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.


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Worldview: The strange reality of getting what you want

I’ve wanted a library, lab, and studio since I knew what those three things were. In fact, one of my earliest verifiable geek memories comes from when I was about seven and I discovered a chemistry set in the Sears toy catalog. To this day, I remember being heartbroken for about thirty minutes when I got the, “You’ll shoot your eye out,” response to asking for one.

Thirty-three years later, I find myself in the enviable position of now having a library, lab, and studio. And, just like that, I have to figure out what to do with them.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I find it easy to dream. I think about things all the time, from the small and inconsequential to the massive and grandiose. So, it has been easy for me to daydream about what it would be like to have places to do things I’ve always wanted to do.

Now I have them, and it’s like my mind is blank.

That’s not entirely fair. I know what I want to do, but how do I pick? Seriously, there’s only one of me, only twenty-four hours in a day, and I have a wife and a farm. How do I decide what to do with these new-found assets in such a way that the rest of my life doesn’t come crashing down?

I’m thankful I can even write about having such a problem, but it still seems daunting for the moment. I’d better get back to the lab. Time’s a’wasting.


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Worldview: The science of do as I say

For whatever reason, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about science recently, especially as it applies to getting kids interested in science and keeping them interested.

One of the points I keep coming back to in this thinking is how often science is sold to kids in a very narrow and limited view of the universe. This view seems to say that science is this small set of things and that anything that lies outside that set is not real science.

What I see in this view is teaching a worldview to kids that does not mesh with what scientists, especially physicists and biologists, are revealing to all of us about the universe. Even as scientific inquiry reveals the universe to be more complex and more bizarre than we imagined, the worldview sold to kids seems to be becoming narrower and more boring.

What I would love to see happening in the scientific world is encouraging kids to explore their environments free of preconceptions. Sure, teach them what we think we already know, but be sure to emphasize we only know it until new or better evidence comes along. We should teach kids to find the flaws in what we think we know instead of proclaiming we already know it.

After all, isn’t that what the scientific world demands of other ways of thinking? That should be a demand that cuts both ways.


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Worldview: An Open Letter to the Wizards of Smart

A guest post by Pete Hitzeman


Dear educated so-and-so’s of every stripe,

We need to have a heart-to-heart. I admire the years of work and dedication you’ve put into getting where you are. I know, from my own intellectual and professional pursuits, how difficult, expensive, and time consuming your journey from layman to expert has been. I acknowledge without hesitation that your expertise does now and shall always exceed my own in your chosen field, and I am most often happy to pay you for the use of your advice or services.

That said, I need you to understand that I may know more about my situation and circumstances than you, and I may be far more educated on the topic at hand than you at first assumed. Just because I am a layman does not mean I am illiterate, and we now live in an age of instant, free access to virtually all of the amassed knowledge of mankind, which can be usefully navigated with a healthy dose of common sense and discernment. This recent revolution should be seen and utilized as the boon it is, rather than scorned and disregarded as noise.

I realize that this leads to an obvious problem. How can you tell me, the person who takes the time to know about things, from the other four hundred people you might see each day who simply don’t care? Well, at the risk of sounding trite, ask me. I want you to spend the first five minutes of our professional relationship talking to me, finding out what I know, and filling in what I don’t. You certainly have enough experience on the topic to know, in short order, whether I’m speaking from a point of sound knowledge, or simply blustering. It may seem frustrating and needless at first, but I promise you that it will save both of us time in the long run, since it will make our future communication far more efficient and effective.

In return, I promise to be open and honest with you about what I know and how I came to know it, as well as what I don’t know. There’s an equal chance that I have received bad information, as that you may have made erroneous assumptions. The truth, as they say, is most often in the middle. I would ask that you react to both my knowledge and my source with respect uncolored by your experiences with the customer before me. I am not them, just as I trust that you are not the same as the last professional I engaged, who fancied themselves as the sole arbiter of scientific knowledge.

So when I come to you to help me fix my car, or my computer, or my body, or my diet, or my exercise, I ask that you would do us both the favor of establishing a baseline of mutual respect and knowledge. We will both get more out of our interaction, and our business, that way.

Respectfully yours,


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Worldview: Where do I stand?

Someone commented on a Facebook post today that she wasn’t really sure if she ever really knows where I stand on the issues I tend to discuss on Facebook and elsewhere. The fact is that I’m not trying to be vague or mysterious, though I do like provoking people to think.

No, instead, I think my views are complex and they’re mine and I’m unafraid to dig into the nuances of why I think the way that I do. Every single one of us cannot help but be the result of the collection of our unique experience in life. Even people who have traveled similar paths travel them differently, and the result is different views of the world.

I cannot emphasize this point enough: my views seem vague because they are uniquely mine. They’re derived  from an informed and rational opinion created by decades of observation, learning, and experience. I do not feel the need to be beholden to any particular ideology or philosophy because I see such things as the lazy way out. Yes, it is entirely possible that the conclusions I have reached may be wrong, but I will say with the same certainty that the burden of proof to convince me of that is very high because it should be.

