On Education

Recently, I read an essay by a high school teacher, Belle Chesler, describing her plague year. Near the end she writes this:

The skills and the knowledge we promote as most valuable are tied to workforce demands — not to what should count as actual life learning or growth. When you narrow achievement to what’s quantifiable, you miss so much. You fail to see just how infinitely resourceful and resilient kids can actually be. You ignore skills and learning that haven’t historically been considered valuable, because it can’t be quantified. We’ve become accustomed to looking for skills that can be neatly measured and distributed like any other commodity. We’ve adopted standardized benchmarks, standardized modes of assessment, standardized testing, and standardized curriculum, but the truth of the matter is that knowledge is rarely neat and tidy, or immediately measurable.

I’ve heard this from many teachers through the years since No Child Left Behind started leaving many children… behind. I used to own a kids’ bookstore. We offered discounts to teachers and librarians and therefore had many of them as regular customers. There were also educators (both active and retired) on my staff and amongst the local authors who came through the store frequently. I, myself, taught science at the elementary level and earth science to 100-level college students, and I’ve always been an engaged volunteer at my local library. I think I know at least what educators in New Mexico think about our education system, and generally they don’t think much of it. If this is a generalized educator opinion (and I believe it is), then how well are we being served by our education system? Is our largely publicly-funded education system educating anyone?

If the goal is proficiency at certain agreed-upon skills like literacy and computation, our education system is just barely passing. Most kids can read and do arithmetic after schooling. Mostly. Few can do higher mathematics and fewer still can read critically. I’d not be the first to suggest that a citizenry that is able to read simple text yet unable to reflectively engage with that text is easily led and easily deceived. And one doesn’t have to be much of a conspiracy theorist to wonder if this might not be the actual goal of our education system. Standardized testing measures only the standards that are being tested, and the standards are created by the dominant group to their own benefit, not to the benefit of either our kids or society. The dominant group is molding our kids into what they need in order to continue to be the dominant group — that is, mindless consumers who do most of the actual labor in society and acquiesce to reaping few of the rewards. Our standards-based education system excels at meeting this goal, but this is not education.

Teaching to the test is not education. This is indoctrination. This sort of teaching does little but reinforce the dominant culture norms through rote memorization of easily regurgitated facts. There is no relational thinking, no critical thinking, no creative thinking in this process. Kids are not learning how to use their minds. They aren’t learning how to learn. They can take little of this process with them into adulthood because almost none of it is applicable to their real life. They are unable to use this sort of education to guide them in novel situations or even currently prevailing situations that are outside the testing scope — which is most of life. Our educational system is not training our children to be capable adults nor members of a functioning society.

But even the basic system of having kids gather in a classroom to be taught by a relative stranger is probably dysfunctional. There is ample evidence to show that young children learn best through mimicking a trusted adult. Individual one-on-one interactions generate stronger memory responses. Studies show that attention-rich environments stimulate neural development that has life-long benefits. It is expensive and difficult to create these optimal conditions in a classroom setting. Yet it is also difficult to engage the very young in a classroom setting and almost impossible to restart the learning process once it has been disengaged in early childhood. We get a very short window to open the minds of our children and make them responsive learners. And this does not happen in a 20-on-one classroom. Parents, grandparents and other primary care-givers need to be the first educators, and our society needs to be structured so that that can happen. Or education does not happen. As is the case.

I also read something somewhere this week that I have completely lost now (I have been a bit scattered these last many weeks), but the message lodged itself in my head and prompted me to write this article (so, thank you, whoever you are). The essence of the article was that in both parenting and educating our children, we are teaching them to expect a world that will not exist and cultivating skills that will be useless to them. We are not giving them the education they will need in order to adapt to all the changes they will face. Moreover, the goals and standards we hold them to are maladaptive even in the present. Education — and specifically grading and ranking test scores — discourages empathy, cooperation and collaboration. Teaching to a set of standards does not train a mind to think critically and originally, and the standards of today will be meaningless trivia in the future. This is already true for the many students who do not come from the same background as the dominant group, the creators of the standards. 

Moreover, through this educational system where every child is judged by these dominant group standards, we are training our children to aspire to be like that dominant group, to want to join that group, to believe that they are less worthy or even worthless if they are not members of that group — when almost nobody ever joins that group! If you are not a member of that group now, either by birth or by some rare coup (and it’s very rare, folks), then you will never be a member of that group. We all know this. Yet we are telling our children every day that this group, this image, is what they must become in order to be worthy of respect and reward. 

(And look at how we phrase that. We have to earn respect. We have to do something, become something to receive the basic acknowledgement of self-worth. That really should disgust you.)

