Archive for August 19, 2009

How will you know that American universities have collapsed?

In Jared Dimond’s book Collapse, he responds to a student’s question, “How could the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island do that?  How could he finish the deforestation of his island?” Dimond responds that the cutter really didn’t know that that was what he was doing.  Deforestation had to be going on for years, and the economy and society had to adapt to the lack of trees.  By the time the last three was cut down, it was probably just a sapling that was being cleared for some other purpose, like growing something else.  His point is that collapse comes gradually and is hard to identify when it’s happening.

I thought of that today watching TED video podcasts.  I watched Alan Kay’s and Dan Dennet’s in the same morning workout.  Alan points out what is missing from our educational system, and how they have brought in some of that discovery and scientific insight in the LA schools where he’s been working.  Alan mentions in passing how the video the day before, on how molecules combine, was flawed in that it doesn’t show the seething mass of molecular movement that makes the combination occur. Dan’s talk starts out by describing how Charles Darwin reasoned upside-down, that Darwin saw that the Absolute Wisdom of the world’s design emerged from Absolute Ignorance — just a seething mass of organisms.

Which got me to wondering if maybe our education system isn’t broken at all.  Maybe the seeting mass of different people trying different things, with teachers flying in all kinds of directions, with experimental curricula and variations on standardized curricula, with many more failures than successes is actually exactly what you want to create a diversity of people with the few geniuses we need to keep things going.  But being a critical kind of guy, I also got to wondering, “How would I know if that’s wrong?”

What would it look like if things really were collapsing in our educational system, and wasn’t just a creative, chaotic mess? Niall Ferguson in his book Empire recommends that the new American Empire (us) should look to the last great Empire (British) to learn from their lessons.  He says that it doesn’t matter whether we really have ambitions of Empire — we basically have one, and other nations treat us like an imperial power.  Therefore, we should heed the lessons.  What were the signs that the British Empire was fading? What would we look for as signs that the American Empire is fading?  And in a smaller version of that, what would be the sign that the American education system is failing, and isn’t just a seething mass where the right thing does emerge from anarchy?  The analogy isn’t as strong, since the British education system didn’t collapse, and may be much better than the American one.  It is the case that more foreigners flood into American universities than British ones (last numbers I saw), so maybe that’s the sign that we are not failing.  How would we know?  Maybe we won’t, even after the last tree is cut down.

August 19, 2009 at 10:43 am 12 comments


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