If I may be so bold, I think that what has happened in the past forty years of my own experience is that people have become eager for simple answers to very complicated questions. There are myriads of reasons for that trend, but the result has been that many people do not want to think about the problems that confront them with any kind of sophistication. Instead of thinking things through on their own, they pick the ideological or philosophical answer they’ve heard from someone else that they think fits them best and stop thinking about it. I never do.

I grant that this view of mine single-handedly insulted just about everyone, yet any argument to prove me wrong must, by necessity, delve into the very kind of nuances and complexity so many people try to avoid. God gave us our minds and learning and experience to help us understand our universe. When we fail to use those things to their fullest extent everyday, we are wasting one of the greatest blessings we have been given. I stand with Galileo in his famous defense of intellect, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use,” and refuse to back down from my positions simply because they make people uncomfortable or confused.

I understand this position means I live a somewhat isolated existence. So be it. My hope is that everyone will rise to the challenge I see in understanding the amazing and complex world in which we live, but if they do not, I will not stop for them.

I stand where I stand because I am doing my best to climb to the top of this mountain we call life. Join me.


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Worldview: Lego Kidsfest Cincinnati 2012

I have come to believe engaging in the act of creation brings out the best in many of us.

Granted, that’s not a hard and fast rule, but I witnessed something amazing this past weekend when I attended the 2012 Cincinnati LEGO KidsFest with my niece and brother-in-law: thousands of kids and parents, building things with LEGOs, and without the anarchy one normally associates with such large gatherings of modern children and adults.

Frankly, I was flabbergasted at just how civil and fun the whole thing was. I watched hundreds of kids, most of them strangers, wade through a two foot deep pile of bricks, searching for pieces and helping other kids find what they were looking for. I watched parents and kids work together to build fantastic buildings to populate a huge outline of the United States. I watched kids and parents wait patiently in line to participate in activities without the fighting and fuss one normally associates with such things.

I blame the bricks.

From my point of view, it was easy to avoid all the fuss and fight because everyone was focused on creating something. They could see the outcome and they wanted to be a part of it, and I think everyone knew that they had to stay civil if they wanted to participate. It worked, and it was amazing.

Now, here’s where I wax philosophical about what I will grant you was really a giant commercial to sell more LEGOs: I have to admit that what I saw in that gathering could easily be a thing that could happen in our nation and our world as a whole if we tried. If we look back at our own history and think about all the times we have been united to accomplish common causes, we can see the same effect. It is possible for us to unite to accomplish amazing goals if we want to accomplish them, but the secret to such goals is that they have to be focused on creating something.

It is my fondest hope that the parents and kids at the LEGO KidsFest caught a glimmer of what I did and that it planted a seed. It’s one we all need to nurture and grow.


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Worldview: Orders of magnitude

$40,000,000,000,000 -- the total government indebtedness as of 2011
$25,000,000,000,000 -- the total state and local debt as of 2011
$14,590,000,000,000 -- the US GDP
$14,184,254,500,000 -- the total national debt as of 5 March 2011
 $3,550,000,000,000 -- the federal budget in 2011
 $2,300,000,000,000 -- the total federal tax revenue collected in 2010
 $1,300,000,000,000 -- the national deficit for 2011
   $695,000,000,000 -- total Social Security spending in 2011
   $663,700,000,000 -- total defense spending in 2011
   $528,000,000,000 -- total Medicare spending in 2011
   $500,000,000,000 -- expiring all the Bush tax cuts for 2011
   $125,000,000,000 -- the projected state deficits for 2011
    $90,000,000,000 -- expiring the tax cuts on income over $250,000
    $63,200,000,000 -- total local budgets in Ohio in 2011
    $46,300,000,000 -- total local indebtedness in Ohio in 2011
    $68,961,315,845 -- Ohio's total outstanding debt in 2010
    $56,600,000,000 -- Ohio's budget for 2010-2011
     $8,000,000,000 -- the projected deficit in Ohio in 2011
     $1,000,000,000 -- savings from SB5 in Ohio in 2011
           $400,000 -- presidential salary in 2010
           $286,686 -- average CEO salary in 2010
           $174,000 -- Congressional pay
            $46,326 -- average household income in the US

It’s all about magnitude.


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Worldview: My indictment against unions and the politicians trying to take their bargaining rights away

I have maintained all along that both sides in the growing debacle over union collective bargaining rights are wrong, and as the situation continues to develop, I believe each side becomes more wrong than they were to begin with.

The unions have forgotten that, at some point, they need their employers to exist in order to have jobs to bargain over in the first place. The problem many public sector unions face is that their employers are broke, so even if they manage to win the collective bargaining fight, they may not have jobs because they have been laid off due to budget cuts. Nowhere is this problem more dramatically illustrated than by what is happening in public school districts, police departments, and fire departments around the United States. Districts and cities are laying off workers and eliminating positions rather than continue to pay then because the simple fact is that they cannot afford to continue to pay them what their contracts demand. Continuing the status quo with regard to collective bargaining will only ensure that this situation will continue and accelerate.

