08 January 2014

Why modern education isn't

Now open your books, class...

Laurentius_de_Voltolina_001Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

That is a picture of a late 14th century classroom at the University of Bologna.


Image Courtesy: medievalists.net

That is a meeting at the University of Paris in the Middle Ages.

University of Binghamton_newlanding

Image Courtesy: SUNY at Binghamton

And here is a modern counter-part, circa early 21st century, Binghamton, NY.

What made the University in its modern form?


Lack, thereof.

The modern university of having a teacher or professor or doctor or priest sitting in a central position of power and students looking to that individual for wisdom was necessary back in 1350 as moveable type hadn't been invented yet.  Books were scarce, rarely printed, and quite often hand copied.  Thus the best way to disseminate knowledge was to have someone who had time to read lots of books on a subject teach students from a curriculum that was dutifully, or not so dutifully, copied down in the form of notes.  If you had to really know what was in the book you could go to the library and, if you were lucky, they actually had a copy of it available.  Getting to read it was a matter of bureaucracy.

Even with moveable type books were still expensive but at least somewhat available... in the library... to read.

The availability of books for private libraries and at home did take a while to get into gear, and was mostly something for the rich and well off up to the late 19th century to early 20th century, where books were still cherished in poor families.  By the post-WWII era, books were readily available as forms of modern printing and the cost/benefit ratio of long press runs took over, and soon you had salesmen hawking the Encyclopedia Britannica in the new suburban neighborhoods.  It wasn't alone, of course, and the book store, once something that only those with a scholarly or Bohemian lifestyle went to, were soon in strip malls.

Yet the entire educational system still depended on 'experts' to present pre-digested 'material' for students to copy down.  Mind you mass-media was now available and out in semi-rural Western NY, out in pine tree and cow country, our black and white TV got Sunrise Semester where, in the early, pre-dawn hours, one could tune in to a course being presented on TV for that semester and do course-work by mail.



It went nowhere, of course, as those big palaces of learning had political clout, alumni, professors and buildings, all of which needed grease of the monetary variety to function.  And if you didn't like the public schools, well, you just weren't 'modern'.

For that you have to go back to late 15th and early 16th century and Martin Luther who wanted everyone to learn to read so they could read the Bible on their own.  In their own language.  This concept was expanded upon by Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) and the web site dedicated to his contribution gives a list of the things he wanted put in place for what we would call 'Primary Education':

Pestalozzi’s approach has had massive influence on education, for example, his influence, as well as his relevance to education today, is clear in the importance now put on:

  • The interests and needs of the child
  • A child-centred rather than teacher-centred approach to teaching
  • Active rather than passive participation in the learning experience
    The freedom of the child based on his or her natural development balanced with the self-discipline to function well as an individual and in society
  • The child having direct experience of the world and the use of natural objects in teaching
  • The use of the senses in training pupils in observation and judgement
  • Cooperation between the school and the home and between parents and teachers
    The importance of an all-round education – an education of the head, the heart and the hands, but which is led by the heart
  • The use of systemised subjects of instruction, which are also carefully graduated and illustrated
  • Learning which is cross-curricular and includes a varied school life
  • Education which puts emphasis on how things are taught as well as what is taught
  • Authority based on love, not fear
  • Teacher training

Pestalozzi’s influence over the spirit, the methods and the theory of education has continued into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and most of his principles have been assimilated into the modern system of education.

And by 1900 you got schools that look like this...

bpk 20.012.125

Photo Courtesy: GHDI

Oh, wait, that is a factory at AEG in Germany at the turn of last century!  So sorry!


Photo Courtesy: 1900s.uk.org

There you go!  Rank upon rank of students at desks all doing the same tasks... I mean that is so different from an industrial facility, isn't it?  And that is so very different than the University!  I mean, you have... individual desks, no wait, that was there in Bologna... students writing notes on the topic, no wait, they were doing that in Bologna, too.  Hmmm...are we sure the production line wasn't invented in Bologna?

At least today is so different!


Photo Courtesy: LA Childhood Education Examiner

I mean here the students can also push their desks together!  And learn the same thing... at their desks... at the same time...

Growing up with this sort of system, I never realized just how antiquated it was, even while I was just auditing college courses on Sunrise Semester.  When I was 6? 7 perhaps?  Definitely less than 10 years old.  The New Media of that era of the late 1960's to early 1970's was television, a one to many media that should function very well as an immediate replacement for that 14th century institution known as the 'Educational System', with bells and whistles like Kindergarten added in by the Germans.

And yet the US came into the late 19th and early 2oth century with a different sort of teaching environment.


