Story is as old as language. The ancient bards sang the stories of heroes. Oral tradition mirrored the world to our ancestors, allowing them to find meaning in their rough and difficult lives. The written word was in the future.
Fact in those days was immediate, personal, and deadly. I slew the beast. I slew the aggressor. I am slain.
Today what passes for fact is omnipresent. The internet gives us access to a store of data that is growing exponentially. It follows us around on our smartphones. There is, it seems, no escaping all this. But is it fact?
The Gutenberg Bible was the internet of its day, enabling a rapid expansion of knowledge, both fact and fiction. But printing presses are slower than the net. Scholarship and education grew along with libraries and the number of books. A critical intelligence questioned: Who is the author? Is this a story? History? Science? Philosophy? Fact? What is fact, anyway?
The internet is not yet a generation old. It followed fast in the footsteps of television. The written word is, one could argue, only a minor part of today's vast trove of accessible data. Photos, audio and video, often edited for maximum punch, saturate our perception and shorten our attention span. We search for data that corroborates our worldview. Critical intelligence is rare. There is a new oxymoron: reality TV.
Every human being has a worldview. Consciously or not, we apply meaning to our lives. It is a human skill that is necessary for survival. We tell a story about ourselves.
But the rub is this: we expand our story to embrace the world we know. We assign good guys and bad guys and even suppose that conspiracies are the reason behind this and that. Then we are surprised when others have different views. We feel threatened and go to the internet to find “proof” for our theories. Is it any wonder our politics has become dysfunctional?
OK, So . . .
I am as guilty as the next person. I feel road rage. I harbour a grudge. I am rude, sometimes without meaning to be. Sometimes I rage (usually inwardly, but not always) against someone's convictions which I think are JUST WRONG!
On the other hand, I love my friends and family, warts and all. Their shortcomings/eccentricities/weaknesses are part of who they are, just as mine are. How do I square love with intolerance?
I have known my friends and loved ones long enough to know their story. Not the story of their lives – their story. The one they tell themselves, as I tell myself mine. And since we are alive, these stories are evolving. Like the songs of old, they change subtly with each telling.
It is time to stop fussing over religion, money, and politics, and to ponder instead what we must do to survive. I am not speaking of selfish, individual survival in the mean marketplace of today. I am speaking of the survival of the human race.
I have long felt that our fate comes down to a race between space travel and managing our planet as a closed system. Which will we learn first? Will we learn in time to survive?
We have become cynical about space travel since the triumphs of the 1960's. Why should we spend money on frills when we have more pressing needs here at home?
Why indeed. What are these pressing needs? Are they more important than survival?
It is encouraging that the USA is mobilizing doctors, nurses, and soldiers to help with the Ebola threat. It is good that we recognize that this threat knows no borders. What is less good is that we are not prepared with medication to fight the disease. The marketplace had decided that a few thousand deaths would not constitute a clientèle worthy of research. Belatedly we must mobilize our resources and make medicine.
Think about the contrast: Ebola strikes fear into our hearts; Climate Change is our recent euphemism for Global Warming, in itself an understatement. But Ebola is the rehearsal, the sign, the foreboding. It is undeniably here – now – in spite of the stigma and denial that encourage its spread. Is it not also a metaphor for the larger puzzle that faces us? Do we have to individually travel to the Arctic to see ice melting? Or head south to Miami as witness to the spring and fall tides backing up through the storm sewers and flooding the streets? Or perhaps this year some will instead head south to Arizona. They will see flood damage in the desert.
Odile, Polo, and now Simon, the 13th Eastern Pacific hurricane of the 2014 season, mark the profound change in the weather. Or the Jetstream sitting in Northern Canada for the last two weeks of September, cuddling an unseasonable bubble of warm air half a continent wide. In my forty-five years of flying and weather-watching I have never seen anything like it.
Change and Learning
As a label Climate Change has something right. The world is indeed changing. And as any teacher must, our world is challenging our assumptions. It is saying, I am not static, I am alive. And indeed, what is life but change?
Is our universe alive? The more we learn, the more evidence we find that everything we see is in flux, in living change; and every discovery further displaces mankind from its center. The universe is not about us.
But we can learn. The human race has the ability to learn, communicate, and record. Galileo could read Aristotle as well as observe the planets. Newton, born the year Galileo died, could continue his work forward into the Calculus, the Laws of Motion, and the foundational equation of gravity. Cannot this gift of learning lead us toward our own survival?
The problem we face is not insurmountable. It would be embarrassing if we did not prevail. But neither is it a sure thing. It is a call for all hands on deck. And all hands does not mean the privileged, the connected, the fortunate. It means use the gifts of every soul aboard.
