in turn, in the US in particular, a direct result of the decentralization of the educational system. It's far from being the only factor, of course, and other countries have not exactly succeeded in that area either, but it would be a lot easier if there were good centralized standards for what has to be learned and proper control was exercised over whether it is in fact learned.

2/7/13, 4:03 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Laura, the Department of Education came into existence because Congress is in the habit of ignoring the US constitution, and the Supreme Court -- which is supposed to rein in power grabs on the part of the executive branch -- stopped doing that in the 1930s. No matter how wildly unconstitutional a measure is, it'll pass Supreme Court review these days: one more broken check and balance in a system full of those just now.

Toomas, er, you did notice that I wasn't talking about Estonia, didn't you? In the US, only a small minority of children know how to read when they begin school.

Steve, thank you. As you've seen, I've already had a bunch of people waving around the Scary Flyover State Christians (tm) as the reason why we can't have local control of schools. My response remains the one I mentioned back in the post about relocalization: if you want a democratic society, you have to accept the fact that some people will do things you don't like.

Rlb, the constitution does not give that power to the federal government. That means that the population of each state has the right, through their elected representatives or directly via initiative and referendum, to decide who makes those standards.

Elsie, fascinating. It seems to work!

Jon, I've met a number of elderly people who had their schooling in a one-room schoolhouse. Their average level of education and general knowledge was quite respectably high.

Zach, I prefer the label "No Child Left Unharmed."

Escape, given the rate at which US corporations have to import skilled employees from overseas, I suspect it's a bug rather than a feature. Again, never attribute to conspiracy what can be perfectly well explained by stupidity.

Tony, my dad was a sixth grade schoolteacher for thirty years, and that was his motto, too. These days he wouldn't have that choice.

Blue Sun, I'd expect that about the time Beelzebub sets up a skating rink in his backyard!

Mary, there are always a few very bright kids who are able to achieve despite the system. It's the ordinary students, and the more vulnerable gifted, who are really getting screwed by the system as it exists today.

2/7/13, 4:06 PM

sgage said...
Hey, I went to public schools in the US, in CT to be exact, and got an excellent education.

In high school I got 3 years of Latin and 3 years of German, and math up to calculus.

Got plenty of excellent biology (I remember the first Earth Day), physics, chemistry, etc. My first college courses in these subjects were not particularly challenging.

Oh yeah, that was in the 60's/early 70's. But hey, that's not so long ago...

2/7/13, 4:08 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Juhana, thanks for the update -- yes, that's about what I've been hearing. The thing the governing class doesn't realize is that, if they insist that all opposition to their Europeanizing project is identical to belonging to the far right, they're simply going to legitimize the far right. It's happened more than once in, ahem, fairly recent European history; you'd think that somebody would learn that very painful lesson!

Denys, thanks for the link! That's fascinating.

Onething, the point I was trying to make is that you can't learn except by failing. It's by making mistakes, figuring out where you went wrong, and making the necessary corrections that learning happens.

Unknown, your Poli Sci class was drastically oversimplifying a complex situation, and it's also worth noting that things have changed since 1968. Local governments vary dramatically in their level of corruption, from more or less honest to spectacularly crooked; the federal government used to be, on average, moderately corrupt, and has moved over the ensuing decades to a level of corruption that would make old time Tammany Hall machine politicians gape in disbelief.

Remember when Congress voted $700 billion for the TARP program, and the Treasury proceeded to hand it out and then refused to tell anybody who pocketed it? Boss Tweed never dreamed of anything that huge, or that blatant.

2/7/13, 4:14 PM

Gary K said...
I propose a simple fix for centralization. How about a one for one tax credit for both property taxes and local income taxes. This would give boards of education and local government a powerful tool to reverse the course of the past 60 years. I was a senior in high school when the first federal money hit our schools due to the "sputnik" science push. Schools swallowed it hook line and sinker... the trend continues to this day.

2/7/13, 4:16 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Georgi, yes, it does apply to science. Science is not truth; it's a set of models of how the universe works, and those models are always incomplete and imperfect. They are also very often simply wrong -- you might want to look into the way that continental drift was rejected for decades in the US, for example.

It's never failed to intrigue me that scientific materialism, which by and large claims to reject and despise religion and all it stands for, has enthusiastically embraced the core notion of modern religious fundamentalism -- that is, that it's hugely important to prevent anyone in the world from holding beliefs that differ from yours.

Sgage, that was quite a while ago. I bet your school was still mostly run by the local school board, too.

2/7/13, 4:21 PM

sgage said...
"Sgage, that was quite a while ago."

Well, now that you mention it (thanks, buddy :-), I guess it was... my 40th HS reunion is this year. Still, it doesn't seem that long ago. It seems so incredibly odd that one's very own memories eventually turn into history... what's up with that?

"I'll bet your school was still mostly run by the local school board, too."

I reckon it probably was - I was totally unaware of such things at the time. But I do remember my mom going to PTA meetings, and coming home pretty worked up...

2/7/13, 4:58 PM

Mark Angelini said...
For whatever reason, this weeks topic brings to mind something Herman Daly wrote about earlier regarding money. Maybe you've seen it, but here's the link for what its worth:

The education system is truly sad. I remember when I was in public education, how boring the education seemed, as if the teachers just showed up for a paycheck. Which isn't too far off...

2/7/13, 5:05 PM

Joel said...
>the far more lavishly funded education system the United States has today

Is this really the case?

Baumol's cost disease has meant that most other sectors of the economy have gone through stark deflation, due to mechanization. To really compare funding levels in a fair inflation-adjusted way, you'd have to compare the price of public education to the price of a basket of goods and services in similarly skilled-labor-intensive sectors of the economy, which mechanization has also not diminished the price of.

How many tickets to a performance of live music or dance does a year of public schooling cost? How many pounds of saffron? How many days' stay in a hospital? I know none of these are luxuries that a beginning school teacher can really afford at the moment, but I'm not sure they were much less affordable to school teachers in years gone by. It's only when you count in loaves of bread or bolts of cloth or miles of transportation that funding seems lavish, i.e. if you normailze to sectors of the economy where industrialization omits labor.

2/7/13, 5:50 PM

Joseph Nemeth said...
As I was going through the US public system in the 1960's, I noticed that it had two very contrary goals. One was to "educate the masses" in the Adam Smith Wealth of Nations way. The other was to "socialize the masses" in a kind of enforced-mythology, Soviet-like propaganda way.

The former benefits from localization. The latter definitely benefits from centralization.

A third trend I've since noticed has been the educational system used as a holding area for excess work force.

As you've pointed out, students who graduate from high school at age eighteen today are demonstrably dumber as a group than the students who graduated from eighth grade at age fourteen in 1880. So it begs the question of why it now takes so much longer to produce an inferior product. Not the "whom shall we blame?" why, but the "how is this acceptable?" why. What seems pretty obvious to me is that as a society, we don't have anything else for young people to do.

My late father (b. 1913) didn't finish high school, which was common in the late 1920's, and nearly no one then held a college degree. The pre-work holding area has now expanded to one's mid-twenties and includes a baccalaureate: nearly one-third of the normal human lifespan. The four-year undergraduate degree has typically become a six-year degree. The three-to-four-year post-graduate PhD of my childhood is now routinely seven years: after the obligatory post-docs, my son-in-law and his wife are just starting their (assistant) professorships in their mid-30's.

In the past two decades, I've noticed a particularly perverse form of this: people who "go back to school" to get a degree. In many cases, to get yet another degree. A surprising number of these aren't sure what degree to get. They're partly gambling that this piece of paper will be more valuable than the last, but there's another feature I've noticed: "free" money. Faced with the choice between locking down two or three part-time McJobs just to pay the rent, or taking out a (livable) student loan and going back to school -- though you're hocking your future earnings on a Hail Mary pass -- a lot of people choose to borrow. I'm not sure I blame them. As borrowed money goes, it isn't that bad: you can (or could -- I've been out of it for a while) defer payments until you get a good job, and interest rates have been artificially low, and fixed. In the past, no one was going to come around and break your kneecaps.

I'm commenting on a trend, BTW, not on individuals. It's different when people want and need specific training, and they've figured out the path. My wife is one of those, as is my nephew. So I'm not trying to generalize to the exceptions.

From a systems perspective, this could be viewed as a form of national welfare. But it isn't. The bankers are involved, so there's an exponential string attached. The "commonwealth" has been growing in numbers, but declining in value: how many PhD mathematicians do we really need as a nation? How many lawyers?

Centralization benefits this last function of education, because it's a non-viable practice that can only persist in the fog of distance and non-vested interest.

2/7/13, 6:55 PM

Joseph Nemeth said...
Georgi - I have to side with JMG here, as one who trained to become a physicist.

Here's the deal. If you are a waiter, and you screw your boss's wife, steal from the till, and then punch out your boss when he challenges you, you can always find a job in some other town as a waiter.

If you are an ultraviolet spectroscopist, there are probably a thousand people in the world who know what you do for a living, and maybe fifty who care. If you piss off one of the Grand Old Men in the field by questioning a claim he made thirty years ago, even if you didn't know he made such a claim (part of your job, BTW, is to know precisely that sort of thing) you risk your career. If it goes badly, you won't -- as they say in Hollywood -- work in this town again. Ever. Prepare to teach physics to high school students.

Those are the facts. Science is intensely political.

However, I would agree with you that it is not democratic. It is more like the politics of the sixteenth-century Vatican, and is growing more with every decade.

2/7/13, 7:12 PM

Georgi Marinov said...
@ Joseph Nemeth regarding science:

I am fully aware of the political situation in a lot of scientific fields. I have never experienced anything of the sort in my field though. And eventually, the truth prevails - JMG gave plate tectonics as an example, well, as far as I know no respectable geologist today does not accept the theory of plate tectonics so it would seem to me that that the self-correcting mechanisms of science worked in that case, as they usually do.

Also, it is a bit of a strawman argument to point out how far science is from the pure intellectual ideal of what it should be at the cutting edge when it is not the cutting edge we're talking about here. I pointed out in my original post that if left on their own people will choose to indoctrinate their children into believing thing that contradict scientific truths that have very close to zero chance of ever being overturned and they will choose not to educate them into other similarly well established scientific theories because they don't see the need for that.

I fully agree that students graduating from high school today are dumber than those in the past. But I don't think the stretching of the time it takes to get a PhD is due to that. That's for the simple reason that the amount of knowledge one has to acquire to be able to be productive in pretty much any scientific field today is much larger than it was today and independently from that, the amount of work that goes into a typical scientific paper these days is an order of magnitude larger than in the not so distant past. What was a Nature or Science paper back in the days is often a supplemental figure today. Yes, the tools have advanced in that period and it's a lot easier to do a lot of things but humans still have only two hands, two eyes and one brain, and the day still has only 24 hours.

In some fields this has reached truly grotesque dimensions. You may have noticed some of the popular articles that reported on the proposed proof of the ABC conjectures last year that is so complicated that they can't find anybody who is able to understand it without spending years studying it.