Photo Courtesy: Will County News blog

That is a one room schoolhouse, a place where children of both genders and different ages all learn in the same environment.  By the time of that image in 1938 there was some segregation by age.

One-Room Schoolhouse

Photo Courtesy: education14 blog

Yet a generation prior to that, this was not the case.  That idea of systematized learning also meant segregation not just by subject, but by age, and the requirement for specialized teachers not only by subject but by age range.  The education profession was turning into a reflection of the work environment, to some degree, but was also becoming a sort of guild system which had decided that further employment of its system required further specialization.  And yet the topics involved for reading, writing, math and even basic history, are ones that are amenable to distinction within a heterogeneous but delimited age range, say 6 to 18 years old. 

In a one room schoolhouse such instruction was mandatory due to the variety of ages coming to the school and the limited time to teach a subject.  Thus a subject was taught as a multi-level form of instruction in which basic facts could be provided and expanded upon in a fashion to suit the learning capacities not just by age but by individual.  This gave children a wider exposure to a given subject and a chance to pick up advanced learning at a young age.  Older students get a refresher and some new material, while younger students get more than they can handle so they have to learn just what it is that they will have to handle.  Simultaneously and in different subjects all by one individual leading the students.

That is teaching.

Talking on a single subject and having student writing down notes, that is instruction, and a largely passive affair.  This has been the case since the start of the modern University as seen in places like Bologna and what we have to day is an relic form of institution trapped in the old system that was driven by a lack of ready material in the form of ink printed on paper and bound into codices.

Today the world does not have a problem of ready material availability and, in the advanced post-industrial revolution Nations, a lack of access to them.  Quite the contrary the classical works are now available, by and large, for free via digital means which should be a great boon to education across all of mankind.  Yet the classification by subject and learning level for a cohort of homogeneous age students is not compatible with this ready availability.  Indeed no instructor in any subject, save for a few of the actual hard sciences, can be said to have any idea of the extent of their subject or be so well versed in it as to encompass its modern size. 

It is true that subjects that start in the Ancient Classical period and going through the Reformation, Peace of Westphalia, Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment era of the 19th century are relatively staid historical subjects.  These subjects serve as the basis for all later education in ALL FIELDS from views on religion and morality through what Nations are through economics through the hard sciences and into the requirement of personal ethics that upholds a given moral code and structure for the basis of individual freedom.  And here is the solution to basic education in these areas: record them at multiple current schools, digitize the lectures, hyperlink ideas together via topic, and formulate a program of self-instruction on them by individuals with actual written tests without access to anything but written source materials in hard copy format to demonstrate individual knowledge and fluency on topics.  This would be a self-paced, age independent system so that individuals could learn at the pace they wished to learn at and only if they see a requirement for demonstration of such knowledge need they ever be tested on it.

Getting to 20th century topics would also require such fluency and background, but the educational materials for them would not be limited by any means.  Demonstration of knowledge of the basis for these ideas and how they came to be is a touchstone demonstration of knowledge.  Just as being able to master the tools and concepts of welding, machining, and creation of materials via additive processes, there is a requirement that someone who actually knows how to do these things certifies that a student also knows them so, too, would the requirement for understanding economics, morality, the moral basis for ethics, physics, chemistry, biology, or any other subject useful for a career require the demonstration of being able to think independently without aid of any device save hard copy source material and marginal notes. 

These are mental tools that have direct applicability and requirements of mastery to them which can be tested in an age heterogeneous environment where there is no limit to re-taking such tests (albeit a small fee might be involved) and that could be sent to any three individuals with certified mastery of such knowledge up to that level,  and graded separately.  This would give the person seeking education feedback from three individuals with varying background and insights, and while passing an exam faults and flaws in everything from syntax to logic structure, along with historical accuracy would be given.  For the topical sciences the divorce of the hard sciences from the rest of post-Enlightenment topics would only come at the specialization level after demonstrating a knowledge of the basis for a given topical science and ability to do lab work in them, both held in equal proportion as science is as much about understanding a topic as testing it via lab experimentation.  Thus the basis for the sciences and their connections to the each other and to the world they worked in, historically, would be a major factor in understanding the place of the sciences in everyday life and have a requirement that anyone wishing to understand that place must also understand the method of experimentation and the moral and ethical basis for it.

