2013-06-15

We Call The Shots Around Here

Jim Oliver at Un-Thought writes:
I have seen news reports that have lead me to believe that the skills taught in schools in many countries are very badly matched to what people need to know in those countries. In those countries education becomes like a very costly lottery.  If you are at the very top of the class it might enable you to get visa to work in a developed country or to get one the few high level jobs available domestically but if you are not at the top of your class you get very little that is useful in your life.  There was a News report that focused on a girl in India and one of the comments by her family was that her older sister went to school for what they considered a long time and she was still a goat herder.
Of course, this is heresy. In the modern world, we are supposed to accept the dictum that education is the most important way to improve one's lot in life without any follow up questions. Questioning education is a holy taboo, which explains why Bryan Caplan gets so much guff for arguing that education is all about signalling, not human capital.

But if education were really about building "human capital," then the necessary condition for this is that it teach students skills that they really do need in their real lives. Less social studies, and more basic mechanics. Never mind goatherds in India, few college graduates right here in America can give you the full list of simple machines. If a solar storm wiped out all electrical machines tomorrow, our population would be (if not decimated) wiped out completely.

Yet, the fact that that education systems all over the world teach a particularly useless blend of algorithmic-arithmetic-problem-resolution (rather than geometrically founded mathematical reasoning), nationalistic narrative formation (rather than history), weights-and-measurements (rather than science and physics), spelling and book reading (rather than literature), and organized social play (rather than health and physical education) suggests to me that education ignores the real needs of real human beings by design.

This fact may wound your ego if you were particularly awesome in school, but it's true. The only really useful skills we learn in school are things we happen to pick up along the way. For example, someone whose educational experience with numbers inspires her to learn real mathematics is better off having had exposure to numbers in the first place - but that need not have happened in a classroom. Someone who learns to enjoy books thanks to homework might end up picking up a book from which he learns something incredibly important; but again, school is not a direct cause.

That many of us learn these peripheral lessons while growing up might obfuscate the fact that it's not school that is doing the trick. We might incorrectly ascribe a power to the modern education system that it does not actually possess. Knowledge is power, but education is not knowledge.

The only explanation for the state of modern education is lobbying. Teachers are a powerful lobby whose livelihood is almost fully funded by the government in nearly every county. In those countries (such as India) that have both a robust private and public education system, the public system is large enough to basically set the private system's curriculum through oligopoly power, as well as through the influence of the publicly funded universities that both systems feed.

To describe the whole system in a single paragraph: Modern education seems to be a union/subsidy scheme in which children are forced to clear iterative hoops in order to gain the privilege of joining the workforce. The curriculum is nominal-only, and established through the influence of sub-groups within the education lobbies. No really useful skills are provided, but that was never the point. The point was to establish the cultural rule that "we value education." Once that rule is established, it becomes unthinkable to go through life without a culturally accepted level of schooling, despite the fact that sticking it out all those years delivers no discernible addition to one's set of life-skills.

One caveat: I am not a conspiracy theorist who believes government schools are designed to control us. I just think the education system is a product of the influence and lobbying of the people who run it. We get the education system we deserve, and apparently we deserve one takes up a third of our lifetime and delivers few real skills.

Closed Shops And Seniority
The reason I keep using the language of labor unions to describe schooling is that there is a clear parallel between them, and I mean a parallel that goes beyond the fact that teachers' unions are some of the most powerful labor unions in the modern world.

In a union shop, seniority rules. You are not allowed to move up the food chain until you've both literally and figuratively "paid your dues." (That's where the phrase "paid your dues" comes from, anyway.) If it all came down to paying money, though, then we wouldn't be talking about a labor union, we'd be talking about an oligarchy. The key to running a union shop is seniority. Seniority ensures that, no matter how meritorious the work of a young innovator might be, he'll never surpass the senior member on staff, not ever. His only hope is to stick it out long enough to be the senior staff member. After all, every employee has a starting date on the job, so every employee will eventually be the senior staff member.

Along the way, members of a union shop have to clear certain hurdles before they are entitled to certain benefits. A five-year employment anniversary, for example, might correspond to certain additional voting rights, or a higher wage, or more overtime, or whatever benefits the union may deem appropriate for that particular hurdle's having been cleared.

Now back to education: You can't get a lousy job without a high school diploma. You can't get a good job without some sort of post-high-school certificate. You can't get a mid-level job without a college degree, and you can't get into management without something better than a bachelor's degree. Now do you see the connection? Here we are, clearing hurdles based on putting in the right amount of time.

In terms of actual knowledge, there's nothing important that studying two years' of "general education requirements" plus another two years of studying business administration classes will get you that you can't get from an associate's degree in business studies at the local junior college. Not in terms of knowledge, but remember: that isn't the point of education. If it were, then we'd all have learned some very important life skills over our 12-18 years of education, when all we really came out with was basic reading comprehension and algorithmic, arithmetic problem-resolution skills.