The complexity has simply grown too much but that's inevitable. The solution for the time being is not to decry the sorry state of high school education but to push a lot of the material down the educational ladder. The human brain is a lot more perceptive to new knowledge when it's young while currently (and in times past) kids basically waste their time in school because they are not challenged or pushed hard enough (I myself view my time in school exactly that way - I could have learned so much more if there had only been the conditions around me and the someone to push me harder). Of course, we've done exactly the opposite, but if you give parents even more control, things will go even further in that direction

2/7/13, 8:45 PM

Brother Kornhoer said...
Mr. Greer -

Lots of good comments this week. I especially appreciate that you correctly identify what "accountability" actually means in an education context. The whole blame-the-teacher sentiment (which I see even cropped up in the comments here) bemuses me: we live in a society that does not respect or reward learning, with mothers and fathers both too busy on the work-money-consume treadmill to engage their children, with new electronic distractions that have unexpected cognitive effects, and with the teachers' primary mandate to make sure the kids pass the standardized test. Given all that, I think my kids' public school teachers have actually done a decent job.

As my kids move from middle school in to high school, I vividly see how much of secondary and higher education is a big game where the members of the Outer Party (whoops - middle class) jump through lots of hoops to secure their children's future class position. Unfortunately, the game seems to produce neurotic kids more than anything else, and actual learning takes a back seat.

Hey, with all the recommendations made to look at old text books and readers and such, I wonder if yesteryear's elementary, high school, and college student is strictly comparable to today's. A much higher percentage of the population goes to college now than in 1930, don't ya think? Could it be that the average high school graduate of 1948 represents a smaller, more intelligent fraction of the population than the average high school graduate of 2012, and if so, that explains some of the drop in standards?

Certainly there's been some educational inflation - people going to college to get degrees in something that didn't used to require a degree. Journalism is a prime example, and I went to a college-prep seminar recently where a young lady described her search for the right "hospitality" degree program - that's right, a college degree for innkeeping. Anyway, I could see how such educational inflation vacuums up a higher percentage of the population into higher ed, with a corresponding decrease in the learning level.

2/7/13, 9:28 PM

janedotx said...
This was a very interesting blog post, but I find it incredibly hard to believe that educational standards in one room schools were very high. I remember reading in Farmer Boy, the biography of a boy who grew up in New York in the 1850s ( a story where a teacher was beaten to death by his own students. The students themselves were not punished. The next teacher assigned to that school district had to defend himself with a ten-foot long whip.

As an Asian-American, the current mess that the US educational system is in seems to me to be, in great part, a reflection of a longstanding disdain for teachers and education.

2/7/13, 9:41 PM

Georgi Marinov said...
janedotx said...
This was a very interesting blog post, but I find it incredibly hard to believe that educational standards in one room schools were very high

They most definitely weren't.

I think what JMG meant was the students back in the days were much more capable of independent thinking. Which I tend to agree with respect to students graduating from normal schools in the middle of the 20th century, I am not so sure about the one-room schools.

There has been a lot of both raising and lowering the bar in the last 40-50 years. If you compare the problems given at the International Mathematics or Physics Olympiad 40 years ago with those given today, you would be amazed at how much the bars has been raised. The same applies for university exams at least at the institutions I am familiar with, which admittedly may not be a representative sample of the general situation. But that's the very top of the educational pyramid while in the same time the amount of reading students do in school has dropped significantly, the amount of reading they do independently has shrunk to basically zero, the enforcement of whatever educational standards exist has become more and more lax because nobody has any real incentive to fail anyone, and finally, an educational philosophy that promotes the deeply misguided idea that it is somehow bad for students to expose them to too much information has become widespread.

2/7/13, 11:11 PM

Jeffrey said...
The story of the modern tomatoe you find in your typical grocery store is a perfect metaphor for our educational system. Standardized to the point of losing its essence the tomatoe has been bred for efficiency in how it grows,how it is harvested and how it is transported.

Standardization of our educational system has gone through the same process. The driver is efficiency above all else. We live in a crowded planet. All of our institutions are being funnled through this same matrix of efficiency.

Of course it is not efficient. It is dificient on all measures of flavor, soul and heirloom diversity. Young people all over the planet are all plugged into their digital devices basically all being wired in one huge homogenized matrix of dumbed down sameness while beiieving in the illusion that their digital toys are providing them a cornucopia of choice.

There is tremendous pressure when you have 7 billion people on the planet that economies, living arrangements, food distribution, education, politics, ideology all get pressed down through the same sieve of industiral efficiency.

I don't really know how much can be done to change this trend other than nourish the seedlings that will inevitablly grow out of the cracks of our collapsing industrial paradigm. Which is what draws us all together here on this site, paradoxically enabled by the very digital matrix that I dispair is part of the problem......

What a conundrum.....

2/8/13, 3:38 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

I'm a bit dismayed by the comments this week. Largely, people seem to miss the central point that if they have children or young adults within the educational system then it is their combined responsibilities and no one else’s. Lamenting your children’s education situation here is a pointless activity. You cannot outsource these responsibilities!

I have both an undergraduate and a post graduate degree from a reputable university and can assure readers that when an assignment was requested as it inevitably was, the required reading was listed. If this situation does not in itself make marking standardised and hence easier for lecturers and tutors I don't know what would do it. Exams were no different.

Critical thinking skills are to be developed outside of the educational system as it currently stands.

The other thing that no one has touched here other than our blog host is that in order to learn, we need to have a culture that is not so harsh on failure. For if we do not allow ourselves to fail occasionally and freely admit those failings, then, we will not learn from those mistakes.

Finally, while I'm up for a good rant, those commenters saying how good the education system is in their respective countries (eg. Canada and Europe seem to be particularly prone to this over inflated opinion) seem to forget how many dramas those particular countries are in right now. Alberta Tar sands anyone, how about 50%+ youth unemployment in Spain, Greece and Portugal? What about a double dip recession in the UK? What about the current diaspora in Ireland which is just another in a very long history?

As to the commenter talking down the Indian education system, he obviously had not had the conversation I had with a very affable Indian gentleman yesterday. The gentleman was trying to talk me into outsourcing my job whilst collecting fees on their work as a middleman. Truly, I looked into the future and it was bleak... The conversation that ensued in relation to how the growth model is flawed truly perplexed him, but I give him 10 out of 10 for audacity. Had I not seen the exact same thing happen to manufacturing here in the 1990’s I would not have taken him seriously.



2/8/13, 3:40 AM

Jason said...
Do you not think JMG that Ostrom, and you here, are very Laozi-like? Ch. 57 say. The rulership you're recommending is that of the sage...

Is the DDJ project still a go?

I'm also wondering if you think the state of any commons system could be represented by hexagrams. Or of a nation of course -- with 1776, 1861, and 1933 being similar hexagrams.

2/8/13, 6:14 AM

Ian said...
I don't think anyone has mentioned the effects of No Child Left Behind on colleges and univiersities, so I'll chip in with what little I have. I'm not too close to the halls of higher education these days so I don't hear much. However, as the first generation of 'No Child Left Behind' are hitting college, what little I am hearing isn't positive.

There seems to be a sharp uptick in the number of students who are unable to read critically or deeply. They can read, sure enough, but have difficulty identifying an argument. In turn, they conflate evidence for an argument with simple fact. Horror stories feature introductory classes in a discipline becoming introductory classes in reading comprehension.

Showing the faultlines and debates in the field? That gets tossed out just teaching them that there is such a thing as reasonable debate and showing them how it might work. In some cases, that means reading texts in class instead of as out of class assignments.

On the 'positive' side, it seems like plenty of them realize that they have been cheated by the educational system, so there's at least simmering resentment.

I get all this at a remove so I hope the horror is exaggerated, but I worry that these 'No Child Left Behind' children (especially those coming through the public schools) will be something of a lost generation as far as education goes, and that trickles up to other aspects of our society.

2/8/13, 6:44 AM

Juhana said...
It is quite confusing to read articles about Finnish school system from Anglo-Saxon papers; as a Finn, I have experienced it firsthand. I have to say that many hidden factors are also driving success of Finnish school. We enjoyed very homogenous culture right to the end of last millennium. Even political parties were highly ceremonial because people voted them based on their class background: Rural Union (later Center Party) got votes from farmers, Social Democrats or People's Democratic Union got votes from proletariat and National Coalition got votes from bourgeois. So back then, you knew approximate results before there was any elections most of the time.

This keen sense of one's place in the world was reflected in school and during military draft service. While I was in the school or army, there was many unwritten codes of conduct. You kind of knew beforehand who was going to be officer (no People's Democrats allowed)or who was going to university or trade school. Many times it had nothing to do with abilities, background mattered a lot in certain things. But everyone got good education, and no one was left behind. Everybody had a place.

Growing myself inside this highly predictable and homogenous environment, I was totally ignorant about it's nature as a child or youngster. Only after I had seen other parts of world through my work, have I understood how unique our country is.

This cultural bloc has been breaking down since late nineties, especially in the big cities. We are experiencing here right now first wave of so called white flight, as parents in big cities are getting their children out from schools where there are many immigrant students. Reasons for this behavior are obvious for any sane parent; you just have to look how messed up Swedish big cities are today to wake up your parental instincts. Roland Huntford spoke words of truth in his book "New Totalitarians", and now it is time to harvest fruits of those seeds in our western neighbor.

At the same time decline of teacher's authority is major issue here, in the old times teachers were true authority figures, less so today. As in most cases when leftist-liberal and progressive ideas are implemented to real world, result has been chaos, cruel bullying and law of the jungle in those schools where progressive ideas have been taken more seriously.

But apart from these two factors, our educational system is doing good job, largely thanks to our homogenous population. Predictable environment is good learning environment.

2/8/13, 6:45 AM

Loch Wade said...
Of course you are right. The centralized government is doomed.

But I suspect the Central government system will get worse and more centralized in the short run, before it disintegrates.

The next five years will see:

1. Centralized heath care
2.Federal gun confiscation
3. National ID card
4. Centrally planned and controlled economy, with cash outlawed.
5. Re-integration of church and state, with centralized control over religious matters.

These will be the final manifestations of central control- we're not just talking US Federal control, but global central control. The plans of globalists are for global central control, and they won't stop until they get there.

I believe Peak Oil caught these guys by surprise, but they have long trained to never let a good crisis go to waste. If anything, Peak Oil has accelerated their time-frame.

I have long believed true freedom lies in locally controlled communities. To maintain some form of freedom, these communities have to be further subdivided into autonomous and independent units of unbreakable cohesion. The only form that cohesion can possibly take is blood. Families are the final independent level of local government. A large extended family, its members well armed and jealous for the honor of their line is the last and final bastion of freedom.

