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.

The Short Term

Some years back my wife and I attended an informational meeting in a nearby town where the plan was to build a new coal-burning plant to generate electricity. There were many questions following the presentation — which was clearly designed to let people think they were a part of the decision-making process (which we all pretty well knew we weren’t). At one point a farmer asked what would happen to the large area where the plant was to be built after it had run its course and was shut down. The representative from the company smiled paternalistically and noted that his models didn’t allow them to predict what would happen more than, perhaps, five years down the line.

At that point the farmer rejoined that he didn’t need models; if they didn’t build the plant he knew exactly what would become of the land, to wit, it would still be producing corn and beans! He received a well-deserved round of applause and the representative from the company that was proposing the plant was silenced. Silencing a bullshitter is a good thing, which is why the farmer received well-deserved applause. There needs to be more of that sort of thing.

In any event, I have been going on for many years about the value of a broad, liberal education to teach young people how to use their minds rather than to simply learn a trade — or what we now call a “profession.” I noted in a recent post that data show that in the long term young people will make more money if they do at least combine liberal courses in the arts and sciences along with their more “practical” major. I also noted a recent study that shows that increasingly parents encourage their kids to take practical courses of study and avoid the liberal arts as a waste of money. In a word, their parents are focused on the short term.

One of the comments I received was from a mother of several children who is rightly concerned about the high costs of higher education — now leaving young people with huge debts after graduation. They need to find a job and start paying back the loans they required to attend college in the first place. No question. I am not blind to the fact that many colleges now cost more than most families can afford and that debt is the name of the game. But my point in that post was that short-term thinking has become pervasive in this country and it has affected the way we think about such things as education.

The worry about that first job after graduation is understandable, but the notion that one must take a course of study that promises immediate employment (if there is such a thing) ignores the fact that people change jobs several times before reaching their forties and in many cases they must return to college and be retrained for a new job. It also ignores the critical fact, noted above, that the students who take a broader approach to education — at least combining liberal courses with their narrow major field of interest — will make more money in the long run.

But that’s the point: we have lost sight of the “long run” because we have been convinced by the business world — the world of coal-burning plants that generate electricity — that we must focus on the short run. In the business world, of course, this is profit and loss.

But, as I noted previously, business has no business determining the paradigms for education at any level. Indeed, even in business focus on the short term is not always the wisest course of action. We all need to think about the long term effects of decisions we make today. This includes such things as concerns about global warming which is not so long-term as it was a few years ago, and, of course, education where the long term — the young person’s entire life — is at issue.