Ignorance, Slavery and the Illusion of Education Reform
For Education blog Post
Noam Chomsky was recently asked at his Jon Dewey Memorial lecture at Columbia University what he thought of education reform, he replied, “It is a euphemism for the dismantling of public education” (1). Lately, I have been thinking a good deal about freedom, liberty and the path to serfdom. How do you enslave people without making them realize their slavery?
There are a variety of ways and tools to enslave people: debt, ignorance, ethnic divisions, manipulation, …etc. But, I think the most powerful method is to deny people education and to devalue reasoning and science. We are managing to do both of those quite well in North America. With sky rocketing education costs and stagnant wages for low and middle income positions, many people not born to privilege must forgoe higher education. Elementary and Secondary education is also under attack through budget cuts and blind use of standardize testing (4).
The Canadian government has also mounted a full out attack on scientific research and debate (2). They closed down low-cost world class research centres such as the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario. They have gagged government scientists and failed to appoint any top level advisers with the slightest scientific background to the Prime Minister’s office. The message is clear, education and science are out.
There is a running joke in Russia that it is the only country where you can hire a cleaning lady with a PhD. We laugh, but it is true. The Soviets did many horrible things and were no fan of individual freedom, but they did offer high quality universal education. However, a consequence of higher education is often that a person is less likely to blindly do what they are told. In North America, the dominant narrative in society is that you should consume. More goods, bigger house, better car etc. Buy more, be happy. This is a message that can be easily conveyed to people who lack analytical skills to detect when they are being manipulated.
I would be curious to know if anyone has studied the relationship between education and consumption patterns. It seems to me that the more educated you are, the less likely you are to consume material goods – but I do not know of any studies that prove it. In Québec, we have pretty affordable education, seven dollar a day daycare and high calibre primary and secondary education. Perhaps that is why storefronts in the downtown core are empty and the economy is stuttering?
Ignorance is perhaps the most powerful tool to keep someone enslaved, it is even more powerful when the person is unaware of their ignorance. Without knowledge and reasoning, we are subject to what we are told. The lack of questioning of the policies and economic principles in general Canadian society is worrisome. As public education institutions such as the CBC become commercialized due to budget cuts, higher education fees continue to rise and teacher’s pay keep getting reduced – we should ask ourselves what kind of Canada we will have in 20 years. The satirical website The Onion, perhaps put it most succinctly by asking, “Are we leaving our children far enough behind that they will never take our jobs” (3).
High quality education costs a great deal of money, because the true aim of eduction is to give a deep, meaningful understanding of a subject and allow a person to perform in a competitive real world situation. Much of the educational reforms proposed by different groups – online videos, Coursera, Khan Academy … etc. often give the illusion of high quality education, but in fact give a very superficial understanding of a subject matter. Also, the fact that most online courses are taken in isolation of other students reduces your ability compare yourself to other students in ways that are not quantifiable. I am not saying online courses are of no use, they are great for casual learning and reinforcing general principles or digging into a specific subject – but they are no replacement for free traditional teacher based teaching.
I recall my time in engineering school and how came to realize how much better some of my peers were. My test scores were respectable, I finished with a 3.4 GPA at McGill, but I knew deep down that my depth of knowledge was not nearly as good as some of my friends. My test scores were often the result of cramming before exams, a bit of luck, on the spot reasoning and a calm demeanour during exam time. One element of my education was my appreciation of the qualities of other individuals and a clarification of my own competencies, capabilities and true passions. I fear that an isolated education leads to misplaced levels of confidence.
Paul Potts came onto the music scene in 2007 when he performed a portion of Puccini’s Nessun dorma! on the reality television show (5), “Britain’s Got Talent”. He went on to win the show and put out a series of discs. His rags to riches story was inspiring and heart warming, so when he put out his latest album, I bought a copy. It was average. At the time of his instant fame, many veteran opera singers came out and said his performance was full of mistakes and false notes. Of course, the average person who rarely listened to opera could not tell the difference, especially since it lasted no more than 30 seconds. But once you put him up in a truly competitive market – against other Opera singers – you saw all his shortcomings and his lack of years and years of formal opera training.
A similar story, though with a less happy ending, is the fall of Thomas “TJ” Webster Jr., a street basketball player. He was a down and out street ball player who believed he had a shot at the world’s most prestigious street basketball tournament. Back home, he practiced by himself or with some of the locals, whom he easily beat. His confidence was inflated beyond measure and with his meagre savings, he boarded a bus for the New York City street ball tournament. The great article in SB Nation outlines his journey and his downfall (6). Upon arrival in NYC, he entered the tournament and the gaps in his game, skills and tactics quickly rose to the surface – in the face of the very real competition. His lack of years formal training and competition in basketball camps and on college campuses killed any chance he thought he had. There was no replacement for years of gruelling work and competition in the furnace of college sports.
Though there are a few cases of lone self taught geniuses such as Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (7), the vast majority of excellence is born through mass high quality education in a competitive and collaborative environment. The short story about education is that there are no shortcuts. Someone who says they have a magic solution to high quality education is either ignorant, naive or has ulterior motives. Education reform is possible, but it should be done in very small and measured dosses and frankly, any improvement in education will require more resources – not less. We want to build Pavarottis and Lebron James, not Paul Potts and TJs.
To ensure we build a strong society, we must improve our education system and be very cautious of any education reform that does not involve more resources and importance on the quality of education. The Finnish education system is amongst the best and it unsurprisingly includes very high teacher pay, smaller classrooms and not much of a reliance on technology (8). It is essential that we stand up for very high quality free education for all.
(more…)Published on December 31, 2013