Such a family, whose members are sworn, not by oaths, but by genetics, to uphold their collective honor, is a formidable weapon. Communities of such families act as checks and blances upon each other, and thus keep the possibility of sociopaths and psychopaths from seizing power.

The only way to destroy the family is to remove the members from the land, subvert their morals, and disperse them into urban settings, where the family can have little or no validity. Once this has been accomplished, central power, based on the rule of individual psychopaths, can assume control.

2/8/13, 7:12 AM

Adrian Skilling said...
Very interesting. I mostly agree. In Britain we are highly centralized and this has no doubt caused problems.

Centralization does demand higher costs, but may be not that high, and they could still be borne in a lower energy world. The Romans did rather well with a formidable level of centralization across Europe for instance.

We all demand centralization, so we are all partly to blame. We like standards to be standardized, the weak institutions to be monitored and saved from above (so we don't have to bother ourselves?).

For de-centralization to work we do need to become more involved with our local institutions rather than leaving it to somebody else, and I guess this is your point. Binary thinking is certainly a dangerous trap is this context.

2/8/13, 7:37 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@Georgi - I'm glad you've never faced that in your field. I'm curious what field that happens to be.

So let's distinguish between cutting edge science, and a general education in science, and agree we aren't talking about the politics of cutting-edge science.

As you point out, the corpus of "scientific knowledge" is large and complex, and growing, and so you want to push more and more of it down toward the toddlers. Did I read that correctly? If so, I would ask, why?

To make more scientists for the cutting edge? Do we need more scientists on the cutting edge? Why?

2/8/13, 8:25 AM

Frank Hemming said...
Thank you JMG for a very interesting post. In Herefordshire there is a policy to close small rural schools as they are considered too costly to heat, maintain and employ teachers. Small rural schools generally perform better than urban schools for a number of reasons. If a village school is closed then parents are more likely to drive their children to school, but this is not considered in the decision to close. One school has decided to keep going despite the county council’s decision to close it. Here is the link to Dilwyn Primary School. Staff worked for free to keep the school.

2/8/13, 12:18 PM

marxmarv said...
JMG, thanks for discussing some of the aspects of education that people aren't often seen discussing. I've passed this one along to a friend who, among other things, teaches middle school. I hope she'll see fit to weigh in.

Sacrifice is on my mind today (and as luck would have it my captcha challenge is "sessymen"), and I think it might be relevant to a couple of your responses...

1. JMG to Toomas, re: this is not Estonia: clearly, but is there a bit of American Exceptionalism showing? I'm sure you'd agree community cohesion is something worth having in the future, and that service, (revealed) secrets and (blood) sacrifice are the most popular practices to that end, but the latter in particular seems atavistic to modern, effete Western sensibilities (with few but notable exceptions). Holding a community responsible and "accountable" (to their peers!) for the satisfactory completion of an educational prerequisite sets a rough floor for the amount of adult guidance and scholastic investment a child receives and seems a less wasteful and destructive sacrifice than most traditions to date have to offer. A hard sell in a culture already inclined toward anti-intellectualism and distrust, but if such a social institution manages to stick for a few years the beneficial positive feedbacks could keep it stuck for generations.

2. JMG to Escape, re: inability to find local people of skill: It is hard to find light sweet crude at $10/bbl, isn't it? Plenty of WTI at $100, but lacking any sense of duty whatsoever, they don't care to invest in cracking (training) and, seeing themselves as different in kind from labor, are demanding labor "disciplined" enough to absorb the externalized losses/costs of the moment without complaint or recompense (witness the rise of "independent contractors" who are neither except on paper). Employers want to hire someone with something to lose, and in true corporate toddler fashion, believe more is better.

Loch Wade, actually, I suspect they *don't* want central control -- that necessarily requires giving a little occasionally without a clearly consequential, quantifiable return, and that cramps the corporate toddlers' style. They just want control tightly distributed amongst themselves and a set of rules that suits them.

(Never attribute to conspiracy that which can be adequately explained by an iterated game with a skewed payoff matrix.)

2/8/13, 12:22 PM

el emer said...
As an amateur historian, I'd appreciate some links to examples of this hate speech of the left concerning sheet-bedecked crackers. Thank you.

2/8/13, 1:16 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

The other thing that occurred to me is that centralised large scale systems are kept simple by their very nature. Education definitely falls into this category. Why else the national standardisation? Incidentally, I've always felt that if a system demands a KPI (key performance indicator) then inevitably someone will start to game it.

Dissensus on the other hand is inherently complex and messy. It requires people to follow principles rather than rules, whilst considering whole systems and the consequences of their actions and this can be a real challenge for some.

Simple systems allow for a sort of industrialisation of our mindset and we as a culture tend to think that this is superior state to complex. Think about the question as to why do we push for specialisation?

Nature is inherently complex and we cannot avoid this complexity.



2/8/13, 3:58 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Education is certainly a quagmire of ardent opinions and complex issues, and I'm not especially eager to wade in to them.

My own experience with education was a small alternative unaccredited non-parochial private school in the 1960s and 1970s. The younger classes were "open classroom," the high school was run much like graduate student seminars (though I had no idea at the time), with the teacher leading open discussion of the subject for the day, and a lot of hands-on work wherever it was appropriate. I learned calculus at the age of 14, as well as how swing a hammer and frame a wall. The student-teacher ratio probably averaged about 8:1. Teachers did not all have certifications; many were escapees from grad school. The only standardized tests we ever took were the SATs, needed by those who were college-bound. We didn't even receive grades, just written paragraph-long evaluations of our performance. The students included those who would have been classed as "gifted," "learning disabled," and "discipline cases" by the mainstream schools, all side-by-side in the same classes. And in spite of all this unconventionality and lack of official stamps-of-approval, some of us were accepted into top-tier Ivy League schools (yes, that means Harvard). Others became auto mechanics after graduation. As a child of a divorced single mother, I also think it was very positive for me that many of the teachers were men in an era where this was not common (and give the time frame, many of them looked rather like me and JMG do now...).

So even though I worry about loss of large-scale oversight of education (for typical reasons -- religion replacing science, ingrained racism and sexism, cultural hegemony and the tyranny of the majority, etc.), my own very positive experiences with childhood eduction were actually the product of a school that was far from the mainstream and had near 100% autonomy in its choices of teachers, materials, and methods. So I really don't know what to think about this.

2/8/13, 4:37 PM

Georgi Marinov said...
Joseph Nemeth said...
@Georgi - I'm glad you've never faced that in your field. I'm curious what field that happens to be.

Most broadly speaking I do genomics. Which is data-driven as things get and that certainly plays a role

As you point out, the corpus of "scientific knowledge" is large and complex, and growing, and so you want to push more and more of it down toward the toddlers. Did I read that correctly? If so, I would ask, why?

To make more scientists for the cutting edge? Do we need more scientists on the cutting edge? Why?

No, exactly the opposite - we probably don't really need more cutting edge scientists at this point. What we desperately need is for each and every human being on the planet to have the kind of knowledge about and understanding of the world around us that even most PhDs do not posses today. Which can only be achieved by what I am suggesting. The world is complex, there is no way around that. The problem is, of course, that this is practically impossible to implement at present because there is also a dire shortage of teachers capable of teaching on such a level

2/8/13, 4:42 PM

Unknown said...
Even when the quality of the education is improved, won't it be drowned out by the hour-long lessons people daily subject themselves to, i.e. television? All those hours quickly exceed the basic education.

2/8/13, 4:49 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Georgi -- I cringe whenever someone talks about scientific "truth." That word implies an absolutism that is inherently unscientific. Most of these "truths" have not been directly observed, nor are they even observable. No one can go back 4.6 billion years and say "Yep, there it is, that's the earth coalescing from the Solar Nebula." We can observe processes and phenomena in the present day, and we can observe patterns in the world as it exists now, and from that we can infer how we believe these patterns came to be, hypothesizing a past that uses the processes we have observed to fill in the huge amount that we will never be able to observe. Using words like "truth" just invites comparison to and attack from religions that have a very different sense of what that word means.

I actually wish that this empirical rather than revealed nature of scientific knowledge was taught more explicitly at an earlier age. Kids have scientific "truths" "revealed" to them, then they get scriptural "truths" "revealed" to them, and how are they supposed to know the difference? Then as they get more advanced, they are re-taught these "truths" in more complex forms that often contradict the "truths" they were taught earlier. It isn't really until post-graduate education that they actually begin to teach science the way it really exists, as a process of discovery and reinvention, and a collection of "consensus best theories," always evolving, never cast in stone no matter how long established they may be.

2/8/13, 10:07 PM

Jennifer D Riley said...
All children are home schooled, and always have been. The school day is about 6 hours. There are 25 or so children in a classroom with one or two adults. The ratio is much higher at home: 2.4 children to one or two adults. Has nothing to do with the Department of Education.

Nothing stops any parent from augmenting homework with extra assignments. Schaum's Outlines are wonderful for supplemental work, and the Internet probably has lessons plans for extra homework. It's just so much easier to get an agenda from TeeVee and have the parents sit around and run their mouths about it, say external locus of control, "get rid of the Department of Education." and if it's gotten rid of, so what?

If these parents aren't supervising their children at home, are they really competent for forming a school board? I think not. Here is one place you really want to get transcripts and resumes. You don't want some good ol' boy whose biggest night was high school quarterback at the homecoming game to be "in charge" of anyone else's education. Look at our two most famous high school graduates on the national scene: Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove. You certainly don't want them running a school district; they clearly aren't qualified to be in a classroom. And they're the source as Republicans of the "get rid of the Department of Education."

2/9/13, 3:27 AM

Odin's Raven said...
Here's someone with news of cheaper on-line education to by-pass governmental lefty indoctrination.


2/9/13, 6:28 AM

Laney said...
NCLB was Bush. It has been replaced by Obama's Race to the Top, Common Core, and PARCC. We're still testing the joy out of our students, but now the 8,000 students across the district where I teach are being lock-stepped through a hastily developed curriculum thrown together quickly to meet pressures from the state and the district-level administrators. Skilled teachers who have been teaching kids successfully for years are being told to keep every student on the same page and teach them all the same way. We go through an overhaul of of education policy every time a new president takes office.

On the other hand, we teach them all. The gifted; the physically, emotionally, and mentally handicapped; the children of drug users and child abusers; the rich and poor. That wasn't the case 100 years ago, and it isn't the case in many other countries.

My daughter is a junior in high school. She is in calculus, chemistry, her fourth year of Spanish, and is a state-ranked clarinetist with the hs band. She talks about math with her friends at a level i can't negin to understand. With the exception of the chemistry, I had none of those opportunities in the small rural school I attended 30 years ago. And many of the students in the large high school she attends don't take those opportunities. My husband and I have always made ourselves her first teachers and have tried to teach her in a way to prepare her for success in school and the supplement what she is taught in school. She knows how to knit, cook, and can tackle pretty much any new skill she sets her sights on. But that's not from the schools, that's from us accepting our parental responsibilities. Oh, and we've paid for hours of clarinet lessons and hundreds of reeds and whatever instruments or sheet music her teachers have recommended.