It does not mean indoctrinate our children with our certainties. It means lead our children out of ignorance into the fullness of their gifts, wherever it may take them.
Education takes more than a curriculum and a system. In the end it is a communication between human beings. It is a two-way conversation where the goal is to move the student beyond the teacher, into an understanding where only he can go.
So let us use our fear constructively. Let us not sit, afraid, trying to hang on to the present. The world has already moved beyond our understanding. But our gifts have not expired. Let us use them, such as they are, to encourage the gifts of others. And if every soul is engaged we will will survive.
Who Wins the Race?
It doesn't matter. Managing the planet and space travel are essentially the same problem: reversing the great frontier mentality and approaching our environment as a closed system. We can cut down the forests we grow. We can eat the food we produce. And we can breathe the air we replenish.
It’s not getting there, it's the journey. The saying is so hackneyed we tune it out. It's so 60's, so hippy. But think of how we perceive motion.
I am looking out a motel window. It is raining. If I hold my head still the frame doesn't change but I am aware that the leaves in the trees across the street are moving and that rings are coming and going on the puddles as the raindrops hit. My brain does the differentiation, the time-lapse photography, the video recording. I'm not aware of all that. I am only aware of movement, of change, in the leaves and the puddles. They are alive.
I recently watched a video of an interview with Elon Musk, the man behind PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX. He was asked how he learned rocket science. He thought for a second or two, and answered with a complete absence of irony. He said he read a lot of books on the subject. He said he sought out and hired many people who had experience in the field. He said together they worked on and solved many problems.
Then he paused, and said, You know, that's how I hire people.
How so? asked the interviewer.
Elon Musk said he would ask the candidate to describe some difficult problem he or she had solved. He said someone who had worked the problem through could discuss it to any depth; those who were on the periphery or along for the ride could not.
Check out this wonderful short video from Sal Khan: You Can Learn Anything. Knowing something is not a state. It is a history of struggle and failure. It is experience in the most alive sense of the word.
I recently met a young man new to teaching. His field is transportation, and has years of experience, much of it driving big rigs. I asked him how he was enjoying teaching. I love it, he said. But sometimes I go home frustrated. How so? I asked. Well, he said hesitantly, some of the teachers, they're good people, but they went from grade school to high school to teachers college and then right into the classroom. They've never been anywhere but a classroom.
We were both silent for a while. I thought about how that applies to my trade, flying airplanes. About the pilot shortage that is upon us. About how a lot can be learned in the classroom and on the internet (look at the Khan Academy!) and in simulators and even in airplanes. But something is missing: the struggle and failure of flying a real airplane in real weather and wind.
How can I even speak of failure in the same breath as flying?
Because I had the luxury of learning by doing and stumbling and failing under the guidance of vastly more experienced captains who had flown Sabres or Starfighters or Clunks. I was an apprentice. I learned from masters of the trade. Their lessons stayed with me because we solved problems together. I learned judgment. I learned to respect the airplane's limits and my own. I learned that sometimes you just don't go.
I also thought of how the world changes. I thought of how I flew the fly-by-wire Airbus for nine years and even instructed on it. It was a state-of-the-art machine. And yet we never did a GPS approach. They weren't ready yet in 2004. Now I have been retired for a decade and I am seventy years old, I am flying mostly GPS approaches. These approaches did not exist when I was flying the line.
When I was a First Officer on the DC-8 in 1979, INS had just replaced the Navigators. INS (and later, IRS) imitates the human body, specifically the semi-circular canals in our ears. They are miniature accelerometers (one in each of three axes) and among other things they help us to walk upright. INS uses the Calculus and integrates acceleration: what is the sum of all these accelerations over time? GPS does the opposite: with its ability to rapidly calculate positions to within a few meters, it goes the other way with Calculus: differentiation. It asks, if I look at how my position has changed over time, what does that say about my velocity? About my acceleration?
In essence, navigation is describing dS/dt.
What does all that have to do with learning?
Well, learning is change of ideas. Remember the video, You Can Learn Anything? “Because the most beautiful, complex concepts in the whole universe are built on basic ideas that anyone can learn; anyone, anywhere, can understand.”
Learning is change. Change of mindset, change of assumptions, changes in your idea of yourself. It is a journey of struggle. It is navigation. It is hard work.
But the destination is not static. It is a moving, living thing: the apprehension of a beautiful concept. It becomes a beautiful tool you can now use to bring your talents to bear on the problems facing humanity. It is joy.
What does all that say about teaching?
How shall we teach? How shall we pass on what we know?
How shall we learn as a people, a civilization, a species? Will each generation have to learn anew how to rub two dry sticks together? Or will Galileo read Aristotle, and Newton read Galileo, and Einstein adapt Newton to the scale of the galaxy?
