Thoughts on education, innovation, and teaching to the test.

This article is certainly worth a read.
A venture capitalist take on education

At a fundamental level there is a problem with the system *as it is*. Though I’m less likely to jump in the trenches of those that bemoan the specific loss of music class or art class. There is a merit to the thrust of the point schools do not reward dynamic or adaptive thinking, many schools do not offer or incorporate expressive and artistic subjects as part of the curriculum. In many ways we have an educational system in name only, huge diploma mills certifying compliance and an ability of children to regurgitate facts in the correct sequences.

On a very natural level the idea of an education predicated on just giving the right answer misses the point. It isn’t merely about “giving” the right answer, it’s about fostering the development of habits and processes unique to different people to facilitate their ability to create and communicate those answers with others. It should immediately strike anyone who is a business owner, entrepreneur, innovator, or artist that how we go about educating does little to encourage the development of skills and idea frameworks we need in our fields to be successful. By and large we learn (and functionalize) knowledge by emulating the processes of others. It has often been pointed out that the evolutionary and neurological machinery of the human brain isn’t geared so much towards discovering new knowledge in so much it is geared towards communicating, language (symbolism) and towards collaboration. Our brains are geared towards incremental social accumulation of knowledge. In a sense the hard drive for storing human knowledge isn’t kept on just one person, it’s distributed throughout the social system with every productively engaged person operating as a storage of a couple bits of information and a relay for a knowledge signal through that society.

Human success is far less about having the specifically correct answer at any time as much as it is about being able to ask for, communicate, and apply those answers to different situations. For instance by virtue of of social, cognitive, and communicative systems it is unnecessary that we all know how to make tires. Instead hundreds if not thousands of people spread out the world over all contribute a tiny bit into the productive process that produces tires. From the oil workers, to the transporters, to the factory workers at the steel mills and rubber production facility to the stock workers and technicians at the dealership, the ergo sum total of the knowledge needed for this process is non-local to any particular place. It is instead distributed in the extended order of social coordination. Our social and economic system relies on distributed, non-local knowledge, and operates as an extensive neural network of many people the world over coordinated through passions, profits, and purpose. Schools in their present form fall well short of meeting the needs of our system.

This article confirms a conversation I recently had one of the conversations was with a friend of mine who is now a primary school teacher.He pointed out the primary education public school model is highly bureaucratized and geared to teach to the test. Although he “teaches” his classroom, he cannot actually “run it” his curriculum goals are handed down, benchmark goals for test results handed down, his schedule is frequently and considerably manipulated by administrators and underlying his own practical concerns with management the curriculum doesn’t reward dynamic or original thinking. Educational goals are largely incoherent with an overwhelming emphasis placed on teaching to the schedule and pushing for mechanistic rote responses to test questions. He is routinely expected to sacrifice free time and unstructured activities so as to “make up” hours with rote education approaches for response and simple process questions tested for on the SOLs.

These kind of practical administrative restraints make innovative and alternative class structures difficult if not impossible. While perhaps not wholly reflective of a uniform set of experiences in all public schools the image of children as young as 9 years old expected to slog through rote lecture without recess or creativity oriented programs is mind boggling. Where is the innovation? Where is the focus on maximizing the potential of the future? Where is the awakening of the mind into cognizance, awareness that we are all little parts of a vast integrated and interdependent system? Where is the development of the sense of self, dignity, rewarding of curiosity and ingenuity?

What we see is a system not only out of sync with the economic and social needs of the larger human social system but we see a large bureaucratic machine slow to adapt, fixed on benchmark performances, and obsessed with the image of education rather than content. In some ways while the high school dropout rates have plummeted we’ve built a system that accommodates the lowest common denominator granting diplomas with little signal content distinction.

Good Feds, Bad States

I think most libertarians would agree that the gradual erosion of individual liberties in America has been linked to the expansion of the Federal government beyond its Constitutional bounds.  The growth of the central government, the story goes, has come at the expense of liberty, and to reclaim our liberties, we must resist this growth, restrain the Feds, and even consider seceding.

One of my intellectual projects of late has been to challenge this idea.  It began when I realized that many of the abuses that critics of government decry — police brutality, asset forfeiture, use of eminent domainoppressive occupational licensingresisting disruptive new business models*, bullying schoolchildren, and so on — are carried out by local and state governments, not the Feds.