So, yes, JMG, education is best when the real power (with oversight) is at the local level -- and that includes the parents using their parental rights to teach their children well,not to leave everything up to the schools.

2/9/13, 7:19 AM

JP said...

"I'm sure you'd agree community cohesion is something worth having in the future, and that service, (revealed) secrets and (blood) sacrifice are the most popular practices to that end, but the latter in particular seems atavistic to modern, effete Western sensibilities (with few but notable exceptions)"

With "notable exceptions" you need to include the mass of the Catholic Church in which there is a blood sacrifice every Sunday.

I mean it's part of the core ritual of that establishment, so its already present in much of the West.

"Take this, all of you, and eat of it: for this is my body which will be given up for you. Take this, all of you, and drink from it: for this is the chalice of my blood,"

2/9/13, 8:17 AM

JP said...
You know, my aunt went to school for a time in a one-room schoolhouse.

Granted, our family is only a couple of generations out of the Old Order Amish.

I can't remember whether it was my grandfather or my great-grandfather decided he had enough and left.

So, we just get off the farm, *finally* sell the farm a couple of years ago (as a farm...not for real development there to develop), and then industrial civilization collapses, and we end up back on the farm.


2/9/13, 8:21 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Sgage, it was quite a while ago for me, too!

Mark, thanks for the link!

Joel, one metric you can use that sidesteps those issues is the number of people employed in public education, including all government agencies supervising it, divided by the number of children in the schools. Not too hard to look that up, and compare the figure in 2013 to that in 1913.

Joseph, yes, I've seen that as well. It's one of the functions of the "send the unemployed to college" programs that have put so many people permanently in debt in recent years.

Brother K., my experience with teachers is that a lot of them work very hard to do their job; it's hardly their fault that the system and society are stacked against them.

Janedotx, er, what you do or don't find incredibly hard to believe is not exactly a measure of what's real. You might follow the links that have been provided by readers here, read some of the school textbooks used in one-room schoolhouses, and compare them to what's on offer today, for a slightly more informed take.

Jeffrey, that's a good comparison. The question that doesn't get asked often enough, when something is labeled as "efficient," is "efficient at what?" Nothing is efficient for all purposes, after all, and what that tomato is efficient at is, of course, making large corporations money -- and nothing else.

Cherokee, an excellent rant!

Jason, it's still in process. Yes, the hexagrams of the I Ching can be used to represent the states of any system -- that's what the I Ching does, after all

Ian, that's basically what I've heard as well. If the only skill a school teaches is how to pass multiple choice tests, that's going to leave a lot of deficiencies.

Juhana, I wonder to what extent the unwritten codes of a society also function as a commons.

2/9/13, 9:09 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Loch Wade, I'm glad to see that you have the courage of your convictions, and are willing to put a date on your predictions. Tell me this: five years from now, when none of those things have happened -- and they won't -- will you admit that you were wrong, and start preparing for the future we're actually going to get?

Adrian, that's exactly my point. Remember also that Britain is the size of a US state, and so everything is on a much smaller scale anyway.

Frank, many thanks for the story! That's what happened to a lot of America's rural schools, too, and the results were not good.

Marxmarv, the various denunciations of "American exceptionalism" too often skirt the fact that in crucial ways, the US doesn't behave like Europe, and assumptions based on European models work very poorly here. I was talking about one such way.

El Emer, sorry, I know better than to play that game. If you're an amateur historian, you can do your own research.

Cherokee, that's a very good point.

Bill, it's exactly the freedom to have such experimental schools that I'd like to see more widely available. Some of them will surely flop; others will provide a decent education; still others will excel -- and those that excel will become models for the future.

Unknown, as I said, there are many factors involved. I'd suggest, though, that too much TV plus bad schooling will produce worse results than too much TV plus good schooling.

Jennifer, "blame the parents and hurl abuse at the other party" has been a standard response to the failure of the education system for decades now, and you'll notice how much good it's done. Do you really think another round of it will have better results?

Raven, thanks for the link.

Laney, of course the parents also have a massive role. Not all parents have the resources or the time to do as you've done, of course -- which is why we have public schools in the first place!

JP, think of it as a brief vacation from the normal realities of human existence.

2/9/13, 9:22 AM

Lord of the Barnyard said...
Bill, it's exactly the freedom to have such experimental schools that I'd like to see more widely available. Some of them will surely flop; others will provide a decent education; still others will excel -- and those that excel will become models for the future.

If this is true, why didn't the past successful ones become models for now? Or would this only happen in a de-centralized educational setting?

I think Georgi has a very valid point, the centralization didn't create the entirety of the problems of our current education system. Only some of what is bad can be linked to how the centralized process is now working. The way it works (while keeping the benefits of centralization you so pooh-pooh) can be changed. Probably more easily than some imagined future where it's power has been stripped. (You say inevitable, I say potato.)

2/9/13, 11:21 AM

Joel Caris said...

Bringing the educational system in this country back to the local level strikes me as the bet way forward, as well. It's funny, seeing some comments here about the horror of leaving schools to teach Creationism. I'm not a believer in Creationism myself---not religious at all, wasn't raised that way---but I'm a little unsympathetic to the idea that we must root our education in scientific materialism. We've largely done that, and how well are we living in the world? Science is a fantastic tool, but I'd be hard pressed to claim we've used it very well as a species.

So would scientific materialism allow us to live better in the world than fundamental Christianity? I have no idea, and I'm a little amazed at how many people seem certain of the answer considering our current realities. Similarly, might other core beliefs arise as the foundation of a future education and culture that helps us to live well in this world? No doubt they will eventually, out of simple necessity.

I've kind of settled into this idea that this desperate focus on which beliefs are correct is extremely unhelpful. What beliefs will help us live well and sustainably in the world? If they do that, than they're worthy. If not, I don't see how they're all that helpful. What is "truth," anyway, and what is it's importance? Again, I think how we live under our assumptions prove the validity of those assumptions far more than whatever we've come to define as objective truth.

I don't know, I guess I just think that the point of us being here isn't to become all-knowing dieties with the entirety of the cosmos figured out, but to be a healthy part of the ecosystem and to take in the joy that comes with that. What beliefs help take us there strikes me as a secondary concern.

2/9/13, 1:07 PM

Joel Caris said...
Hi again, JMG,

One more thing I thought you might like to hear. I finally got to my first Grange meeting on Wednesday. Not a dues-paying member yet, but that will happen soon, and I'll be involved going forward. It was a great experience, and you were a big part of motivating me to get there.

Also possibly of interest to you, we had a reporter from the local paper there that night. He had just been at another Grange meeting, in Tillamook, but this one about restarting the Fairview Grange there, which had been deactivated some odd years ago. There were once 12 active Granges here in Tillamook County, thanks to the dairy industry. That since had dropped down to two, one of which being the Grange I'm going to be joining.

I'm happy to say that over 30 people turned out for the Fairview Grange meeting, and there were 16 confirmed dues-paying members, which means the Grange is going to be restarted, ticking up to three the number of active Grange chapters in the county. A lot of locals were involved in the process of getting Fairview going again, as well as a local nonprofit focused on the food system, Food Roots. Bit by bit, we piece back together the community institutions we'll need on the downslope.

2/9/13, 1:13 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
JMG and Barnyard -- The school I attended is still in existence and thriving. Two of my nieces graduated from it. It has however grown substantially and evolved toward the mainstream, alas. It now has accreditations and such, is much more expensive, and pays its teachers decent living salaries rather than hippie survival stipends. They are under the thumb of State "proficiency standards" and all that crap, but they work hard to keep their core values and ideals (I can guarantee you that there is no "teaching to the test" going on, and as a private school they set their own curriculum). But they have lost a lot of their alternativeness, the student body, though racially more diverse, is probably less diverse socioeconomically and psychologically. It's the 1970s versus the 2010s, same as everywhere more polished, less inventive, more technology, less rough and ready trailblazing.

2/9/13, 4:16 PM

Georgi Marinov said...
@ Joel Caris:

1) We have most definitely not rooted school education in scientific materialism. School prayer was banned only some 50 years ago, and that's just one small thing in the bigger scheme of things. Education does not happen entirely in schools, quite the opposite, what happens at home is a lot more important and when the majority of the population holds creationist beliefs of one from or the other, that they teach a watered down version of evolution in schools is largely irrelevant. Also note that while schools in the US are not allowed to promote religion (a rule that in practice is very often violated), they are also not allowed to attack religion (which never really happens anyway). It's not much better in the rest of the world - there is no need to discuss Muslim countries, but even the formerly communist states, one of which I come from, where atheism was nominally the official state doctrine, were doing a horrible job at promoting a scientific worldview. Because it is not sufficient to say "There is no God", you have to also develop critical thinking skills and that was never even attempted.

2) If we are to live in anything remotely approaching a sustainable way, people need to understand where humans fit in the ecosystems of the planet and how those ecosystems work. My guess is that JMG will argue that you don't need science do achieve that understanding and that druid wizardry, etc., have already provided it before science even appeared. I strongly disagree - you may get an intuitive feel of the connections between the parts of the ecosystem on the local level in such a way, but not the kind of understanding we currently have about how the world as a whole works, and even on the local level, we know better. And that is a result of scientific research.

3) It very much matters what people believe. I find it hard to understand how anyone can think the words "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it" have absolutely nothing to do with the current mess we're in. The fact is, creationist beliefs, whether of the Christian or Muslim kind are in practice incompatible with a sustainable, steady state society. They are not incompatible in principle, if the relevant passages of the books are ignored, but that's the reality of the mindset of the people holding such beliefs at present. If such beliefs are not thoroughly eradicated from the face of the planet, the predictable will happen - due to their numeric superiority, and the strength and conviction those beliefs give them, those people will overrun everyone else and that will be the end of whatever small pockets of transition, localization, etc. movements trying to change people's way of life in the right direction. Finally, it is always preferable that people do not hold demonstrably false beliefs, and there is not a single religion out there, which is not demonstrably false.

2/9/13, 5:27 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
So today, here in Rhode Island, we woke up to about 2.5 feet of new-fallen heavy snow. Our block of fourteen houses has six families with 9 preschoolers among them, two slightly older childless couples, three much older couples with grown children out of state.

By about 11:00am almost all the men and some of the women were out on the street taking turns using a snow-blower that one family owns, and plying their snow shovels where the snow-blower couldn't go. The preschoolers thought all the snow was marvelous fun, and spent as much time as they could out among the snow-shovelers; this brought their mothers out, too, to watch them play. One mother went back in and baked a large plate of chocolate-chip chocolate cookies for all. Later my wife and I invited everyone in to sit around out wood-stove and enjoy more cookies, some hot chocolate, and also very high-quality sipping rum (with or without ginger beer) for the grown-ups who wanted some. A good time was had by all, all day long.

