Sunday, July 01, 2012


In a sunny little island somewhere between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, there is unrest at the sad state of an education system that is really only trying to do its best (although some chunks of the middle class there would seriously disagree). This post is about why extreme, radical disagreements are ultimately futile, even though the system can still be improved and I'm not against that.

All political and social systems are constrained in what they can achieve by the resources available to achieve them. Short of acquisition of more resources through ever more inefficient means, it is a fairly tough constraint.

Nevertheless, let's enumerate and consider the possible resources, while thinking about the 'Finland Solution' to Sunny Island's problems (i.e., make it like Finland and everything's good.)

1) People: With five million people, surely you can improve the education system, and if not, we can import more teachers and professors, no? Well, not quite. You need to spend resources to import and look after these people, get them acclimatized, house them, feed them... And you also have to assume that the people you're importing represent a nett gain in quality for the outlay you're making. Sunny Island has a population density of about 7500 people/sq km, while Finland is at about 16 people/ Heck, Finland is three-quarters forest; but even if you assume that nobody lives in the forest, they still have less than 1% the population density of Sunny Island.

2) Physical Venues: Build more schools, more stadia, more art galleries! Yeah, you could try that. But Sunny Island is a very small island (tight water resources in 710 sq km of space) and it's trying desperately to keep its green lungs while the citizens a) complain there are too many such spaces, b) complain there are too few. Finland, on the other hand has 60,000 freshwater lakes and 340,000 sq km of space. That's a factor of x500 in size, right there.

3) Material Resources: Sunny Island is resource poor, as all its citizens know. Even the guano on the other island that used to belong to us would have been a poor substitute for Finland's mineral wealth (uranium, silver, zinc, rare earths... the list goes on) and consequent potential for development. Finland has four nuclear reactors and the Eurozone's cheapest electricity. Also, capacity for renewable resources and other environmentally-friendly things. Water costs almost nothing.

4) Financial Resources: Sunny Island is very rich. Sadly, everything costs a lot, because... sigh, see the previous three paragraphs for a clue. So there's not much point in deciding to pay the teachers as much as doctors or lawyers, since that will just alienate everyone except the teachers. You should get what you pay for, and the tendencies of a normal distribution ensure that if you employ more local teachers AND pay them more, you get drastically less effectiveness and efficiency for your expenditure.

5) System Processes: Yes! But we can still make our system like Finland's, right? Adult education for everyone, more job-related training, egalitarian schools? Haha, bad news. The population on Sunny Island is 75% Chinese. I shall say no more. I will only note that the population of Finland is 96% Finnish, and that if all adults are highly trained, then you would have problems paying them.

The same kinds of arguments apply for "Canada!" and "Australia!" and most other places. Fact is, Sunny Island is the most densely populated fully-independent non-client state in the world. Having compulsory mass education is a good thing, most people would say. But in such a state, it has a cost which is painful and yet still must be paid. That cost is unending competition and standards-based testing. Live with it, or move elsewhere.

In closing, to the people who go 'why can't we be more like the Finns', I would like to add that we don't have a history which includes fighting both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (and winning). Neither do we live in an area where everyone has a similar culture and whose ancestors have been living there for millennia. Tough, eh?

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