Review – The School Revolution (#education, @RonPaul, #parenting, #books, #review)

The School Revolution: A New Answer for Our Broken Education System

by Ron Paul, published 2013

I got a lot of ideas from this book, so it will be difficult to rate it poorly but ultimately I believe that is what it deserves. The book is repetitious, poorly organized and lacks flow, which is exacerbated by the suggestion to send emails to various “@aweber.com” email addresses for more information about the Ron Paul Curriculum– it’s almost like reading a poorly-done web marketing pitch page as a book.

Also, I am pretty confident this book was ghostwritten by Gary North. Gary North is one of the people behind the Ron Paul Curriculum, the RPC website looks identical in layout and voice to Gary North’s website (right down to the weird bursting red orb icon that displays in the title tab of each site on my browser) and the repetition and constant reference to “the principle of X is: italicized principle for effect“, which is a Gary North trade mark. That’s disappointing for two reasons: first, Ron Paul, if he’s actually written most of the other books of his I’ve read, is a decent author in his own right and certainly his way of making a point is unique, so it’s a shame to not really hear from him in a book with his byline; second, Gary North is actually a great writer himself (his Mises on Money is a great summary/intro of Mises’s voluminous writings on the subject, and his web essays on economic subjects are thoughtful and methodically argued) but it just doesn’t show up in this book, which makes him seem like a poor communicator because he is constantly repeating himself.

So that’s what’s primarily wrong with the book and that’s why it’s going to get a low score from me. But as I said, it gave me a lot of ideas, so I still felt the need to record my thoughts more extensively and what better place than this review?

Paul/North have not provided us with a well-researched book on the history of the “rise and decline” of the US public school system. Nor have they provided us with a careful logical demolition of the philosophy behind our current compulsory public education policy (or shown us its Prussian heritage, or how it is designed to serve special interests and not local communities), or investigated the collapse of urban school districts into chaos, violence and low test scores. They mostly take it as given that if you’re reading the book, you understand the public education system could be improved upon in one way or another and you’re sympathetic to cutting ties with it in the meantime.

This book is not a recipe or handbook for reforming or revolutionizing the educational system in this country as it stands. It offers no panacea for the system itself. Instead, it suggests something simple: go around it.

The author(s) believe that, much like UPS and FedEx carry the truly valuable mail while the USPS schleps around coupon books, catalogs and other junk mail marketing offers no one asked for or intended to receive, the advent of the Internet as an even-lower-cost mass communication medium will allow people who want to have a great education from a top-tier provider get one, and no local district admin or state bureaucrat or federal educational gestapo can say nay or get in the way, devil take the whole system.

And surely there is something to this. As the author(s) points out, Harvard, MIT, etc. have already put their imprimatur on the movement by giving free access to their best lecturers on the web. Coursera is one of many other providers competing to provide similar access at similar prices to not-quite-top-tier but pretty close lecturers and content, and then there is the Khan Academy which is seeking to address K-12. While quality, format and specific content may differ, what is similar about all of these services is that they are voluntarily provided and are competing for their audiences, whereas government schooling is a monopoly.

The other key piece of the puzzle is who is financing these education systems. With the government, it is tax-financed. You’d think this means tax payers thereby control the system, but that’s the funny thing about government and anyone who isn’t totally naive understands it doesn’t work like that– the tax payers donate, the government does the honors. With these other systems, investors, entrepreneurs and nominally-private (ie, the major research universities) teaching institutions are the financiers and, to the extent that the consumer is paying for it in some way (ads, prestige, subscription fees), they get to call the tune. Without changing the funding method of education, it will be impossible to change the values reflected in it nor the structure by which it is conducted.

There is no need to critique the argument too tightly here because I think it’s very sloppily made, even though it could be done in an airtight, holistic fashion. The point is simply that there are ways to get around the public education system if one wants to, and I want to, and utilizing free or low-cost curricula offered on the web is likely going to be part of the tool kit for me and many others. The point is to be the change and not wait for permission or for someone else to make a horrible monopoly better.

There are a lot of forceful ethical claims in the book that I think are worth noting:

  • As individuals mature, they must accept greater responsibility for their actions
  • If we want people to believe we are serious (about reforming the world), they must see the consistency in our own lives
  • The statist educators are committed to this principle: parents are not trained nor competent enough to make decisions about their children’s education
  • If parents understood that they are responsible for their children’s education in the same way that they are responsible for their feeding, housing and clothing, we would see far more attention given to the content and structure of educational programs

These are claims I agree with. I think it’s impossible to resolve these things with public education. So we are going to opt out.

One thing I wondered about was starting an alternative (privately funded) school. One problem revealed to me by this book is that in so far as it’s an “institution”, it’s going to get tangled up in a lot of the same problems that plague the public education system controlled by bureaucrats and regulators. Another problem (besides making the economics of it affordable) is that schools and lecture-based education cater to the least common denominator in the class (that is, the slowest student). The other students who are picking up the material quickly are left frustrated by the process. I was one of those students growing up, and it was miserable.

