Tuesday, October 15, 2019

A modest proposal to prevent the fall of civilization

Every person has two educations, one which he receives from others, and one, more important, which he gives to himself.
― Edward Gibbon
The Silicon Graybeard muses on the fall of civilization:
Over the years, I've said (and more often hinted) that what I see in the future is not just the chance of an economic collapse due to the world's unsustainable debt levels. I see a real chance for another Dark Ages. The main driving force there is the Postmodernists in academia pushing the idea of "my truth and your truth"; the idea that there isn't anything other than our perceptions of things. That works fine for simple questions like, "what's your favorite color?" but is completely wrong for "what's the speed of light?", "will this virus survive in air?" or any interactions with the real world. VDH follows those trends to the conclusion a Dark Age may already be starting.
When civilization falls, it falls hard.  We hear mostly dry statistics about the collapse of civilization, things like the population of Rome in 100 AD was around a million people.  That's impossible to visualize.  Instead, we should look at this:

Immagine gentilmente concessa da Wikipedia
This is Monte Testaccio in Rome.  It is a hill made entirely of broken pottery, and it dates to the first and second centuries AD.  It's over 100 feet high, around a kilometer around, and historians think that it used to be much larger but has eroded over the last two millennia.  The Roman "bread and circuses" was a huge welfare project that fed much of the city's population, and which required huge imports of not just grain but also olive oil - over a million gallons of oil each year, every year, for hundreds of years.  The oil was shipped in big clay pots, but what do you do with the pots when you've distributed the oil?  The Romans were the best engineers until at least the eighteenth century, and so they came up with an engineering solution: they made a mountain out of broken up pots.

And then it all fell, and fell so far and hard that it was forgotten.  The Roman Forum itself - the political center of the Ancient World for four centuries or more - became a cow field, the Campo Vaccino:

Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino by J.M.W. Turner, painted in 1839
It's been said that any system can survive only three generations before facing crisis.  The first generation is the generation that created the system.  They knew it intimately.  The second generation saw the system being created, and so at least understood its main functions and how they worked.  The third generation inherited the system.  They may or may not know anything at all about how it works.

If this is a system created by the government - and remember that government is politics - then politics will be the main thing that we can expect the third generation to understand.  NASA is an excellent example of this dynamic: the generation that won World War II created it.  They landed a man on the Moon and returned him safely to the Earth, all in that decade.  The generation that followed watched that.  They were able to make a Space Shuttle and a Mars Rover.  Now NASA is in the third generation and the Space Launch System is pushing a decade late and $20B over budget, all while offering less capability than SpaceX at quadruple the price.  But hey, a Senator is happy so it's all good, amirite?

This Republic has a population that is observably more stupid than when I wore a younger man's shoes. This isn't just get offa my lawn ranting, it's a measurable fact:
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), test scores for 17 year olds have not improved since the early 1970s. That is, the average 17 year old in 2012 got about the same score in reading and math (287 and 306, respectively) as a 17 year old in 1971 or 1973 did (285 and 304, respectively). 
The response from professional educators?
Carr argues that flat scores aren’t terrible. “It’s a good thing that they’re not going down,” she said.
Well okay, then.  This is the same time period when per-pupil spending on K-12 education has skyrocketed:

If anything, this understates the scope of the problem: there is lots of discussion about how incoming college students can't read or do math very well, and so they have to take remedial course (and take on student debt while doing so) before they can start what would otherwise be their studies.

Note that this discussion has been about the portion of the public education system that is arguably working; it doesn't work at all in the inner cities.  None of Baltimore's schools graduate students who can do mathematics, and Atlanta's school system had a huge scandal where test scores were massively manipulated so that administrators could get their incentive bonus.  People went to jail for that, but the system is no better five years later.

In short, the more government has gotten itself into education, the dumber the population has gotten - and at fabulous expense.  The system is broken, and since it's a government system (in which politics is uber alles) it will not reform itself.  Further, the public education system is generally popular throughout the land, so the normal political process will be useless for reform.

And so the Republic slouches towards the Campo Vaccino.  The third generation will lead to a fourth, and as Graybeard fears, a new Dark Age approaches.

Immodestly, I believe that there is a solution.  It's one that will improve performance, reduce costs, and be politically acceptable to large portions of the voters.  The Department of Education can issue a rule saying that if a public school system does not issue vouchers allowing parents to send their children to the school of their choice, that the Department will withhold education grants to that school system equal to the average per-pupil cost in that district.  The Department will then issue an Income Tax credit to the parents for that amount.  The Department will provide a free home schooling curriculum and teaching materials for free with the tax credit.

Simples.  No fuss, no muss.  It may even be that the Education Department can do this without any action of Congress.  I Am Not A Lawyer, but Congress has granted a huge amount of authority to the Regulatory State.

