We don’t need no education! Well, at least not all of us need it and not the education being delivered to us.
Where did the concept of education come from in the first place? Back in the day, if you wanted to become a blacksmith, you go study how to do the actual job with the blacksmith. Today the whole world decided that every kid has to study everything, so every kid is required to spend a decade or more of their lives listening to boring lectures they will never remember, use, or care about. Yes, it’s probably a good idea to learn how to read, count, and write, but a person dreaming to become an astronaut doesn’t need to know why the moose drops his antlers in the winter, remember names of the two rivers around which the ancient Mesopotamia was formed or the year of the French revolution. Google has the answer to these questions in the unlikely event you will ever need it.
We keep on saying that we want to improve our education system and we need more kids to study science. True, it’s hard to find good scientists. But we also need janitors and McDonalds burger flippers. If everyone goes to college, who is going to cook, clean, and cut the grass? Or do we expect people to get degrees in burger flipping and make $100,000 per year? This brings up another subject of course – minimum wage and living wages in general. We complain that low-income people make too little money, but once we pay them more, prices go up (somebody has to pay for the rising cost of doing business, right?), driving up the inflation, or, simply, our own cost of living. When this happens, we first blame the president and elect a new one. Then we complain to our employers that we need an increase to keep up with inflation. Some of us get more money, increasing spending and driving up inflation even higher. As a result, the very guys you tried to help with higher wages are in the same shoes they were before the increase. Money has been devalued and their purchasing power is back to where it was before. So they complain again and the cycle of “aww, poor people” restarts. At the end, no one wins and everyone loses, as savings are eaten by the inflation.
But let’s go back to education. The economy has many sectors and wages and skill requirements differ from sector to sector. Until individual sectors are reinvented by us, we need all of them. If we educate too many people, we will shift the workforce from one sector to another, thereby solving the shortage of people in one sector but creating it in another. Our dance of educating the next generation will create as many problems as it will solve.
But that is only if our effort actually works!
Time and again researchers ranging from Clayton Christiansen and Howard Gardener at Harvard University to Harry Mintzberg at McGill University showed that the education system is simply not effective. At a basic level, people forget 80% of what they learned within an hour of leaving their classroom. This happens because of how our brain works. It’s just not capable of packing so much content in so little time. And that’s not where the problem stops. There are 32 factors that impact our ability to learn, ranging from motivation to the context of our lives, external factors and our learning style. The latter deserves a separate mention. Harvard University scientists identified nine learning styles and showed that each person can possess two or three out of nine. This means that a teacher delivering content using a single style may get blank stares from most of the class. But rather than solving this problem by delivering content using several learning styles, we give these poor kids bad grades, call them “bricks in the wall” and send them to flip burgers. Life is not fair and so our solution isn’t fair either: convince more burger flippers to become scientists. Their learning styles are different, so they will fail, but we created millions of teaching jobs to get there and made the president look good for trying. After all, the president is not judged by the number of scientists he created but by the increase in the number of STEM students during his presidency. Problem solved. Time to open a presidential library.
But let’s suppose we figure out how to get people to actually retain what they’ve learned. Do they really have to? The school program is generic and it probably should be, as we don’t know which academic or career path students will pursue in the future. So we try to help them by teaching chemistry, physics, biology, and math. If you want to tell students about the types of subjects that exist and guide their path or inspire to create the future, it can be a good introductory program, but then we should be receptive to their wants and judge them accordingly. If a person loves biology and hates physics, there is no reason to force physics on them and grade them based on their retention of unwanted, incomprehensible content and compatibility of their learning style with the teacher’s delivery. If you want to introduce them to history so they have some context to political decision making when they vote for the next president, then deliver it in such a way and don’t grade them based on their ability to remember the exact year the US constitution was signed, or, even worse, in which century people started using bronze tools. Students need to understand enough to use this information some day in the future. Irrelevant garbage will be forgotten right after the test or the final exam, so any attempts to teach it are a waste of time and dollars, also resulting in major economic opportunity costs. Take it a step further and consider why people who would make excellent software engineers (and there is a major shortage of them in the market), waste their time inhaling all the other content they will never need. A great program preparing software engineers should teach them how to program, give them insights into computer science, and provide a practical component, like we do in medicine. Yet, our universities force students to learn deep theory of computer science, 80% of which will never be used in practice, don’t give them a practical component, and deliver content that will have little, if any, impact on their engineering careers.
