Monday, October 15, 2007

Making the Grade: Up the Peak Oil Downslope

For some time now I have wanted to do a follow-up article on education to accompany my previous articles Mud Pies and Dunce Caps and Give Me A Child Until...... It was not until recently that I solidified the theme of that article in my mind. That theme is the cost/benefit of education. What does it cost to educate our children and what benefit - for them, for us, for society, the nation and the world - will be derived from that education over the course of their lives? Put simply, shouldn't the true value of education be the ability to apply what has been learned in and to our everyday lives? Shouldn't it constantly contribute to our ability to support ourselves, to make our way in the world?

To many defining the cost/benefit of education may seem a trivial or pointless goal. Education, after all, is compulsory in most western nations. What is the point in worrying over the cost? Yet education is probably the biggest social cost, often ahead of health care, that has to be born by most western tax jurisdictions. We may personally decide not to concern ourselves with that "invisible" cost but there are many people who expend a great deal of their time and energy worrying about it for us.

It can cost more than $10,000 a year to educate a child in many parts of the United States and other developed countries. That is no trivial sum. That same miracle is achieved for less than $100 a year in many parts of Africa, South America and Asia. The disparity, however, is far greater than it at first appears. In the developed world children stay in school for an average of over ten years at a total cost that generally will exceed $100,000 per student. In the third world children stay in school for an average of only four years for a total cost more-or-less of $400 per student. An average education in the developed world, therefore, costs 250 times the average education in the third world. Is the benefit derived from that western education 250 times the benefit derived from that education given a student in the third world? Will that western student accomplish 250 times what that third world student will in a lifetime?

Much of the cost of that western education, of course, is incurred training the student in order that they can cope with the complexity of the modern world. That same degree of technological complexity does not exist for most of those students in the third world. Their lives are much simpler - technologically speaking - much more basic. They concern themselves with finding enough food to eat, a bit of fuel to cook it with, and how not to be killed by roving death squads at night.

Obviously, to me at any rate, one of the primary questions that should be asked, but never seems to be, is should our children's education be compulsory? Does everyone need or benefit from an education, or at least an education as long as they receive? It is not compulsory in many nations. Many of the people who built this nation of which we are so proud had only a rudimentary education if they had any at all. Many could not read or write, signed their name with an X. My mother taught my step father to write his name when he was forty-seven so he could get a seasonal job on a highway construction road gang. The company only paid by cheque. And the pogey that sustained us through the winter months was paid by cheque. Despite having spent eight years in school the only education my step father got that benefited him or anyone else was gained in the half hour it took my mother to teach him to write his name. Until the wonders of The Lone Ranger and Wild Bill Hickock came into our living room via our first television his entertainment consisted of me reading to him in the evening (at least on those evenings when there wasn't enough money for him and my mother to go drinking at the hotel) from penny-western paperbacks given to him by a mate on the road gang.


When one is considering what a school curriculum for the post peak world should be composed of one needs to take into account the need to prepare students for a world very different than today, a world very different than anyone they know, including their own grandparents, has ever experienced. One must accept the probability that some very basic questions about education will be asked and need to be answered all over again.

What will be the purpose of education in the post peak world? Indeed, what is the purpose of education today? Increasingly it has seemed to be to turn out standardized clones and emotionless robots for the business/industrial complex. The focus in education has been far more concerned with forming in the student the right type of character to take their place in the globalized industrial world and play their part in keeping the machinery of global commerce running smoothly.

The simplest and simultaneously most complex question that will be asked is, why do children need a quarter million dollar education if that is to be their lot in life? In many societies still children are not educated. In some societies only males are educated. In still others only a rudimentary education is given to children - the three R's - beyond which a child is expected to gain his/her own education in whatever way possible. Many young girls in schools in Africa carry a dress in their back pack. After school they put it on in place of their school uniform in order to look attractive when they go out in the street to sell their bodies to make enough money to pay for their education or buy a bit of food for their brothers and sisters. Many of the young boys carry semi-automatic weapons in their back pack - they spend much of their class time sleeping - so they can go straight from school to join their rebel band for their nightly duties in the death squads. Many students attend infrequently, when they can which isn't often. They are needed to work in the fields or help out in other ways at home. Priorities.

The harsh realities that fill the lives of most third world students have no connection with the lessons they are learning in school each day. Those lessons were, after all, designed in Germany or France, Britain, Spain or the United States, often taught in a language the students do not understand by a teacher who does not understand their local dialect. In many of those classrooms the only books present are on the teacher's desk. That doesn't matter though. The students memorize the lessons as they hear them, often graduating never having learned to read or write. Oral examinations would be more accurately described as precise recitations.

