Yesterday I went to a panel by Niven and Pournelle on their upcoming book on how to save civilization.
The premise of the book is that there is a dinosaur-killer headed for us, and we have to shift fast to save civilization. This permits some liberties with social society but, most importantly, it focuses the mind wonderfully.
The part of the panel I listened to (yes, I wanted to go to all of it, but kids getting anywhere at Liberty con is like a slalom course of meeting old acquaintances and new fans and there’s a high chance I’ll be late for everything, or sidetracked entirely (more on that later)) came to the conclusion that first we had to reform education. Which is right.
But as I sat there, nodding and occasionally clapping, several things came to me about how to save education – from itself – which is of course the way to save civilization.
First, the way to do it is to make its mission clear and narrow. At another part of the panel, Jerry said that if they fired all the incompetent teachers, they would – of course – have nowhere to go, but it wasn’t his job in this book to care about those people. It was only his job to save civilization.
It occurred to me that our civilization has got lost in the weeds because of mission drift. We’ve gone from “making sure enough people have enough to eat and can raise the next generation and avoid getting killed” to “we want to make sure everyone is happy, has fulfilling life, never ever ever experiences anything even vaguely offensive and unfair, etc.
That is not the job of civilization. I don’t know whose job it might be, except perhaps G-d’s, but it’s not the job of civilization and can’t be done by a mere group of humans.
In the same way, our education has gone from being narrow and focused “we want every kid to read” to “we want every kid to know enough to be perfectly happy, fulfilled, caring, never make anyone unhappy, and live a perfect life.
This is not education. This is redemption. Any system not inspired or run by angels will fall short.
They also touched on “not every kid is meant to go to college.” This is true. The problem is that we’re having too few kids – no. Don’t argue. Whether human population is still growing or not (bet you a dime it’s not. It’s all statistically hoccus poccus. Take away the bullshit and made up people and I bet you we’re already falling, life extension notwithstanding) we in the west are having too few kids – and therefore there’s an impulse to recruit all of them to maintain our technological civilization.
For all I know the impulse might be there because we need every one of them. What do I know?
BUT having too few kids creates the “all too precious child” syndrome that in turn forces us to pound our little square pegs into round holes at enormous costs for everyone.
My grandparents generation accepted pragmatically that one child out of six, even in very smart families might be “school stupid” and have them learn a trade instead. Our one such is wealthier than all his siblings combined, because he invented a new apparatus to do what his trade did.
He wasn’t stupid. He just hated reading. He CAN read, mind. He hates it though.
Now, our schooling is designed to do everything, and doesn’t do practically anything. Like publishing it’s so dysfunctional that the first alternative will topple it.
BUT when that happens, we’re still stuck with governmental requirements that insist kids must know very odd things, like how to conserve water.
Other than an asteroid headed for us, what we need to do is make learning cheap and ubiquitous. The net is doing that for us. Then, if we must have requirements from government (no, I don’t think we must, but hey, who am I?) make them basic and clear. “Every kid must know how to read and do simple multiplication and division.”
From then on leave them alone. If learning is ubiquitous, cheap and rewarding, they’ll do it. Not everyone must read Shakespeare and know calculus. It’s not your mission to save them. ONLY to save civilization.