May 25, 2001


Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.

Henry Brooks Adams

It amazes me that, out of an education system which everyone says is bad, the products of that system produce things that work and work well. Please bear with me while I try to figure out why.

Despite what we read and hear, most of the people who come out of our education system do fairly well. They can do a job, earn enough money to raise a family, own and maintain a home and produce a product that ranges from okay to excellent. This also applies to many people who are almost illiterate.

Most of the things that are produced in our world work extremely well. A modern automobile can be expected to run for at least 150,000 miles with little more than routine maintenance. The same reliability exists in most household products. Our country produces much more food than it can consume and the quality of most of it is as good or better than what was produced in the past. The things that are done by computers and automated machinery are nothing short of miraculous. True, it took great ability and skill to create those things, but it takes little skill or know-how to operate them. It doesn't take a genius to push a button or turn a wheel. Out of the wide spectrum of ability and competence, there is work for all but those at the very bottom end of the scale. Even they can find a useful job that pays money if they are willing to get to work on time and work while they are there.

This leads me to suspect that the success of our industrial society may not be because of the education system, but in spite of it. Very much worse education systems produced a Galileo, a Coppernicus, a Darwin and a Mendel. The last century has produced the computer, ventures into space and a few medical miracles. Everyone has parents and, despite the fact that most parents are too young to know what they are doing, they manage to produce an acceptable product and, in some cases, an exceptional one.

Both the Republicans and the Democrats give lip service to testing and accountability despite the fact that neither have much to do with what kids learn. Nor do nice buildings and classrooms make a hellofa difference. What does matter is a culture that emphasizes learning and work, parents who nurture their kids and teachers who know how and what to teach. You can point to a beautiful school building with pride, but the important things that make a teacher effective are hard to pin down. You can evaluate a teacher by what the kids produce, but a lot of that may be the kid, not the teacher; although a teacher has to know enough not to squelch a child's enthusiasm. You can point to test scores and compare schools and countries. What does it mean? Nothing! But you can point to it in much the same way that you point to the clown in a parade, with about the same significance.

Every politician wants to improve education and has a scheme to do it with. None of them will have much effect. I suspect that the more effort that is made by bureaucrats to fix the system, the worse it will get.

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