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Why are public schools an avenue for commerce?

October 11, 2011 1 comment

My son has been in public school for about six weeks. Every week we get an invitation to buy something from some company, or support corporate advertising through his school. The first week was NFL week, where the school tried to win a “grant” from the NFL by submitting pictures of students wearing NFL apparel. Next it was the “Fall Fundraiser,” where a corporation came in and showed my son a video of a bunch of kids having a party, then gave him an envelope containing the tools for us to provide data and money to a corporation selling candy and magazines. Next it’s the bookfair, and then picture day. These are all things that we had when I was a kid, except for NFL Week. I don’t suppose there’s anything hugely different, but now I’m seeing it as a parent.

NFL Week was thoroughly transparent: it raised a lot of questions. There’s the typical question of why the NFL doesn’t just give money to a randomly or thoughtfully selected school near each of its teams; there’s the question of why people who wouldn’t otherwise be buying NFL apparel (like my wife and I) should go out and get some in the name of providing money for the school; then there’s the question of why there’s chance involved. We felt uncomfortable turning our son into a billboard (something we avoid in all clothing purchases). Other corporations are doing similar things. We have recently seen high school students at our supermarket telling us to go to the Pepsi-Cola website to vote for their school, so that they can “win a grant” from Pepsico. This raises the same questions, and again it’s thoroughly transparent. Why doesn’t the company just use advertising to tell people to go their website, or a phony contest? If they want to tell people to go to their website, why do they have to fool children into doing it for them?

We hear all the time about how public schools just don’t have enough money, teachers don’t get paid enough, and so on and so on. That may all be true, but has anyone stopped to think about who has an interest in propagating that story? It may not be true after all, since when I was in contact with private schools, even in the richest of them I would hear talk of fund-raising and budget shortfalls all the time. They were just like public schools in that respect, except that it was obvious that they actually had huge piles of money. I just didn’t get why they had such a scarcity mentality, although I should point out there were some schools that didn’t. Those tended to be the ones who actually had fat kids and teenagers with funny haircuts (you know, like a normal school).

Whether public schools have enough money or not is really irrelevant when we see schools turned into avenues for advertising and commerce. Basically every week our son comes home with a piece of paper saying that there’s something we can buy through the school. Doesn’t that seem weird? Doesn’t it seem like these companies would be making less money if they didn’t have this avenue?

Now consider that these companies also have enough money to influence law-making.

Our Education Disease

May 20, 2011 1 comment

We are sick of education. We as a nation, a society, a world, and individually are making ourselves sick over education. I can’t speak for people in other countries, but as an educator in the United States at several levels I have repeatedly seen people make themselves physically and mentally ill over education. We need to do something about it. We don’t need to do away with school, but we need to seriously re-think what we tell people about school, our values as a society and our valuation of human life.

Another semester has come to an end, which means I’ve seen another set of young people come into my office to beg for me to change their grades; I’ve seen more people crying in my office about how they need to pass a class; they’re afraid that if they don’t pass they won’t graduate; they’re afraid that if they don’t pass they are not good people. It’s as if their lack of comprehension of a model of predation or population genetics means they are not good people. Of course I want them to learn, but does that mean I want them to destroy their lives and develop a mood disorder over learning what I’ve chosen to learn? Not only do I see university students — people over the age of twenty, mostly — crying over this stuff, but some have looked on the verge of vomiting over their fear of failing a required class. After one of these meetings the other day I decided that it’s not just the students’ fault, and that’s a silly way to assess the situation. No, it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. Instead this is a sign of everybody doing something seriously wrong.

Education Problems are Our Problems

First let’s establish that if there’s a problem with education there is a problem with our entire society. I don’t just mean that getting an education is a fundamental part of our society, or that in America we really value education. I don’t mean that since education has been made particularly important in capitalist society that a problem with education is a problem with the whole society. What I mean is that if there is a problem anywhere it’s a problem with everything. It’s a problem for everyone and everything we do. Richard Stallman often reminds people who software freedom is important not because computers are an important industry (i.e. make somebody a lot of money), but because using computers is a part of our lives now. If you doubt that’s true, think of how often you make scheduling decisions based on the performance of a piece of software: do you ever schedule a meeting at a particular time because your calendar software makes it easier to do so? Do you ever leave the house later because your web browser wouldn’t load the article you wanted to read over breakfast? Do you ever leave the house or office a little later so you can download something onto a mobile device? Think about it and you’ll see that anything you do with a computer affects your whole life, just as your diet affects your whole life.