My point in this is that education is setting our children up to fail. Education is telling them how to act and think — and that how is determined by the dominant group and allows for no deviation either based on their own creativity or based in their own real-world lives unless they are members of that dominant group. Education is training our children in skills and inculcating them with values that are already maladaptive and will certainly become more so as the society made by the dominant group fails. And finally, education is telling our kids that they are not good for much, that they are worthless if they can’t be in the dominant group, a club that has stringent, nearly closed admissions. Education makes our children incapable of thought, deprived of useful skills, and largely depressed. I would say this is a monumental failure, if not a criminal act.

Now, let’s return to the idea that the world that exists now will not exist for much longer. Indeed, it is already crumbling. Shouldn’t we be afraid of an educational system that does not produce adults who can think originally, who can adapt to new situations, who can create solutions or at least functionality in deteriorating conditions? Shouldn’t we be teaching our kids to expect the unexpected? At least our education system should be training kids to be able to logically predict changes based on current circumstances even when those predictions are unlike anything that exists now or has existed in the past. Because that is what they will be facing — a world both unlike anything that existed in the past and everything that exists under the crumbling milieu. And when our children are adults, we are going to be old people, utterly dependent upon them to manage this changing world. Shouldn’t we fear that? Shouldn’t educational overhaul be considered a moon-shot-type emergency? If we don’t fix education, then we can fix nothing else because nobody who comes out of our education system is capable of fixing anything.

Moreover, nobody who comes out of our education system has necessary skills nor real-world aspirations. We don’t encourage our kids to do, or even want to do, the work that is needed for humans to survive. No making, no care work, no maintenance work. We don’t train kids to use their minds or give them the knowledge necessary to do necessary work, but we also don’t teach them how to use their hands nor to value that handy work. This feeds into our relationship with work, or more specifically, labor.

I have just finished reading Celeste Headlee’s Do Nothing, which is a book-length meditation on our relationship to work. Her central message is that the kind of work that is rewarded by our culture and our relationship to that work — the culture of always being on call — is destroying our bodies, our minds and our humanity. In describing our work relationship, she touches on education here and there throughout the book, but in one chilling example, she writes: 

…the medical community has been working for years to figure out why so many doctors and nurses lose empathy for their patients and where the decline begins. It turns out, the decline begins in medical school and may be the result of curriculum. In an effort to train professionals more efficiently, many schools now emphasize emotional detachment. As a result, declines in empathy have been recorded during the first year of medical school…

Yes, you read that correctly. The system that is designed to produce our health care professionals discourages and degrades empathy — which is approximately the most important quality in any kind of care work. By definition. If you do not care, you are not a health care professional. Think about that. Then think about the meaning of the word clinical. It means both “unemotional and detached” and “relating to the actual observation and treatment of patients”. This is an extreme example of the clash between dominant group values and real world values. It is an extreme example of the failure of an education system that is built upon those dominant group values. Being a care worker is the opposite of being detached. However, care work is universally despised by the dominant group and therefore, even when it is necessary to a given task, it is abandoned — to the detriment of all of us. Our education system is not producing capable people.

But the deeper issue is that education and job training are two very different processes though we treat them as one. Learning should be separated from job training. (And it probably shouldn’t end with childhood.) Job training should be undertaken when starting a job and should be provided by the employer. Yes, in some fields, there is a need for specialized training that is not specific to an employer. Doctors need specialized training. Quite a bit of it. And, as they are self-employed, there is no employer to pay for this training. (There is good reason for society to pick up the tab, however. Especially if medicine is to be health-care focused and socialized, not private profit-mongering.) But this specialized training should begin after a student has achieved a general and comprehensive education — including arts, culture, sciences, and craft.

And that last is crucial. Because as it stands now, we aren’t training anyone for necessary work. Most education feeds into tech drone or managerial jobs. Let’s go back to the quote from the beginning of this essay: “You ignore skills and learning that haven’t historically been considered valuable…” That is the summary of our education system — and, not unrelatedly, our work system. We ignore all the skills and learning that the dominant group does not value, and the dominant group does not value real work. From growing food to raising children to darning socks and washing the dishes to caring for patients, the dominant group despises it all.

Mothers are uncompensated. Health care workers, farmers, maintenance and cleaning workers of all sorts are all under-compensated. Rewards and status accrue to the kind of work in which labor is noticeably absent. What is worse is that creative endeavors, even those physically unchallenging ones that ought to appeal to a labor-averse mind, are also largely unrewarded and under-compensated except in the very few instances of creative work that aligns closely with the dominant group narrative. Which is to say those producing not very creative, or at least unoriginal, output. Original thinking is largely ignored, quite often disparaged, and almost never rewarded in a manner that benefits the thinker.

Surely, cultivating the ability to think originally ought to be the fundamental foundation of pedagogical efforts. Seems that was the original intent in teaching children, at any rate. But apparently the dominant group thinks that all the original thinking happens within their group, indeed, that most of it has already happened and there is no need for further thought. And so here we are with an education system that does not teach children to think for themselves.