Such testing isn't just written on many topics, but is also conversational: being able to demonstrate an immediate ability to reason through new topics on the spur of the moment is something we only do at the Graduate School level for individual topics, but are something that form each of us as individuals in our lives.  Being able to hold a discussion on, say, the basis for the Nation and what the function of a State is will vary across periods from Ancient Classical all the way to the modern age, but the groundwork for that reasoning is one that is historical and requires historical knowledge to make an informed decision.  Just as modern understanding of quantum theory rests on electromagnetic theory, and that, in turn, has links forward to relativity and backwards to Newtonian physics, the ability to discuss that as a topic in its modern realm requires a basis of understanding of its history and why the questions we ask today come about.  In attempting to divorce history from our modern lives, to seek to disconnect the modern State from our historical and cultural understanding of it, is a disservice to all men just as trying to disconnect biology and human experimentation from morality and the duty of citizens to practice their ethics on a known moral code in service to their fellow man both lead to ruin of not just Nations and societies, but mass slaughter of individuals.  Without a historical understanding of the present, the future is one of horror.  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but none is fatal.

If we are to take James Burke of Connections fame to heart then the basis for understanding our role as individuals in a complex world is to understand the basis for how our complex world came about.  Education, then, is no longer something limited by age, by class, by gender or by any other category we impose on humanity: it is for everyone at all ages at all times of their lives from the moment that cognitive thought first starts to the last thoughts of those at the end of their lives.  Fluency in the range of topics to address the modern world should have, however, no requirement that people learn them via an enforced educational system that relied on a lack of source material availability to require such things as Universities and, later, schools.  Jobs have requirements to them, and learning the basics of reading, writing, logic, basic four function mathematics, reasoning, syntax, spelling at a fluency and daily use level may have some age determinants in them, but even those can be highly automated via pre-recorded instruction that would serve as the basis for entry to taking further examinations to demonstrate skill and mastery of a topic later.  Many jobs, however, have only the need for basic mastery of material to them and while some might class these jobs as 'low' they are only low in their demonstrated skill requirement: people hauling trash make a good living doing so and those paid a pittance for doing manual labor for farming can still get a good life from doing so.

The entrance to higher capability in any field is a demonstrated ability to master topics and expand mental capacity so as to properly understand how a given area of knowledge fits in with all other areas of knowledge to create a complex web of knowledge that goes back and forth in history.  A concentration in a given topic can go far with just a little auxiliary knowledge in broader topic ranges, right up to the point where you question the morality of research and the ethics of doing certain kinds of research, at which point all those minor entrances into the other topics that allowed for a concentration in a given field must come into play and an individual put in the time and effort to learn what the moral basis for society and freedom are, and what their ethical obligation is to such a society actually is. 

All bureaucrats should have this as part of their essential 'must know' category of knowledge as it is the functionaries of the State that perform acts upon their fellow man and that can, indeed in our era must, contain a full and broad understanding of what society is, where our source of freedom and rights come from and the obligation of the individual in service to the State to not perform acts of immorality upon others as an ethical obligation to themselves, their society, their fellow man and the State they have created.

There is no Royal Road to education.

Our current formulation has run into the 21st century which is now set to sweep away all systems based on limitation of access to materials be they mental or durable goods, and bring a new age of humankind into being based on what we know of ourselves to be as individuals in Nature who are obligated to its laws and as individuals granted access to a moral code that seeks to engender liberty for each man without coercion upon him to think like anyone else.  You cannot get that through the University system, the current education system, or the current systems supporting them which are now failing in this modern era and have been failing ever since the first one-to-many forms of broadcast became available.  Our society upgraded the tools it has to learn but has not applied them for the utility of each individual.  That era is now ending not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up. 

I have already seen schools built in the post-WWII era turned into office space after being sold by their districts.  And I've seen entire cities crumbling because a way of life that was thought to be perpetual was so rooted in place that it required vast amounts of revenue to keep a dead way of life going as a veneer on the physical plant of the city itself.  The answer is not to throw more money into these institutions which have failed in critical ways to adapt and adopt to the 20th century, not to speak of the 19th and 18th century.  They were not even appropriate to the 20th century to say nothing of the 21st.  It is time we change our view of education from the warehousing of pre-teen and teenagers to the development of knowledge and skills that can be demonstrated by each and every individual if that is their desire.  Education must no longer be enclosed by brick walls and attempted to be walled off within our minds to institutions, but opened up as a conception that is held by each of us who are eternally students and, in our turn, practitioners of those things we sought to embed in mere material structures.  That, of course, will shake us all up as to what it means to have a job, when it is appropriate to have a job and how betterment of oneself is in one's own hands and not enforced by a bureaucracy that, in seeking to do 'good', walls us off from the eternal good of self-education and reasoning.

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