If we’d had the same rules millions of years ago as we do now, we’d still be living in trees. Some bright wit would have locked down the concept of spending the night on the ground and set up a toll booth.
Ideas as property are based on a fundamental fallacy, and as with all fallacies, acting on them does not work. The flaw is that ideas in the broad sense, encompassing concepts, inventions, and creativity, do not share the main characteristic of property. They are not decreased by use. It doesn’t matter if the whole world sings the same song. That doesn’t change it and it still provides each individual with the same enjoyment. Arguably, it provides more enjoyment because sharing ideas and feelings is more fun than having them alone.
Property, on the other hand, is a way of distributing limited resources that can be used up. Food, clothes, land, or phones are all things that can only be shared a little bit, if at all, without becoming useless to the sharer.
Ideas don’t need to be apportioned among too many users any more than sunlight does. In fact, the only way to force them into that mold is to artificially limit their availability, just as the only way to make people pay for sunlight would be to set up a space shield and extract a ransom. Setting up artificial barriers and waylaying people trying to get past them offends against an intuitive sense of justice. It breeds resentment followed by workarounds. Which is what’s happened with the counterproductive attempt to lock down creations, whether artistic or medical or technical.
Confusion arises because there’s also a sense that creators have a right to benefit from their good ideas. The sense is justified, just as anybody has a right to be paid for work useful to others. That’s different from pretending an idea can be transformed into disappearing ink if too many people look at it. Paying the creator doesn’t magically change a limitless resource into something else.
Thus, ideas are not property and creators have a right to be paid proportionally to the benefit they bring. With those two concepts in mind the rational way to align creativity and its benefits becomes clearer. Don’t make futile attempts to limit the spread of ideas. Try to see how widespread they are. Don’t try to extract a toll. Try to make sure the creator gets paid.
Census methods are available to count how widespread something is. There are many complications associated with counting the results of creativity, and I’ll get to a few of those in a moment, but for now let’s stay with the general idea. A census of usage can tally the distribution of a given creation. The creators are then paid based on that tally. The money to pay them comes from a tax on the physical goods needed to use their creations, in other words from a tax on the paper, storage media, phones, screens, pills, or other substrates that carry the benefit to the user.
I need to discuss a terminology issue parenthetically. Since I’m insisting that the products of creativity aren’t property, I can’t use the convenient term “intellectual property” to describe the whole class of patentable, copyrightable, and trademarkable things. I’ve used “creations” instead, even though it’s a clumsy-sounding term. There are also of course differences among those three subgroups, some of them necessary, some of them mere historical accidents. For instance, having a different standard for patentable objects as opposed to copyrightable expressions is necessary. Having a different term of protection — close to 100 years at this point for copyrights, twenty years for most patents — seems arbitrary. Most of what I’m discussing applies to new creations generally, rather than either patent or copyright specifically. Trademarks are a small subset where rights extend for as long as the mark is used. That seems sensible, and I don’t delve into trademark-specific issues.
A census method with subsequent payout is superficially analogous to the market system used now in that sales are a rough tally and the price the market will bear determines payment. However, markets can only handle property. Like the proverbial hammer to whom everything is a nail, markets have handled creativity as if it was property. When the nature of creativity causes it to escape the inappropriate container the market isn’t able to use an appropriate non-market-based approach. Instead it keeps attempting the useless job of trying to bottle the equivalent of sunlight. That by itself is a big waste of everyone’s time, energy, and money.
But there are other, bigger problems. The category error has generated injustices. Since creativity can’t be bottled, who gets paid and for what is rather arbitrary. That leads to the usual result: the powerful get paid, the others not so much. Those powerful people are very rarely the creative people themselves. The examples are legion, but to take just one instance, Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanisation of rubber (without which it’s about as useful as chewing gum) but died poor. Imagine carrying out the industrial revolution without rubber, and yet it wasn’t Goodyear who saw much benefit from his work. The inventor, programmer, or artist cheated of their work by those with more money is such a common occurrence it’s a stereotype.
The ironic result of “intellectual property” laws is that their stated purpose of rewarding innovation is an almost accidental outcome. The actual history shows that they were established as a tool for governments to control content. Distributors were the enforcers in return for a time-limited monopoly providing guaranteed profits. The government control aspect has been beaten back, but the philosophical tools needed to see the illegitimacy of guaranteed profit haven’t been widespread enough yet to correct the other half of the injustice. The rewards for innovation go to uninnovative third parties, and as the system is pushed ever further away from its official goal it breeds mainly cynicism, not creativity. Markets, by trying to pretend ideas are property, create a situation in which all that matters is who “owns” the idea, not who created it. That perverts the system of rewards and takes them away from the people with a right to them.