So, it simply must be that education is more about clearing hurdles and demonstrating seniority. I stuck it out for a full sixteen years, so I get a cubicle, while you're stuck working on cars. But that guy over there stuck it out for eighteen years, and so he gets an office window, and he gets to tell me what to do despite the fact that he knows less than I do and has less actual work experience. (The really funny thing is that the guy working on cars has all the skills he needs to start his own business and beat the rest of us in the rat race. But assuming the education lobby is powerful enough, he'll never be able to raise enough money to get his business off the ground.)

Outside The Traditional Workforce
I've long believed that the art and music worlds are hopelessly corrupt. Success is by-invitation-only. Why else do you think that Taylor Swift is a superstar at the exact moment in history when any genius with a laptop webcam can upload his genius to YouTube and entertain millions upon millions of people at the touch of a button?

No, this isn't just sour grapes. I'm not talking about me. I know I'm an amateur. The point is not about me, it's about why this is more popular than this. Let's not be idiots here, there is no comparison. It's not a matter of "taste." No matter what you personally want to listen to this morning, in a world in which the most artistically skilled rose to the top, that kid who runs the StringsOfPassion YouTube channel would be in the band "Fun" and the music would be a lot more interesting. And you'd still love it, because guess what: The only reason you've even heard of Fun is because they have the marketing machine behind them.

There are thousands of bands that sounded like Fun before Fun got radio airplay. The reason Fun got on the air rather than all those other bands is because someone at the record company got together with someone at the radio programming corporation and they decided that Fun was the band they were going to use to extract art funding from consumers. At least Bieber earned his stripes on YouTube!

Of course, in art, the game runs a little differently. Newcomers are welcomed into the fold without having to adhere to a seniority scheme. But this is mainly because music and art scenes in general are most attractive to younger markets, so they need fresh faces to come along and make you forget about the fact that Bono and Sting are a bit too old to make you want to remove your bra and throw it at them. Hence: Fun.

Anyway, instead of running a seniority game, the art world runs its own sort of internal popularity contest. You get to be on top if you convince enough of your fellow artists that you're "cool." Suck-up to the right people, and you get to have your art displayed in the local gallery, as opposed to just on DeviantArt. Suck-up to the right people and you get to play Friday at the House of Blues instead of Saturday nights at the Fusion Bar & Grill. That's really how it works - I've seen awesome bands playing in dive bars. They only get the good gigs if they (1) join the local musicians' union, and (2) "have connections."

Those aren't scare-quotes, they're real quotes. Musicians really talk about this.

The Point
These all may seem like disparate topics to you, but recall what I wrote the other day about rules versus merit.

A world in which the path to success is not good work but staying in school is a world in which following the rules is a greater contributor to your success than doing something meritorious. It doesn't matter what you do to innovate in the workplace. In fact, the more meritorious your work, the more of a threat you are seen to be to those who closely adhere to the rules-based path to success. Imagine sticking it out through twenty years of schooling in order to earn your place as middle-manager, and along comes some high school graduate who figured out how to improve the performance of your entire team by replacing one employee with a line of computer code. You'd be shaking in your boots. He's a threat.

But if he lacks your credentials and seniority - if your credentials and seniority matter more than his hard work - then you're invincible. By keeping him down, you maintain a wage and status that you don't deserve, at least not according to the merits of your work.

If musicians were forced to compete only on their ability to entertain a crowd of people, then Taylor Swift would not be a musician. She's pretty, so she might have ended up a model or an actress, or possibly a paralegal. But not a singer, not a musician.

In every facet of our lives, once we have attained a comfortable level of success, we quickly establish rules that bar others from attaining the same success through different means. We reason that, since this is the way we did it, this is the way that everyone should have to do it. Anything less than these rules becomes a cutthroat competition based solely on the merits of the enterprise.

Now, when we restrict the analysis to a microcosm - your own workplace, for example - you might not see anything wrong with this per se. After all, why shouldn't we make people with advanced degrees managers? They have MBAs for chrissakes!

Conclusion
But when the whole world operates this way, then what we end up with a social system based on upholding a particular social order at the expense of innovation, increased efficiency, meritorious performance, and new ideas. Is it any surprise, then, that so many people complain about the fact that social class has become entrenched in our political systems? The poor cannot innovate their way out of being poor, nor can the middle class innovate their way into the elite.

In this sort social order, one's own personal efforts have no impact on the life that results. That's bad.

Thankfully, in many places throughout the world, merit does matter, even if only a little bit. It matters enough to enough people that we human beings still have some control over our lives.

What I'm advocating for here is that we resist the urge to put up barriers to other people's success. If a poor person wants to start a business, why make him jump through regulatory hurdles that only the rich have the time and resources to clear? If a Bangladeshi wants to become a surgeon, why should he have to spend sixteen years in the Bangladeshi education system, followed by another eight-to-ten years at a fancy western medical school just to be able to practice medicine?

These sorts of barriers are insane. We must try to eliminate them. I warn you: It may cost you something. You just might wind up in a cubicle instead of a corner office. On the other hand, you'll have a clear path to that corner office, and it will be fully within your control, through hard work rather than through seniority.

That is to say, through merit as opposed to rules.