Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Complaining about Systems of Education

As the population density rises, the habit of complaining about the system of education also rises. This is silly, but also unavoidable given the essential silliness of human nature. Let me explain.

In ancient Greece, the concept of paideia was used to indicate 'the art of bringing up children' (from paidion, 'a child', genderless noun). We get words like 'paediatrics' and 'paedagogy' from this. However, paideuo, 'to teach' or 'to train children' (literally, 'to child'), was mainly used in the sense of rigorous teaching accompanied by force or chastening if necessary; it is sometimes translated '(to) discipline' or '(to) rebuke'. Modern scholars like to imagine that the Greeks meant something holistic and beautiful by this, but in reality they just meant the art of bringing up children who were fit to join adult society, much as bonsai is the art of making beautiful little trees by application of force and discipline.

Such training requires much attention to detail if it is to be done properly. Each child and plant is a different entity, and while general principles can apply, the 'right' outcome varies from era to era and thus so does the 'right' method. Whatever it is, it has to be customised on an individual basis.

Enter the problem of mass education. This was not so bad when the population density was low. Then the number of people who wanted and needed a lot of formal education was a small number relative to the population. But once you combine high population density with mass education, you get greater competitivity and higher pressure on the individual to 'succeed' (in any way this can be defined). Clearly, it can only get worse because of this.

The only way to provide mass education is to systematize it. A large, thick layer of mediocre (by definition) basic education must be provided to everybody, like providing flour and water and asking them to make dough. This means everyone has 'bread'. Those who are more talented or gifted, better resourced, more ingenious and more determined (among other possible advantageous characteristics) will make better bread (tastier, fluffier, whatever).

But nobody should complain about having bread in the first place, stodgy and boring though most of it will be. You can always add fruit, nuts, whatever. Even this will end up 'the new boring' as people share recipes and compete with each other. The problem in mass education is that you can't make interesting bread for everyone without pricing it out of everyone's range — insufficient teaching staff, time, and so on.

The exceptions will be those who can spare enough resources for homeschooling or private tuition. These will have extraordinary bread which is either heavily customised or heavily spiked with booster additives. Whether such bread is also good depends on whether society will eat it, but those who make such bread always maintain it is better. It might be. Or not. As always, it depends on the quality of the baker.

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