See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Education is Worse Now Because it’s Harder Now

Last week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry went a little crazy after a bunch of well educated professional political reporters flipped out over the creepiness of David Brat’s use of the phrase “monopoly on the use of force” in reference to government. For those of you who were not paying attention during any of your studies that involve the modern state:

the concept of the state having “a monopoly on the [legitimate] use of force” is a quotation from the highly reputed and important German sociologist Max Weber, and is a concept that is absolutely basic to our modern understanding of the State. Anyone who has taken polisci 101 or sociology 101 or political philosophy 101 or history of ideas 101 ought to have encountered the phrase. It is about as offensive as saying that donuts have holes.

What followed was a fine rant from Gobry about not only how American schools have obviously failed to teach our students the basics, but we’ve failed to do the basics for all of the wrong reasons:

Nobody stops to ask what education is for, because the answer is implicitly accepted by all: an education is for getting a job. It is, in other words, for being a cog in the giant machine of post-industrial capitalism. It is, in other words, for the opposite thing that our forefathers wanted for us. I do not use these words lightly, but it is against–in the sense that a headwind is against a ship–the very foundations of our liberty and our civilization.

Gobry followed up today by prescribing a course of small group tutoring sessions, as many deep full book dives into Great Books as possible, and no exams. I’m not sure if he’s offering this as a marginal improvement in the pedagogy of the humanities, or a model for the remaking of all secondary schooling across multiple subjects as “liberal arts education” can mean either of those things in context. Maybe it doesn’t matter, since everything is tied together, and I don’t just mean the zero-sum game of pie division when it comes to education budgets and instructional time. Let me introduce two interlocking concepts to explain the why and the how of education: self-efficacy and cultural literacy.

Self-efficacy is a term for the confidence a person has in their ability to accomplish tasks and solve problems. Self-efficacy is not the same thing as self-esteem. Self-esteem is an overall sense of self-worth and it turns out there is no natural law against combining narcissism and broad incompetence. See., e.g., certain unnamed TV pundits. Rather, self-efficacy is a sense of mastery of the moving parts in accomplishing a goal. “I know how to do my job” instead of “I’m the best at my job”; “I can fix this flat tire” instead of “I have the best car”; and not “I’m too special to fail” but “I can learn what I need to do.” The last sort is particularly important, because self-efficacy is built in positive feedback loops and destroyed in negative feedback loops. The more you succeed in doing a thing, the more able you feel to do a more challenging version of that thing. Conversely the more you fail, the less able and willing you are to learn. The more you risk failure and gain success in learning something completely new the more you able you are to learn new things in the future. Self-efficacy drives self-esteem as a matter of course, bolstering student drive to take risks to learn, even though the reverse is not true. The bottom line is that teaching a student a skill or body of knowledge, ”any” skill or body of knowledge, helps them learn ”every other skill and body of knowledge” now and perpetually into the future. Now that we’ve got a foundational “how?” out of the way, we move onto a foundational “what”, cultural literacy.

Cultural literacy is a concept introduced by E.D. Hirsh to explain to describe the essential knowledge of a person in a society, polity or culture. Cultural literacy as a concept builds on the literal sort of literacy: the body of knowledge and skills used to decipher the signs, symbols and rules of language in order to communicate in that language. Cultural literacy is the body of essential knowledge and skills required to get by in a culture. Language is a big part of that, such as being able to understand idiomatic phrases and references to great works of art in a president’s speech. It is also the historical knowledge to contextualize From there we have also developed terms like “computer literacy” (the skills and knowledge needed to understand and operate computers), “media literacy” (the skills and knowledge to interpret media and notice when they are lying to you), and “religious literacy” (the skills and knowledge to comprehend religions and religiosity), but really we’re talking about sub parts of the same thing. There are a lot of stark practical consequences to cultural illiteracy, just as there are to the plain sort of illiteracy. The world is full of gatekeepers. If you can’t read the instructions, you’re not going to be able to apply to a job with a paper application. If you can’t understand the idiomatic speech, you’re going to have a hard time getting through that interview, or networking with your peers and bosses. In order to survive, let a lone thrive, in the modern world, everyone needs, at a minimum, a particular body of knowledge and skills to interpret the world and coexist with the people around them ”in addition” to whatever specialized role they take up in society.

So, Gobry is right when he complains that education shouldn’t just be about “being good at math and computers, because otherwise the Chinamen are going to take all our jorbs”, but also the creation and maintenance of a free citizenry. But math and science are also a part of that! Our culture is in fact also shaped by math and science and technology, now more than ever, and thus math and science are also part of the body of skills and knowledge that makes a person culturally literate. Without cultural literacy, external gatekeepers will prevent someone from thriving and further learning essential knowledge and skills. As external gatekeepers control specialized learning, self-efficacy drops. As self-efficacy drops, desire to learn outside of one’s specialty drops. And that’s how we get political reporters who don’t know Max Weber.

What does that all add up to? The same broad-based foundation essential for students entering the job market is the same broad-based foundation essential for maintaining a free citizenry. Which is why Gobry’s plan of Great Books with No Exams probably won’t work.

Gobry wants to dive into the Great Books, and maximize complete book reading. Well, without diving too deep into the canon wars, the canon is not a static thing. The educated elite of old could share a canon because there were culturally and socioeconomically homogeneous and the canon was pretty small. The world is both bigger and flatter now, and we’re no longer interested in only educating the sons and daughters of aristocrats. The canon has lost a few members, but it has gained many more. Outside of books, the body of knowledge and skill required to be culturally literate has also grown. We’re not going to be able to teach everything people need to know about computers and coding principles just by getting rid of cursive, especially when parents and politicians scream bloody murder getting rid of cursive. Just imagine how they’ll scream when you try to toss away the exams.

I too, am no fan of paper tests and credentialism, but examinations are actually important as a method for learning in and of themselves and also a tool that builds self-efficacy. Examinations are a mirror used to assess how much knowledge the self actually has. Now, the typical paper examinations infesting our schools are better understood as a method of learning how to cram and bullshit your way through exams. As I have said beforein other contexts, many problems are actually emergent, and the testing crisis is a sour spot between the current practice of flooding students with them and outside pressures enforcing high stakes, and not an indictment of examinations per se. Of course, making low stake examinations that are accurate assessments is hard, and it is another skill that students will have to master in their limited time. If you make custom examinations for different subjects, you multiply the skills required. Doing education right takes a lot of time. Survey courses and less-terrible-than-current-but-still-mediocre examinations may be the least bad solution.

This is part of what I meant when I said in my post on Common Core that education is more difficult than people realize. There is more to teach to more people and we can’t make more time. Even if we could (and we can stretch out the school year) there are significant diminishing returns as you try to cram more knowledge into a student’s brain. There are biochemical upper bounds on attention that you can’t discipline away and students need time outside of homework and the classroom to digest information, form social bonds, and actually enjoy school and life. If proper education is inherently this difficult even assuming a well-loved white American child with two active parents, four engaged grandparents, one and half siblings that has a stable safe life, respected in the broad community with enough wealth to stave off biological needs, how much harder is it when you’re designing an education system for those who didn’t win the sperm lottery?

Gobry stands in for hundreds upon thousands of intelligent, informed, and well-meaning non-experts who are passionate about education and understand that the status-quo is unacceptable. I talk to them whenever I can, and I’ve never met someone who has responded to my interest in education reform with “nah, it’s fine.” So why can’t we agree on fixing it? Perhaps because it is a task is as difficult as it is necessary. The first threshold in mastering a body of knowledge or a skill is to understand how much it is you do not know.


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