The reason for telling this story here is that no one organized or planned any of this in advance. It just came about spontaneously, as have other such shared jobs of work on our block in the past. Nor was there any particular ideology that we all share, or any sense of stern duty.

What we share, instead, is as simple as a single block of an ordinary city street. Most of the young families moved into our about the same time (within a three-year period) as older homeowners died or moved into assisted living. Our neighborhood works -- such things happen of themselves here -- simply because we all have gotten to know one another and we all happen to like one another. We *like* doing things with one another. Also, common interests draw us into shared tasks, for example planting young trees up and down the block.

We have also all shared our email addresses with one another, so it's easy to talk together on line.

The most important factor of all, I think, is that the preschoolers all like one another a lot, and they play together in a sort of loose pack whenever they can. This shared play binds their families together.

Individuals can and do make a difference, of course, in a neighborhood, but in our neighborhood they do so only by very small-scale acts.

For example, the family that owns the snow-blower let it be known that anyone on the block could borrow it. A couple of years ago the husband (who is in his 60s) dug the whole sidewalk out on both sides. Running that big noisy machine looked like a lot fun to some of the younger fathers that day, so they asked him if they could have a turn at the controls, and it just took off from there.

The young mother who baked cookies today did it just because she felt like doing something for her neighbors who dug the whole block out. We made hot chocolate and had a fire in our wood stove simply because we like to see our neighbors come and visit, and this was as good an excuse as any. And so forth . . .

I think this sort of thing works better and more smoothly than any planned neighborhood organization.

Some of it is luck: we all happen to get along, and there are enough preschoolers to form a pack. But it's also true that one makes one's luck as one goes along: subtle pushes, just the right amount of force at just the right time and place set the wheel to turning far more smoothly than brute force ever can. And that is where small acts by individual neighbors make all the difference.

It is very clear by now that if serious trouble ever comes our way, we will all be looking out for one another. We didn't plan to at the beginning. It just came about, and it is all the stronger for not having been planned.

2/9/13, 5:31 PM

Brother Kornhoer said...
A couple of more points: First, I did a little research to answer my own question up thread after no one else volunteered, and after looking here:

it looks like yes indeed, a higher percentage of the population has been completing high school and going to college as time goes on. Importantly, this appears to be both due to the inclusion of more groups (women and minorities) as well as more people within each group. So my idea that lowered standards and achievement might have something to do with this broadening of the student population passes this first test, at least.

Second, for those of you worried about Johnny and Jane learning Creation-ism and intelligent design instead of geology and evolution, realize that a lot of those Johnnies and Janes already suffer that fate in private church-sponsored schools or through homeschooling.

2/9/13, 8:01 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Thanks. Ah, well, yeah the rant does provide a bit of catharsis too.

This is probably a bit necessary at the moment because things are in a bit of a state of flux here at the moment. The reason for this is because of a fire in the western end of the mountain range. Not good. I had to lock down the fire shutters yesterday and abandon ship (returning this morning). Fortunately the authorities threw a lot of resources (fire trucks and water bombing helicopters) at it yesterday, last night and today and the fire is reported as being contained. Still, I am uneasy in spirit.

If anyone is interested, I posted some low res pictures I took yesterday here:

Fire photos

Regards all


2/9/13, 8:28 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

I'm just asking out of curiosity, but with national examination standards in place in the US, do the universities now (or continue to) require the students to sit further entrance exams before being offered a place at that institution?

I would think that if such entrance exams were taking place, then that would be a vote of no confidence in the system.


2/9/13, 10:44 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Georgi,

Quote: "I find it hard to understand how anyone can think the words "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it" have absolutely nothing to do with the current mess we're in."

I certainly hope that you are not both making this observation and contributing to the problem at the same time? If statements like yours are going to be made, it is probably important that the individual walks the talk, otherwise the observation is less than meaningless.

Quote: "If we are to live in anything remotely approaching a sustainable way, people need to understand where humans fit in the ecosystems of the planet and how those ecosystems work."

I'm pretty certain that science cannot fully explain the ecosystem activities in a cubic metre of top soil. It is an inherently complex system with countless lifeforms and defies complete explanation. Yet despite this lack in our knowledge we are able to utilise this soil and both enhance and reduce the activities of those lifeforms within it.

Amassing further knowledge is not an answer to your observation and is probably yet another distraction for humanity.



2/9/13, 11:03 PM

arcticgnome101 said...
I come from a family positively riddled with teachers and other professionals whose careers are entwined with the modern education system. Every last one of them have had the exact same things to say about the state of our nation's schools for the last ten years or more. It gives me great personal pleasure to hear even a somewhat compartmentalized national authority speak out on this issue. I believe that if more people are made painfully aware of these problems and their impending consequences, then the likelihood of total system failure will decrease. Thank you, Archdruid, for setting down so precisely, and with your customarily dry but elegant humor, the facts surrounding one of the many parasites our civilization has created for itself.

2/9/13, 11:45 PM

Joel Caris said...
Hi Georgi,

Have you read Wendell Berry? He's a Christian, and he's made some very beautiful arguments for sustainability and proper living in the world that are rooted in that religion. "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it" does not have to be taken literally. The Bible does not have to be taken literally. Throughout human history, a variety of religions have been used in bad and good ways, much as scientific materialism has been used in bad and good ways. It can become understood in a distorted way that leads to destructive behavior and it can be understood in holistic ways that lead to good behavior.

There have been cultures in the past that have lived relatively sustainably on the earth without scientific materialism. And we have had cultures since the advent of scientific materialism that live unsustainably. That doesn't tells me that it's impossible to live sustainably under scientific materialism or that it's impossible to live unsustainably under any other religion, but it's quite clear that unsustainable living can happen under scientific materialism and sustainable living can happen outside of scientific materialism.

I'm interested in theory, sure, but I'm a bit more interested in what we've seen through actual application. So far, I haven't been impressed with the societies that have developed under scientific materialism. And it seems that some more impressive societies have developed outside of that paradigm. That tells me that scientific materialism isn't a panacea--and that, indeed, we have yet to be provided any evidence that it works at all in creating sustainable societies. Again, that doesn't mean that I think it can't work, but I'm more impressed by actual proof. And again, I actually think the scientific process is a fantastic tool, but I don't think we've put it anywhere close to the best use.

In short, I'm not convinced by your certainty that it's the only way we can live sustainably in the world, and I honestly don't know why you think that. I'm sure this doesn't change your mind, but there you go.

2/10/13, 12:51 AM

Juhana said...
@JMG: That was exactly my point. I believe those people who have invested strongly to somekind earthly ideological worldview tend to operate strictly on conscious level of human mind. They write fancy articles and blather endlessly about some fairytale societal constructs, that will never materialize. And if they do materialize, they are without exception monstrous regimes destined to fail from day one.

That is because academic intellectuals are unable to see unwritten rules between human beings; those organically growing codes of communities produced by historical, natural development. When progressive liberals come into picture and brush all those unwritten rules to trashcan, crudely implementing ideological wishful thinking, totally alien to local community, result is ALWAYS pure disaster.

Look North Africa. Look old Soviet bloc (not liberals there, but communist progressive daydreamers). Look state of family and societal ties in Western societies. In all these places, progressives have come to house and put to practice their fantasies about gender roles, multiculturalism and harmonious globalism. After that, everything either starts to burn or decay.

Decay or burn until some system actually workable in real world replaces deranged dreams of ideological invasion. This is happening right now in North Africa, where "islamists" (=local conservatives) are harvesting the fruits of color revolutions. This should be done everywhere: local community with it's members and their codes of conduct should be praised and elevated. Internationalist nightmares of current elites should be dismissed. Just stop watching establishment news and start working with your immediate neighbors and friends.

My point is, this state of things where elites from center can project by force some ideological conditions upon population is thing build by excessive amounts of energy. It is ultimate use of coercive violence seen in history of mankind, even reaching inside families. Family life has never before modern era been politicized, but now it has happened. What happens between husband and wife and children has never before been regulated by some heartless bureaucracy. Community expectations and pressure from peers has set boundaries to what is acceptable. Family organization in core Western countries is in state of utter decay, and people see some clumsy and unresponsive bureaucracy as "head of the family", ultimately setting rules for conduct and serving dough. What a perverse and unnatural situation this is; no wonder Western countries are sliding down to chaos, weakness and poverty. When this brute coercive force, made possible by leviathan amounts of cheap energy, goes away central power reverts to its original role. It becomes once more racketeering syndicate, which has right to tax and keep an army. No more, no less. That is how things were done before modern era: center had no responsibility nor ability to modify codes of conduct for remote subjects, and everyone outside capital was remote subject. People were organized around one and only natural model for agricultural society, patriarchal extended family. That is how things are working even today in Central Asian Steppe and generally in areas beyond Transoxania. If you don't believe this, go there and work there for a while with locals. I did.

Concerning this "scientific materialism" conversation raging in this blog: you guys have not even remotest understanding about true nature or function of religions. Like many mathematically gifted persons who have absolutely no eye for more delicate adjustments of society, you got it all wrong. Future looming ahead mankind right now, based on facts about our energy supplies, is not going to be responsive for your ideas. Those ideas by the way are almost directly copied from 50's scientific masturbation fantasies about neat, clean and very rational future. Unfortunately for you, history of mankind has never been any of those things, and shall be even less in the immediate future. But good luck anyway.

2/10/13, 2:19 AM

Richard Larson said...
More news on the military front, be forewarned, this is a link directly to the USNavy:

2/10/13, 4:28 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Georgi --

The statement "There is no god" is not a scientific principle, it is a belief. It is untestable. Any "god-like entity" could always work entirely through natural processes, taking advantage of probability and coincidence to manifest its effects. Or it could work through unquantifiable phenomena, such as thoughts and insights. You may find these statements absurd or offensive, but you cannot test or falsify them. Hence they fall outside the jurisdiction of science.

You also say, "... there is not a single religion out there, which is not demonstrably false." Really? You are familiar with every single religion that exists and has ever existed, and can demonstrate the falsity of each one? More importantly, you are familiar with each of these religions in the manner in which its practitioners believe, feel, and experience it themselves, not simply in the manner that an outsider with no cultural frame of reference would describe it? Your statement is absurd as a "scientific" claim.

You are not promoting science, you are asserting your own religious beliefs of Materialistic Atheism. Keep these arguments in religion class and out of science class. They serve to contaminate and corrupt scientific inquiry, they do not advance it.

2/10/13, 5:12 AM

Unknown said...
Tom A
I think the discussion of education and need for change overlooks a crucial aspect, the rate of change we expect. Industrialism and the access to cheap energy have promoted very rapid change in modern culture. It has also allowed and encouraged the expectation of such rapid change. The problem with modern education is we expect rapid change. Education of humans takes the better part of 20 years. Once a direction is set the effect from that change in direction takes several rounds of training or 40 years to see the results. By expecting rapid change in a process that inherently takes 20 years to produce a result just creates screwed up outcomes that cannot be compared to anything. For education to work it needs stability in process for fairly long periods of time to see what the change brings. Imagining that we can through scientific knowledge know what the results will be sooner is hubris.