That is not to say that the education third world children receive does not benefit them, at least some of them. Some will use the certificate they receive to get themselves a job in the mines or the oil fields or on the oil rigs. Many will spend a life as servants in the rich houses. Some will earn a living building those houses. Many will earn their living working in the plantation fields. Many will parlay their school certificate and the skills they have learned outside the school into jobs in the craft shops and small factories. Many will just go home and work the fields that they will take over when their parents are no longer able to work them themselves.

Even in those third world schools, however, the curricula used are geared to the modern world as it exists today in developed western nations. Alteration through exclusion is the only thing that brings it near relevancy. The link to western industrialization may not be so obvious in these curricula but Dick and Jane are probably still encouraged to play with their dog Spot on the front lawn of their suburban American home.

The curricula, the text books, the teaching methods, the subjects taught, the schools themselves are all geared to teaching students about the complexities of the modern, industrialized, globalized, homogenized nation state. They are designed to prepare the student to take their place in that world, foreverland as it has existed for the past half century and will, if one can judge by the curricula, continue to exist at least for the duration of this millennium.

Not only is that clearly wrong for the current schools in impoverished third world nations, it is wrong for schools in the wealthy industrialized nations. The school system is supposed to prepare students for the future in which they will have to live their lives. Here and now, at the twilight of the age of cheap energy, at the probable dawn of the collapse of technological/industrial society, to design the school curricula around the default, business-as-usual model prepares them for nothing. That world around which the school curricula are built will not exist when they graduate and enter the workforce, or if it still does it will be in its final death throes. They will be spending their time trying to adjust to their place in a world that will be totally changed by the time they have adjusted.

Then they will have to run to keep up with everyone else who is busy trying to adapt to a rapidly changing world, but not changing in the manner in which they expect and are prepared to deal with. This changing world will not be adding new layers of complexity to a base with which they are already familiar and comfortable. It will be shedding all of those layers of complexity that they have been trained to deal with and evolving into a simpler, low-energy model, a manual model, a model that requires them to become hands on, a model in which all of the integrated automatic controls have been shed requiring them to take control.

What is the cost/benefit of the modern education? The cost we know. It is the bet we lay down in anticipation of the win, the benefit which will be achieved in the future. We are spending on average $100,000 and up to a quarter million dollars to prepare students for a future that will never be. James Howard Kunstler talks about suburbia being the greatest misallocation of resources in human history. I would challenge that assertion. The education we are currently giving our children, in light of the future they will face, is the greatest misallocation of resources, the greatest waste of human capital in peacetime history.

How do we change course? How do we begin the process of preparing our children for their future, the one in which they will live their lives? Isn't that, after all, what education is for? Training our children to take their place in a world that will no longer exist when they are ready accomplishes nothing.

We must begin, of course, by recognizing and admitting that the future in which our children will live their adult lives will not be like the present. That is a radical departure from our present methods of school curriculum design. Repeat after me: The future will be different than the present. With that one simple statement, a principle if you will, we would totally change the course of education.

Rather than training our children for life in a world we assume, by that training, will not change, we instead teach them to deal with a world that will change radically. We teach them to welcome and manage change. We must take the emphasis off mechanical and technological training and switch it to teaching creativity, logic, innovation, adaptability, analysis. Yes, we need to teach the three Rs. They are the foundation of education, whether that be training or teaching. In my experience, however, most children have acquired the rudiments of the three Rs even before they enter the school system. The school system must be prepared to build on that rough beginning rather than replace it.

In the area where I live first grade school teachers do not like children coming into their class that have been taught the rudiments of the three Rs in nursery school. I'm not sure but I suspect this is common everywhere. They prefer a clean slate where they can start from scratch and build that knowledge in their students their way. They want things standardized. But the differences in those children, the rough edges of their rudimentary knowledge are a very important asset in understanding how each of those children will learn, what special attention they will need. It is the beginning of the development of their individuality, their unique personality. I can understand why teachers would look upon that as an unnecessary burden. Live with it!

It should not take several years to teach the three Rs. To refine them, perhaps. But not to teach them. And even that refinement does not have to monopolize class time. The only students who need to use the classroom to refine their skills in the three Rs are those whose parents and families cannot or will not assume part of the burden of educating their children. But other, more advanced students can help their peers build their skill level in the basics far more effectively than any teacher can, and acquire additional interaction skills in the bargain. To suggest that students helping other students with lessons slows the progress of the more advanced student is, to me, a rationalization to support the role of authority.