It may be that creating an alternative school is not a practical solution to the problem. It could also be that the alternative school would need to greatly rethink the method of schooling in general to be successful. One thing the author(s) suggest which is a novel idea for me is that the purpose of education is to promote the capability of self-learning. I say this is novel in that I have hovered around this belief for some time and even see it as core to my philosophy of parenting, summarized as follows: parents bring children into the world, without their permission, in a state of total dependence; the process of maturation and growth is a process of increasing independence; the parents’ obligation is to aid the child in the process of learning and self-discovery that will allow them to incrementally gain their complete independence; ideally, the parents’ could provide such an appealing moral example that they could also instill in their child the primary socialization value of interdependence, as well. Therefore, this idea of the purpose of a formal educational program aiming at teaching children how to learn whatever it is they want to learn, makes total sense to me.

If the early part of one’s education is centered on meta-learning (how to read and take in new information, how to think about it analytically, how to synthesize new information and understanding from it, and how to communicate it to others), then there is a point in the curriculum of the student where they can take the initiative in their learning and become self-guided and autodidactic. This principle dovetails with the idea of education as an act of self-discovery. Self-discovery can not occur when the self is incapable of thinking and learning on their own.

The book has some specific suggestions about important elements of such a curriculum:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Public speaking
  • Digital media
  • Academic research
  • Time management
  • Goal-setting
  • Job vs. calling
  • Study habits
  • Mathematics
  • Self-pacing
  • Tutorials

You can see quite clearly that this curriculum is aimed much more at the tools of self-learning, rather than specific values or content within categories like “Art, History, Science” etc. (although the author(s) does suggest that part of the advanced curriculum he offers for older students includes specific content tracks that explore these categories in integrated ways based on the student’s interest). So one idea I got from the book in this regard is that I need to do some research and thinking about the curriculum I will follow with my children, at least early on in their education, to try to best prepare them to become self-learners.

Another interesting idea for an improved school is as a gathering place for tutorial groups of exceptionally talented and motivated students to pursue a kind of “Socratic dialog” based study of a subject, or as a place to be introduced to new or important ideas. The author(s) suggest that the method of lecturing to students to teach them material is outmoded and ineffective (only 10% of the lecture is retained, on average, 3 weeks after it is received, and which 10% varies per pupil). But they suggest that lectures if short and interesting CAN be useful for informing people of a subject they didn’t know existed or for exciting an interest in the usefulness of studying a particular subject, which they could then engage in a course of self-directed learning on their own.

One way to think of how this might apply at an alternative school is that rather than fixed courses with fixed classes and the same teachers droning on, students might pay for individual intro lectures for subjects they’re considering studying, performer by visiting scholars or experts who are actively trying to promote the topic as worthy of study. The school might also have classes which apply a particular methodology for a particular purpose (ie, a Montessori seminar for young students). Finally, as suggested, the school might be a common forum for tutorial groups of excellent students to meet, discuss and coordinate study on a focused topic of inquiry.

There were specific things in the book I also really liked. The author(s) is a big proponent of essay writing as a way of practicing the understanding of specific content one is learning about. The suggestion was for the student to start a blog and write essays or blog posts about what they’re learning, not necessarily a journal but more as a kind of conversation or demonstration of what they think the meaning or import is of what they’ve learned. They also recommend the use of YouTube and other social media to practice these skills, practice conveying ideas, and to interact with others with similar interests. Their specific approach is based around creating “leadership”, which is another important value for me that gives me ideas about how I would want to approach this with my own kids.

I also like that the book emphasizes individuality and reminds the reader that every student is different and part of designing a good educational program means paying attention to their individual needs– again, not an idea that gets much attention in the public system, nor can it.

One thing I thought was bizarre about the book (and the values of most parents in general) is its suggestions on how to make the acquisition of a college degree by homeschooled children affordable and achievable in an accelerated fashion, ie, around age 18. Higher education is largely a scam that wastes time and money and leads to enormous confusion of values and purpose. If you could successfully help a child to gain mastery over their own learning at a young age and watch them develop their own interests and knowledge for an extended period of time, I don’t understand why college (either the acquisition of a degree, or the social experience itself) would be beneficial or interesting for them at that point. What can they get from college that they can’t get on their own pursuing a career, starting a business, etc.? That seemed like a sop suggestion to the parents reading who want to do something radical but aren’t ready to completely intellectually flip out.

With any luck, my children will be holding down part-time jobs and/or entrepreneurially making money WHILE they’re pursuing their youthful education. They’ll come to my business and see and learn what I do and be a part of it or do something else they fancy. There won’t be a sudden point at which they stop being a student and start being a self-paying adult; ideally, they’ll incrementally gain both capabilities at once and continuing their life immersed in self-directed learning, growth and productive gain.

