A Quick Thought on Education Reform

We live in a country where Creationists can run for President without being laughed out of the room, homeopathy is seen as real medicine, millions of people buy into “The Secret” that wishing for something hard enough makes it happen, and the cast of the Jersey Shore is rich.

Until that changes, I find it hard to believe that we’ll be able to improve education outcomes significantly no matter how radically we reform the education system. Kids aren’t dumb. Why bother to acquire knowledge when it’s manifestly unimportant to do so in our culture?

(cross-posted to A Practical Heretic)

FILED UNDER: Education, Quick Takes, US Politics
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. mantis says:

    It’s true. In the aggregate, we Americans are stupid because we reward stupidity in our culture.

    Our only hope, in my mind, is the ongoing rise of geek culture, in which depth of knowledge and expertise are prized. The biggest business and cultural successes of the recent past have come from areas run by the geeks: Google, Facebook, Apple, TED, Segway, Android, etc.

    While I don’t watch sitcoms very much, I’m told that Big Bang Theory is doing quite well, and features leading characters who are physicists and engineers. This is a good thing, and another step towards a culture that values scientists, technologists, engineers, and other geeks as heroes and role models, not the castouts and social retards we used to see in the 80s and 90s.

  2. Alex Knapp says:

    @mantis,

    I generally agree, but there’s good Geek Culture and bad Geek Culture. And the bad is starting to outweigh the good. I like irony as much as the next guy…. No, wait, I don’t. And the less said about the Singularity evangelists, the better.

    As far as tech goes, I personally think that Apple and its emerging dominance is bad for Geek Culture, as Apple manifestly discourages customization of both hardware and software, and that attitude is starting to trickle into other areas now. I always laugh at the cliche of the 16 year old hacker now, because my experience has taught me that smart “geeky” kids out of college have trouble adjusting the fonts on Word and changing their privacy settings on Facebook.

    I’m also in kind of a pessimistic mood today. Perhaps I’ll feel better tomorrow.

  3. Neil Hudelson says:

    The irony of The Big Bang Theory is that it is entirely nongeek in its humor. That is, the subject may be planted firmly in the geek culture, but the humor itself is as run-of-the-mill, cliche–frankly just bad–jokes that would feel at home in Full House or any of the other late 80s/early 90s sitcoms (you know, the ones you cringe to think that you once watched).

    So while the show may use geeks for its subject matter, its actually just providing the people who watch Jersey Shore and wear copper bands an safe, comfortable glimpse into what they already preconceive the geek culture to be.

    If you cant’ tell that show disgusts me.

    Strike that, any show on CBS disgusts me.

    Strike that, most of TV disgusts me.

  4. mantis says:

    As far as tech goes, I personally think that Apple and its emerging dominance is bad for Geek Culture, as Apple manifestly discourages customization of both hardware and software, and that attitude is starting to trickle into other areas now.

    I’m not as much of an Apple detractor as many of my fellow geeks. While I have no interest in an iPad or iPhone, preferring my Android I can do exactly what I want with, the fact is most people don’t really want to customize their electronics and such. They just want them to work, and in a user-friendly way. That’s what Apple does. And, while they might not be my or your cup of tea, the devices they create are excellent examples of first rate user-oriented design, and people love to use them.

    I always laugh at the cliche of the 16 year old hacker now, because my experience has taught me that smart “geeky” kids out of college have trouble adjusting the fonts on Word and changing their privacy settings on Facebook.

    Maybe I have a different experience than you, but then mine is mostly from my job at a tech/engineering school. I’m amazed at how quickly some of the students pick up new skills and come up with new ideas they actually follow through on. We’ve got little tech entrepreneurial ventures popping up all over, started by students who are still in school, and are actually turning profits.

    I’m going to see how the students are doing this evening at a LAN/MTG party where we’ll surely be discussing Scrolls, the new online CCG from the guys who made Minecraft. I expect a big crowd that includes athletes, greeks, and even girls! Maybe my perception is skewed, but I’ve been seeing a culture shift on the ground here.

  5. mantis says:

    The irony of The Big Bang Theory is that it is entirely nongeek in its humor. That is, the subject may be planted firmly in the geek culture, but the humor itself is as run-of-the-mill, cliche–frankly just bad–jokes that would feel at home in Full House or any of the other late 80s/early 90s sitcoms (you know, the ones you cringe to think that you once watched).

    That’s too bad.

    Strike that, most of TV disgusts me.

    Seconded.

  6. Philippa says:

    The Big Bang isn’t great art, I’ll grant you, but I rather like it. By showing geeks as people whose lives are comprehensible to everyone else (and thus subject to the same themes in humor) the show probably does a service to both geeks and the general public. No, the writers don’t always get their depictions of academia right (what TV show does?) but I can’t remember the last time I heard someone on a sitcom mention publishing articles, going to conferences, teaching, etc. Just nice to see us depicted – and pretty gently and favorably, at that.