The politicians, on the other hand, have taken advantage of a turbulent time to score points with their base while also effectively failing to deal with the problems that created this mess in the first place. I think most Americans would agree that teachers, police officers, and firefighters are among the most important employees of the state, yet because of their importance they are also the most visible, and therefore the most vulnerable. While attacking the unions, especially because of some of the ridiculous benefits they have negotiated into their contracts over the years, seems like a way to deal with the problems facing the states, the politicians fail to realize those ridiculous benefits exist because they allowed them to. If politicians want to fix that kind of problem, they need to fix themselves, what motivates them, and what they think they’re supposed to be doing in their various offices.

Instead of fighting over collective bargaining rights, both sides should be focusing on how to survive the real problem: the budget is broken and cannot be fixed without cuts. Unions and politicians alike must face the fact that there is no more money. They cannot continue to spend, negotiate, and demand as they have in the past because there is noting to spend, negotiate for, or demand. Without reform, this whole debate will not even matter, because everyone involved in it will be unemployed anyway.

The first step in this process is to deal with reality:

  • The federal, state, and local budgets must shrink before the deficits riding on them overwhelm them. This means cuts–substantial cuts. If the unions want their bargaining rights, they should concentrate on working with the politicians to make the cuts as smart as they can be.
  • Politicians need to focus on getting rid of all the waste that seems to be endemic of modern government. The best money any government could spend right now would be to employ independent auditors with the authority to make cuts to review government spending and to get rid of duplication and waste.
  • Politicians must eliminate the ridiculous unfunded mandate. Unions must stop demanding laws their employers have no capacity to enact.
  • Unions should fight for a return to local control, especially where it involves school districts, police departments, and fire departments. Large scale standardization is an industrial lie that has saddled far too many localities with mandates that neither apply to them nor help them.
  • Ultimately, both public sector unions and politicians must realize they work for the people. If the people demand something should be done a certain way, then that is the way it should be done. Unions and politicians are not the people’s care takers, they are the people’s employees, and they can be fired at the people’s pleasure.
The second step is for everyone–the people, unions, and politicians alike–to realize things have changed. The same old tired processes that got us all to this point will not produce any other result than they already have. If we are going to solve these problems as a people and a nation, we have to do it by abandoning the things that got us here and by adopting approaches that work for the circumstances at hand.
The third step is for everyone to get ready for whatever happens next. Even if we solved every one of the problems we face today, there are still going to be consequences, potentially big ones, that may last for years, even decades. The milk is already spilled, now it’s just a matter of what the cleanup looks like.
Unless we deal with the problems we now face in all their complexity and reality, they are going to sweep us away whether we like it or not. There are only two solutions: stand and face reality or be swept away by it.
UPDATED: Fixed the spelling mistake in the title and in the body.

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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.


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Worldview: The cost of reality

I’ve been watching the progress of the collective bargaining revocation bills in Wisconsin and Ohio with great curiosity and not a small amount of amusement. What I see on all sides of this debate is a failure to deal with reality.

Teacher’s unions fail to understand that there is no more money. Wisconsin is in the hole $2.2 billion. Ohio is in the hole $7 billion. Those deficits are only the ones for 2011. Sure, they are just trying to protect their own, but at what cost? What else has to get cut to protect them? Who else has to pay?

On the other hand, you have the conservative law makers and those who elected them. They claim union busting–because that’s what revoking state collective bargaining agreements really is–will save the tax payers millions. That’s true, but so would cutting state programs, especially the costly social welfare programs even conservatives are addicted to.

The problem, as I see it, is that nobody wants to admit the truth: we’re not going to get out of these problems with selective, politically motivated cuts. Instead, we’re going to have to make far-reaching, across the board cuts at all levels of government that will last decades, and those cuts will only serve to allow us to tread water.

Unfortunately, no one is listening. Liberals and progressives want to tax more and spend more. Conservatives want to attack their political opponents’ pet programs without doing anything real to face the problems. Libertarians are too wild-eyed and disorganized to do anything other than make incoherent noises.

In the midst of all of this, our nation is failing. Our currency is devaluing. Our economy is not creating jobs. More than half our citizens effectively do not pay taxes, and the other half are paying so much they can’t make anything happen. Our tax system penalizes success. Our laws make starting and maintaining businesses unnecessarily complex. This year, local, state, and federal governments will spend between $2.5 and $3 trillion more dollars than they collect in taxes. The total US debt burden carried by all levels of governments could exceed $25 trillion–or twice the entire GDP of the US in 2011.

If we really want to fix the problems that got us here, we have to end–no, destroy–the disincentive to perform, succeed, and innovate on the strengths of our own merits. We have to wipe out the notion that we can somehow treat every individual and situation as some kind of an average and deal with reality in all its uniqueness and complexity. For the first time in decades, we have to think, act, and react in accordance with the situation we have, not the one we are convinced we should have. We have to return the bulk of control to the individual and stop expecting governments to take care of us.

And all of these solutions are going to happen whether we want them to or not. We cannot continue what we are doing because what we are doing is failing. The question that remains is whether we participate in the process by which the next thing comes into being or whether we stand and watch as the terms are dictated to us.

I suspect most will do the latter, which is why I’m pretty sure you should be getting ready for some really tough times ahead.


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