Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

February 27, 2010

Another “Wake-Up Call” for Education?

Nicolette over at Richer Dialogue has posted the trailer for a new movie called “We are the People We’ve Been Waiting For.” She also wrote up a synopsis of the film. Go ahead, check it out– I’ll wait. 🙂

Now, when I watched the trailer, I thought that it seems like a lot of the same old rhetoric: we need to spend more on computers, because that’s the only way they’ll be able to compete with developing nations (to be followed shortly by articles in the Times proclaiming, “If you kid is awake, he’s probably online! They’ll probably be stupider for it! ZOMG!”)! kids are the future! be all you can be! More of a snooze-fest than a wake-up call, really.

I found it especially ironic that Sir Richard Branson was up there saying “There are only two ways to learn entrepreneurial skills…either get out there in the jungle and get them, or (pause for dramatic effect) teach it to them in schools.” As massively successful as he is, which method did he use? Considering that he was a notoriously poor student in school and only holds honorary university degrees, I think it’s safe to say that he didn’t waste any time sitting around in a classroom.

Higher, better education for all is an admirable goal in theory. However, education was never designed to be the great equalizer. Why else would we have professors who only give out a certain number of As, regardless of the quality of the students’ work? The way we rank students, from A to F, is competitive by design. Grades are inherently meaningless: they only have value if there are “winners” and “losers.”

And I also found it really funny that they were showing footage of deforestation and global warming while talking about the need for more education to conquer these terrible things. Do they not realize that the CEO of the company who has hired the lumberjack to cut down those trees is probably college educated, several times over? As well as all the CEOs and managers of companies whose factories and/or products CAUSE global warming. Whereas we didn’t have wholesale destruction of the planet before the institutionalization of education. To quote an old friend, “I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.”

However, Nicolette told me that the film uses a lot of the resources and arguments that she used to write her thesis on deschooling for ecoliteracy, which sounds a lot more radical. Maybe whoever put the trailer together for them just didn’t “get it.” She hasn’t seen it either, so I guess we’ll reserve judgment until the movie comes out.  What did you think of the trailer?  Or if you’ve seen it, do you think it proposes some new, exciting solutions?  Or is it just a rehash of the same old rhetoric?

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July 27, 2009

Extreme Credentialism

Paul Graham’s essay on credentialism, which I linked to and wrote about last week, points to imperialist China as the birthplace of testing. He argues that testing/earning credentials displaced nepotism and bribery as a method of selecting government officials. While that was a beneficial change, the tests were indicators of wealth as much as of knowledge and skill–only the privileged would have the opportunity to study classical literature. In time, such tests gave rise to ‘cram schools,’ where those who could afford it were able to learn how to get a good score on the test, rather than taking the time to build the skills that were supposed to be measured by the test. (SAT prep, anyone?)

Modern-day Chinese students have recently stumbled upon a new permutation of ‘test hacking’: identity theft. According to an article that appeared in the New York Times yesterday, all Chinese students have a personal file that contains their grades, test results, peer and teacher evaluations, diplomas, etc. These files are physical and supposedly kept under lock and key by government agencies. Lately, however, the files of students from poor families have been ‘vanishing.’ These students suspect corrupt government agents of selling the records of their achievements to young people from wealthy families. The victims of this scam are sentenced to low-paying jobs, as they are virtually ineligible for government or private-sector employment without their files. All the time and money they invested in their education has been completely and utterly lost, for while they still have all the knowledge and skill they worked so hard to develop, potential employers only care about credentials. I especially appreciated Tony Z.’s comment (it’s #6) on the ramifications of this crime for Chinese society. He writes, “[Don’t] ask why these corrupt officials weren’t caught. Ask why on earth is a man’s life predicated on one file? Ask what happens to a society when it prizes the Gold medal over the discipline to achieve it legitimately?”

On the other hand, the Chinese economy seems to be thriving. Perhaps it’s an indication that all the specialized knowledge that universities claim only they can bestow, is not really necessary. Only time will tell.

It is only more evidence that the system of credentialism can be, and often is, skewed to favor the wealthy. This means that wherever an individual’s ability to earn income depends on the pieces of paper they possess (and whether those papers are name-brand), there exists a society where the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. It is a shame that the bright future these students traded their youth for has been denied to them, due to the greed of others. I am encouraged by Paul Graham’s assertion that the American marketplace is moving towards rewarding performance rather than credentials. I hope that these young students will live to benefit from a similar trend in China, although, as Tony Z. suggests, credentialism seems to be an ingrained part of Chinese culture. As he says, “If you’re Chinese, ask why you care more about a number on a piece of paper than the man in front of you.”

July 23, 2009

Why great credentials won’t get you a good job (and what will)

Filed under: Credentialism — christinag503 @ 6:48 pm
Tags: , , , ,

I first came across the works of Paul Graham when I was a teenager.  I somehow stumbled upon his marvelous essay, “Why Nerds Are Unpopular in High School.” Although I was fortunate enough never to have experienced high school as a social hell (we had a small class, and everybody mostly respected and liked each other, even if we weren’t all BFFs) his insights made a lot of sense to me.  I especially love his dog analogy; I have even shamelessly appropriated it in the past, but now I’m coming clean about the source!  At the time, I thought it was the work of a solitary, unknown genius, but I am now coming to find out that this guy is pretty well-known as a programmer and a venture capitalist, besides being a crackerjack essayist.  I can tell from the quality of the ideas and the writing that he spends a lot of time on his work.  I think he is a visionary in many ways.  He has wonderful insights about the future of the marketplace, and his work is a great source of advice for young people.  So I wanted to share with you all an essay of his that I read recently, entitled “After Credentials.”

He posits that small businesses are the ones advancing technology and driving the economy, because they can more easily reward, and therefore encourage, outstanding individual performance.  Larger corporations do not function this way.  He argues that because credentials were developed to select members for large corporations, and because there are so many cram schools designed to help students “hack” the tests to get the credentials, they will soon be obsolete.

I was, however, a little surprised at the introductory paragraph of this essay.  It struck Mr. Graham as “old-fashioned” that a South Korean parent said that “college entrance exams determine 70 to 80 percent” of a young adult’s future.  He says it reminds him of an attitude Americans held 25 years ago.  Perhaps because he is so immersed in the world of start-ups, technology, and results-oriented meritocracy, he doesn’t realize that the majority of American students today are still taught that “the right college” is the ONLY gateway to a decent life.  (Check out this post about $40,000 admissions advisors if you need further convincing.)

In my opinion, standardized tests are hyped up so much mostly to maintain the industry that has been created around them (the test producers, the graders, the monitors, the test-preparation companies).  It might have been a useful idea at one point, but don’t be influenced by advertising to pay for something that isn’t really going to impact your future!  There are a few colleges now who don’t require scores on standardized tests.  And for those that do, I think a thoughtful essay on why you chose NOT to take the tests would show an impressive level of insight for a high school student.  I think any college would be happy to accept a student who possessed such awareness.  Don’t forget, colleges are first and foremost businesses: they want to get warm bodies in the seats. So don’t worry too much about “getting in.”

In short: don’t waste your time and money studying and prepping for meaningless exams!  Spend the time learning and honing a real skill, instead.  That’s what the market of the next generation will reward, not just the ability to hack a test and get a great score.  Plus, it’s way more fun.

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