    But then, I’m not the sort of person who’d rather build a smartphone from parts found in a freegan dumpster diving expedition than watch TV, so perhaps I’m not truly a geek at all. I do agree that the celebration of stupidity in our culture is a problem, though, so can I be an honorary geek?

  7. matt b says:

    Ok… no offense Alex, but the “death of culture” thing, while ironic is always already happening and not happening.

    While reality TV is bad, is it *really* that much more watched or popular than say, soap operas. Ditto TV… I suspect that the percentage of good shows to bad shows ultimately has stayed relatively flat. Put a different way, was the Brady Bunch really *that* much better than the average sitcom aired today?

    What, in part, makes the past look so good is that crap usually didn’t survive across generations. We know Marlowe and Shakespeare — but the English theatre scene was booming then… anyone care to name other major (or minor) British playwrights? For the most part their texts were not preserved (or at least not popularly).

  8. michael reynolds says:

    The culture’s fine.

    TV has higher high points and lower low points than it did 30 years ago because we have a million more channels and hours of programming and we can aim both higher (The Wire, House, Modern Family, Stewart and Colbert,) and lower, (Jersey Shore, Housewives of Wherever.)

    Movies are far superior in everything except, unfortunately, writing. Acting is better, the technology is way better, for the most part the directing is better, too. The writing sucks, I can’t argue with that, but it pretty much always did. And there are some genius screenwriters.

    Music, too, has its greats and not-so-greats, but it always has, we just manage to forget the crap from the past.

    And the kids are okay, too. Better than in my day. Smarter, much harder working thanks to their obnoxious hyperactive parents, more tolerant.

    The problem with education is that we need a revolution, not a minor facelift. We are still operating on an obsolete premise: teachers possess knowledge and transmit that knowledge to kids in groups of 2-30 arranged by birth dates.

    This is the Google age. The idea that we should still be shuttling kids around by age cohort from class to class, wasting time, obsessing over tests, teaching nonsense in a politicized environment and funding it all according to the home prices in the neighborhood is just amazing.

    The problem isn’t the kids, it’s their idiot parents and even more idiot politicians.

    My daughter is still learning cursive at school. Cursive!

  9. matt b says:

    Movies are far superior in everything except, unfortunately, writing. Acting is better, the technology is way better, for the most part the directing is better, too. The writing sucks, I can’t argue with that, but it pretty much always did. And there are some genius screenwriters.

    I’d even push on that claim a bit Michael. Movies actually got much better in part as a response to the the rise of TV (the 60’s & 70’s). Basically “C” movies completely stopped production and “B” movies greatly decreased as well. If you look historically back on how many movies were actually made during the 30’s – 50’s it’s pretty astonishing. I think things took an uptick with DTV, but in general, far less US movies (released on screen) are made a year than was the case 50+ years ago.

    And it took that to happen for the first big Renaissance in motion picture experimentation and vast improvments in writing.

    BTW – Michael, are you any closer to your books making it on screen?

    – Matt

  10. Michael says:

    As far as tech goes, I personally think that Apple and its emerging dominance is bad for Geek Culture

    Okay, other than music players and high-end laptops, Apple doesn’t dominate anything. They are, and for the foreseeable future will be, playing tho the high-end consumer market. They are also very much not a part of geek culture, for exactly the reason you stated.

    I always laugh at the cliche of the 16 year old hacker now, because my experience has taught me that smart “geeky” kids out of college have trouble adjusting the fonts on Word and changing their privacy settings on Facebook.

    Just today I was sitting in IRC listening to someone teach a class about scripting access to Amazon’s cloud computing service (EC2), and not one but two people who were following along mentioned their disappointment that a credit card was required to sign up for EC2, because they weren’t old enough to get one yet. Trust me, there are still 16 year old hackers, and they are damn impressive.

  11. anjin-san says:

    > My daughter is still learning cursive at school. Cursive!

    Back when everyone had good penmanship, this was a great country. Why do liberals hate America?

  12. michael reynolds says:

    mattB:

    The GONE series, no. We’re pushing for TV. The movie people can’t get past the fact that there are zero adult characters.

    There’s some Hollywood interest in the ANIMORPHS re-release. We’ll see.

    Nada for MAGNIFICENT 12 at this point.

    Two single titles I haven’t written yet (but I’ve already spent the advances!) too soon to tell.

    But coming down the pike is the series I cannot publicly name. If we don’t sell that to Hollywood I’ll eat the books.

    And my wife’s next may get some option money, too.

    And yet I still owe the IRS for 2009. Seriously, how do I manage that? I don’t even have a cleaning lady.

  13. michael reynolds says:

    anjin:

    What makes it especially annoying is that she’s a lefty. It’s twice as much work for lefty’s.

  14. michael reynolds says:

    By the way, a brag on my in-house thirteen year-old geek. His second outside-the-family website. http://berkeleyschool.com/ Design, code and pix are his. As for content, that’s the school’s.