So why do I think that this is politically possible when the Teacher's Unions and Democratic Party (but I repeat myself) will fight this to the death?  Consider:

  • Vouchers are popular among blacks and hispanics and have been for a long time.  This makes sense, as its their kids who are locked into failing school districts.  You don't get much more White Privilege than mandatory public schools.
  • Tax Credits allow stay-at-home Moms to school their kids if they want.  Home schooling three kids at an average tax credit of around $12,000 per kid is the equivalent of a pre-tax job paying around $50,000/year.  Politically, this will play very well with women.
  • We can expect this to be especially popular with black and hispanic women.  No doubt some upper middle class white women will complain that these women of color cannot be trusted to educate their children but we can dismiss this as veiled racism, and the women certainly can't do any worse than the current inner-city schools are doing.  At the very worst, the money wouldn't be going to an impenetrable education bureaucracy but rather directly to voters.
  • Public schools will have to do a better job, at a lower cost.  Competition will focus on results, rather than on a politicized curriculum.

Now what's interesting about this is that politically this would hurt democrats and help Donald Trump.  However, the people who think that politics doesn't enter into the public education system shouldn't concern themselves about, well, politics entering into the public education system.  And anyway, since government is politics, a better  description of "public education" is "government education", leading to "political education".

This is no panacea against the New Dark Age.  However, it puts resources in the hands of parents who presumably care more about their kids than a set of bureaucrats.  Eliminating all the nonsense permeating the schools (hello, Common Core) will let teachers and parents focus on reading and math and you know, education.

I'll deal with Higher Education in a future post.  Turning that around will be harder in some ways and easier in some.


LindaG said...

I like your ideas.

Beans said...

Well, first thing is, not every school district needs an Arts Magnet School with an off-but-close-to-Broadway quality theater. Seriously, nice that your kid sings and acts, gonna be good for that dinner theater down the road...

And put back in tradeschool equipment, or work hand-in-hand with a trade school or local business to intern and teach hands-on-work. There are few degreed jobs that pay as much as a good welder, oil worker, or aviation(or high) tech tech job.

Next, put in mandatory pass-failyerout! teacher testing. If'n you can't add or speak or write or understand the material you are supposedly teaching, then you shouldn't be a teacher.

I find it amazing that the Armed Forces do a good job of teaching semi-literate kids how to do and how to analyze and comprehend.

For me? I'd go all Heinlein on the school system and require incoming teachers to be either vets (with or without visible wounds, hey, I had a 3-fingered Chem teacher, from whom I learned not to grind explosive powders while inebriated...) or people who've served in some peace corps or something like that. Preferably vets. If they've gone to college, fine, but up till high school a HS graduate and honorable discharge from military service will suffice.

As to the child tax credit, lots of rich to medium rich stay at home moms would jump on that like white on rice. Seriously, there are lots of parents who both work in order to afford the cost of kids. Give that tax money back, and there'd be a lot more stay-at-home parents. Which would be good for our society.

Tim Wolter said...

Well Borepatch you are feelin' very Late Imperial today! Gibbon had a lot to say to his countrymen on the matter of how great empires fall. He put a lot of the blame on nepotism....the notion that just because you are the son of the Emperor, or the President, that you know anything at all is dangerous. Being married to one is hardly a recommendation either.

As to the state of education these days, yes it is pretty bleak. But it makes my retirement job so much easier. I'm involved with three or four different robotics programs these days. I get to teach them a lot simply because many of them start out so far behind. They asked me a while back what title I wanted listed in my course descriptions. I requested, and got, Robot Overlord.


Borepatch said...

Beans, the beauty of this plan is that it covers both the Arts school and the Trade school. It may not cover 100% of the tuition of a swanky near-Broadway theater school, but it's hard to justify taxing poor people to subsidize wealthy folks. But if Mom and Dad want Junior to go to the Vo-Tech High School, their tax dollars should flow to that school.

Tim, my favorite of Gibbon's reasons for the Fall Of Rome is blaming it all on the Christians, LOL. Who says that history isn't entertaining? And I recall Henry Kissenger's reply when the Press asked him what they should call him. He said that "Your Excellency" will do fine ... ;-)

Aesop said...

As I noted at SiG's site when he linked to the OP, the problem with that thesis is that the normally redoubtable VDH compared apples to oranges and came up with sour grapes.

The whole thing is four parts bile and 6 parts hogwash.

Maybe if I get around to it this week, I'll fisk the whole thing in depth and detail. Historians should stick to history, and not so much attempting prognostication. This essay tells much more about VDH than it does about objective reality.

HMS Defiant said...

That’s a rather terrifying future....the one I’m living in now.

I think you’ll find that there is almost nothing left in the black urban core but ignorance and hate. They won’t be in a position to educate their way out in the next few generations, if at all. The ones I deal with it’s largely grandmothers raising their kid’s children and these grandmothers are in their sixties and the last generation of urban kids to get anything like an education. Their kids didn’t.