Obviously, we are failing at preparing our kids for life. But in giving up all the benefits of a broad education and focusing on standards-based job training, are we at least getting the benefit of preparing our kids to get good jobs? Is the dominant group narrative correct in even that minimal way? All this thinking prompted me to dust off data from an old essay I wrote on education that shows that we are not even getting that. We are not getting what we believe we are buying from post-secondary education — access to good wages.

We all want to have good wages. We all need some measure of monetary influx in this culture where everything requires monetary outflow. We have been told that investing money and effort in education as a young person will inevitably lead to a wide offering of interesting, fulfilling and well-paying jobs. We have also been warned of the converse in dire terms — that a lack of formal higher education, a lack of a college degree specifically, will restrict our opportunities, especially if well-paying is the most important quality in the job one seeks. But does a college education confer opportunities in the job market? Generally, the rule of thumb in any market is that the more you invest, the better your return. Correct? In education, that seems to mean that the more expensive education should give you better job prospects and should increase your earning potential. Is that, at least, true?

Let’s consider some interesting statistics. Harvard is arguably the gold-standard for The Education That Will Buy Lifetime Financial Security and High Social Standing. But here’s the first statistic. This gold-standard education — which costs quite a lot of gold — buys only a 70% chance of employment according to the Harvard Crimson 2014 Senior Survey. In that survey, 30% of graduating seniors who intended to enter the work force did not expect to have a job upon graduating. Further, in 2013, only 61% of graduating seniors were even going to “pursue employment”. Over a third of Harvard graduates had no intention of pursuing work — any work — when this survey was conducted. I’ll just leave that there.

An even more interesting statistic: starting salaries were not substantially better for Harvard grads either. By substantially better I mean “commensurate to the cost of acquiring a Harvard education”. A male Harvard undergrad from the class of 2014 could expect to earn about $60,000 starting out (women have lower salary expectations even coming out of Harvard). But the national starting salary average for 2014 grads was $45,000 — of those who are fully employed in a field that requires a college education. So a Harvard education — the gold standard in education — conferred approximately $15,000 a year more in starting salary over an average undergraduate degree. This is not insubstantial, but it is also not “commensurate to the cost of acquiring a Harvard education”.

In 2014 when I was recording these data, Harvard grads had an average debt-load of $27,000. That average included a large percentage of students who were able to forego loans (lots of zeros in the calculation to lower the average). The total cost of obtaining a four-year Harvard degree was over $272,000. The national average 2014 college graduate debt load was $33,000 with a much lower percentage of loan-free students included in that average (that is, very few zeros in the calculation), and the total cost for a 4-year degree was about $96,000. The average graduate indebtedness was slightly higher than a Harvard indebtedness largely because many Harvard students don’t need loans, but the average cost of a Harvard degree was almost three times that of an average degree. So a $15,000 bump in salary was possible with a Harvard degree but at nearly triple the cost. If a student had to service the entire degree program at Harvard with loans, it would take most of a career to pay off the debt (at 6% interest, that’s 40 years of about $1500 a month for a total of $718,360 in payments). An average education could pay for itself in fifteen years (at 6% interest, that’s about $810 a month for a total pay-out of $145,818). Harvard conferred about 30% more income starting out for a 300% increase in cost without loans and a crushing 500% increase if the education was bought with borrowed money.

That’s all the return that can be expected from investing in the gold standard. You could go to a state school and have a nearly as good — or bad — chance at earning a decent wage. So the conclusion has to be that higher cost does not confer commensurate advantage. Nor is higher education the ticket to what might be called “quality work”, that is work that is somewhat interesting and pays a living wage. If the statistics above are read carefully, it becomes apparent that a good number of college graduates are not being paid a living wage. If you live in New York City or Los Angeles, even the Harvard starting salary will not enable you to both eat and pay rent. Which brings up the next question. Does education of any kind confer advantages in today’s job market?

Short answer yes, but… The advantages are not quite as expected. In 2014, the unemployment rate for college graduates under the age of 25 was 8.5%; the underemployment rate was 16.8%. For high school graduates in the same age group, unemployment was 22.9% and underemployment was 41.5%. So a degree obviously confers advantages in obtaining a job. But what kind of job? One that is interesting and pays a living wage? At 16.8% underemployment — meaning that the job(s) obtained can not support a household — it seems that at least the latter condition is not being met for many graduates. But what about interesting? Are there, perhaps, many poor but dedicated social service workers out there who are doing what they love but aren’t able to support themselves doing it?