That is not for me to say. But having in small measure experienced the joy of understanding and the joy of helping others understand, and having experienced the joy of change in myself over years and decades, I will not willingly let it go.
Critics look at the blood shed in the name of religion. Indeed, our history is littered with holy wars. But there must be something in the quest for the unknowable and unnameable: our ancestors have found it impossible to live without it. And the diverse religions in world history have much in common. What do they preach? Four paths to peace of mind:
The words are different, but the concepts are the same. We find peace by getting outside of ourselves. We start by being amazed at the beauty of all creation. We continue by being thankful for being alive and having a place in this beauty. Then we join hands in recognizing our common humanity (Christians would say we share one bread, one cup). Finally, we try to accept what we must: our own mortality, for example.
The ISIS recruit is rightly troubled by our society's reliance on money, wealth, and markets to bring meaning into our lives. They will not, and somewhere we know that. But through history we (and especially the young) grab new and different certainties as solutions. They are right in seeing the need for change. But history, and especially the history of religion, show us that no sudden truth stands as the eternal panacea.
There is a fifth path: doubt.
What is education, after all? Why are we endowed with intelligence in the first place? What is free will, and how can it be reconciled to God's will? Or that of Allah, or Buddha, or Vishnu, or the Great Spirit?
The Latin educare means to draw out that which lies within. A young child has a natural bent toward learning. If Dad answers a question with a fact, a certainty, the child will ask back, “Oh, why?”
That is doubt, a natural quality that we extinguish at our peril.
Of course maintaining rule of law and the social contract requires order. We must respect one another and our need for a safe social milieu. But let's not blot out or deny the clues:
Protesters persist in Ferguson, MO
Putin shuts down MacDonald's
Children push through the U.S./Mexico border
Are these just bad things? Signs that the world is going to Hell in a hand-basket? Or do they have something to say, something to teach us? Do we have enough of the child left within us to take a moment for doubt? A moment to learn, to be drawn out, away from certainty? To be educated?
We have become very good at management – so good that we have set it (and ourselves) on a pedestal. But management is not a panacea. We throw it at every problem, expecting the usual success. More and more we are encountering intransigence as we attempt to solve problems with measurement and money.
Two of the most pressing problems facing us today are health care and education. The cost of the former is out of control. The quality of the latter is declining and testing isn't fixing it.
The reason is straightforward: health care and education require a relationship between individuals – one person helping another. True, there is more to it than that – but the basic requirement remains. Ask anyone whose life was changed by a good teacher.
I am a huge fan of Dr. Atul Gawande. He writes like a dream, takes me into his world of medicine and surgery, and seriously addresses the problems facing his profession. But his most recent article Big Med (the New Yorker, August 13) took me into new territory. He describes how hospitals (including his own) are forming into conglomerates, and compares the management of these conglomerates with that of The Cheesecake Factory, a large and successful restaurant chain.
I devoured the article with my usual fascination and perhaps a touch of trepidation. The next day, I brought it up with one of my sons, who had also read it. He had been horrified, he said, both by the idea that health care could be “managed” like a restaurant chain, and by the “creepy” remote monitoring (by closed-circuit TV) of doctors on the job.
We had a lively discussion. In hindsight I can see my son brought me around to his point of view.
For the last decade the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has been ranking countries in educational achievement using PISA tests. (Program for International Student Assessment). Finland has consistently ranked at or near the top. What is its secret? Respect for teachers.
The Finnish position on education is the opposite of the North American (especially the U.S.) position. There are tests, but they are not standardized. Teachers make and give tests to see if the student has learned and if they themselves have taught. Teaching is a higher-prestige occupation than medicine or the law. Teachers must have a degree, but it is not in education. The degree itself (at least an M.A. with a thesis) is the license to teach. When asked what might make them leave the profession for, say, business, Finnish teachers cite not higher pay, but loss of autonomy.
Management or Collegiality?
As recently as a generation ago, doctors and teachers could and did operate alone: the private practice and the one-room schoolhouse. Since then huge advances in technology have made that impossible. So much knowledge is available today that health outcomes are compromised if the patient's medical history is not instantly available to the specialist. Learning is limited if the teacher cannot back up her teaching with the Khan Academy and Coursera and learn from these herself. As Dr. Gawande points out, doctors (and teachers) must continue to learn from each other.
All this argues for collegiality. Good management can make sure fresh food isn't wasted at The Cheesecake Factory and it probably has a role running schools and hospitals. But as Finland's example shows, it is counterproductive when used to control doctors and teachers.
Why is this so? And why now, more than even a decade ago?