What is the role of a teacher in the classroom? It's an honest question. Dictator? Facilitator? Leader? Partner? Seer? Coordinator? If, in fact, you take away the first (dictator), all of the others apply. But it isn't my intent here to tell teachers how to teach but rather to suggest what they should be teaching.

Should children in inner city schools be taught how to grow carrots or wheat? Should they be taught how to build a root cellar? Milk a cow? Contour plow a field? Should they be taught how to manage a forest and harvest fuel from it by culling? Should they be taught trickle irrigation? Should they be taught how to build a wooden bridge over a stream? How to cut ice out of a frozen lake in February and store it in an ice house? Should they be taught how to build a bicycle? Make harness for a horse or a yolk for oxen? How to build a wagon or a wagon wheel? All of that, of course, makes as much sense as teaching the children of farmers how to conduct marketing surveys or negotiate a union contract or design business clothing or haute couture or how to run an accounting tabulator or use a business photocopier. The educational needs of different children, even within a single classroom, are as disparate as those examples. Each child is unique, if we let them be. To suggest they do not know what they want to do with their lives until they have lived in an adult's shoes is a misguided fallacy. Children are adaptable, flexible. We beat it out of them. If they are prepared to identify a life ambition in childhood we should be prepared to work with them through their childhood to achieve it.

Admittedly creativity, innovation, adaptability, logic, analysis are difficult subjects to teach. Damned difficult. And it is going to require very different teachers than those who stand in front of today's classrooms and guide children through the memorization of meaningless lists, tables and historical data. The teachers, in fact, are going to need to be as creative, adaptable, innovative, logical and analytic as they want the students under them to become. That is asking a lot. Teachers tend to teach what they have learned. The system is designed that way. How can we expect teachers who have come through a process of ordered acquisition of highly defined rules and formulas and information to suddenly teach what must to them seem to be chaos?

To date education has been a process of instilling discipline and order in children, teaching them rules by which to live their lives. Now we want teachers to teach them to be undisciplined? Disorderly? To break the rules? We want them to participate in a free-for-all? What the hell kind of a school system would that be? What would those children learn? What sort of graduates would we turn out? How would we measure their progress?

Ah, there it is, the measuring of progress. Testing. Grading. Measuring. Standardizing. No child left behind. That's what education is, measurement! Creating standardized clones and drones for an unchanging world! Every child should graduate school having learned exactly what every other child has learned! That is the mindset that has been drummed into the current crop of teachers. How can we expect them to accept and foster a chaotic environment which stresses individuality and uniqueness in the students, one in which we develop each student to his/her optimum potential rather than train them to conform to a standard? A ridiculous concept, to be sure, developing each student to their own potential. Everyone will want to be a lawyer or a doctor. Who the hell is going to collect the garbage? We have (but seem reluctant to admit it) an ordered, class-based society. We must determine/decide who will be lawyers and who will be garbage collectors. That decision is too important to be left to the students.

The recent shift in the focus of the school curriculum has been a good one in principle. It has somewhat taken the emphasis off the sciences and mechanical aptitudes and placed it on the development of the character of the students. Looks good on paper. But, like communism, it fails miserably in practice. It has been interpreted - whether by dictate or choice I am not certain - to mean that the character of the student has to be developed to some sort of standard, moulded into a tightly defined pattern. The intent may have been to develop each student to their maximum potential - I am not suggesting that it was, in fact there is considerable documentation to suggest that it wasn't - but the result in practice has been to turn out standardized, sanitized drones. The system does not develop the student's innate abilities but rather defines the abilities the student will be allowed to develop. You see, the purpose of that testing and grading and measuring is to decide what the child's limitations are, in order to prevent the frustration for them of trying to grow beyond those limitations. Individuality cannot be tolerated in such a system. It distorts the reality that the students are coerced into embracing, that being a business-as-usual model of the current business, industrial, globalized world.

I am engaged, I realize, in a never-ending circular argument here to try to convince you that our current teaching methods are ill-equipped to prepare our children to deal with the world they will face as adults. We are training them to take their place in the world as it is now on the assumption that it will still be thus when they are adults. But it will not. It never is. Our children learn about the real world after school, not in it. That is fine, if they have been prepared to do that. But they have not. Nor can they be, with our present teaching methods. Until we change how we teach and educate our children we are unable to change what we teach our children. Until we change what we teach our children we cannot prepare them for the future that awaits them as adults.

