Worldview: Education: Perhaps the answer is to rethink what we mean by education

Recent events have spawned what has been for me some vitriolic but otherwise meaningless debates about education in the United States. The debates have been vitriolic because the sides involved have dug into positions that are primarily rhetorical in nature and have been meaningless because most of the rhetoric has little to do with how education in the US in 2017 actually works. It is easy to fall into such a trap when passions are so high, and I understand why people did. Nevertheless, I do not see how the nature of that debate helps solve any of the problems people perceive about modern public education.

Beneath the rather nonsensical nature of the debate lies what appears to be a more fundamental realization that education, especially its public variety, is less up to the fundamental task of educating than anyone would like it to be. The various sides in the debate nibble around the edges of this notion, thinking that minor tweaks like who runs the system or who pays for it and how will answer this fundamental deficiency. Perhaps, however, what all of us should be considering is transforming education into something sufficient for the world we live in now.

I am not just talking about transforming how or what we educate. Instead, I am suggesting we need to revisit the fundamental question of what we even mean when we talk about educating someone. Our world has changed dramatically from what it was a twenty years ago, let alone a hundred and more when the heart of the system we use to educate now was first conceived. Are the notions that drove the system that long ago even appropriate now? Do they adequately educate now? What do we even mean when we talk about educated and education?

I am not questioning that everyone needs access to knowledge and skills in order to be a productive member of society. Rather, I am asking if being a productive member of society is the actual objective of the current system. The reasons we educate have evolved over time–the first argument for public education was to create informed citizens, then later, capable workers, the still later students suited to go on to college. Are any of those reasons still valid now? Are all of them? And is the system we are using to educate fulfilling any of them?

To me, given my view of the 21st century, it seems that the purpose of education is to equip individuals to navigate an ever more connected, sophisticated, and automated world in whatever ways suit an individual’s talents and skills best. The unimaginative view used in the current education system that equipping every individual with the same basic, unfocused set of tools then requiring them to some how figure out how to use them in a world of near infinite possibility seems only capable of producing the result it is: unprecedented un-, under-, and mis-employment among some of the most educated people the US has ever produced by measure of time, money, and effort spent educating.

Granted, there are certain minimum educational standards most individuals need to achieve in order to navigate modern life, but I believe we have to ask whether indoctrinating those standards requires 12 or more years while we meanwhile fail to equip those same individuals with practical, meaningful skills in order to support themselves. In specific, does the old saw of making sure an individual can read, write, do math, have a basic view of history and government, and so on trump teaching them how to grow their own food, fix a car, program a computer, install an electrical outlet, or the thousands of other practical skills an individual could also learn and put to good use?

None of this is to say that the entirety of the system we have now should be abandoned, but we need to ask ourselves the fundamental question whether the system we have, unchanged at any fundamental level, is accomplishing the task we want it to accomplish, and we cannot answer that question until we understand what exactly it is we want that system to accomplish in the first place.

I understand there are no easy answers here, but no one said this was supposed to be easy, and we are never going to have answers if we do not start asking the hard questions. Now seems as good a time as any to start.

DLH

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Worldview: What’s my hangup?

So, I’ve been having this running battle for a while now about exercise. There are a not small number of people who have concluded, and not without justification, that I am opposed to exercise. While this is not really true, I don’t think I’ve explained myself well enough to help anyone come to a different conclusion.

In the midst of that battle, the issues I have been trying to figure out for myself have been lost in the face of the fact that I am, ultimately, looking to solve my weight and fitness goals in ways most other people aren’t. It’s helpful to layout what I am trying to do in the hopes that the dialog can help me figure out what I am trying to do.

First, let me be clear: I detest the traditional fitness routine most people follow. This is not an indictment of the fact that other people follow it, but the idea of exercising for exercise’s sake offends me on a level that has proven, given my state of weight and fitness, to be self-destructive. And this is not some kind of arbitrary revulsion. Over the course of years, I have discovered that the traditional fitness routine does not produce the results for me that it does for some people. The result has been that, for the time and effort invested, I see mediocre results, which leads to my secondary problem of torturing myself with all the things I would rather be doing instead of wasting my time with exercise that doesn’t produce results.

