How Education is Ruining Your Life

Since the industrial revolution it has been widely assumed that sustained economic production is best arranged through corporations. After all, corporations are the only entities capable of acquiring and operating the capital-intensive means of production required in an industrialized state.

Because of the reliance on the corporation, we set out to design an educational system in its mirror image. The linear journey from first to twelfth grade, then bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees systematized learning in a way that turned people into interchangeable parts and valued mobility.

Attainment of the highest grades of education confers the ability to teach within it, for anyone so dedicated to the educational treadmill is preselected to share its values.

The large scale corporation upon which our industrial educational system has been built no longer exists as it once did in the United States. However, we continue to build cogs for this machine as though nothing has changed.

Death of the Corporation

When large scale corporations first came to be, they were built around the idea that people can achieve more by investing together than they can alone. This is intuitively obvious when you consider that the endeavors they were undertaking were things like railroads and shipbuilding.

Through World War II and into the 1970’s, most large corporations had balance sheets to match: they used big iron, or made big iron. But starting particularly in the 1980’s, corporations started to be more about ideas than about capital, and the challenge turned to removing things from the balance sheet. Winning corporations maximized profit on minimal assets (and liabilities). Production (big iron) was moved to China, Mexico, and elsewhere and off of balance sheets.

The logical conclusion of a process like this is an Enron or a Goldman Sachs; one built predominantly on ideas and on trading, with almost no physical assets. The bulk of the workers we were producing with our educational system might be suited for a job at GM, while Enron needed every last PhD to keep its web of trades flowing. And it turned out that in the end neither GM or Enron was a long term proposition.

So here we sit with the same educational system we had in 1910 producing people for the economy of 2010, when the economic landscape has obviously shifted dramatically.

The Lie of Mobility

Think 1955. If your father was told, “Bill, we’re transferring you to Kansas City,” he went. And off you’d all go, uprooting children from schools, breaking apart extended family, divorcing people from a personal understanding of place. But this was all OK, and in service of a great big beautiful tomorrow! Corporations borrowed the idea of “transfer” from the military, and as much as the “transferees” might not have always enjoyed it, they endured it because they were convinced that corporations (like the military) were a kind of higher calling.

Fifth grade in Kansas City was pretty much the same as fifth grade in Boston. People adjusted. And they forgot about their previous home, or at least came to not miss it, like an animal being sent to market learns to adjust along the journey.

After graduation from high school, you’re faced with a “choice of college.” You’re asked inane questions about what you want to study (unanswerable at that age), shown some brochures, and make a fundamentally random choice about where you want to spend the next four years of your life. And you go. And you study something (probably not what you set out to study). And it’s OK. You meet people, and your life takes some path.

Regardless of the particulars of whether you get a job doing what you studied or when that actually happens (it often doesn’t), one thing is true: by this time in your life you’ve probably been uprooted once or more and had your home ties effectively severed.

Our educational system is designed to promote an ersatz fungibility of place and to denigrate people’s relationship to extended family by offering instead a false idol of corporate, industrial superiority. The fact is that place is a kind of human right, as is extended family. Any system that asks you to devalue a relationship with place or with extended family is evil.

It might be arguable that at one time, the educational system combined with its corporate industrial twin provided better overall outcomes for more people than the agrarian model that preceded it, but it does not logically follow that a new model cannot supplant the current one. This is particularly true when the corporate landscape is now more corporate than it is industrial and the emphasis has turned to creativity and ideas over machining and production.

The idea that place is fungible is one that belongs squarely in the last model and should be jettisoned going forward.

Why We Are Susceptible to Manipulation

Behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman suggests that we have two selves: an experiencing self and a remembering self. The experiencing self perceives the world in the here and now. Your experiencing self lives in the present and is happiest spending time around people you like. The surfer who just lives to be out in the waves is primarily existing through her experiencing self. The experiencing self, it turns out, can be happy just about anywhere and in any weather. Just find people you like and the rest follows.

The remembering self is another animal. The remembering self cares about story, and about appearances. According to Kahneman, your remembering self might trick you into taking a two week vacation instead of a one-week vacation because that’s a better story, but in fact you remember them pretty much the same way because there were not many “new” experiences in the additional time spent.

Your remembering self cares about money and mobility deeply. Why? No one wants to be remembered as the person who “didn’t do anything with their life.” Getting rich and moving around a lot adds dramatic, tangible plot-points to your story, which comforts your remembering self greatly. But your experiencing self can easily be less happy. What if you are unable to turn your money into people you enjoy spending time with? What if you move away from the people and places that bring you joy?

Is it so hard to see now why so many wealthy, jet-setting people are unhappy and commit suicide? Their remembering selves have spun great stories; their experiencing selves are miserable.

A Path Forward

Creativity researcher Sir Ken Robinson suggests that we need to reinvent our educational system upon a more agricultural model, rather than the industrial model. I’m not totally sure what that means yet, but I do agree that in the developed world we must adopt these values:

  • Creativity is valued
  • Learning is non-linear
  • Gifted children have a place to excel
  • Many learning styles are celebrated
  • Children are not medicated for ADHD and the like
  • Children have a right to fresh, whole food
  • Place is valued and cherished
  • Regions become self-sufficient

There is an emerging emphasis on regional innovation and regional self-sufficiency as an economic development strategy; this is a good start. But the long term task is to invent entirely new models for life-long education. What we’re doing now is building cogs with very particular defects for a machine that no longer exists.

The Myth of the Sticky-Magnet State

Several months ago, this article from the Pew Research Center categorized several states as sticky, magnet, or both; sticky means that people who live there tend to stay there, while magnet means that  it attracts people. Some states (Arizona, Florida, Maryland) are High Magnet/High Sticky, while others are one or the other, and one sad batch is neither (Iowa, New York, West Virginia).

What this study doesn’t tell us is very much about what those places are actually like, only the “raw numbers” about mobility and retention. For example, my home state of Maryland is described as “magnet/sticky” (woot) but so are Arizona and Florida, and as far as I can tell, these three states share little in common. Certainly the recent real estate bust was felt worse in those places than here.

I believe that in Maryland’s case, we are both the wrong kind of magnetic and and the wrong kind of sticky, and so to describe Maryland in this way is counterproductive because it assigns a positive spin to some inherently negative patterns of movement.

For example: suppose Maryland is “high magnet” because it attracts people who want to work for federal government contractors. This increases the per-capita income but puts pressure on roads, exacerbates suburban sprawl, and adds people to the voting base who often don’t understand local issues or have personal experience with the landscape around them. I’d call this effect neutral, if not negative.

Suppose Maryland is “high sticky” because we retain 99.5% of our college graduates (a number I’ve heard tossed around). But suppose we export .5% of our very best and brightest and our natural born “effectuators?” And suppose that the smart people we do retain get sucked into government? Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to the most creative entrepreneurial landscape sometimes.

Maryland has a great deal going for it, but articles like this are meaningless and enhance a simplistic, 19th century view of how we want to build our society. Who are we building our society and economic structures for?

If we are building them for ourselves we need to start thinking about how they serve our everyday experience as people. I have more thoughts on this. If we want to build our society for corporations and a 19th-century conception of what education, production, and economic value is then idiotic oversimplifications like “high magnet, high sticky” might be useful.

I believe we can and must move past such Orwellian, disingenuous oversimplifications.