"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Education, the economy & our (tech) future

Politicians talk about "education" like they're going through a purification ritual. What could be more laudable than talking up education? What could make you more of a saint than advocating for the future of today's youth?
No one is against education and no one wants anything but a sound future for your youth. The platitudes don't really get us anywhere though.
The question always becomes how to feed the education beast. How do we manage this apparatus called "education" that costs a fortune and never seems to let up in its demands? A retiring bureaucrat once said "name one year in the last 20 when we didn't have an education funding crisis."
Given the treasure represented by kids, I suppose there are no limits to what one could spend. But there are limits.
Politicians are supposed to recognize that. Usually they don't unless they're forced.
The Federal government can print money. States cannot.
When I was a kid the Federal Reserve was the dullest subject you could name. We could hardly define it let alone explain what it was doing at any given time. I did have a friend, an amiable big guy of Finnish extraction from Virginia, MN, who was a little scolding about the distance we kept. He said the Federal Reserve could affect our lives more than any other institution.
Our eyes would be a little glassy listening to this. It wasn't until the great bull market reached its peak and started stagnating that people my age started paying attention. We looked to the Fed to keep greasing the skids in some manner.
The Fed chairman, who couldn't have seemed more anonymous when we were young, grew in our eyes to almost have divinity. Alan Greenspan was a wizard, many of us came to think.
It wasn't that we were suddenly intellectually curious. We were looking for an elixir to keep the Dow Jones jogging up. We were fixated on those arrows, green or red, next to the Dow, S&P and Nasdaq numbers on our TV screens.
The stock market had almost come to seem like a function of our TVs. "Analysts" sorted through each day's news to see how it might have affected the market. Fine, but these people had far fewer insights than it might have seemed. That's probably a generous way of putting it.
I remember economics expert Andrew Tobias writing that any reasonably well-read person who bought a morning newspaper and digested some of the CW (conventional wisdom) could seem just as knowledgeable.
You must constantly remind yourselves that the media are a product. It's shaped to get eyeballs. There is craftsmanship associated with it that has nothing to do with dispensing knowledge.
Which gets us back to the subject of education:
We expect schools to work miracles with children when in fact children emerge from school with about the same qualities from one generation to the next. I could invoke Sisyphus but that would be too cynical.
But maybe not, because there was a time when computers were supposed to be some dazzling new resource that would make our kids geniuses. I remember our Morris school superintendent in that seminal time using the word "phenomenal." The impact of computers for education would be phenomenal, he predicted, and I predictably shook my head.
If in fact education was going to make such giant strides, as he predicted - his initials were D.R. - the education establishment would not be able to lobby as effectively for increased funding. There was in fact a vested interest in maintaining a system where success seemed elusive.
How else could advocates for the system keep pleading with the lawmakers who hold the purse strings?
I would argue that computers have already had a phenomenal effect on the world around us. It's a done deal. But they haven't transformed education, yet, because the people who are employed in education need to maintain their primacy.
They pay lip service to computers and the Internet. On a personal level they indulge in this stuff as much as the rest of us. But they won't acknowledge the truly liberating effect of the new communications tech.
To be truly liberated means - I'm not exaggerating - that we don't need college libraries anymore.
Charles Murray has observed this in his book "Real Education." I didn't read the book but I heard him speak at length on C-Span. His book came out before the economic collapse. I suspect his words ring more true now in a time when young people will desperately seek to avoid the high cost of education after high school.
No college libraries? But what are we to do with all the infrastructure we've developed on our college campuses? It will become steadily less needed.
The problem is we cannot ax all these resources immediately. It would be too embarrassing for one thing. Also, too many oxes would be gored where politically there has been a continual feeding process.
The old status quo will be stubborn because there are too many people with vested interests. It will change because of necessity.
But we are just seeing the early stages of the process. The Wisconsin kerfuffle is definitely giving us a preview.
When I was a kid, virtually everyone "on the street" seemed to agree that public school teacher tenure was an excessive privilege. Everyone seemed to think that teachers unions were many-headed hydras with little redeeming quality. But nobody felt anything could really be done about it.
I'm mystified as I look back. The political process exists to serve us. We looked at the ossified aspects of our public education system like they were so much nasty weather, and we all know you can't do anything about the weather. Except that now, slowly, people are realizing that maybe something can be done about it.
Leave it to the Republicans to do the dirty work. Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. No one likes to fire anybody. Republicans will take it on themselves to do some of the draconian things. Democrats never would.
The public opinion polls turn against the Republicans in the short term. This is happening in Wisconsin and some like states right now. But in the long run, no one would actually want to turn back.
The Republicans will be guilty of some excesses. But promoting greater accountability in public education is a long overdue task that they are now rolling up their sleeves with.
In the future we will see much greater transformation. It's just too hard to swallow all at once. We're just starting to see the effects of communications tech on education.
The old model of the performer-teacher in front of the classroom, addressing maybe 25 young people each with a different level of pre-existing knowledge, different pace of learning and different aspirations for the future, will erode.
Young people actually do want knowledge that will help them. They always have. But they don't want to feel insignificant. They don't want to seek "good grades" like they're groveling at someone's feet.
Historically, a lot of the discomfort young people feel about education is due to too much of a "one size fits all" model. The new communications tech allows us to seek and assimilate information on our own terms. It gives meaning to the term "empowerment."
But it can be bad news indeed for people invested in the old system. The old system isn't going to go down without a fight.
But it will go down.
-Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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