Consider the following: When I was going through a computer science degree in college, I was required to take at least one geography class. I was given a choice: Geography of former Soviet Union (almost 10 years after it broke up) or Human Geography, which talked about human migration in Africa. I also had to write essays to show my skills in literature, study history of feudalism in Europe, take a class in ethics, and take a communications class, where I was given a C for my communications skills because, according to my professor, I have an accent. I didn’t learn to program in college, but I learned that there is a church somewhere in Africa where people jump during service so they can feel that they are closer to God. I also did poorly on my Soviet Union geography because I failed to pinpoint 10 sites on the final exam where in this no-longer-existing country they used to mine coal 50 years before Soviet Union broke apart. Luckily this failure didn’t stop me from becoming a software engineer, a skill I learned completely outside of college.
That being said, I am not suggesting that schools and colleges are mass producers of garbage. There are people who enjoy learning a wide variety of things so they can have intellectual conversations with their friends later in life. In fact, I was brought up in an environment like that. But not every human wants to discuss Belgium while sharing a glass of wine, debate what a poet meant by a cloud taking a nap on the chest of a mountain, or whether Machiavelli had bits of wisdom hidden between his hellish teachings. If people want to become intellectuals, let them do so, just like we let people develop hobbies in music, car collection, fashion, and sex positions. But we shouldn’t force the collection of random facts on those who don’t desire. After all, it wouldn’t be cool to discuss history of the Roman Empire during sex, unless it’s your fetish of course.
Now that we start to wonder how much of education matters, let’s zero in on delivery for a minute. We already said that students won’t remember or understand content if the learning style doesn’t match, but there are other delivery factors that could equally make a negative impact. Reflecting on my own school years, I can count a handful of reasonable teachers but write a book on incompetence of the most. Teachers are human and humans make mistakes. They also grew up in the very environment they teach. They know what they know, they think and behave the way they were brought up, and they have a collection of biases that can only compete with their egos. While some love to teach, others joined the profession because they had no clue what to do with their lives or, even worse, they had a lust for power – you get to tell a group of 30 people what to do and they get to follow. Note how none of the reasons mentioned competency to do the work.
The truth is that many teachers are terrible. The program may be terrible too, and often it is, but forget the program for a moment. I had a Chemistry teacher who enjoyed being a Nazi. She yelled at students nonstop, lied to parents about kids’ performance, came up with false justifications for bad grades, and misrepresented her entire world of students to the community of teachers. Parents’ complaints went nowhere: this teacher won a “teacher of the year” award through the connections she had and had to stay in this school for political reasons. While it sounds like an extreme example, and it probably is, incompetence is king in the world of teachers. My daughter’s teacher asked kids to write an essay about their religious views but warned that they should only write about Christianity or their essay will be viewed as discriminatory against Christians. Another one of her teachers asked kids to self-grade their math homework against the answer key she provided. As one can imagine, kids had no motivation to learn or do homework; all they had to do is copy the answers and give themselves a nice grade. As one of my kids made a simple human error on the test, the teacher immediately suggested that she needs to move down by one grade, as if re-learning what you already learned last year make you less of a human-error-making-machine.
And then there are fun cases. A recent college graduate was looking for a job as an elementary school teacher. A private school hired him and asked him to teach French and physical education. The trouble is that this Wizkid didn’t speak a word of French and had a beer belly too big to demonstrate any physical activity to kids. Of course, he took the job. You can only guess the level of education his kids received.
While education is not completely useless and sometimes adds value to human abilities, the vast amount of usable knowledge people will need in their careers comes from the work environment itself. Medical school may give you great general content, but seeing real live patients is what makes you a doctor. Learning law can provide the legal framework but going to court or communicating with real world clients teaches you the profession. Can you imagine football players becoming good if they take a course on game rules? Of course not! Football players become great by playing football, just like police officers learn by apprehending real suspects or shooting real guns. I’ve interviewed hundreds of software engineers in my life and hired dozens and I’ve never met one that learned to program in college. Similarly, one may view MBAs as great managers, but, as one study pointed out, the top performing CEOs of the most successful companies either have no degrees or they have degrees in engineering, while MBAs produce no more than egos and usually end up dead last.
So why do we need so much education? Because the government said so. Because it makes politicians look good. Of course they don’t know better, but that’s not the point. Someone somewhere decided a long time ago that kids need to spend a decade or more of their lives listening to stuff they don’t care about. The so-called “civilized world” picked it up and now it’s a rule everywhere on our planet and will soon be on Mars, if Elon Musk gets his way.