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Cogs in the Machine

Entry 1921, on 2018-07-09 at 15:45:19 (Rating 3, Comments)

I recently listened to a podcast which questioned the value of the education system in the US (and by extension, that of most other countries as well). This is a subject which I have commented on in the past, and I have suggested that most of the time people spend in education systems is a total waste. And yet there does seem to be a relationship between education and "success" in life. And by success here I mean the ability to work in a more esteemed profession and to make more money.

But if you ask successful people how much of what they learned in school and university is useful in their professional life you will often hear it is almost nothing. Very few people use calculus for example, or a knowledge of Shakespeare's plays. So why do we learn this stuff?

There are several answers commonly given. The first is that while no one will use everything they learned, everyone will use some of it, and it's not possible to know ahead of time what will be useful and what won't, so it's best just to learn as wide a variety of subjects as possible. The second is that people need to learn to be well-rounded citizens, and a knowledge of various subjects - even if they never have a practical use - is necessary. And third is the argument that education teaches skills rather than facts.

No doubt there is some merit in all of these explanations, but even in the most optimistic estimations of value it is hard to justify a person spending up to 20 years of their life almost full-time to get the rather marginal and uncertain outcomes in these categories we see in real life.

And I see no evidence at all that most education concentrates on imparting reasoning skills. Sure, there is a certain amount of that which comes with science and philosophy (if you do that, but far too few people do), but the vast majority of the time seems to concentrate mainly on just stuffing random facts into the learners' memories.

In fact, the podcast suggested that the real value in education is to act as a "signal" of the person's ability to comply with societal norms. People who do well in education are often those who are good at fitting in with the system as much as those who are academically brilliant. I'm not denying that achievement in many subjects requires skill, but I am saying that dedication is maybe more important. And I don't mean dedication in the positive sense of being able to apply vast knowledge and considerable skill to a problem, I mean more dedication in the sense of just doing what is expected for long periods of time.

So greater achievement in education makes a person more employable for exactly the wrong reasons. Instead of a person who can apply original ways of thinking and move forward using new and better ways of working, we get people who just follow along with the same old ways, and fit in with inefficient and unfair existing structures.

There is undoubtedly a basic level of skill which everyone needs to operate at a reasonable level in modern society. Everyone needs to be able to read competently for example, and by extension they should be able to write moderately well. And a basic level of math competency is also useful, despite the fact that computers, calculators, and phones do most of that work for us now.

But there is no reason why this stuff should take much more than a few years to achieve, or, more realistically, maybe one or two days a week should be spent on it for many years - maybe even the person's total life. In fact that sounds like a really good idea which only just emerged now from this post: why don't we set aside one day a week for learning, and have that continue for a lifetime?

I know that, as a computer programmer and consultant, I need a wide range of skills to do my job well. And sometimes I first learned these skills at school or university and may have never used them since. For example, I occasionally need some maths, such as basic algebra and calculus, or stats, when writing programs. And if I am helping someone create a database related to Shakespeare's plays it is nice to know a little bit about some of them, even though it has no direct relevance.

But spending months learning the details of calculus does not seem to have been of great benefit to me. All I needed to know was the basics of what calculus is, and what it is used for, and I can fill in the details by studying the exact skills I require as the need arises.

I'm pretty sure that if my teacher had spent a week showing the class what calculus is for, and giving some examples of how cool it is when used correctly, that I might have got more out of it then I did from the months of seemingly disconnected detailed grind learning various techniques which I never used again.

And the same applies to the arts. Surely the point of Shakespeare is to enjoy and appreciate the skill and relevance of the stories being told, rather than learning many dreary details. Again, I think a better appreciation of his work could be done in a fraction of the amount of time which is usually spent on the subject.

But maybe education isn't really about learning. Maybe it is rally more about testing, or passing tests. And what are these tests really? They are just a form of signal to show the person has fitted into the structure society has imposed. Again, I have to say that you do need skill and knowledge to pass a test, but in many ways originality and creativity are specifically penalised by them.

I think there is no doubt that the education system we have now fits in well with our society. Most people are nothing more than cogs in a great machine, and that is what education prepares us for. But even if that is the ultimate aim, our education systems seems like a terribly inefficient way to achieve it. And if they really are supposed to be a way to create well-rounded citizens then they are even worse.

So it is society which is to blame. We need to move on from what was created during the industrial revolution, and create a society more suited to the information revolution. And when society changes, education can change too. We won't need any more cogs for the machine, so we can produce people truly suited to the new society. We need people who are cognisant, not cogs.

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