The Bear’s Lair: End state monopolies in education!

Donald Trump’s Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos is getting flak from both sides – from the left because she is not fully committed to unionized public education, from the right because she appears at least neutral on the “Common Core” national standards mandated by the Obama administration. Education is important – it is how we pass on our civilization. Accordingly, we should fight monopolies, whether structural from the public sector or intellectual from the “treasonous clerks” of academia. It is to be hoped that Ms. DeVos both understands this and does something substantial about it.

Education is in many ways our most vital function: it is how we pass on our history, our values and our civilization. That being so, why would you attempt to turn it into a monopoly? It must surely be obvious even to the left, after centuries of bureaucrat failure, that there is no central body of “experts” capable of defining what history, values and civilization we should be passing on.

That is not to say there are no other means by which we pass things on to the young. Parents, obviously, are in many but not all cases a more important source of information, values and culture than the school system. In traditional societies, churches also passed on many of the society’s values, together with their views on how citizens should lead a good life. Books, too, have always been a good source of primarily information and to a lesser extent values, for those young people who can be brought to read them. More recently, Hollywood, television and the internet impart their own set of values and culture, frequently violently at odds with what schools, parents, churches and even books are attempting to teach.

Given the extraordinary disparate richness of our history, our values and our culture, it is immediately clear that no single curriculum can possibly pass it all on, or be regarded as satisfactory by any but a small minority of parents. A little of the necessary diversity can be gained by some parents “home schooling” their children, but this is very difficult. Even with two degrees I am not confident in my ability to home-school a child beyond elementary school level in most subjects, and in any case I have a full-time occupation which would prevent my giving appropriate time both to the actual teaching and to the preparation, as I stumbled my way through Middle School French or biology. Clearly only a small minority of parents are even as well equipped to do this as I am, however much they may want to.

It is therefore necessary for educational provision and curricula to be as decentralized as possible, in order that, in any given area, a wide variety of teaching systems are available, from the most traditional to the most eclectic, with even the poorest family having access to a range of possibilities for educating its children. No “common core” national curriculum is either necessary or desirable. Any such curriculum will inevitably reflect the fads of a centralized educational bureaucracy, and will thus be hopelessly unfitted for the diversity of education’s two sets of consumers: the hugely diverse parent body and the equally diverse and very rapidly changing working world.

The solution lies in both localization and diversification. Localize the provision of education, so that local lifestyles, moral beliefs and potential job opportunities are better reflected in what local children are taught. Second, diversify the providers of education, so that the teachers’ unions can no longer impose a uniform leftist bias upon the curriculum and its implementation. The obvious way to achieve this is a system of local control and vouchers, ensuring that poor students have as much educational choice as rich ones.

Skeptics will say that this will result in students being taught creationism in some areas of the Deep South, but so what? Students are taught global warming in almost all schools today, and that belief is no more proven and no less faith-based. There is no reason whatever why the irrational beliefs of the left should be the only ones inculcated through the school system. Students taught creationism will have difficulty achieving successful careers in some areas of biology, but there plenty of other fields of endeavor in which a belief in creationism would be no handicap. And after all, students fully indoctrinated in the global warming hysteria would probably not find success as geophysicists.

Parents will no doubt have some nutty ideas about what they want their children taught (rich, progressive parents generally the nuttiest of all), but the children themselves as they grow older and the demands of the job market will correct the worst foolishness. However, just as local variation will produce some schools with low standards and eccentric curricula, so also it will produce some schools with superior, more rigorous curricula, and in particular with a brisker, less dilatory pace through the early years in e.g. mathematics. With some children taught calculus at 11, as I was, the United States will no longer come 37th in every international comparison of high school achievement.

It would also be both possible and very likely popular to set up “insulated schools” in which by agreement with the parents the most loathsome aspects of popular culture were blocked from the students’ school and home environments and appropriate high culture inculcated instead. Opera-lovers have rights, too!

A program of localization and vouchers would very likely go far to solving the problem of school education, but it would not address the almost equal malaise affecting colleges. Here, in the United States at least, the problem is not excessive centralized control. The Federal government provides funding for student loan schemes, themselves a monstrous drain on taxpayers who are very often poorer and less educated than the college students being financed, but it does not prescribe a “common core” of college curricula.

Instead, the colleges themselves have devalued college education, especially at the top schools, to the extent that increasing numbers of the best students are deciding to skip the college experience. The blight of political correctness in elite college faculties, which has got worse as the Baby Boomers have increased in seniority, become even more set in their views and recruited like-minded lunatics to the faculty, makes college a pretty unattractive prospect for any young person with intelligence and an open mind. Four years of political correctness and indoctrination are not worth $300,000 of anyone’s money – almost the entire value gained is the brand name on the diploma, and that is inevitably a wasting asset as educational quality declines.

Apart from the mind-numbing political slant, there are three disadvantages to four-year colleges in the current system. First, their cost has been allowed to escalate beyond all reason, so that any reasonable risk-reward analysis by an 18-year-old without wealthy parents suggests avoiding them.

Second, they cram all the expensive education into the beginning of a career. This does not matter too much with a liberal arts degree (though the value of a “Feminist Studies” major by 2060 must be seriously questioned) but any science or mathematics degree, or even a degree in economics or business, is almost worthless 20 years out, at which point the student is faced with the difficulty of self-reeducation or a severe career downgrading in the early 40s.

Finally, colleges make students take all kinds of irrelevant courses, to satisfy the prejudices of their professors or transient academic fashions. Students are not able to pursue a course of study that truly reflects their interests, and are thus paying a great deal of money for education they do not want. However, of the three problems, this is the easiest to solve. Innumerable services are now making individual courses available to interested students, and awarding “nanodegrees” to those passing them.

One objection to this is that it only works for highly self-motivated students who have already acquired the ability to learn independently. However, a Coursera offering “Learning how to Learn” addresses this problem, and there is no doubt that all except the least motivated and those completely failed by their school education will be able to pick up knowledge on an a la carte basis in the future, with the aid of a few foundational courses on learning itself.

The availability of individual course modules of high quality through the Internet removes most of the difficulties to a student who does not wish to spend four years in college. It also enables students who wish to retrain in middle life to do so, thus greatly increasing career flexibility. Employers will need to adapt also, accepting an appropriate portfolio of nanodegrees as qualification for a particular post, and rejecting the current snobbish credentialism that places barriers in front of able students.

As the above discussion suggests, the Federal government’s main potential contribution to education is to get out of the way. It should provide funding where necessary to impoverished districts, allowing them to set up generous voucher schemes whereby their residents can take advantage of a broad range of educational opportunities, but it should no longer attempt to set standards or interfere in schools’ running. At the college level, it must cease subsidizing the outmoded model of the four-year college. In particular, it must cease encouraging the acquisition of college debt, which leaves students penurious and financially inflexible for much of their working lives.

Ms. DeVos, if she is to achieve what is needed, has a great deal of work ahead of her. But most of it will consist of undoing past mistakes.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)