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Education and Social Programming - let’s re-write our codes to optimize the world
Alex McGilvery   Jul 7, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Why are we preparing children to live in an environment that no longer exists?  The future generation needs new rules and lessons.

A while back Shaggz commented on an IEET discussion thread that religion should be evaluated in the same way as any other technology to decide how useful it is in the modern context. His point was that we have moved from pen and ink to typewriters to computers and at some point to direct input to computer by thought.  Anyone in the transhumanism community can talk about the exponential curve of technological progress in our present time.  Our children look at things that we never dreamed of existing as not only commonplace, but often obsolete.

Social progress has not kept pace with technological progress. We may be adaptable primates with all kinds of cool gear, but we are essentially still adaptable primates. Institutions such as government, business, religion and education remain very much as they have been. It is as if we were still trying to run our modern supercomputers on DOS. I suppose it would be possible, but it certainly isn’t the best way of using the new technology.

A social technology in the context that I am speaking of here is a process that we use to interface with the world and each other and/or the method of teaching that interface to the next generation.
I will take education as an example. Sir Ken Robinson talks about how our education system is outmoded. It is primarily set up as a system for creating the next generation of workers.  To break down education into its component parts we find that literacy and social training are the norm early in the process. It is vital to open the doors of literacy to young people as early as possible.  Social training is important as well.

Indeed Robert Fulghum wrote a book entitled “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”.  He lists the lessons that Kindergarten attempts to teach. This is a part of that list:

Share everything.



Play fair.

Don’t hit people. 



Put things back where you found them. 



Clean up your own mess. 



Don’t take things that aren’t yours.



Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

As students progress into other subjects they start to learn other messages than what they learned in Kindergarten. They learn to conform, to only ask safe questions, that the world isn’t fair, that it is always someone else’s fault, that there is only one right way – the way they’ve been taught, and probably the most important lesson – don’t get caught. Our education system is predicated on teaching the young what to think and making sure that they will be ready for the ‘real world’ when they graduate.

Most of the assumptions about education are based on the primary assumption that the teacher has the answers and the students need to learn those answers. This is sent up marvelously in the Simpson’s episode in which Lisa steals all the answers books from the teachers. The reality is that answers are easy. They are all over the internet. Anyone can have an answer to almost any question in a matter of minutes as long as they have a computer and internet access. The problem is that not all answers are created equal; some are better than others, some are wrong. What we need to be teaching is how to evaluate the answers they find, not what answers are acceptable.

Education is much more complex than I’ve presented here, but the basic fact that we are educating children for a world that no longer exists is still true. So what do we do about it?

Education reform has been kicked around for decades. We know the system is mostly failing, but we don’t know how to fix it. I suspect a large part of our struggle is that we don’t really know what we want from education. Rather than tweaking standardized tests or comparing our children to those in Korea or Sweden, maybe we need to start by talking about what the end product of education should be. This is where we need to separate information from learning.

It is no longer necessary to pass on information. It is already available. What we do need to pass on is the ability to think creatively and critically about the information that is available.  If technology continues to progress at its present rate we will need minds that are able to think in ways that we find hard to imagine right now. Teachers could spend much less time teaching information and much more teaching thinking skills.

The basic rubrics of education are still functional; bring children and adults together to teach literacy and social skills. The shift will be that the end goal will not be a class that knows the correct answer, but children who can come up with new answers and evaluate their usefulness. People are experimenting with different ways of accomplishing this goal.

A similar analysis of government, business and religion are also possible. In each case we are functioning in a way that actually holds us back. Old systems fail to provide the necessary framework to function in the modern world.  The profit over every model of modern corporate capitalism is destroying resources. The assumption that democracy is about voting and not accountability is creating politic structures that fear making any change. The concept of religion as being the arbiter of “TRUTH” is creating division and misunderstanding among people who would otherwise be cooperating.

There is no easy way to re-write our program. I don’t think it is impossible. The beginning is for individuals to take to heart the list of learning from Fulghum’s book above. That immediately puts social accountability above other motivations.

I would add a couple that need to be there before people are ready to change the world:

Ask questions.

Think for yourself.

Alex McGilvery is currently living in Flin Flon, Manitoba, Canada. He is an author and serves as the minister of a thriving United Church congregation.



