Monday, February 21, 2011

The Education That Isn't

Last month, the President of the United States called for a better-educated populace. If you missed that speech, don’t worry, it expressed the same sentiment presidents have been expressing in speeches for the last few generations. Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, and Carter have all insisted that the future of America depends on our schools steeping students more deeply in the essences of math and science. Of course, we all understand that when our presidents insist on more math and science, what they’re really asking for is more financiers and engineers. And the reason we all understand this is because we all also understand that, in America, the word “education” is really just a euphemism for some job training you must go into debt for before you’re allowed to actually apply for a job.

Another thing we all know, but don’t really understand, is that, despite all these calls for a better-educated populace, Americans have become increasingly more poorly-educated. And this is what’s wrong with euphemisms. Sure, it sounds better to say “education” instead of “job training that companies can’t be bothered to do themselves anymore,” but if you keep saying it long enough, you might start believing that it’s really so. And, then, you might just end up with an education system that doesn’t even try to educate and not even be able to recognize it. Listen to Neil Postman, a chairman at NYU’s School of Education, describe the average American professional as someone who “barely has even a superficial knowledge of literature, philosophy, social history, or art ... and is not expected to have such knowledge.” Remember, Postman isn’t describing the average American, he’s describing the average American with a graduate degree and a professional license, presumably one of the best and brightest members of our society.

If you’re not bothered by even our best and brightest knowing nothing other than how to do their jobs, then you should be, because a healthy, robust society requires a populace which is a lot more than just a collection of workers hoping to earn wages. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, believed that the purpose of education was to provide everyone with the ability to engage in intelligent debate on the issues which affect their society. John Locke believed education should produce a civil, and literate, populace which wouldn’t be so short-sighted that they would spend their time trying to sabotage each other. Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed education should free people from the habits instilled by corrupted institutions. And we, well, we believe education should prepare us for a job at ACME. See what’s wrong?

What’s wrong is that we didn’t say no when companies decided that they didn’t want to be bothered with the expense of job training anymore and insisted that our education system pick up their slack. After all, they had the jobs to offer, so we went along with their rules. But their rules had consequences far greater than just producing higher profit margins by pushing job training costs onto the public. And their rules had consequences even greater than producing generations of student trainees saddled with decades worth of college debt for skills that no longer matched the current employment market. The real consequence of their rules was the creation of a populace which could no longer see education as anything other than technical training, a populace which would accept more rigidity, more testing, and more stringent qualifications for work and school, and a populace which would insist on an ever more specialized, disjointed, and narrow notion of what an education is.

This populace has scoffed at the humanities because who’s going to employ a social studies, philosophy, rhetoric, history, or literature major? But these are exactly the studies that epitomize a useful education. These are the studies which bring context and meaning to life. These are the studies that provide understanding, inform discourse, spur creativity, and solve problems. When we ignore, or even throw away, those studies which could create a genuinely-educated populace, we also ignore and throw away our chances for meaningful discourse and progress. We face serious problems in economics, ecology, and politics, none of which are going to be solved, or even understood, by people trained solely for engineering or finance, yet we pretend that training people for these jobs will insure that everything will turn out okay.

As Heather Wilson, a former congressman who has also sat on the selection committee for Rhodes scholars, put it, “Our universities fail ... the nation if they continue to graduate students with expertise in biochemistry or mathematics” but are “less able to grapple with issues that require them to think ... or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why.” We shouldn’t be surprised that our public discourse sounds more like a Three Stooges film than a Socratic dialog when our students are never even told who Socrates was, other than some Greek philosopher who killed himself by drinking too much hemlock.

If we really want a more educated society, then we’ll need to recast education as something other than a prerequisite for profit-making. We’ll need to recognize that education is a precursor for a civil society. Employers can train employees. Schools must educate citizens.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Why the Only Business of America Is Business

Last week, Americans flocked to the polls to engage in their biannual election ritual. In America, voting is — as every schoolchild is taught — a very important responsibility.

According to the most popular theory of representative democracy, voting is the method through which the populace selects representatives, who must take moderate policy stances on those issues which different groups of citizens have voiced concerns over, in order to win a majority of votes and serve in public office.

Most of us would like to believe this is true, largely because it sounds good. But, as polls have repeatedly shown, most of us also suspect that things don’t really work this way.

And so, another, very popular, theory of representative democracy gets passed around outside of school. Voting is how citizens keep in-check all those politicians who keep using the potent central government to amass more and more control over our lives for the state.

While this theory allows Americans to express their cynicism about politics — and is frequently one of the main themes of election-year rhetoric — it, also, doesn’t really explain the American political process.

Take the recent, several-year-long, squabble over health-care reform in America. If elected representatives really act moderately on behalf of voters’ concerns, then why did it take almost a century for citizens’ concerns over the cost and availability of health care to become a genuine public-policy issue? And why did the results end up being so lame that most citizens consider health-care reform to have been a complete failure?