Financialization. The word is not in the dictionary, at least not yet. But there it is in Nicholas Lemann's Transaction Man, the excellent and revealing article about Mitt Romney's background in the October 1, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. With financialization – financial “products”, hedge funds, and private equity – management has been taken to a new level where, effectively, only money matters.
Of course, money is called productivity and efficiency among other euphemisms. But what it means in practice is that human interaction, energy, and invention are now virtual qualities at best, and at worst ignored altogether. Is it any wonder that in North America and especially in the U.S.A. health care and education have the highest costs in the world and some of the worst outcomes?
George Romney told his son, who idolizes him, that “there's nothing as vulnerable as entrenched success.” During Wednesday night's debate Mitt himself said his goal was to maximize the potential of each individual. How ironic is it that the son's policies and politics – the real policies, not the slight-of-hand wordplay visible Wednesday night – are systematically dismantling his cherished management and stifling each individual's God-given gifts, effectively fulfilling his father's prophecy?
Mitt Romney may, in his heart of hearts, believe in the sacred gifts of each human being, and even in the absolute necessity of their being channelled into paths that benefit society as a whole. It is, alas, probably too late for him to see how his actions are undermining his belief. That is for us to see and correct.
Educate: from the Latin educere, to lead out. Teach: this is from deik, a much older word. The Proto-Indo-European from which it springs is thought to be more than 5500 years old.
Today, as our education system suffers, there is much talk of educating and teaching but few speak of indoctrinating. It just doesn't sound right. We want to do something high-minded for our kids, not beat them with rulers. But wait. Indoctrinate: from Middle French and Latin, to give instruction in the fundamentals or rudiments. This is the same root (the Latin doceo, docere: to teach) as doctrine: something that is held or put forth as true; and doctor: teacher. But there is another meaning to indoctrinate and that is why it didn't sound quite right: to imbue with an idea or opinion. That is the indoctrinate we are leery of.
What is it that we want to do with education, anyway? If we are honest we will have to include some indoctrination, some giving of instruction in fundamentals. Remember Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmatic? The three 'R's? But we want more than that. We want the educated person to be able to think for herself.
Keeping the Public in Public Education
This is the title of a newly-published small book by Rick Salutin, teacher, writer, and long-time columnist for The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star (Linda Leith Publishing, 2012). He dedicates the book to his teachers – two of them in particular. He reports on his visit to Finland, which in the last decade has ranked consistently first in the world in student achievement. What he found was simple: in Finland teachers are respected and allowed to do what they do best.
I recommend this book highly to anyone seeking evidence and carefully reasoned arguments for the following conclusions:
Teaching and learning is an interaction between two human beings.
Teaching to the test is counterproductive.
Management oversight of teachers is counterproductive.
Graduate degrees in “education” are useless.
Curricula can be good, bad, or offensive.
The real goal is to think for yourself.
What Industry Wants
North American industry finds itself in a bit of a bind. Most of the jobs it needs done require a thorough grounding in Math and Science. We are not educating enough people to fill these positions. To be sure there are generations-old partnerships like that of Stanford University with Silicon Valley. But in general industry doesn't look far enough forward to help in the education of the next decade's engineers and scientists. Instead, what we see is the proliferation of “for profit” universities, which are in essence vehicles for turning student loans into capital formation tools. Never mind that the student victims wind up with a degree which is even narrower and more overpriced than one from a legacy non-profit university. Charter schools are another example where public money is used to finance a “free market” experiment.
So where do we look for guidance? The right points out that government only imposes tests and hierarchies, so the free market is the only option. The left says big money tilts the income curve and skims the graduating cream to work for hedge funds, so government is the answer. While these are arguable points, they don't help us to improve education, to get us to a place where, as in Finland, citizens respect teachers and kids learn naturally and well.
The Education Myth
The myth is simply that education is found in institutions. We have come to so thoroughly identify learning as emanating from schools and universities that we have forgotten the basics: a teacher shows something, points it out, says, look at that! Then a student sees that thing as if for the first time.
If we consider this simple but essential relationship, many useful insights follow:
The institution is the house, the teacher and student make the home.
Learning depends on mutual respect.
There are as many ways to learn as there are students.
There are as many ways to teach as there are teachers.
Forcing conformity kills the motivation to learn or to teach.
Teachers should have a university degree. Just not in Education. If they are really teachers they will know what to do.
We should stop worrying about tests, for teachers as well as for students. Let teachers teach and let students learn. It will be obvious soon enough who is getting it right.
No one has a right to be taught. Everyone should have a chance to learn. At a policy level this seems like a contradiction, but it is not. Let teachers and student find each other and chances and opportunities can be winnowed out from rights and entitlements.
There have always been teachers who got it right. In the fifth century B.C. it was Socrates. In the last decade it has been the Finns. We have been looking in the wrong place.
"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." W.B. Yeats