COMMENTS

Crucial topic.
You got the important points, here is some anecdotal observation:
what is frustrating about America (without living in Canada for decades, I can’t know anything substantial about it) is it can do agriculture better than anyone has, ever-  unfortunately the commodification that works well in productivity does not work in American education: decade after decade education reform in America lags behind many nations—and America’s Education As Business IMO does not help. It isn’t so much the quality of education, it is the cost.. if education cost $1 per year per capita, it would be the biggest bargain in the history of education—but the cost is so high I don’t want to know what the sums are, it is too depressing. Years ago it was half a trillion in total, who knows what it is today.

The GOP, Tea Partiers, and libertarians chant “school choice”; “rein in education unions”; “back to basics” (whose basics? the US is not a small homogenous nation; basics for latinos and others is not the same for whites) decade after decade, but they don’t do anything about it because they really do not know what to do.
I do not think maximizing school choice, reining in education unions, going ‘back’ (was there ever any true cohesiveness in education?) to basics would make more than a negligible difference if any. A SNAFU continuing for more than four decades has got to include far more than choice, unions and basics. The underlying flaw is almost certainly how families care about their own children, but not others’ to any real degree; numerous children living in slums is evidence of such, hard evidence. However this is too radical for my liking because I don’t see a serious intent to change underlying, fundamental flaws.. only superficials.

I think you are right Intomorrow, education reform is often just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Before we can move forward we need to decide what our end product will be. Making changes without a solid understanding of where we want to go will make things worse.

It seems to me that we really need to think about what traits the next generations will need to thrive in the world as it is. Once we have a handle on that we can look at what pedagogy will encourage those traits.

While education is vital, it is only one part of the ‘operating system’ of our culture that needs to be re-written. Most of our institutions are still functioning as if it were the Twentieth or even the Nineteenth Century.

Exactly.
You touched on the main issues in your piece, I mentioned the political SNAFUs which dominate life to an extraordinary degree considering the pettiness involved. Here is a paradox/ conundrum or something else (can’t keep them straight): one advantage of Postwar education was the linkage to previous generations’ arcane knowledge & wisdom—and probably of equal import, the generations themselves. Which is why I feel sorry for the younger set.. they are not inculcated with the patrimony still appearing quite valuable in the Postwar era (circa 1945- ‘68, say). All the same, today my judgment call would be that the value of patrimony has past its shelf life; better to err on the side of the present- future (we don’t want to excessively reject the present) by sweeping as much of the past away in education as possible. Students can live without Silas Marner and Moby Dick. Why in the 21st century should HS Econ students read Adam Smith and Riccardo? or Milton Friedman and all the rest? Pete Wicks brought up something I had no idea of: Descartes is old hat (comparable to a Communist being told Marx is outdated).
Perhaps a way to go is teach students the three ‘R’s, followed by science and math, with everything else being elective. The advantages might outweigh the disadvantages.

It does little good to try to change the system unless we have some idea of what we want to achieve in its place.

I would like to see children taught critical thinking skills. How do we encourage them to come up with a hundred different answers and pick the best one? We are no longer in a position to just try and teach the one answer because as often as not it is wrong.

I do agree that basic literacy and numeracy is key; social skills too. Everything else will fall into place in its own time. There are more and more resources for learning outside of traditional education. Why not let people learn what they need to learn?

“It does little good to try to change the system unless we have some idea of what we want to achieve in its place.”


Right again.
I haven’t the faintest idea what to do, where to start in reforming education—and wonder if the public does or even has any notion of what it wants. Don’t know about elsewhere, however in the Midwest the strong impression is (the public isn’t going to come out and say it) discussions concerning education are 95 percent crypto-defense of the status quo, with old fools such as Ross Perot saying “if it aint broke don’t fix it”; in other words his sort are from the Old School and want it to remain Old School even if the expiration date was 1957 or some year.
Something about universities comes to mind. As has been said many times, we want students to get a comprehensive education; yet it depends on the price as well: paying $500 (or more) per credit hour for courses like French Bulimic Studies and History Of Lesbian Ballet doesn’t bother me, and if the tuition were to be $5 per credit hour, students would wait in line for hours at the registrar window—cost is a large factor. What does concern me is how universities secretly think liberal arts is a cash cow to obtain funds for research; nothing wrong with that, nevertheless it means universities probably think little of liberal art degrees’ value on the outside save for teaching.

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