This approach might not be right for everybody, but then, I don’t think public education is right for anybody, so you could certainly do worse.

2/5

   

More Notes On Mises’s “Socialism” (@mises, #socialism, #liberalism)

Notes from Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis by Ludwig von Mises [PDF]
WHAT WAS MISES TALKING ABOUT?
Why did Mises write this book?
Mises was attempting a scientific analysis of the socialist program as a philosophical and economic doctrine. Up until this point in the development of ideas (1922), most writings on socialism concerned themselves with ideological propaganda and sloganeering, with socialist supporters actively trying to prevent people from a scientific examination of social problems and the socialist response. Mises wanted to explain: what is socialism? how does it compare to capitalism? what claims does socialism make about society? are they true? what can we expect the world to look like under a socialist order?
What the heck is Mises saying?
Some people find Mises’s writing confusing. He uses big words (“panegyrists”) and archaic or seemingly obscure references (quotes in Latin, nods to long-extinct philosophical schools). Mises possessed a Classical education like many educated Europeans of his time. He saw himself as part of a grand intellectual tradition and sought to make his own contribution to a shared Western civilization that had taken over two millennia to develop. He saw himself as a scientist of social phenomena responding to important debates and schools of thought of his era. He was often speaking TO a particular person, school or idea which was well-known and publicly debated in his day. Finally, he is a systems-builder. He always starts with a foundation, then adds a block, adds a block, adds a block. At the end one finds oneself standing atop an intellectual skyscraper they didn’t realize they were building when they started reading.
What are the biggest ideas in “Socialism” (Chapters 1-4)?
If you remember only a few things from the first hundred pages of Socialism, remember these quotes and try to think about their significance:
The word Capitalism expresses, for our age, the sum of all evil. Even the opponents of Socialism are dominated by socialist ideas.
To drink coffee I do not need to own a coffee plantation in Brazil, an ocean steamer, and a coffee roasting plant, though all these means of production must be used to bring a cup of coffee to my table. Sufficient that others own these means of production and employ them for me.
If the State takes the power of disposal from the owner piecemeal, by extending its influence over production… then the owner is left at last with nothing except the empty name of ownership, and property has passed into the hands of the State.
What is “Liberalism”?
Mises’s Liberalism stood for the essential social principle of a social order built on respect for private property rights and contractual negotiation of social conflicts. In other words, peace abroad, freedom at home and an economic system consisting of nothing more than “consumer sovereignty” over the productive process and voluntary exchange within the confines of the marketplace. This was once an intellectual project of thinkers of all nations and ethnicities participating in “Western civilization”. Today, Liberalism lives on most strongly in the ideas of the Libertarian movement, which was originally a mostly American project ironically kick-started in large part by the publishing of Mises’s “Human Action” in 1949.┬áToday, socialists have co-opted the Liberal name, having rightfully seen it as valuable due to its old popularity and intellectual prestige.
What is Socialism?
The demands of the socialist program have changed over time but they have come to settle, as Mises said, on the idea of “a policy which aims at placing the means of production in the hands of the State.” It is the antithesis of the private property order of Mises’s much-cherished Liberalism, and diametrically opposed to the “consumer sovereignty” of the marketplace, replacing it with production, organization and exchange according to the “will of the people.” But how, and why, could these two concepts be different? That is the heart of Mises’s book-length analysis. According to Mises, Socialism is Utopian by nature. It promises to deliver a perfect economic, political and social environment where all inequalities and disputes are resolved forever and the end of history, in the sense of a constantly-evolving, ever better social order, arrives.
Do Liberalism and Socialism have conflicting ends?
No! And this is the most fascinating part of the analysis. Socialist propaganda strives endlessly to create contrast between the goals of Liberalism and the goals of Socialism. And while it is true that Liberalism does not share all the concerns of Socialism (mostly because it has deemed these concerns to be impossible or nonsensical), the goal of both is to raise the material standard of living of humanity as a whole. The only thing that differs is the means chosen to secure those ends. But it is that choice which ultimately makes all the difference.

POS and cash in Hong Kong (#travel, #HK)

This is just a quick observation. Most of the small eateries we went to in Hong Kong did not have an electronic POS cash register. They used a simple locked drawer, if that, with a cashier who hand tallied the receipt and then collected payment and distributed change.

Often they’d have wads of cash for making change very close to the door where seemingly anyone could make a grab and go. I’m surprised to infer that must not happen often.

You need to have decently intelligent people you can trust to do fairly menial work accurately and honestly each time. I also wonder how they reconcile their receipts for tax reporting purposes?

In the US, even small businesses and startup food locations have electronic cash registers. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone operating a business this way. It is another good example of the contrasts I saw between the overhead costs of doing business in the US versus here in Southeast Asia. While there’s certainly a wide variety of clientele and no one is running a fancy steakhouse without electronic POS, it is nonetheless fascinating how little customers expect from small scale operations in terms of aesthetic design, seating comfort and cashiering services.