2/10/13, 8:14 AM

Ray Wharton said...
For the past month 'The Center Cannot Hold' has been my remark of choice in conversations on the unsustainable. Many of the people I have been talking with seem to have a vague notion that "they" have to make up their minds in order for something to change, I don't know who "they" are but I know that "they" would never allow social security to collapse, the American Empire to stop, or the rich to loose any serious amount of wealth. "They" must be gods. But whatever they are it doesn't change the face that the center cannot hold.

It is a dangerous thing to even get me started on the topic of education! I was blessed to go to an alternative school in Grand Junction Colorado for High School, its is amazing how good of an education one can get in two days a week sitting on couches arguing about the relative influence of Blue Oyster Cult and The Pixies, arguing theology, economics, just war theory, and whatever other topic the student body used as a distraction to avoid thinking about the silver file cabinet and its contents of the State of Colorado curriculum we were intended to be studying. Good education, compared to the standards of today, seemed to me shamefully easy to facilitate.

Seeing some of my friends who mostly ran on grain alcohol during their high school years (the school had many students of last resort kicked out of the rest of the schools in the area already) finally decide they wanted a degree sit down and crank out three semesters of school work in two months; all to a standard of quality that I came to miss when I was grading undergraduate papers during my college years; made me realize how pathetic the standards are. The particular friends I have in mind are not defined in my mind as being especially bright or driven, but they were able to learn the paint by numbers State required part of our curriculum with just a little bit of effort, and demonstrate mastery in short order. As a fellow student I sat in on their demonstrations of mastery to grade them, in high school I wasn't always impressed with the quality, but by college I came to realize just how amazing it had been. My college peers who lacked a good couch in high school where they could argue about god, the world, and culture couldn't think their way out of a paper bag, in comparison.

The culture, especially the way technology infests it is not always the best thing for educations, though the person of discerning taste can sample good stuff through technology (this fine blog for example) to even suggest that there is such a thing as 'taste' beyond the context of sugary breakfast cereals is nearly taboo at this point. Technology deserves a lot of blame, but many people need not be so stunted by it if they were taught a healthier relationship to is.

A general failure of our culture to pass down old value through an era of very rapid and static filled mutation in our mimetic systems makes comparisons between education of the past and present difficult. The readings of the early 20th century classrooms were far more developed prose than the perpetually 4th grade reading level of the modern world, but in defense of bad education written English itself has simplified over that, as the poorly educated are encouraged to pump out books and books on any minutia worth a 15 minute skimming of fame. The devil might advocate "teach them advanced reading? So they can read what? Nothing 'new' is so hard and awkward to read as the 'over stuffed' writings of the past." Basically, our culture doesn't have a general sense of taste, and with out taste one cannot distinguish the good fruit from the bad, and therefore also the trees.

2/10/13, 8:33 AM

Ray Wharton said...

I am of the current opinion that people who have some personal investment in the matter and are willing to work have to start finding, gathering, teachers and the curious. We have to make for ourselves an education today that is worth looking back on as an inspiration for the systems of the long tomorrow. I am working very hard to become educated in the ways that will matter.

@Bill Pulliam: I want to pick your brain about the school you went to, I am trying to gather educators in my area, and some inspirational material from a long running experiment in alternative education would be very very good for my project.

2/10/13, 8:34 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Barnyard, did you read my post? If you did, did you somehow skip the place where I said that many factors had come together to create the current mess? Honestly, I sometimes think that I should spend more of my time teaching reading comprehension!

Joel, good. I've come to think that the obsession with trying to keep other people from having "the wrong beliefs" is among the least helpful of modern habits. Congrats on the revival of the local Grange, also!

Bill, it's the old story of the routinization of charisma. Another good reason to have plenty of room for new ventures!

Robert, that's heartening to hear. I hope the aftermath of the storm isn't too difficult for you and yours.

Brother K., that's worth knowing. Thanks for looking it up.

Cherokee, I hope that they get the fire under control quickly! That's got to be unwelcome in the extreme. As for college exams, you bet there are -- more multiple choice tests, of course.

Gnome, thank you for the confirmation! My father and stepmother are retired teachers, and their experiences are part of what fed into this discussion.

Juhana, you might want to specify which "you guys" you're addressing here, as some of us have a very clear idea of the functions and workings of religion!

Richard, fascinating. The unraveling of a superpower is an intriguing thing to watch.

Ray, any kind of meaningful response to the points you've raised -- most of which, for what it's worth, I agree with -- would take not a post, but a whole series of posts. It's already in the works.

2/10/13, 8:52 AM

John Michael Greer said...
El Emer (offlist), yes, I figured your response would be a spluttering tirade. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Georgi (offlist), enough. This is not the forum for you to rehash the standard atheist misunderstandings of religion for the umpteen-millionth time. Furthermore, you've been a commenter on this blog long enough to know that your little jab about my supposed opinions concerning science isn't even remotely accurate. You're entitled to believe whatever you want to believe, but so are all the other commenters on this blog, and yelling ever more loudly that everyone who disagrees with you is wrong is not a useful contribution to the discussion.

More generally, I'm going to ask that debate over the truth or falsity of religion go somewhere else. I have yet to see an online discussion of that topic that didn't very quickly degenerate into people flinging sound bites at each other. Any further posts attempting to rehash it will be deleted.

2/10/13, 8:59 AM

Juhana said...
With "you guys" I meant only those persons who call religion(s) false and propagate against them, i. e. militant atheists. No comparison of different religions involved there. Insulting some community's religious/cultural feelings is probably easiest way to bring any kind of compromising negotiations to grinding halt, and bring out the guns instead. Western, humanistic worlview has many elements upon which people from various backgrounds can agree. By binding their opinions to deeply inflexible framework of scientific materialism and more extreme forms of modern liberalist thinking, current breed of Western inteligentsia is just alienating about everyone outside their own, hermetically sealed circle. And after seeing persons from WIDELY differing backgrounds I can say this for sure: modern academic liberal from Western bloc is in many ways very, very extreme in his/her own worldview.

Huge majority of mankind lives a life totally apart from deconstructionist cultural ideas and agressive brand of modern feminism, to name a few of those extremities.

Deepness of this divide is a shame, because there ARE many elements worth preserving in (classical) liberal thinking; but the package as it is sold today shall never, ever be accepted by majority of people even in Western countries themselves.

I can understand deep suspicion and resentment felt by those folks belonging to American "religious right"; from what I have read, the other side of culture wars has done about everything to alienate them as far as possible. Still co-operation and lending a hand for a fellow man are most important things in any environment, poor or rich in resources. And all that intelligentsia of West is doing right now is breeding even deeper divide and hatred. How I could respect them anymore..?

2/10/13, 10:09 AM

Robert Mathiesen said...
Thank you, John Michael. We are all fine here. Life feels good while one is rising to a challenge, and the feeling lasts for several days afterward.

Even I, who am 70 and have led a sedentary academic's life, was able to do some of the snow shoveling. It seemed important to do my part for the neighbors, however small my part might be. This counts as applying small amounts of force at the right time and place to keep the wheel turning smoothly.

The trick of snow shoveling for a man of my age and condition is do it like a tortoise moves: very, very slow, but steady. I do two or three small shovelfuls in the course of two or three minutes, then rest three or four minutes, then do two or three more small shovelfuls, then rest again, and so on for an hour or two of shoveling. Then it's time for a longer rest inside, even if I've only done, say, 15 feet of the walkway in all that time. It all gets done eventually. Also, I make a point of paying attention to my heart rate and other indicators as I work, and take longer rests whenever I notice any small change. (None of this macho competition with the younger men for old men like me! That's a fool's game.)

Another commenter mentioned how the generations before us had much more strength and stamina. As times get harder and you need to do more physical labor, your strength and stamina will slowly increase of themselves. Even at my age I find I can slowly build up somewhat more strength and stamina whenever I need to do some physical labor for several days in a row (splitting firewood, shoveling snow, etc.). It all comes back very, very much more slowly than when I was 30, but most of it comes back eventually. (Also, it goes away more quickly when the labor is over.)

People younger than I am will surely be able to build up the strength and stamina they need for a crisis if only the crisis takes a few years to really hit hard. So don't worry about that too much. With time and enough hard work, you'll become as strong and tough as most people were three or four generations ago.

2/10/13, 11:55 AM

Juhana said...
...Just continuing my previous comment. JMG, you wanted me to confirm who I meant with term "you guys". This left me little bit confused, because of course I can't suspect you or many others commenters of this blog about atheism. For me you are minister of your religion. That religion is different from mine, but you are still a priest for me. As you are priest of minority religion, which means being under a threat of persecution on long run, I am convinced you must have deep personal conviction and religious experience behind what you are doing.

Here protestants have been persecuting Eastern Church during periods of history, and vice versa. So I have family stories about courage it takes to represent minority religion as its spokesman during hard times.

At the same time I have to clarify whom I am talking about when I talk about "intelligentsia" in negative way. Of course it is wonderful thing when person knows a lot about his/her field of expertise. Thumbs up for it. But it takes also humility to be wise. I have confronted many times this distinct personality type: cocktail of academic background, essentially materialistic worldview and so zealous belief in confusing "progressive" ideals that person himself doesn't even understand it is ideological view, not truth per se. From what I have understood, "progressiveness" means for this type of person essentially more personal freedoms for everybody and less structure and rules in society and communities. They seem to be unable to notice obvious downsides of losing societal structures, which bind us humans together in form of trust towards others and form natural safety net against hard times. More often than not this kind of person is very arrogant toward people outside his class and blind when it comes noticing things outside his/her chosen mental framework.

No religious person can belong to this "intelligentsia". Religion is by its very nature communal thing, something you share with others. So being a priest and belonging to intelligentsia (which is phatic and negative term for me) is impossible situation.

So have I misunderstood something? Is some element lost in translation for me? Was the form of my sentence such that I was blaming every commenter of this blog about arrogant behavior towards religion? English is difficult language indeed.

2/10/13, 1:06 PM

Lord of the Barnyard said...
Very few people will disagree that a) the American public education system is flawed and producing underwhelming results b) federal policies including No Child have made things worse rather than better.

I disagree that policies such as No Child are the inevitable result of a top-down system. (Georgi's initial salient point - “It need not be terribly governed.”) You can even see the use of a “few” national level education rules/guidelines/etc. I think I part ways in that I can see “a few more.”

One would be the science aspect that Georgi also brought up – no it's not fact, it's the collective best of what we can not disprove so far. But its does exclude young earther nonesense and homeopathy.
Slightly further down that line would be perhaps basic critical reasoning lessons . . . honestly, I don't know where I would go to set up what would be expected, I'm just pulling this off the top of my head.

