Back in June while running errands around the Cities, I listened to a really good NPR program on education (I really recommend following this link and listening to the whole program.). The lead-in was a a trio of quotes from an Indian physicist/computer programmer/educator, “Children will learn to do, what they want to do” and “Education isn’t broken, it’s obsolete” and a line from Arthur C. Clarke “A teacher who can be replaced with a machine, should be.”
Every real teacher knows that you can’t teach anything to disinterested “students.” What is less well-known is that real students teach themselves. Or, maybe, that is less accepted.
I have “taught” a lot of students a lot of stuff in my 35 year career: basic electricity, electronics troubleshooting and repair, manufacturing quality systems, music, pacemaker and ICD implant and programming techniques, human cardiac biology, recording and live sound “engineering,” writing (fiction and non and technical), investments and money management, and stuff I have probably forgotten altogether. Most of my “students,” until the last ten years, were industry-based; in-house education of people who were wired to learn and true self-teachers. I was more of a facilitator than an “educator.” In many of those classes, my response to questions was “I’ll have to get back to you on that” because the questions were beyond my knowledgebase. (I did, in fact, always try to get back to the questioner with an answer, no matter how long it took me to find that answer. When I began my medical devices career, I couldn't ‘t find a heart with an axe. I used this line constantly when docs asked questions. Fuckin’ cardiologists look for a hole in your knowledgebase and poke at it until it bleeds.)
When I stumbled into academia, I found myself in a totally different environment. First, the only formal performance criteria I was evaluated on was “retention.” In academic-speak, retention means “people don’t drop out or get dropped from school until we have all of their money.” You’d like to think it meant something about retaining what is considered to be valuable information, but you’d be wrong. Second, no more than half of any class contained people who were vitally interested in the subject. Our current fearless leader likes to say, “No parent ever forced their kid to go to music school,” but that’s far from the truth. The whole “you gotta have a college degree to get a job” mental illness has gone so far from reality that “any degree” appears to be parents’ goal. (I’m from the Woody Allen school of thought that says you haven’t survived the third trimester and can still be aborted until you have a law degree, an MD, or a PhD in something useful.) All kinds of kids go to art school, music school, hairdresser school, cooking school, or whatever other hobby activity you can invent “just to get a degree.” They have no more interest in art, music, hair, cooking or basket weaving than does a chicken. They are just avoiding life and adulthood doing the Garrison Keilor MFA thing (My Fabulous Adolescence).
I think, in fact, education might be obsolete. Most of the K-12 system is a glorified babysitting service. The reason so many “parents” are in favor of abolishing summer vacation and extending school hours has nothing to do with education. They are just looking for more time either for themselves or work. If that’s your goal, don’t have kids, dumbass. Of course, these dimbulbs recently passed through the American babysitting service where crap like “parenthood is a wonderful adventure” propaganda is blasted as if it were true or actual information, so they can’t be blamed for being morons.
All of the “best students” I’ve enjoyed in the last decade have been self-taught. Looking back, I think the only thing I provided was a tiny bit of grandfatherly guidance (“Don’t grab the hot end of the soldering iron, dumbass!”) and the same kind of encouragement (Not bad for a dumbass, dumbass.”) When the students wanted to learn something, the school’s resources were their best tool. The teachers were just there to open the doors and keep the kids from setting the building on fire in the first couple of years.
Today is my 65th birthday and I think it is officially time for me to call this a “career.” I’m paid way too much to open doors and pat people on the back and way too little to pretend to care about young adults who are just burning the most valuable years of their lives hiding from themselves. Thanks for listening, it’s been . . . semi-real.