My point is not that libertarians are wrong to be wary of an expanding Federal government.  The centralization is real, and a decentralized system has many advantages.  For one, if local governments are oppressive, it’s easier to move across county and state lines than across national borders.  Plus, there’s always the possibility, even if it’s an uphill battle, that the federal government will serve as a check on local tyranny, as illustrated by this recent case.

Which brings me to an important point: part of the problem with simplistic opposition to the Federal government is that, while it may recognize the first point I just mentioned in favor of decentralized government, it ignores the second.  More broadly, it ignores the fact the we *need* a check on local government, because local government is tyrannical.

What concerns me about all this is that people who take simplistic anti-central-government rhetoric too literally develop a theory of the relative roles central and local government play in oppressing us that is to some extent the inverse of the true ratio.  One potential consequence of this mistake is that it makes us complacent to a concrete danger while oversensitizing us to a hypothetical one.  But, more generally, and more detrimentally over the long run, it is simply an incorrect understanding of the world.

Many aren’t opposed to the expansion of the Federal government because they understand the value of a decentralized system of checks and balances, but because they believe that the Federal government is evil in a way that their state or local government is not.  Hence, for many, the appeal of secession.

I think the facts support the proposition that the majority of the oppression we experience in America continues to be perpetrated by local and state government, even as the Federal government grows into a greater threat.  To flesh out this view, I plan to contribute data points to this blog over time.  Consider the links I’ve included above my initial contribution.

*I could have gone with Uber in NYC, but that case doesn’t challenge anyone’s preconceptions.

CNN’s Poll and the Youth for Rand Paul

Youth for Rand Paul has raised the issue that a recent CNN poll may not be accurately capturing Rand Paul’s support because the poll had no respondents less than 50 years old.

Check out the PDF of the poll results:

Page 33 has “N/A” for voters under 50 years old.

Page 34 has “N/A” for voters under $50K income per year and “N/A” for voters without a college degree.

Page 35 has “N/A” for voters from the Northeast, the West, the Midwest, and voters who are Urban and Rural.

Page 35 has “N/A”  for voters who oppose the Tea Party.

So, a fair reading of these poll results is that they only represent people who live in the South, who don’t oppose the Tea Party, who make more than $50K and are over 50 years old. And they live in suburbs.

What results would we see if CNN had taken a more complete sample?

Adaptive Efficiency in Institutional Change

What I have termed adaptive efficiency is an ongoing condition in which society continues to modify or create new institutions as problems evolve…. An underlying source appears to have been the development of a set of informal institutional constraints that have been powerful restraints against rigid monopoly in all its guises.

— Douglass North, Understanding the Process of Economic Change, (p. 169)

Vice on the Oath Keepers

Vice has an interesting piece on the Oath Keepers, a militant group whose stated mission is to defend the Constitution (their focus being primarily domestic enemies).  The author, James Pogue, a self-described environmentalist who supports welfare programs, finds the Oath Keepers more open to rational dialogue than perhaps he expected.  They are hospitable to him as he visits one of their camps in the backwoods of Oregon, and he finds that he can even relate to some of their concerns, especially regarding the erosion of civil liberties since 9/11 and the bureaucratization of modern life.  At the same time, Pogue portrays the BLM officials with whom the Oath Keepers are in a standoff as mild, hapless middlemen stuck in an absurd position, not quite the fascist thugs the Oath Keepers make them out to be.

Towards the end, Pogue makes a couple of unreasonable assertions.  He says the Oath Keepers’ “frustrations have been co-opted by a corporatist ideology that has done as much as any government action to bureaucratize and regulate our lives.”  This comes across as a progressive talking point injected awkwardly into an otherwise thoughtful piece.  As for the Oath Keepers’ being “co-opted,” Pogue does mention elsewhere in the article a historical link between the Sagebrush Rebellion (explained in the article) and legislation backed by people like the Koch brothers.  It’s pretty tenuous, but there’s a kernel of truth in it in that the concerns and ideologies of conservatives and libertarians of all stripes overlap.  I don’t see that as any basis for saying that a group of men and women in an Oregon forest have been “co-opted.”  As for the idea that corporations “bureaucratize and regulate our lives,” I would certainly agree that life within corporations tends to be stifling and bureaucratic, but the difference between corporations and the government is that you don’t have to follow a corporation’s HR policies if you live in the wilderness.

Coordination in the Market and Public Squares

Update: We had a few technical difficulties, but I think we still got a lot of good ideas on tape. My pre-podcast notes are below — KDR


This post serves as my rough notes for the podcast we plan on recording tonight with Dr. Troy Camplin and Keith Parsons (and perhaps one or two other surprise guests).