Yes, I am saying that I do distrust each individual commons to produce what I would consider even a baseline for a basic education, without some structure. I think there's some merit in the “let some fail, let some excel” format (in the right setting) – but I don't think I'm ready to let some kids be those losers in a bad education to make that point (not the right setting).

2/10/13, 3:18 PM

Joseph Nemeth said...
There's an interesting issue in discussion of public education. Everyone agrees the system is terrible, and getting worse. All the focus is on causal explanations for this, and potential fixes to eliminate the causes: bad teachers, uninvolved parents, video games, centralization, NCLB, etc.

In keeping with the whole arc of this blog, I don't think that's the problem at all. The real problem is teleological. Education is irrelevant to the future the students face, and they know this better than their parents and teachers do. They FEEL it.

Consider that the first public education in the US took place in an environment where many people could not read or write, and few could do more than simple sums. An education -- readin', writin', and 'rithmetic -- provided a wealth of immediate personal benefits. You could read the simple contracts you were asked to sign. You could sign your own name, and write your own basic legal documents, like promissory notes or a last will. Basic math skills opened up the world of running your own business and keeping track of costs and profits. Schooling allowed you to run your own life in a way that put you ahead of your peers in a very direct and practical way.

The problem with modern schools is the students themselves, and their problem is teleological, not moral. They don't see the point to the education they are getting. My kids certainly didn't, and they and their peers complained endlessly about it.

There is still a niche for the high achievers, but for any student below the top tenth or twentieth percentile, the idea of bettering yourself -- or your practical circumstances -- through education isn't obviously true, and probably isn't true at all. What good does literacy do in a world where everyone is literate, and most legal documents are so convoluted that even the lawyers require specialty knowledge? What good do basic math skills do in a world that requires a certified accountant to do your business taxes (or sometimes, your personal taxes)?

I'm going to guess that a modern child doesn't actually need anything higher than a third-grade education.

I would take as the dividing line the point in school where the bulk of students lose motivation. That's the point at which they are mature enough to realize the education they are getting isn't going to help them.

If they had meaningful work to do, they'd drop out and do it. But there is no meaningful work. So they stay in school, but there's no point to the schooling for them. It's marking time.

If there is any truth to this insight, there is no possibility of fixing the schools without first providing some reason to have an education, and then changing the system to provide that education, and not some other education that is no longer relevant.

If we can find that sweet spot, we will not be able to keep the students away with a stick.

2/10/13, 6:23 PM

DeAnander said...
wow, long comment trail, clearly touched several nerves here. the education of our kids, a sensitive topic... a couple of phrases leapt out of the river of text at me...

"the self-correcting mechanisms of science worked in that case, as they usually do...."

one funeral at a time, as the man said.... who was that [quick google cheating] oh yes, Max Planck. thus the self-correcting mechanism can be rather slow. I think Beatrix Potter finally received an official apology from the Royal Society about 54 years after her death, or approximately one generation or a whole lot of funerals :-)

"A large extended family, its members well armed and jealous for the honor of their line is the last and final bastion of freedom."

Hmmm, well, I know of some women and girls in various parts of the world who might disagree with that one....

I'm still thinking about the "basic ground rules" of a democratic but decentralised/devolved federation of states. My feeling is that while a lot of local autarchyy should be tolerated and/or encouraged, there must be *some* (few) fundamental rights or laws... I mean, if all religious/cultural local variants are to be tolerated, do we tolerate FGM? how about child marriages? honour killings? Hrrrm. Where would lines be drawn? Where does a matter of opinion become a human rights issue?

What could we agree on? Murder is wrong? Well, "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." So already we have a potential conflict over religious literalism... sigh. My guess would be that a Constitution for such a democratic federation might deny the power of capital punishment at the State level and reserve it for transgressions of Federal laws. If I were writing it, it would also forbid the detainment or captivity of persons -- in other words, if people don't like your local rules and laws then you have to let them walk away, you can't close your borders and keep them prisoner. So... believe whatever you please, practise whatever rituals satisfy you and your gods, but you don't get to kill (or torture) people and you don't get to keep your population captive if they want to leave. Maybe that's about as "rights-oriented" as a Federal hub can afford to get, w/o getting too micromanagerial...

2/10/13, 11:06 PM

DeAnander said...
I'm continuing my train of thought -- with JMG's kindly permission I hope -- as it ran over 4K characters.


Now, stuffing kids' heads with a lot of [what one person would think of as another person's useless or wicked] nonsense gets everyone riled up; there are folks with steam coming out both ears when they consider that the "lefty gummint" is brainwashing little Suzie and Bobby with patently ungodly notions like Evolution, and others who are irate that little Ashley and Justin are being made to pray in the classroom.

Both camps are sure that their (and their kids') rights are being violated. But I am not sure that they aren't both wasting breath and blood pressure. Kids aren't just blobs of Play-Doh.

If people only ever regurgitated, lifelong, what they were taught in school, then we would certainly not be arguing about evolution today, much less doing so using computers and an internet :-) Some percentage of us always question, rebel, think outside whatever box the grups are trying to build around us, turn out to be natural contrarians... and we'll go right on doing that, regardless of the indoctrination process. The guy who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square was, presumably, the product of an Party-approved State school. That might be *why* he stood in front of the tank :-)

It's like the folks who argue that gay parenting (adoptive or otherwise) must inevitably "create" hordes of gay teenagers (and what a dreadful thing that would be eh) -- like all the gay people who are around today had gay parents? Surely most of them were "created" by straight parents :-) they just didn't get stamped out as perfect little cellular replicas.

Same goes for educational systems; force Creationism down kids' throats and Evolution will become a forbidden and fascinating topic; rebel kids will run away and become genetic biologists. Outlaw religion and it'll become cool just by being outlawed; rebel kids will run off and join ashrams or take holy orders. If blue jeans are demonised as a symbol of wicked Western decadence, oh boy, what a hot black-market there will be in blue jeans -- every teenager will long for a pair. And so on. The children of hippies, strangely enough, sometimes become corporate lawyers :-)

My mother always said that it was compulsory Bible school that made her a lifelong atheist :-)

"Your children / are not *your* children / they are the sons and the daughters of Life's longing for itself. / They come through you / yet they are not of you; / though they are with you / they belong not to you. /
You can give them your love but not your thoughts: / they have their own thoughts, they have their own thoughts. / You can house their bodies but not their souls, / for their souls dwell in a place of forever / that you cannot visit, no, not even in your dreams. / You can strive to be like them / but you cannot make them just like you -- / strive to be like them / but you cannot make them just like you." (Sweet Honey In The Rock, too lazy to look up the album)

Aren't most of us on this blog living counterexamples to the idea that schooling shapes and controls a person's mind for the rest of their life? Our crooked timber is not so easily flattened.

2/10/13, 11:19 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Thanks for your thoughts. The fire is still smoking away along the ridge top and will probably be stuck up there for days smouldering away. I'm a little bit nervous about it all. I have a great reverence for nature, but I'm also aware that my thoughts and desires have no bearing one or way or the other in the matter and I worry for the birds, the insects and the animals that share this place.

The presence of university entrance exams doesn't surprise me at all. They are probably also used as a barrier to entry as well given that the universities demand them and then also police them.

The universities here use the threat of entrance exams as leverage against the state and federal governments. It seems effective as a threat, so there must be something in it.

There's another game that gets played over here by the private school system which is worth mentioning. Much ballyhooing is made of the percentage of children that pass the final year of high school exams (year 12 or form 6) for an individual school. This is a particularly treasured statistic for private schools. What goes behind the scenes though is that at the end of year 9, any child that has been assessed as not being able to make the grade scholastically is pretty much invited to leave the institution. Tidy work...



2/11/13, 12:02 AM

laughingbirdfarm said...
Hey JMG,

I seem to be getting into the habit of commenting here!

Education has long been a subject near to my heart. Both my partner and I considered becoming teachers until we understood the full horror of the public school systems. (I was actually a substitute teacher for a few years -I could tell some stories that most people would not believe.)

Anyway, I have been a collector of old textbooks for years. For those that doubt the high-quality of education in previous generations, I have in my possession an 8th grade math textbook from 1914. The math in there is more advanced than what I learned until my second year in college.

Furthermore, the local Amish community near our farm still uses one-room schoolhouses and there kids come out of eighth grade fluent in English and German, with a working knowledge of Latin, math through trigonometry (sometimes calculus) and more geography, history, etc than most high school graduates.

I mentioned last week that I'm reading Toynbee. I'm fairly well-educated by modern standards and I have more knowledge of Latin than 90% of Americans, yet reading these books has shown me just how poor my education has been. He frequently quotes lots of Latin (which I can at least get the gist of), Greek, French, and occasionally a language I can't even identify, and the context is such that he obviously expect his readers to understand all of it.

2/11/13, 5:21 AM

Ing said...
We recently began homeschooling our child and noticed while making the transition that many people could tolerate the idea if we could tell them what curricula we would be using (ie, purchasing). Generally, when explaining that Biology is a purchased curriculum, Algebra 2 and Geometry are from a book (and we just found our slide rules so will be sure to incorporate them!), English and History overlap quite a bit because the reading is from English translations of Greek and Roman classics, and Spanish then Latin the conversations tended to fade into a jumble of words. This was often compounded if the conversation wound around to my credentials, of which there are none. I know that part of myself well that wants someone else to tell me how to do it, and that's what I see in response to our decision. Unfortunately, having someone else, out there, telling us what to do doesn't guarantee success, safety, or even the ability to pin blame should something go terribly wrong. Thankfully, I don't need to be certified as a teacher to be able to facilitate what I believe will be an excellent education for our daughter. However, when I do feel the need for reassurance, I can reflect that I barely have a high school education and have managed quite nicely to craft a life and what she is studying is already far outpacing that and what is on offer in public school.

GHung, I think the lesson to draw from Eliot Wigginton's developing the Foxfire Project contrasted with child molestation is to take what is of value and leave the rest.

2/11/13, 7:20 AM

Shira said...
My family has straddled both schools in a small middle class town in New Jersey and in Nova Scotia, Canada. Although the US education appears to be more centralized , the actual mechanics of the NJ school were largely determined by a handful of activist parents and the school board. Alas,there was more focus on the sports teams and computers than on the basics of reading, mathematics and reasoning. In contrast, the provincial standards and the professional management of the schools in Nova Scotia have resulted in much better general education in English, Math and Social Sciences. The Canadian schools are not perfect; but they provide the basics and seem to leave the child's curiousity and self respect intact. As a result, in Canada my son has found that he is responsible for his own future education and learning. I wonder if the problem is not really centralization vs. decentralization of education; but is really whether the society (local, regional or national) values learning, creativity and education. I suspect that the decline in education in the US has more to do with too much focus on entertainment provided by others and electronics.