Education is the same way. If there’s a problem with our education system, the way we teach, and the reason we learn (i.e. our values) then there’s a problem with our whole lives. We can’t ever say “That’s a problem for the schools,” or “That’s the teacher’s problem.” It’s our problem. If your kid is having a problem learning or understanding why he should be learning something, it’s your problem.

The Symptoms

Not only are students crying in my office, but there are larger societal signs of the problems created by our you-must-go-to-college-society. Consider that when I graduated from high school, I had a range of friends with varying interest in college. I wanted to go to college because I wanted to be a professor; I can’t do that without a college degree, plus a Ph.D. and (I thought at the time) a Master’s degree. But I only applied to one university. I didn’t apply to a “safe” school plus Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, Stanford, Washington University, Scripps, Pomona, Miami University, Beaverton College, Reed College… . I had other friends who weren’t going to college at all: they had taken courses in computer networking, database administration and other topics at vocational school, or were headed to community college to take those courses. Nowadays I know people with BAs in computer science who are doing those jobs. If you can do that job with a high school diploma or a BA, doesn’t that seem a little off to people?

College-entrance-syndrome begins in kindergarten. My son will be going to kindergarten soon and I am shocked at the stuff I’ve been hearing from people. I should have known things would be different now that every toy has pop psychology jargon written all over it. Parents have told me “Oh, that’s a good school, she went to kindergarten there and she learned all her skills.” Learned what? I don’t know about you, but in kindergarten I learned about primary colors, my feelings, don’t talk to strangers, and to be nice to people. An administrator at a charter school recently told me that kindergarten is the new second grade. My brother in Texas just told me that the Dallas public schools are paying teachers to quit, while they’re spending millions of dollars on testing.

Educators automatically tell kids that they ought to go to college. I’m sure even I fell into that habit when I was working in middle and high schools. Think about it and you’ll see how weird it is. It makes sense to have had that attitude with poor kids in the fifties and sixties, and with GIs coming out of the most violent conflict in human history. In the former case you had people who definitely would benefit from the vocational and educations opportunities of college; in the latter you had trained killers already familiar with the newest technology, knowledge that would be wasted if we didn’t interest them in something before they started killing again. My father-in-law’s family is a great example of a family working hard so their children could benefit and go to college.

The question we need to ask today is “do you need to go to college to work at Hooters?” Do you need to go to college to manage a Hooters? According to College Conspiracy most college graduates end up working at jobs that require no higher education, whereas high school graduates that don’t go to college enter the workforce earlier, gain more skills and advance more rapidly than college students. Also according to the film, most college graduates who do become successful don’t believe that their college education has much to do with starting a successful business. I’m not asking about the economic value of these people or their jobs, instead I’d like to ask: are you a bad person if you choose to work as a waiter?

Also consider the futility of telling kids to go to college “just because” it will do them better in some unspecified way. One of my brothers is a musician, meaning he chooses to live in poverty. He recently told me that high school administrators learned very quickly that they couldn’t motivate him by telling him “Well, if you want to get into a good college…” He’d interrupt them and say “I don’t want to go to college, I want to play my drums.” And he does.

We need drummers. And we need farmers, and waiters, and lots of people who are still perfectly good people without going to college. My grandfather was a brilliant builder, designer and artist with a seventh-grade education. Maybe not everybody needs to go to architecture school. Maybe they need to learn trades like my friends who learned networking and database administration without going to college.

That brings up the really sick part of all of this: why we’re telling kids they have to go to college. Most often we tell them because it’s the only way they’ll “make it.” What does that mean? Well, usually when you press people they’ll tell you it means making a lot of money. Oh? Is that what it takes to be “successful?” Is money what it takes to be happy? Is money what people really need? So people are told to go to school in the long-term to make money.

