Of Education and Dinosaurs

The Education System Is Obsolete

The American schoolhouse has followed the same model for a very long time. Technology has changed over the decades, of course. The combustion engine replaced horses, and the word “notebook” has taken on an additional meaning.  We need to come to terms with a simple fact: The Education System is obsolete and has been so for a while.

Still, we rouse our children at the crack of dawn, load them onto buses, or drive them to a building constructed and maintained with our tax dollars. Once through the doors, they are directed to a room with about 30 or so of their peers, and sit for a lecture on a pre-determined subject. Then a bell rings, and they move themselves to another room. Repeat.

Good Little Automatons…

This is the Prussian Model. Horace Mann, in charge of education for the State of Massachusetts adopted this model for his state education system in the 1840s. Every education department in the United States adopted this model in short order.

The idea was to prepare children for the rapidly industrializing world.  An assembly line system, based on rote tasks.

A few decades later, John Dewey, another influential figure in American education tweaked this system. Today’s schoolhouse remains virtually unchanged since the U.S. Calvary chased Geronimo through Skeleton Canyon.

Educations: Mr. Principal, your replacement is here. | @manningthewall.com

Mr. Principal, your replacement is here.

The United States, and much of the world’s public and higher education systems have calcified. Compounding the problem is a culture of arrogance. And why shouldn’t the administrators of these systems remain arrogant? They are flush with tax dollars and any talk of closing the valve, even a little bit, is both socially unacceptable (you must hate “the children”) and political suicide.  Even talk of cutting increases is couched in terms of “starving the children.”

Never the less, the system is obsolete and all the confiscatory taxes in the world won’t keep it from collapsing of its own weight. Here are the two reasons why:

1. The 6th Grade.

95% of all jobs start here. Every newspaper and magazine article you’ve read. Each and every work of fiction, how-to manual, and coffee table book. Every repair manual and set of assembly instructions. Everything you’ve read on the internet. Including what you’re reading now.  6th grade level.

As far as mathematics goes, virtually none of us have ever needed calculus, trigonometry, or algebra. The four functions of basic arithmetic – addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division plus a basic working knowledge of geometry will keep you employed. By the way, when you internalize the fact that multiplication is just fast adding and division is merely fast subtraction, a huge chunk of the world falls into place.

2. YouTube.

Communication has become pervasive and instant. We can all thank the less than 1% of people who have gone beyond 6th grade mathematics to give us the Internet. Instructional videos on every subject are out there. Every. Subject. Pick you platform: YouTube, Daily Motion, Vimeo, Metacafe, Life Hacker, and Tinypic to name just a few. Need something repeated? Just click on the rewind button.

Want to learn mathematics? Just go to the Khan academy. It’s all there.


There are still a few occupations requiring a student and teacher to interact. Here is a sampling:

Anything mechanical. Becoming a good diesel mechanic requires guided hands-on practice. Same thing with HVAC systems.

Carpentry. This is also an exception to the 6th grade mathematical standard. Most carpenters need a significant knowledge of geometry beyond the 6th grade level. But again, the theory can be easily taught through video instruction.

Note that the common factor is that these occupations and skills require some form of apprenticeship.

Even Before the Internet…

One of my college professors told a pretty funny story back in the 80’s which may or may not have been true. Over the summer, a college professor recorded all of his lectures on cassette tape. On the first day of class, after getting all the administrative details out of the way, he pressed play and just sat there. After two weeks of apparent success, he had his graduate assistant bring in the cassette player. Mid-way through the semester he decided to check up on the class and walked in on a room of 20 cassette players recording the lecture

Now, interaction with a mentor and teacher is useful. Once market forces are brought to bear, that interaction can be done remotely. In other words, the best teachers will rise to the top. A single teacher can pass on his knowledge to hundreds of students, eliminating the need for administrators, school buildings, and a host of other factors serving only to confiscate your labor.

What will happen to all those jobs? What will they do? They will adjust to the new economic realities. Ask anyone who used to make vinyl records for a living. Or carburetors. Or mag cards (what? Look it up). Or buggy whips. Or buggies for that matter.

Going beyond.

It’s useful to remember the primary determining factor in an individual’s education: Internal motivation. But learning is hard. And propensity (or talent, if you prefer) matters. Internal motivation and talent. Most people don’t have it beyond a certain level of comfort.  Those two factors are why the ratio of engineers to baristas is what it is.


About Phil Christensen

The trail behind me is littered with failure. The trail before me remains to be seen.
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