And, if representatives really wish only to seize more power and control for the central government, then why have they repeatedly failed to create socialized medical care, or at least socialized medical insurance, when every other developed nation has found it quite easy, and very popular, to do so for over a century? And why has every president, even those with immense popularity, like Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, or Harry Truman, who ever broached the idea of government-managed health-care funding, suddenly found himself a persona non grata within his own government?

The truth is, in America, elected officials neither represent voters’ concerns, nor are they interested in expanding government power. Instead, they represent the concerns of those who finance their campaigns and employ lobbyists. Citizens can vote, if they like, but they will only have the opportunity to vote for those who will represent the big businesses that can afford to sponsor candidates and purchase influence.

In order to understand how this situation came about, you’ll need to understand both the nature of power and the history of institutionalized power in the West.

Power is, simply put, the ability to achieve desired results. Mostly, it comes in four variations: authority, reference, resources, and coercion. Authority is the willingness to arbitrate disputes and accept responsibility for group action. Reference is the ability to make sense of things or know how to do things. Resourcefulness is the capacity to determine how materials will be used and distributed. And coercion is just punishing or misleading others.

Long ago, the institutions that people created to make their lives simpler started exerting more power over their people than vice versa, largely because it had made sense for people to create their institutions around one or more power bases. For instance, government and courts exercise authoritative power, the church and academy exercise reference power, merchants and corporations exercise the power of resource distribution, and the military and police exercise coercive power.

Not surprisingly, you can understand the general character of any society by looking at the power bases of its most dominant institutions. Particulars will vary, but, inevitably, most of a societies’ goals and public policy will serve the institutions whose power most influences that society.

For instance, during Europe’s medieval period, coercion and reference determined the character of life. Armed and armored aristocrats ensured, through coercion, that the royal houses’ authority and the serfs’ agricultural production bolstered the aristocrats’ power. The Catholic Church also, through reference, ensured that royalty was dependent on it, for legitimacy, and also kept the trade guilds dependent on it, by commissioning the cathedrals and accouterments necessary to display its reference power.

Eventually, though, the merchants’ resource-based power found a way to tip the balance in society. Merchants began funding the small and constantly-indebted royalty, who, in turn, began adjudicating disputes in the merchants’ favor. Soon, states and businesses found that they could match or even dominate the aristocracy’s and church’s power. In response, both the aristocracy and the church began to operate outside their power bases, by engaging in adjudication or business, like their rivals, and were soon rejected by a population which saw that they had been corrupted by other institutions.

This led to the colonial period in the West, where the state’s authority and the merchants’ resourcefulness dominated society. Merchants continued to fund the state as long as the state would use its authority to validate their actions. Merchants patronized and publicized scholars who would use their reference power to explain how markets could manage everything. And states, at the request of the merchants, who they could not afford to ignore, socialized the military and police’s coercive power and then attempted to expand themselves into neighboring territories, and even in territory overseas, so the merchants could acquire new markets and continue to fund the state’s actions.

When, in the modern period, colonies, like the ones in North America, began to rebel against the practices of their colonizers, they attempted to limit the government’s authoritative power, believing that this must have been the means by which corporate merchants had controlled and exploited them. So, the fledgling United States limited the scope of government, attempted to make it accountable to the populace through representative democracy, and, just to be safe and avoid a repeat of the Middle Ages, barred it from colluding with the church. But the founding fathers didn’t see the need to put limits on business institutions — which the merchants’ scholars had told them were completely benign — and so corporations’ resource power quickly grew to fill the void left by limited authoritative power, limited reference power, and limited coercive power.

This oversight soon became obvious. Thomas Jefferson hoped, early in American history, to “crush, in its birth, the aristocracy of our monied corporations, which dare already to challenge [us] to a trial by strength.” But it was too late. With no other institutions empowered to stand in their way, companies easily dominated society. It’s not that they prevented other institutions from exerting influence. After all, all institutions require the use of some degree of authority, reference, resourcefulness, and coercion, but dominant institutions can, and do, set the terms under which others may operate.

The academy, for instance, may exert reference power, as long as it continues to conduct corporate research and train potential employees. The military may exert coercive power, as long as it continues to buy expensive weapons systems and deploy itself to regions unfriendly to American markets. The government may continue to exert authoritative power, as long as it continues to adjudicate in favor of big business and doesn’t tax wealthy corporations.

Now, remember all that fuss over health-care reform? Knowing that corporate institutions set the agenda and terms of public policy, we can see why it took almost a century for health-care costs to become a policy issue. It’s because it wasn’t until now that the costs finally reached the point where creditors feared the growing number of bankruptcies, which were occurring for no reason other than because people were getting sick and then trying to pay their medical bills. Want to know why it took an entire legislative term filled with political infighting to end up with a mostly-useless law that’s filled with concessions to various industries? It’s because bankers, employers, hospitals, and insurers had conflicting interests and used their bought-and-paid-for representatives to fight each other to a stand-still. Want to know why we’ll probably see the legislative infighting over this issue continue through the next term? It’s because some factions of industry are still getting hurt by health-care costs, and the law hasn’t fixed that yet.