We will extend our conversation from the last podcast, “Getting to the Hayekian Network” in which Camplin and I talked about how he came to study social networks from a Hayekian point of view. Camplin’s paper by the same name describes different kinds of social networks, that are broadly categorized into two kinds: hierarchical, planned organizations, and unplanned spontaneous orders.

Particularly, we’ll take a look at theoretical framework presented by Richard Wagner in his book Fiscal Sociology and a review of this book by Adam Martin.

Martin’s rendering of Wagner’s framework, which I think would be amenable to a lot of the structural characterization that Troy has in his “Getting to the Hayekian Network” paper. Three quotes:

“state” — a network of hierarchically organized enterprises that dominates the legal stewardship of the commons. By dominion I mean neither that the state controls all of the commons, nor that such control is absolute… freedom of entry into legal adjudication within the commons is effectively curtailed

In a society with a state, private adjudication may exist for contractual relations without nullifying our common sense notion that the state has a monopoly on coercion. The key is the exercise of legal dominion within the commons, where contractual relations are absent but individuals still interact.

Wagner depicts social order as an ecology of interconnected plans that originate from the market square and the public square alike. Private enterprises engage in production and exchange while public enterprises also take in and disperse tax revenue.  Out of this ecology of intersecting plans — some complementary, some rivalrous — emerge fiscal patterns of taxation and expenditure.

Adam Martin asks questions that I think will be productive starting points for our conversation about our own views of these spheres (forums) that we live inside of:

The classical liberal question: Where should the boundary be drawn between the commons and the sphere of individual autonomy?

The libertarian question: What are the dangers of a nexus of hierachically organized governmental enterprises dominating the commons?

The anarchist question: Should such a nexus exist at all?

The anarcho-capitalist question: Can the feedback generated by market processes improve legal stewardship of the commons?

Lies, Damn Lies, and Intelligence

Recently, the Daily Beast reported that the Obama administration (at least some of the administration lackeys) had been cooking the intelligence gathered by lower level agents. Or at least cooking the analysis of lower level analysts.

I think this is a pure illustration of Gordon Tullock’s brilliant analysis of Bureaucracy. Tullock argues that the larger the bureaucracy the less correspondence exists between the knowledge of the lowest level persons who are applying the policies and the administrators who are overseeing them.

I don’t think Tullock’s analysis directly captures this situation because in this story, people at the top are actively incentivizing, or communicating in some way that the actual information should not reach the top of the bureaucracy, which is of course President Obama himself. A different story should be casted and promoted.

Who are these people and why would they think such a policy would help secure the United States? Sounds like an instance of the Ostrich Effect (h/t Tom Thrasher).

Blub, Education, and Expertise

Today, I read an interesting post by computer scientist Hal Fulton on a Ruby group I follow. It reminded me of the problem of paradigmatic blinders that I wrote about several years ago on the Free Liberal blog, “Blub in America: Can We See Better Options”

I think it is a general problem that people have, not knowing what the edge of their understanding looks like and what facts or concepts lay outside that boundary. What’s outside (or above/below) conceptually is not a part of what we might call amateur or folk theorizing. Paul Graham has a great piece on it regarding software.

FA Hayek says, “The overall problem is not merely to make use of given knowledge, buy to discover as much information as is worth searching for in prevailing conditions” (The Fatal Conceit).

Search is optimization, but there is also browsing, casual learning, and arm-chair conjectures with thoughtful friends. What should we pursue and for how long? When do we know that we know enough for a given problem set, and what have we given up to find this knowledge?

I hesitate to either condemn or endorse formal education, because while I think having an expert make the yardstick of what is a sufficient and complete base of understanding, the true intellectual is always digging deeper, checking priors against new data, and opening him or herself to opportunities for transcendence. Radical personal honesty is a part of developing this character type.

Somerset Maugham tells us of the Verger and what happened when he refused to learn to read. This is a lovely film adaptation, running about 20 minutes. Dan Klein weaves the verger story into his discussion of knowledge flat-talk.

The point is that what knowledge you pursue depends on your goals. Your goals may in turn relate back to your state of knowledge. Transcending our limitations may have more to do with our institutional environment than our own thoughts and purposes, even though we probably also need good mental strategies for navigating given institutional structures. In my view, this is the purpose of education as an ongoing project — to help ourselves see new horizons.