LSP said...

Good call, Borepatch, but we're in an ineluctable devolution, as was Rome. Perhaps vouchers will help halt the decline in certain areas.

Sorry to sound pessimistic.

But will the Church live to be a beacon of civilization? In part, yes, surely. #BenedictOption

Richard said...

As I recall, the Romans had a problem with letting barbarians into the Empire. So do we.

Borepatch said...

Aesop, you don't have to believe that civilization is about to fall for this to make sense as a plan.

SiGraybeard said...

Thanks for reference, Borepatch. I think education is the core of it and your plan is good.

The hard part is what HMS Defiant says. There's at least two generations of families that have been totally wiped out by LBJ's War on Poverty and the financial incentives that were created to destroy those families. There's at least two generations that were indoctrinated to believe that education was a bad thing. It's worst in the inner cities of Democrat strongholds: Chicago, Detroit, NYFC, and the usual.

How can those societies been rebuilt? How can those people be saved?

Weetabix said...

Homeschool for the win. We homeschooled our 4 children. They're all doing well in their chosen occupations.

One decided to go to school on a full scholarship. She got a refund when she graduated and her professors eventually convinced her to come back and be paid to get her Masters.

Sure, some homeschool moms will get it wrong, but not nearly as many as public schools will.

Divemedic said...

There is plenty of blame to go around. Here are a few things that I have seen with my own eyes:

The courts:
- The courts have ruled that an education at public expense is a constitutional right.
- This includes children who cost a large amount for little return: troublemakers, criminals, and kids who have disabilities.
- If a kid has a low IQ, he is less likely to learn, more likely to be a criminal, and certain to cost a bundle. However, as soon as he doesn't get the same scores as smarter kids, the courts blame the school.

- Too many parents expect the school to raise their kids.
- Many parents don't care if their kid gets an education. They only want to see that little Johhny gets an A, but don't care if he learned anything while doing so.
- There is an epidemic of parents who do everything for their children, including their homework. Then, when the little snowflake heads off to college, the parent moves to follow them off to college.
- Parents demand that their kids be prepped for (and then go to) college. They all want kids who are doctors, lawyers, and big money athletes. They do not want plumbers, carpenters, or welders. Thus, the focus in high school is on prepping their kids for a college career where they will never succeed, because they just aren't smart enough. Parents don't want to hear that their kid isn't smart enough for college.

- Schools' funding is set by a few factors, the largest of which is graduation rate. When you set up an incentive like basing funding on the percentage of graduates, what you get is not better education, but more graduates.

- Many schools place a bigger emphasis on sports than on education. Why? Because sports are what America wants. A third of the country doesn't turn on the TV on Saturdays to watch engineers solve problems.

Divemedic said...

- There are many teachers who 'phone it in' and don't really teach. Schools can't get rid of them because there are few people who would be willing to do that job for what teachers are paid. Those who do burn either out quickly and leave to head for greener pastures, or they begin to 'go along to get along' because teachers who don't pass enough students get fired because graduation rates are too low. Supply and demand is very much at play here.

- Very few school administrators know how to manage people. Nearly all of them come from an educational, rather than a managerial, background. As a result, schools are often poorly led, and inefficiently managed.

- I have had administrators tell me that no more than 15% of my students can receive lower than a C. Any more than that, and the fault is mine for not teaching, not the students' for failing to learn. What we constantly hear is, "There are no bad students, only bad teachers."

- It is also the policy of my school district that students who are ELL (that means immigrants who don't natively speak English) MUST receive at least a C. Why? Because there is a Federal Law that says an ELL student cannot fail a class solely because of their lack of English proficiency, under threat of losing Federal funding. Since no school wants to risk losing their funding, all ELL students get a C, regardless of the reason. How long do you think it takes a teen to figure out that they cannot fail? And what do you think happens to the quality of their work once they do?

All of these factors contribute to the problem. My feeling is this:
Have an entrance exam for high school at the end of the 8th grade. The results of this exam place the student in one of three schools:
1. The lowest quartile is sent to a 2 year school that teaches them life skills. These are students who will probably wind up in the service industry, say working fast food or retail.
2. The middle two quartiles get sent to a 3 year school that teaches them a trade. Skills like auto repair, carpentry, plumbing, welding, etc.
3. The highest quartile gets sent to a college prep high school where they are taught the higher courses in things that prepare them for college.

A parent who wants their child to attend a different school than they were qualified for can send their child there, but at their own expense. This way, parents are motivated to help their child succeed because it is their own money, rather than public funds, that is paying for it.

Borepatch said...

Divemedic, if people just want sports then why should the public pay for education? Send the money back to the parents; the ones who value education will buy it; the ones who don't won't. Their kids will likely suffer from their parenting decisions, but that's not exactly a news flash.