So, two years from now, most of us will, again, return to the polls to vote for representatives, thinking we’re either getting the issues which concern us to the table, or limiting our representatives’ urge to expand government power. But, really, we’ll only be validating the choices big business has already made for us through their institutional funding. And, until our society, as a whole, refuses to allow big business to keep America in a stranglehold, that’s the way it will continue to be.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Why Bird-Brains Get the Highest Perches

Everyone wants to believe that the administrators and executives perched at the top of our institutions and organizations hold their jobs because of their exceptional competence. After all, that’s the way things are supposed to work in a meritocracy, right? Sure, and so it must be only our bosses who are bird-brains. It couldn’t possibly be everyone else’s too. Or could it? Well, it probably is, and the fact that our higher-ups never seem to act with any more insight than we would expect of our pets isn’t as controversial as you might suspect. In fact, we’ve spent centuries trying to explain why our bosses seem better suited for pecking at seeds than making policy.

The 19th century gave us the Ivory Tower theory, which supposes that our big-wigs aren’t incompetent as much as they’re just cut-off. Their positions prevent them from seeing what’s really going on, and so they’re doomed to create irrelevant policy. But this doesn’t explain why executives frequently dump their stock in a company long before outsiders know that something’s gone badly wrong, or why administrators always seem to have a crisis-management strategy set up long before a scandal emerges. They’re obviously not so cut-off that they can’t see an impending disaster, are they? So, the 20th century moved on to the Peter Principle and its funnier cousin, the Dilbert Principle, to explain executive incompetence. In these theories, meritocracy itself creates clueless big-wigs. People are either promoted until they’re too lousy at their jobs to warrant further promotion, and just stay there messing up things, or they just get promoted out of harm’s way, because they’re too incompetent to be trusted with the more practical jobs. But neither of these theories explain why organizations will install people exactly like the person they just fired, or usually, just pushed into “early retirement,” when they go outside the organization for “new blood.” Institutions, it seems, actually seek out clueless people for their highest positions.

Now, why would they do that? Well, first, the nature of competence itself produces some surprising effects. While there are a few people, usually called prodigies, who are exceptionally good at something without knowing how or why they are, most people need to understand the point of an activity before they can become competent at it. Then, there are those who understand, but cannot do very well, and those who both understand and can do well. Both of these groups have the capacity to judge competence, both in themselves and in others, because they understand what an activity is about. But, oddly enough, the largest group of people are those who so completely misunderstand the point of something that they’re not only incompetent, they’re also completely unable to judge competence, and so they’re actually incapable of knowing that they’re awful at a task.

The two sociologists, named Dunning and Kruger, who attempted to measure the extent of this problem in society, panicked at the results of their surveys. Among the more disturbing implications of the existence and extent of this phenomenon is the fact that those who “get it” and those who don't “get it” will never be able to understand, or even communicate in a meaningful way, with each other. Worse still, since there’s no way for someone this incompetent at something to realize it, there’s also no way for anyone, including you, to know when you are so wrong you’re not even wrong.

For instance, it’s entirely possible that those executives at the celebrated energy trading company that created blackouts throughout the West Coast in order to justify absurd rate hikes, and then invested the proceeds in bizarre investment schemes that lost so much money that they had to hide their financial condition with “creative accounting” were actually as smart as they, and everyone else in the business community, claimed. Or, it’s also possible they were just plain clueless, as the more charitable of the rest of us think. We can never really know for sure, but I think that not only were they clueless, but that their cluelessness was exactly what made them eligible to hold their positions in the first place, because complete incompetence turns out to be a very useful trait for those who administer broken institutions.

You see, institutions are designed to serve a function or fix a problem in society, but they’re also designed to perpetuate themselves. Of course, things change, and so, eventually, every institution will become obsolete, but no institution will ever dissolve itself or change itself beyond recognition. And here is the problem. If a broken organization gives someone competent the authority to make changes, then this person would feel obligated to reshape the organization into something it isn’t. This means that the organization would, essentially, cease to exist. This, of course, is unacceptable, so, instead, organizations will rely on people who are so wrong that they can’t even realize they’re wrong to ensure the organization’s own survival. In other words, if you’re smart enough to question an institution, then you’re too smart for that institution to give you the authority to change it.

Competence is a threat, not an asset, to any entrenched institution. And this is why we keep seeing absurd policies being promulgated and why we keep seeing things like, for instance, the most powerful economist in the world having to admit to a congressional committee that he didn’t see our latest economic collapse coming because it never even occurred to him that something might be wrong with market theory. As Upton Sinclair pointed out, long ago, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”