I shouldn’t need to tell you that I think this not only debases education, it debases the people we tell it to. If the only way to be happy is to have a lot of money — or even a lot of prestige, i.e. becoming a doctor — and the only way to earn a lot of money is to go to school then what good is learning? What if you’re not good at school? What if you don’t need to go to school? What if you don’t want to go to school? Do you really need to be Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates to be a good person? Do you even need to try?

The Disease

The problem in all of this is that school has become a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, at least in America. I don’t think that every kid should love going to school — I hated it — but kids should be taught the value of learning. They shouldn’t be taught that learning is only for school; they shouldn’t be taught that learning is just one thing you do sometimes; they shouldn’t be taught that the job of learning is to make you a lot of money. They certainly shouldn’t be told money is the key to happiness.

One of the first times I realized I was different was in Junior High school. One of my neighbors saw me on the bus; I was reading The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins, a book that in retrospect I totally did not understand but I read it anyway because I knew I was challenging myself, and it was cool. She said “Why are you reading? School’s over.” I can’t remember my response, but I can remember thinking the question was coming from someone who had completely wrong ideas about why we learn, and I felt sad for her.

My son recently received a book as a gift and on the cover was a banner that read “Time to learn!” I wouldn’t ordinarily think this was anything weird: it’s a good message to send that learning is exciting, right? However, we don’t reserve learning for when we’re in school or while we have a book to read. Children love to learn; they don’t need to even be in school, really. They certainly don’t need to be told “Okay, now we’re going to learn.” It’s what they do. My son is learning when he’s playing with Legos, when he’s on the playground, or when he’s reading a book. My other son is learning right now watching a Neil Peart drum solo, but I didn’t say “Okay, Khalil, it’s time to learn something; there will be a quiz afterward,” before I showed it to him.

What do schools tell kids instead? A recent lunchtime conversation with an undergrad, a graduate school drop-out, a grad student/TA (me) and a professor revealed the horrible truth. Had I forgotten it? The undergrad reminded me that throughout high school, students are told that they are in school expressly so that they can go to college. My professor colleague then said “So now people are going to college just so they can get into medical school?”

Computers don’t make people smart

I just read a NYTimes article describing some studies on the educational impact of home computers. Other people may be surprised to learn that computers at home actually hurt objected education outcomes. I am not surprised. I’ve often pointed out that

  1. Simply having a computer doesn’t make you smart in any way
  2. Those computers are laden with terrible software that doesn’t legally allow you to learn unless you buy more overpriced, freedom-restricting (garbage) software
  3. People don’t use computers to extend their daily lives; they use them as poor imitations of real activity

There’s a fourth possibility, which is at least some of the kids in the populations studied are learning a lot, but they’re not doing very well in school. I was one of these kids. I didn’t do terrible in school, but I always saw school as standing in the way of my education, so I spent as much time outside of school learning as I could. However, the NYTimes author points out that a similar study in Romania found that

The principal positive effect on the students was improved computer skills.

In other words: zilch. “Computer skills” is a euphemism for knowing how to turn on the machine and knowing how to use a mouse: things that were designed with children in mind.

I attend a university where undergraduates are required to have laptops: why? So that they can all learn to use Powerpoint? The only effect this has is that it’s really hard to hear some lectures — sometimes held in rooms without chalkboards — because everyone is clicking away and typing messages on Facebook.

My first point is the most compelling however: this was the big misunderstanding about One Laptop Per Child. The idea is not that we’ll just give some kids some computers and it will make them smart enough to contribute to their societies. No, the idea, as I understood it, was to give children computers that encourage them to learn about engineering and computer science so that they can build up the infrastructure and that one of them will find a workable way to provide potable water to their countrymen. People ended up saying “Oh, but Linux[sic] is hard to use!” That’s not true, and it’s beside the point. You can’t teach people anything with proprietary software, except how to build an antisocial and greed-ridden culture.

What I’d like to see is a study of how introducing Free Software into communities improves their education. For example, compare a school district that uses primarily Free Software versus a community that uses proprietary software. Let’s see the same outcomes in that comparison and see what happens. All you education Ph.D. students out there don’t even have to give me credit for the idea, but you do need to publish your results so that the FSF can use them to promote its educational mission. You’re welcome.

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