Part 1 here.
Our colleges and universities may be a mess in general, but, if the goal is passing on certain technical or vocational knowledge and techniques at least they have historically ‘worked’ in that regard. The problems are less with the model of education used than with the ship of arrogant fools who run the show. But that is a topic for another post – now, let’s just look at one proven method for educating people: The US college model.
The key components of the model are to aggregate a group of experts, people who have demonstrated knowledge and skill in their field (again, this is how is has historically worked, and still mostly does work) and then, for a fee, people can take classes from and converse with these experts, as well as other people interested in learning what the experts know. To master many more advanced levels of expertise require a series of classes from a variety of experts, as well as field work, laboratory and study time outside of class. It is the colleges job to set up the proper course of studies with the proper experts in order, as well as to determine if the student has reached a level of knowledge and expertise required as prerequisites to taking the desired course of study. Successful completion of a course of studies, as judged by the experts at the college, qualifies the student to be a master or teacher of the subject matter.
This is roughly the model of university education followed since the invention of the university in the 13th century.
And it works: millions upon millions of people have mastered a wide variety of subjects this way. Note that the age of the student does not, for the most part, enter into the discussion at all. People routinely start college as young as 15 and as old as 50. While you may travel through your studies with a cohort of roughly the same age, you may not – it’s not an issue. Knowing the prerequisites and passing the classes are what matter, not what age you are.
Now imagine that you wanted to learn something, and there is a school in the neighborhood that promised to teach it to you. You show up, and the first question: how old are you? You get grouped, not with the people who want to learn what you want to learn and have met the prerequisites, but with all the 55 year olds regardless of interests and skills. You show up for class, and are seated in a desk and told to sit still while the instructor starts in on stuff you already know, or is completely unrelated to what you are interested in, or both. Your mind wanders for 40 minutes, when a bell rings and the subject changes to another you couldn’t care less about – but no worries, the bell rings again 40 minutes later, and you’re off to another subject – finally, something you are interested in! But 40 minutes in, the bell rings again – just as things were starting to get good! – and you are given a few minutes to use the restroom, grab some lunch, and get back at it – to another subject of no interest. At the end of the day, you’ve spent 40 minutes on what interested you, 5 and half hours on stuff you didn’t care about, and have a pile of homework you don’t care about.
And you get to do it all again tomorrow, the next day, all week, all month, for years on end.
If you’re really persistent and – this is most important – don’t make any trouble for the teachers, after years of this, you might get to move on. Whether or not you learned whatever it was that interested you is irrelevant. Did you show up? Do the homework? Go along with the program? Congratulation – here’s a diploma.
Now of course no sane adult outside the education departments of your local universities would put up with this for a minute. Only a power-drunk maniac would would attempt to impose such “education” on an adult, and we’d like to think there’s no chance they could get away with it. Such schooling would be instantly recognized as abuse – for adults. No adult would willingly do it – unless the law compelled them with draconian penalties.
Yet, this is the experience of our kids every day. A lot of 6 year olds already know how to read, or pick it up quickly – but they will sit through classes directed at those that don’t for at least a couple years. A lot of 10 year olds already get fractions and long division – yet, they will sit through classes aimed at those who don’t. And so on – I doubt any kid perfectly maps to the instruction given in each grade, being always behind or ahead at least in some classes. But there’s no testing out, no skipping the classes you don’t want to take, no going over the period limit to continue to pursue those rare topics that actually interest you. No acting like a reasonable human being, in other words.
Oh, sure, a combination of Pavlovian rewards and Stockholm Syndrome eventually kick in for most kids, so that they can endure it without going completely insane. And, just to make things even more emotionally confusing, some of the teachers are really nice and really try to teach the kids stuff, and all the adults and especially their parents seem to agree that doing this is a good idea. Few kids are self assured enough or loved unconditionally enough to buck that sort of environment pressure.
But we know at least one example of what real education looks like: college classes. There are several more examples of true learning everybody knows: tutors – one on one or one on few instruction; music lessons (a form of tutoring); apprenticeships (which many jobs are designed to approximate in the early going); and a million forms of self-study, from reading books to working through Khan academy videos.
Why not use those methods? As mentioned in the first post in this series, that’s what people, including some historically brilliant people, did. It’s what every truly well educated person still does. Conversely, a person who has blasted through 13 years of schooling, and then applied what they learned to another 4 -10 years of college without ever seriously pursuing any of those other methods tends strongly to be, in my experience, a total intellectual cripple who wouldn’t know a real thought if it bit them in the hindquarters. But they make useable middle managers in firms that don’t require any real thought.
Why do we do the graded classroom model, again? What, exactly, are we trying to teach kids?