It would appear not. In a 2014 report, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that about 44 percent of young graduates — people ages 22 to 27 with a bachelor’s degree or higher — were in a job that did not require a bachelor’s degree of any kind. In other words, nearly half of grads could have skipped the degree and would still be qualified to do the work that they were doing. The advantage of the degree was solely in that a college grad was more likely to have any job than a high school grad. Put another way, the advantage of at least four years of effort and a $96,000 average investment is that a young college graduate is more likely to be the barista at Barnes & Noble than the young person who did not go to college. But that young college graduate will also probably be in far worse financial shape than an employed high school graduate because even Walmart pays enough for a frugal, single young person to get by (barely) if there aren’t student loans in the budget. And most college graduates have student loans to service. 

I acquired all these facts to help me rationalize Son#2’s very expensive college degree in physics. Not that I have anything against physics. I tried to avoid being sucked into the math department and failed miserably. (It’s all just so cool, you see.) From the dates above you can see this happened when there was some recovery from the 2008 economic implosion — though I think there was more noise about a recovery than any actual recovery. Significantly, I had to close my bookstore shortly after this because there was so little recovery trickling down to average book buyers (mostly college graduates, by the way). I was terrified that my son would be coming out of school with a huge debt-load and very little advantage in an extremely tight job market, a  job market that had shown little evidence of recovery and will very likely never recover as most people would define the idea. Because the job market is not designed to generate wage-earning positions, it is designed to produce cheap labor. And the cheapest labor is not in this country. So the job market emigrated. Hence there were and still are plenty of college grads pouring coffee. And there are far too many high school grads with no job prospects at all.

And hence I was a very concerned parent.

But now I wonder about all that. If the goal in the physics degree was to obtain a job in the field of physics, presumably earning higher wages than the average barista, then the physics degree failed. Son#2 is not employed as a physicist. Yes, he earns fairly decent wages, better than a barista, sufficient to live in a rent-controlled Brooklyn dump… ahem… apartment. But he has less than rock-solid job security. (His job is tied to grant money which of course could vanish at any time and will certainly not keep him employed for wages throughout his working life.) More significantly, his best friend earned a degree at a lower cost state school and is now employed in his degree field for very decent wages. (Son#2 is cagey on this last point.) So the expensive physics degree maybe was not the best investment if the goal was to merely obtain a specific kind of job. 

However, if that was not the goal, if the goal was instead to learn about the world, to experience a wide swath of it in a safe environment, to learn how to analyze and critique information, to learn how to think deeply and originally — in short, if the goal was education, then the physics degree excelled! And that is what we should demand from our education system. Our education system, that which we pay for with our tax dollars, should produce educated people. It should not take four additional years of privately funded college to acquire an education. Yet that is where we are now.

The system we pay for does not educate. By design, it does not educate. It creates a labor pool and consumer market to support the dominant group. It is created by and for this dominant group. The standards by which we measure our children are set by this dominant group. The rewards and punishments our children receive for their efforts are meted out by this dominant group. Status is conferred by this dominant group and it is largely reserved to themselves. To do this they have created a system that divides children — their own from all the rest. They have created a system that separates, not one that educates, and it is highly effective.

A college degree is necessary to the sort of work valued by the dominant group. The subject matter does not matter, nor does the competence gained through that college degree (and in the example of health care workers taught not to care we saw that competence is not necessarily a result). The significance of the college degree to valued work is simply that the college degree costs money and time that few but those within the dominant group can afford. A college degree can also confer an education to students who retain the aptitude and desire to learn. It can be a good experience for its own sake. But it costs money. Dearly. And we already spend quite a lot on education. Shouldn’t the money we spend buy an education without the extra cost of a college degree?

And further, why (aside from dominant group values) is a college education a prerequisite for earning a living wage? Shouldn’t all humans have access to whatever income is necessary to support their needs? Do we really believe that some people are not worthy of living wages? Moreover, do we really believe that education level has anything at all to do with the value of a human being? Or are we merely colluding with the dominant group, allowing them to dominate and determine our values and our self-worth because it is easier than challenging the monstrous edifice of a system that they have constructed for themselves?

You know my answer to all this. I do not collude. I do not agree. I do not want the dominant group to exist. It is destroying far more than our ability to think, to support ourselves, and to lead fulfilling lives doing valued work. The dominant group and its poisonous value system destroys everything. That is its specific and stated goal; to wrench “value” out of the world for themselves. Education, when viewed relative to total ecological collapse, does not seem like such a priority. However, if we are to save our selves and our world from the dominant group, then we need — desperately need — people who are educated to the fullest of human capacity. We need people who are able rise to all the challenges that the dominant group has created. We need people who are willing and able to think, learn, and adapt. We need original ideas to deal with novel conditions. We need creativity and productivity. We need all the skills and knowledge that are not valued by the dominant group. We need new values that reward the work that is needed.

We need education. Not standards. (“We don’t need no thought control.” Ever.) And yes, by those standards, it is a priority — perhaps even an emergency now. We need education for all our children.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021