Saturday, February 20, 2010

Old Knowledge, Old School

Some of the knowledge we rely on is older than we think it is.

I was just reading today about a rare Druid document, an astrological reference guide. The document was created, or copied, around 100 B.C., but astrologers who have looked at it say that it was based on astrological observations made around 1200 B.C., more than 1,000 years earlier.

When I hear about this kind of thing, my tendency is to ask, “How can people use knowledge for more than a thousand years without checking it and updating it so that it corresponds to their current surroundings?”

Yet we still do this. One of the best examples, in my opinion, is the idea of a school. We all “know” how a school is run, because essentially all the schools in the world use the same formula. Yet this knowledge is older, and more out of date, than we realize.

Alvin Toffler and others have complained about the anachronistic qualities of schools, employing as they do an industrial-age factory-style approach for students who will be working in an information economy, or perhaps something else that will supersede this. But that is not the half of it. If you strip away the physical form of the school building and its rooms, the institutional framework of a school has scarcely changed since the beginning of recorded history around 2,500 years ago, and most of the ideas we take for granted in running a school were probably basically the same for at least 1,500 years before that.

Yet the purpose and social context of the ancient schools were vastly different from the uses we try to make of schools now. Modern schools are descended from the groves where Druids secretly trained the new Druids, from the mystery schools of Egypt, and from their counterparts across the ancient world. In some cases, there is no mistaking the lineage: modern universities operate like the mystery schools, while medical schools, music academies, and American football teams operate more along the lines of the Druids.

And why? It doesn’t make sense when you stop to think of the purpose of the early Druid schools, or any of the schools of that era. The objective was to train outsiders. The main group of students for the Druids consisted of people of the agrarian social class who, in economic terms, were little better than slaves. In the early centuries, the student body surely also included savages, people who were not born into a functioning tribe or culture. The main purpose was to get the students to memorize the body of knowledge that belonged to the Druids so that they could function as knowledge workers, without giving away any secrets to the outside world. School consisted of repetition, memorization, and tests, loyalty was paramount, and students didn’t gain any status until they had finished all their training and passed all their tests. Anyone who wasn’t a student of the school would never see the classes taking place. Does this sound a little like every school you’ve ever come across? Did I mention that the Druids wore robes and had hats with tassels on them? It all made some sense for the purposes of the Druids, but it’s hard to make the case that this approach makes sense for the modern era — or even the medieval era.

The desperate problems in current schools are highlighted by three current stories: the Pennsylvania school district that was using the webcams of the students’ laptop computers to spy on the students in their homes, and now faces a class-action lawsuit with a criminal investigation surely to follow; the college professor in Oklahoma who thought it appropriate to freeze a laptop computer in liquid nitrogen, then smash it on the floor as a way to threaten his students; and the plight of those college graduates who, after a series of misfortunes, and in some cases despite having made hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to the banks, have seen their student loan debt balloon to nearly $1 million.

It is that last story that most desperately calls for a new look at schools. Barely ten years ago, seeking a college degree was a no-brainer for a person who had the skills to do so. It was one of those gee-whiz statistics that a person with a college degree, particularly one from a prestigious university, could expect to make $1 million more in lifetime income than a person with only a high school diploma. But tuition has doubled, and the student loan racket has become more corrupt than it already was. An extra $1 million in income is nice, but if you end up paying $1 million for the tuition and the interest and fees on the student loans, it’s kind of a wash, isn’t it?

And so we have reached the point where student loans no longer make financial sense for many students. We have no choice but to look at the larger problem of the schools and say, “There has to be a better way.”