Do we need schools?

Last week, in this space, posed the question of what might happen if we took seriously the matter of what people know, understand, and can use – rather than what they had studied.  

For several decades, a serious minority of educational thinkers have questioned American society’s insistence upon using schools and colleges as certifiers of knowledge and competency.  

Meanwhile, most of us, even otherwise hard-headed corporate types, continue to use high school diplomas, college degrees and educational transcripts as evidence that potential individuals possess certain knowledge and abilities.  

And the result has been that American students and families – not to mention government at all levels – waste staggering amounts of money on an increasingly expensive educational system which simply doesn’t meet society’s needs.

And the bizarre thing is, we all know it.  

We all know teenagers who have walked across a stage to collect a high school diploma – yet who could not write a coherent sentence, calculate correct change, or name any president of the United States before Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.

Every September, countless parents pray that their academically-indifferent offspring, having managed to fool some unwary admissions department, will actually manage to learn something more than drinking games for the hundred-thousand-plus investment of sending him to college.

All over America, millions of overworked adults try to fit night school or online classes into the demands of job and family life in order to be considered for a better-paying position.

Now, if all this sacrifice of time and expense actually resulted in a better-informed, more thoughtful, and – above all – more inventive and entrepreneurial citizenry, no one would question its value.

But the problem is this:  We don’t pay our schools to make us better-informed or more thoughtful.  We pay them to provide us with pieces of paper, showing what courses we’ve taken and what grades we obtained.

We pay our schools billions of dollars to teach us how to conform to various arbitrary rules, from raising our hands and standing in line in kindergarten, to writing papers telling some professor what she wants to hear in college, to crafting a thesis or dissertation to satisfy the predilections of The Committee in grad school.

None of which has much to do with learning, or thinking, for ourselves.

Perhaps this explains why many of our society’s most successful corporations were founded by college dropouts.  Perhaps Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and dozens of less famous high-tech wizards finally realized that schooling, in America, has become the absolute antithesis of education.

It’s something to think about.

For this much is certain:  The internet, which is still in its early adolescence, already contains more correct and useful information than any of us could master in a thousand lifetimes.  

Of course, there’s also an enormous amount of incorrect information, to say nothing of outright lies.  And there are countless invitations to waste time.

On the other hand, to a shrewd and discriminating mind, the potential for self-education is now, almost absolutely, unlimited.  

Which leads to the unavoidable question:  Why do we still need schools?

Because, at least in my humble opinion, we still do need schools.  But not in the sense that we have them today.

A few paragraphs ago, I suggested that any modern American, with shrewd and discriminating mind, could essentially educate himself or herself.

The problem is to develop a shrewd and discriminating mind.  Or, as Neil  Postman – one of my favorite educational thinkers – put it, to develop a good crap-detector.

If we turned our schools to the development of industrious, self-disciplined citizens, armed with adequate research skills and good crap-detectors, we could essentially get out of the business of providing information.

Today, smart, disciplined, motivated people, with the wit to distinguish between valid information and nonsense, could pretty much educate  themselves.

The necessary task, it seems to me, is to reconfigure our educational system to turn our industrious, disciplined, critically-thinking individuals.

The bridge to the future, then, would involve developing a wide range of reliable tests to establish what people actually know, and what they can actually do.

Some such tests already exist.  And smart people are working very hard to develop others.

Which brings us around to the hard part.

Assuming we can redesign our schools to liberate people, rather than train them, we will need to begin eliminating meaningless requirements – when they are actually meaningless.  

Instead of insisting that people jump through the endless hoops of formal education, we need to say that, if an individual can demonstrate that she already knows something, or can do something, that’s enough.  

Eliminating requirements for formal “schooling” – when knowledge or competency could be demonstrated in some other way – would liberate more money, talent, and entrepreneurial energy than any other single reform we could undertake.

And until we do this, we’re just wasting time.


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