Okay. So what is it that we have to teach our children? Questions! Until we teach them how to question, to challenge, to analyze, how to think, we have taught them nothing. The answers to whatever the questions are must come from their own minds, not from text books, not from the teacher's mouth. They must be taught to question and to answer their own questions.

If a child asks, "what does God look like?" why the hell should you tell them the answer? The answer must come from within them. Ask them what they think God looks like. Ask them to draw a picture of God. If they ask why the grass is green ask them why they think it is? Or why the sky is blue. There is no one right answer to any of those questions. There is generally one right scientific answer. But that is not the only right answer. It is more important that a wrong answer come out of their mind than the right answer going in. We learn much more from our mistakes than from our successes. It is critically important that "wrong" answers not be punished, centered out, corrected. They can be debated with their peers, argued, analyzed. That is learning. That opens doors rather than closing them.

When we teach a child to be a passive receiver of knowledge imparted by others in authority, especially if that knowledge is not open for debate, we are not teaching that child to think. We are teaching them to memorize. I can still recite the list of the twenty-four townships of my home county, a list I memorized over fifty years ago. We are not teaching them to analyze and challenge. we are teaching them to accept. We may as well sit them down in front of the television and let PBS do the job for us. There is the ultimate efficiency: one teacher on TV teaching all the children in the nation the same lessons in the same way. Why not? It would be just as effective, if the role is standardization rather than individual student development. United Nations Agenda 21, in fact, is aiming at global standardization of school curricula. The language thing might be a bit of a problem but I am sure we can overcome that.

The world into which our children will be thrust upon leaving school will be one characterized by potentially dramatic changes from that day until the end of their lives. Possibly moreso than any generation before them they are going to have to constantly adapt to change or that change will swallow them up. It will be, by all definitions to which we are accustomed, a bitter, cruel world. It will be competitive on a scale unimaginable in our experience, on a life and death level. It will be a very hard world, a very hard, demanding life where exhaustion, both physical and mental, will be a normal state. Am I exagerating? I could be totally wrong about what is going to happen over the balance of this century, but I don't believe so. If anything I may be seriously underestimating the hardships our children will have to endure.

The very best gift of education that we can give our children is the freedom to think, create, innovate, adapt, change, evolve. We need to take that child entering the school system and free them from traditional academic constraints. We need to let them find their own way, unleash their own raw talent. Yes, we can and must help them to develop what talent they have, but it must be so. We can't decide for them what talent they will be allowed to have or develop. We must allow them to find their own way.

I don't think that is such a huge thing to ask. What is the point in educating our children for life in a world that will no longer exist when they leave school? We do not know what is in their future, what specific challenges they will face as adults, what they will do with their lives. Nor do they. But we can build in them an ability to cope with change, with uncertainty, with chaos. With that ability, whatever their future consists of, whatever hurdles and obstacles are thrown in their way, they will be better prepared to deal with them.

Returning to the question that was the premise of this article, what benefit do our children receive from the expensive education we expose them to in their formative years? In today's dollars the education of the American population of 300-million alone would exceed $30-trillion. Has the U.S., or the world for that matter, received enough benefit from the current U.S. population to justify a $30-trillion expenditure? The $400, four year education received by the average student in the third world develops in those students the basic foundations or reading, writing and basic mathematics. That equips them to be able to continue learning and developing their knowledge as they proceed through life. It gives them the basic tools to deal with the world in which they live and even to deal with changes as they take place in their world. Considering the radical changes that lie ahead of our children through the course of their lives and the lack of suitability of the advanced education they have received to the world that will result, has the education they have received beyond those basics been of any value? Will it benefit them as they cope with the changes in the world around them? Or will the 3-4 years of basic education that allows them to continue learning as the changes take place end up being the only part of that education that has any enduring value?

I question whether the massive cost of the technology-based education that our children receive is justified in view of the world in which they will probably live their adult lives. We must, I believe, radically re-evaluate the role of education in preparing our children for their futures. Considering the massive education price tag we are incurring, at what age is it appropriate to begin to identify a student's unique, personal interests, abilities and aptitudes and begin personalizing that student's education to fit those skills? A student should receive all of the education he/she will make the best use of, no more, no less. But that education must develop that child's abilities, not reform the child to fit into the mould we wish for them.

1 comment:

Phil Plasma said...

Tough question - how to teach our children adaptability and innovation.

A very appropriate post for me as I have two young children, thanks!

BTW, I've linked to and copied a part of this post in my blog at