Spitting Into the Wind

I went back to the first year of my blogging to find this one which shows how great an impact my posts have had on the education establishment! At the time there was one comment, so I thought it might be of interest to a few others. One never knows.

Some years back the local power company was thinking about putting a coal-burning power plant in a town close to ours. They sent a couple of their suits down to placate the locals and reassure them that all would be well. During the question period that followed their presentation a farmer asked them what would become of the numerous acres that would be taken up by the plant and its holding ponds. The spokesman said he didn’t know, they couldn’t project past five years. The farmer responded that if the land were left alone he could predict with some assurance that the land would still be producing corn and beans. One of the wittiest comebacks I have ever witnessed.

It’s an interesting thing, this business model that doesn’t allow us to predict long-term. It’s all about short-term — which translates into profits and losses. The models that the mathematicians come up with cannot work with too many variables, and as the years are added up the variables begin to outnumber the constants. So prediction becomes difficult, if not impossible (just ask the weather prognosticators!) The business model gives us short-term thinking and quantification. The model works, there is no doubt about it: business has brought great wealth to a few and raised the standard of living for many in this country and around the world. It has even provided us with a paradigm of success, for better or worse. But it has its limitations — as suggested above.

It doesn’t encourage long-term thinking and it seeks to reduce all issues to numbers. The model doesn’t work in contexts other than business — say, education. I have even heard presumed educators talking about students as “our clients.” I kid you not. The problem, of course, is that it has in fact been forced on education and has increased the difficulties the schools are having teaching the young. As though there aren’t enough problems already. The notion that schools have to be held accountable and their “product” evaluated on a scale that can be quantified is absurd. But that’s where we have come, because it’s the only model bureaucrats know.

Moreover, the goal of education — which should be to put young people in possession of their own minds — has become reduced to getting a job. As though we could predict today what the jobs will be when the college Freshman graduates. We lie to them when we lead them to believe that the jobs available now will be available four or five years down the road. Here’s where the business model might be applied in a sensible way.  But we forget our inability to predict long-term in the desire to “sell the product,” which is the latest fashion in education finery — culinology (whatever that is), sports science, marketing, or forestry.

The only thing about the future that we know for sure is that it will change, and the only preparation for change we can urge on today’s students is to learn to think, to express themselves, to calculate, and to understand as much as possible of the world around them. The irony here is that the people who can use their minds are the ones who will get the jobs — the goals of education and job preparation are not necessarily antithetical to one another, as long as we get the priorities straight. But if we stress vocationalism and ignore liberal learning (as we have) we place blinders on the students and decrease their ability to adjust to changing circumstances down the road. If the seventeen-year-old focuses exclusively on, say, office management and then discovers at age 36 that the job is boring — or just not there — she is trapped in a straightjacket. If the focus is on breadth of preparation, the student will be ready for anything.

Short-term thinking, quantification, and the notion that it’s all about jobs are antithetical to education properly understood. The business model works in the world of profits and losses; it doesn’t work in the world of health and human development.


7 thoughts on “Spitting Into the Wind

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more, Hugh. I’ve been saying the same for years. I particularly like how you put this: “The goal of education … should be to put young people in possession of their own minds.”

    • Many thanks. I have always thought the Liberal Arts are about putting young people in possession of their own minds — rather than mouthing what their professors and those around them say.

  2. Hugh, good repeat. Higher education built-up to chase the “rat in the snake” and would be suffering a demographic crisis, regardless of what has been happening the past year. The rat in the snake is a visual of the grandchildren of the baby boomers going through the system. Get fannies in seats is the short term thinking. Make things appealing to attract the audience.

    Education, as you define, was not the prime directive. Now, the rat has moved through the snake, and some colleges have closed and others are threatened. Online learning and for-profit education are the draws. Get your degree in two years! Forget being taught how to think. We forget the president had to settle a case for $25 million for Trump University for not teaching the students. It spent far more on marketing (as do most for-profits) than professors.

    If we are not taught how to think, we are easily misled and don’t ask enough why questions. The coal example is a good one. The negatives of the coal industry live on long after the life of a plant. The same goes for the oil industry – everything is hunky dory until the oil dries up or it can be retrieved more cheaply elsewhere. So, more questions are needed.


  3. Dr. Curtler,

    Once again, you have touched upon things close to my heart.

    For a good long while, higher education has played across the spectrum of Enlightenment , on the one end, and Corporatism, on the other. Sadly, the shift toward corporatism in educational goals, organization, and instructional modes is near complete.

    With the shining exceptions of (1) a few very expensive private schools, (2) a few dedicated colleges within larger schools, and (3) a good proportion of honors programs, the ideals and practices of Enlightenment education have come to be regarded as vestigial, occupationally useless, and just too damned expensive.

    Institutions once dedicated to Enlightenment ideals in education — at least on paper — have been taken over by both the ideals and practices of Corporatism. Students are often referred to as “customers.” Departments are assessed on the basis of their “market share” of enrolled students. Faculty are assessed on the basis of “customer satisfaction” surveys. And anyone who dares to speak of the ideals and practices of an education oriented to Enlightenment will be either dismissed out of hand, openly derided as a fool, or both.

    For as long as I can remember, I have had a nearly blind faith in education. Though I was an indifferent student in high school — a disappointing underachiever to many of my teachers — I still maintained that faith. (I am both grateful and fortunate that not all of my teachers lost their faith in me.)

    College reinforced my faith in education for a decade. However, after forty years of college teaching, in one manner or another, and while my faith in education still abides, I have come to have little confidence in schooling, which has become increasingly corporatized at all levels — except for the sons and daughters of the well to do, of course.

    I know I am singing to the choir here, yet the song still stirs the heart.

    Regards, respects, and best wishes to all,

    Jerry Stark

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