May 212013

classroomsBack when we were in the process of Beating The Game the education system was exactly what we needed. A base of farmers to keep us in calories, a large pool of industrial workers to keep society growing and upgrading, and an elite corps of intellectuals – as administrators and to make new progress in understanding how reality works and exploiting that knowledge. Robin Hanson has argued that schools are very important for teaching humans how to efficiently work in factories – to accept domination and hierarchical rankings. The brightest kids could be routed through colleges, where they would gain additional skills for the rarer intellectual jobs.

The climate has changed since those days.

Here in America we can feed our entire population using just 2% of the workforce. All of our manufacturing and industry uses another 20%. But we’re still running our education system like we need tons of industrial labor. This leaves us with a lot of people who are very fit for industrial work, but no jobs for them to do – both the newest generation and the working adults who need to retrain as their old jobs disappear. They see the college track that has been laid down, and they think “Ah ha! Here’s the next step! I will make my labor more valuable!” Which is exactly what society has been telling all of us for decades.

This creates the education bubble we’re now experiencing. The college track was designed for a small percentage of students, not all of them. The demand for higher education rockets upward and the supply cannot be increased quickly enough to meet it, so prices go through the roof. Everyone is willing to pay those prices because the loans are freely available, subsidized by a government that had evolved in a period of relative intellectual-labor scarcity. It’s the same thing that happens to us when we’re exposed to unlimited high-sugar high-fat foods.

Now we face a glut of highly-skilled individuals with a bare handful of jobs to employ them. It’s gotten bad enough that people have paid $13,000 at auction for the privilege of getting an unpaid internship.

A large number of otherwise very smart people have been saying something I find rather surprising. That these highly-skilled and generally intelligent people should create new jobs. Just like all the innovators and entrepreneurs of the past, they should help to enrich society by applying their intellect in creative new endeavors. This would indeed be a great solution, if it wasn’t for one major hurdle.

We have stripped that ability from these people. We spent 12-16 years and tens of thousands of dollars per person doing that. Intentionally removing initiative and daring, in order to get cooperation and stability. To such a degree that many people can’t muster the initiative to keep themselves alive without a compelling outside reason to do so. Nowadays we get our cooperation and stability from machines, and we haven’t yet retooled our schools to keep up with changing demands. It doesn’t look like the government is making any effort to do so either, at least not in the US. Most politicians seem to be pushing the “do what we’ve always done, just do it more and better!” idea. Education needs to fundamentally change its focus.

In addition, we need to stop threatening people with death for showing initiative… which I’ll get into tomorrow, as this post is already long enough.

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