Now, some people will say this is a problem of the fact that I haven’t found the right routine, and I agree wholeheartedly. Hence my hangup. I realized years ago that the only way I am ever going to achieve any kind of level of fitness is if my exercise is my work and if my work is the thing I would rather be doing instead of wasting my time with exercise that doesn’t produce results.

In fact, I did that. I am now the proud manager and operator of a sustainable farm that I can assure you presents daily opportunities for activity that can meet or exceed the demands of all but the most extreme exercise routines. It’s such an effective program that last summer I lost nearly 30 pounds.

So, what’s the problem?

If you’ve ever carried a large amount of excess weight, you know that there are two problems to losing it; problems I refer to as hurdles. The first hurdle is losing enough weight that it actually starts making you feel better. How much weight that might be depends on the person and the circumstances, but for me, 30 pounds wasn’t enough yet. Feeling better is probably the most effective motivator out there, so not feeling better becomes its own special kind of demotivator.

The second hurdle is the fact that those first pounds can be very, very hard to lose. This hurdle leads directly back to my hangup: while my job on the farm offers the kind of activity I need–especially once I am more fit–my current level of fitness means that I need more activity than what I am currently able to do on the farm to see results. Achieving that level of activity means exercising for exercises sake.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

What all of these things then mean is that I need to find some sort of way to add the extra activity I need for long enough for it to matter without giving up because I hate it. As of yet, I have not discovered what this activity might be, and so I continue to struggle.

DLH

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Science and Technology: Global population growth will not be halted by birth control

The whole government mandated birth control debacle in the United States has brought birth control back to the center stage in the global debate. Unfortunately for the debate, neither side argues from a position of holistic facts, but I think the pro-birth control group gets it more wrong than the other.

For example, this Treehugger article makes the point that access to birth control is one of the most important matters for the international community in an effort to control expanding populations and the resulting resource consumption they generate. The only problem is that the article misses the fact that unchecked live births are not the reason the population is growing so quickly.

No, the problem isn’t new babies being born, it’s that the ones already born and grown into adulthood aren’t dying. Does that seem harsh? It may be, but it represents the reason the pro-birth control argument is so fallacitical.

In fact, the fastest growing global population demographic is people over the age of 85 followed by people over the age of 65. In fact, if the current trends in medicine and longevity continue, people over the age of 65 may outnumber people under the age of 65 by the end of this century.

How does birth control solve that problem? What has happened now is that global birth rates are declining, and as they do, the population begins to invert itself. The results have the potential to be catastrophic and unprecedented in human history.

None of this is to say that access to birth control should be limited, but if there is going to be a debate, it should be a debate with all the facts.

DLH

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Worldview: The cost of reality means sacrificing until it’s fixed

One of the costs of putting one’s thoughts out in a public forum like a weblog is that one’s readers often expect both an opinion and a solution if the issue at hand is a problem that needs solving. The issue of budget deficits, most recently brought forward by the collective bargaining debates in Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, is no exception.

Again, as I have stated several times now, I think the whole collective bargaining debacle is a tempest in a teacup that distracts everyone–legislators, governors, citizens, and union members alike–from the real and far more pressing issues our communities, states, and nation face.

And, chief among those issues is that we and our communities, states, and nation face a nearly insurmountable debt if we continue to spend the way we have until this point.

So, how do we solve this kind of a problem? From my point of view, not cleanly or easily. We have to face the fact that we cannot afford to continue to pay for the things we are doing the way we are doing them, even if we want to, because there’s simply not enough money to do it.