2/11/13, 7:53 AM

DeAnander said...
"What good do basic math skills do in a world that requires a certified accountant to do your business taxes (or sometimes, your personal taxes)? "

Oh Nemeth, thank you for phrasing so vividly the "other shoe" that was nagging at my brain while I was writing about kids and schooling. Yes, how do we convince kids that the basic skills of civilisation are worth acquiring when...

you can buy a calculator more cheaply than a sandwich in many cases;
when a "spell checker" robotically (and idiotically) corrects your documents (nonsensically about 10 pct of the time, but people like to believe they work because it's Tomorrowland);
when your Kindle can read aloud to you;
when the most alluring employer left standing is the military and they just want you to play video games?
why learn to write or spell when you grow up speaking the bizarre "txt" patois, communicating in acronyms and telegrams (also rather like the military)?
why learn to garden or cook when food comes in boxes?
why learn to tailor and sew when cheap sweatshop clothing saturates your world?
why learn to read critically, when the media around you are saturated with newspeak and propaganda babble that defy critical reading?
who will value these skills other than some boring old teacher who, him or herself, is just "teaching to the test" and trying to pull down a paycheque and survive to retirement age in a job whose creativity and passion has been leached away into the factory paradigm? how inspiring is that?
why learn to speak foreign languages when you're a citizen of the last great empire, with english-speaking resorts and military bases all over the world?

what's remarkable and wonderful is how many young people *do* manifest that deep human desire for skill and craft, how many of them do pursue a passion and become expert at bike maintenance or app writing, who spend hours of their free time learning to draw and write graphic novels or play the guitar, making little independent movies, etc. they may be emulating some pretty schlocky pop culture products, but they are thirsty and passionate for skill and art. and then there are the "neohippies," at which so many people sneer -- I don't. I love these 20-somethings who are patiently, stubbornly retracing the steps of the Foxfire generation. it's such a shame they have to start over, that 20 years (and counting) of neoliberalism have buried the tradition they are following. but when I see them (they gravitate to our island) with their greenhouses and potato patches and pressure canners and hand made clothes, I think there is some hope for us as a species. some small percentage of us refuse to be deskilled, insist on knowing how to do stuff and make stuff, insist on being, imho, more deeply human. education is not wasted on these.

2/11/13, 11:02 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Our education system is dysfunctional in a similar way to our relationship with nature which is also dysfunctional. I think it may have something to do with the conditioning of individuals in our society to magical messages from a very early age. But it is also driven by the day to day actions and desires of the mass of individuals in society.

How else can we reconcile the belief in infinite growth on a finite planet? What about conditioning to think that extractive industries are actually production? What about not worrying about pollution as it goes somewhere else?

If our society began exercising critical thinking skills, then how would we reconcile the predicaments that we face as a civilisation?

I think that the easiest way to avoid creating these internal tensions in society is to simply ignore them. The education system is such that it keeps people busy and ignores these types of conundrums. It isn't driven by some cabal of controlling individuals either. It is in fact driven by individuals and their day to day choices. In fact, you could say that we are all in it up to our eyeballs!

I thought that this might be worth mentioning because it seems so obvious to me. Our society stinks of magic, for how else can we be so casually cruel to the environment?



2/11/13, 1:48 PM

ganv said...
It is a delicate balance. The balance between decentralization and regulation of a commons. I totally agree about the need to re-localize education. And your last few posts have given a new viewpoint on how local regulation of commons can work. But other commons like atmospheric pollution can't be localized. And many states in the US really would become less competitive economically if they were allowed to teach their children young earth creationism as they want to. I see your point though, that the best approach is probably to let the bad ideas get implemented on a local scale and let people find out what doesn't work. But we have to remember that this would mean letting the Confederacy go with their slave economy in 1861 and letting the south reject civil rights in the 1960s. Decreasing central control of civil rights and education policy seems like a radical policy, but it may be the only way forward. The need for central control of bad behavior by individuals is deeply rooted in the American left and also in much of the actual practice of the American right (even though their rhetoric usually doesn't match their legislation). But big changes are coming.

2/11/13, 7:15 PM

DeAnander said...

If we were to exercise our critical thinking skills... we'd be afraid, very afraid. Well, at least quite worried and rather depressed.

2/11/13, 8:16 PM

Unknown said...
Joseph Nemeth wrote, “Education is irrelevant to the future the students face, and they know this better than their parents and teachers do.”
I’ve been an educator one way or another for most of my adult life, and I’ve long and increasingly sensed this. “When will I need to know this in the real world?” has been a standard student complaint at least since I was in school, but some young people I know don’t even seem to bother with it. They see and understand that school is about jumping through someone else’s hoops. Many retain a vague notion of education as something important, and they want it for themselves, but they imagine that it must happen in college, because it’s clear that high school is not going to change their lives.
Many are also much more clear-eyed about what their lives are likely to be like than we allow ourselves to be. They’re collecting and interpreting their own data; they know which of their siblings and friends took school seriously and so have their own ideas about how much a high school diploma is worth or what college will do for you.
Still, I have plenty of young people who continue coming to school, even though they don’t intend to do any schoolwork. They come for their own reasons—the school is safe, warm, and has food; there are adults who are genuinely caring; there’s no real trouble to get into here. Those reasons alone may make it much better than the other options. And I’m often reminded of a scene from the (excellent) HBO show The Wire, in which a teacher suddenly realizes that for some of his students, school is merely a safe place to practice manipulating and getting over on people, a crucial skill for their lives on the street, where their real future lies.
My perspective is surely skewed some by my years on the more extreme end of the educational system (big city, concentrated poverty, layers of risk factors). Mine are kids whose families never made it inside the bubble. On the other hand, while my students are on the margins of society, those margins are getting wider all the time. It’s interesting now to hear a much broader section of the new generation responding to school in the same ways young people have for generations here.
In any case (and as Joseph also wrote), what’s missing is a better option. I’m hoping that’s where this series is headed. Right now, the company line in education is “College for All”; one-on-one I can push a young person’s thinking about what they want for themselves and why, but it’s risky to do that on any larger scale.

2/12/13, 1:02 PM

Unknown said...
I mentioned The Wire, and while I sometimes roll my eyes when someone in this forum recommends a TV show or movie, I’ll go ahead and recommend this one. I’m not much of a watcher myself, and this is the one show I do recommend often. That’s because it’s modeled on the Greek tragedies, watches like a novel, and aims to dramatize the life of an American city as the empire ends (that’s really how the writer describes it!). Beginning with working cops and mid-level drug dealers, it adds layers each season—unemployed longshoremen, mayoral candidates, teachers, children, newspapermen; the characters are workaday nobodies trying to survive whichever of those institutions they’ve committed themselves to. I decided to check it out when, within a week of one another, an intellectual-type psychiatrist friend of my father-in-law’s and my just-home-from-prison brother-in-law both told me that they and all their friends watched it religiously.
The fourth season has education as its theme and gives a good treatment to both the state of a city school system and the less formal ways that children learn the things they really need to know.
In case anyone’s interest is piqued, these are a couple interviews with the show’s creators, a long one about the show vision and a short about the education theme, both somewhat relevant to the theme of the blog:

2/12/13, 1:03 PM

valekeeperx said...
(Off topic this week I know, but in keeping with the overall theme of the ADR.)

Looks like the salvage economy has stepped up a notch in Greece. The Associated Press ran an article today (Feb 12) reporting a significant increase in metal and cable thefts in that country. Targets include various infrastructural components including industrial cable, power-line transformers, storm-drain covers, heavy factory doors, mining equipment, abandoned army bridges, and even the 9-year-old light rail system. Apparently, “ravenous” demand in China and India are driving this latest development. The AP also noted that the profile of the budding Greek ruinman has changed from “gypsies and immigrants living on the margins of society to mainstream Greeks who have fallen on hard times.”

Also, did anyone else notice last week that the Virginia House of Delegates adopted a bill to study alternative currencies in case of cyber attacks on, or potential loss of confidence in, financial institutions and the Fed, and to address the apparent irresponsibility of the federal government?

2/12/13, 6:47 PM

Unknown said...
I've always thought the easiest way to "fix" America's schools would to throw out every law governing education and simply allow teachers to do what they're hired to do: teach. Let the teachers elect their own principal and be entirely responsible for what happened there; no school board.

The inability of the system to come up with this alternative (read: fund it) may explain the rise in homeschooling.

2/12/13, 11:43 PM

Apple Jack Creek said...
To Jennifer D Riley, who said: "Nothing stops any parent from augmenting homework with extra assignments."

Sure, the school day is 6 hours. But when I was a single parent with one child in elementary, we got up at 6:30 so he could be at daycare and I could get to work on time ... then by the time I got back from the office and picked him up at after school care and got home it was 6:30 pm. I made us dinner and we ate and while I cleaned up he practiced his reading or did whatever small assignment he had, then there was half an hour to play, have a bath, and hit the sack so we could do it all again the next day.
There are a lot of families who are that busy, just keeping heads above water. I *wanted* to be the one to teach my kid, but who would pay the bills and keep a roof over our heads? There aren't always as many choices as one might like.

And, *more assignments* are not the answer. In the 6 hours my kid is *at* school, I want him learning things that are valuable and useful. Mostly, I am content with the public curriculum here in Alberta - but I'm glad that our lives changed and my kid's been able to school virtually (standard curriculum, not taught by me, basically correspondence school done online, from home) since Junior High. It has neatly sidestepped the cultural 'lessons' I did not want him learning in public school and allowed him to learn time management and self-direction he would not have otherwise caught on to until much later in life, at a much higher cost.
However, the only reason we have had this choice is that my circumstances changed. Were I still the struggling single parent, it wouldn't have been an option.

2/13/13, 10:48 AM

Rita said...
Amen to @Apple Jack Creek. I had three children and subscribed to John Holt's Growing without Schooling Newsletter in early 80s. I went to hear him speak and asked how a single parent could home school. The answer was along the lines of 'you can manage somehow.' Very helpful. I sent my kids to public school, tried to stay involved and so forth. Not ideal, but the best I could do at the time.
I agree with whoever made the argument that kids don't see the point anymore. They are being pushed toward college whether they belong there or not, yet must know of older siblings, cousins and neighbors who have graduated and are now baristas with a burden of student loan. I seethe whenever I hear the college for everyone idea. Such nonsense.

2/13/13, 3:08 PM

Lidia17 said...
Dumbing-Down of the SOTU address:

2/13/13, 8:57 PM

Eso Benjamins said...
First time viewer. I am pleasantly surprised by the many responses.

As to the downsizing of the fleet to one aircraft carrier, I suspect that it is to let al quaida bleed and exhaust itself, then return. The overall strategy remains to surrender our planet to a corporation ruled entity and get the majority of the people dumbed down to a new caste system of Untouchables.

Still, I do not believe the tactic will work, because guns can hold the social fabric together for only so long and only under conditions that favor violence.

As the system comes under increased stress and the centre indeed loses its charisma to hold, a different underlying reality is likely to become visible and credible.

I express my thoughts at

2/21/13, 11:42 AM

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