I know that many people will now shout a raft of ideas: tax the rich more, increase taxes in general, change the rules for how people access social programs, etc. And, I say, fine, do that, and it still won’t solve the problem. Increasing taxes beyond a certain point merely drives the rich away, puts those who can’t leave in greater need of social services, and decreases the amount of money in the economy creating tax revenue. Changing access to social services, especially in conjunction with increased taxes, only causes more people who need access because they can’t afford to do things on their own anymore not to have access to what they’re paying taxes to theoretically have. They’re all bad ideas if that’s all that’s going to be done.

In order to fix these problems, we have to start cutting: real, meaningful cuts that may very well force millions of people to change how they live their lives. Yes, this means cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Yes, this means cuts to education and environment. Yes, this means cuts to the military and intelligence programs. It probably also means at least marginally higher taxes, at least at the local and state levels, until the issues at hand resolve themselves.

How these cuts and higher taxes come about is what this whole debate should really be focused on, not whether or not public employees have collective bargaining rights. We’re expending all of our effort as a nation around the edges without dealing directly with the heart of the problem. Until we reach the heart, we can’t kill the beast, and it still may just devour us.

DLH

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Worldview: More on the cost of reality

I love that the debate over stripping public unions of the collective bargaining rights has degenerated into an argument, essentially, about protecting union negotiated entitlements. In embracing this debate, both sides have distracted themselves from reality again–that is, the thing that is going to happen whether unions can bargain for entitlements or not.

I will focus on Ohio because I am far more familiar with its finances than I am with Wisconsin’s, but I believe the problems are similar in each state.

Various researchers, including the states own Office of Budget and Management, project that Ohio budgeted to spend somewhere between $5 and $10 billion more than it will collect in tax revenue in 2011. This reality is part of a general trend around the country that has states spending more than they tax even as they find their ability to borrow more and more limited by declining credit ratings due to the immense amount of money they have already borrowed.

This state of affairs threatens to become a crisis for Ohio because the state could have no capacity to fund the programs and services it has obligated itself to fund at the levels it promised to fund them as soon as this year. Nowhere is this potential crisis more evident than in public schools.

There is also a hard place for this state financial crisis to land: many school districts are already broke or are so close to being broke that the difference is irrelevant if funding gets cut by the state. According to the Ohio Auditor of State (.pdf), 15 districts are currently under fiscal watch or emergency, while 60 more just emerged from such a status on 1 January 2011. Around the state, districts are warning that, even if new levies pass this year, the districts will be forced to make cuts and lay off teachers.

So, while so many people seem to be focusing on the question of whether teachers–and other public workers–have the right to bargain contracts, most people seem to be ignoring the fact there may be nothing for them to bargain those contracts with.

This reality is because of the fact that Ohio is broke. It’s not just in 2011 either. Some budget estimates show Ohio running deficits of $5 to $8 billion for the next 10 years, deficits the state has no funds to cover and which it may not be able to borrow to make up for.

It is from these conditions that the anti-bargaining law originated. Republican lawmakers in Ohio–and Wisconsin, Indiana, and Tennessee–see public unions as a target of opportunity in what is going to prove to be a decade long budget battle to somehow preserve the financial sovereignty of their state. There are, in my opinion, all kinds of problems with the law and with the approach the Republicans have used, yet no one can deny that part of the problem faced by states, municipalities, and school districts right now is the cost of union negotiated compensation packages those entities simply do not have the capacity to pay.

If these entities do not have the capacity to pay, it does not matter if the unions have the right to collectively bargain or not. I suspect that, within the next few years, entire school districts and smaller municipalities are simply going to fold–disincorporate, which is essentially bankruptcy–because they no longer have the capacity to maintain even a fundamental level of the services they are supposed to provide. At that point, even if teachers, police, and firefighters have contracts, it will not matter because the entity they have a contract with has ceased to exist.

From my point of view, if legislators and unions alike want to prove they have their constituents best interests in mind, it is a resolution to this disastrous state of affairs that they would be debating instead of whether unions can collectively bargain contracts with failing entities. Yet, instead they debate about the fringes while the core is collapsing, and when it is done, all of their effort will have been expended for nothing.

DLH

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