Once “intellectual property” is recognized as a matter of rights rather than markets, the institution which should handle it is clear. Administering a system whose primary purpose is enforcing rights is necessarily a government function. Granting patents and copyrights is already done by a government office because it must be transparent and accountable, without any considerations besides correctly logging who had which idea. Distributing royalties is equally a government function because it requires an objective census untainted by any motive except accuracy, and transparent, accountable payments based on that. No other entity has (or should have) the enforcement power and accountability required.
Variants of the idea of royalty distribution based on a census have cropped up repeatedly in recent years (e.g. 1, 2, 3) because it’s an obvious way to fairly distribute the rewards for useful creations. The idea is applicable at any stage of technology, but it is easiest to apply in a wired world. Headers in computer files can include attribution lists of any degree of complexity, similar to software version control systems, and they’re also much easier to census than physically tallying actual products. (This just in, as they say: Google is experimenting with tags that trace sources.) However, a wired system is also easier to game, and it should go without saying that stringent safeguards and punishments against fraud have to be in place. Physical sampling has an essential place, I expect, as one of several parallel tallying methods. Used together, they would provide one type of safeguard against fraud.
One difference between a centrally administered census system and market-based distribution of royalties is that a census does not pretend to have a perfect one-to-one correspondence between usage and payment. Markets do have that goal, but their distribution of payments is on the whole wildly unrelated to how much a given work is used. Anyone who finds the current system good enough in terms of apportioning royalties could not fault a census-based system for imprecision because it would be far more precise than the markets for this purpose.
Now that the internet has made it easier for everyone to publish and broadcast, a fundamental problem with assigning credit for creativity is becoming increasingly evident. Creations never happen in isolation. Every inventor, author, artist, and scientist stands on the shoulders of others. The only way to assign credit is to draw more or less arbitrary lines that delimit enough difference from previous work to merit separate acknowledgement. The cutoff for a US copyright, for instance, is more than 10% difference, although how that 10% is quantified is rather subjective. In practice, it seems to mean “some easily noticeable and material difference.”
The imprecision is inevitable — there’s no way to quantify a work of art, for instance — and it’s difficult to see any way to avoid arbitrary and subjective demarcations. That implies that the bar should not be set too low because the smaller the contribution, the murkier the distinction between significance and insignificance.
Making the determination of originality is complicated by the need to be fair. Now and in the past the “solution” to the complexity of creativity has been to give up and simply assign a given work to the applicant(s) for a patent or copyright. In this day of remixes, a more calibrated system is essential. As I mentioned when discussing legislation in the fifth chapter, I think that methods used in software version control can point the way. Software, and legislation for that matter, are just special cases of works with multiple contributors. Sometimes those tools are called content management systems, but that’s an unspecific term covering everything from tracking minor changes in a word processor, to blogging software, and to education course management which may not have the necessary contribution tracking. Something like Plone is perhaps the closest thing now available.
The software version control or Plone-type systems I’m aware of (I can’t say “familiar with”) are used in the open source community by volunteers. In that situation, most participants are honest to begin with. Plus the community is rather small, skilled, and generally aware of the facts, all of which acts to prevent cheating. A similar system adapted to patents and copyrights, where money from royalties might be in play, would need a much stricter system to prevent cheating. I’m not sufficiently close to the field to have an idea how that could be applied, but it’s a problem that must be solved in a fair system of creator’s rights.
There’s also a psychological issue that should be taken into account when apportioning royalties. One desirable effect of an equitable system of rewards should be that more people feel motivated to act on their creativity and to contribute. However, it doesn’t seem practically possible, at least to me, to assign rights to and then pay for every single dot and comma that somebody might add to a body of work. There has to be some level below which contributions are just part of the background, as it were. But people react badly when somebody else gets a better reward for what they see as equal or less work. It offends an innate sense of justice that goes right back to chimpanzees and earlier.
The point of equitable rewards for creativity is to facilitate its expression. It would be counterproductive to implement a system that’s felt as even more unfair than the one we have now. The system needs to take the psychological factors into account if that goal is to be met. I would guess that a clear demarcation — difficult as that is — between the amount of contribution that receives royalties and the amount that doesn’t would mitigate negative reactions. When work is obviously original, that’s not a hard call to make. When it’s incremental, then perhaps adding a time factor would help. To be eligible for royalties, the amount of work involved should be equivalent to some sizable part of a work week. In other words, if it’s equivalent to a half-time job, it’s significant. If it’s something one dabbles in occasionally, then official recognition is probably misplaced.
My sense is that commitment of contributors is not a smoothly increasing variable. A minority contributes a lot, then there’s a more or less sparsely populated intermediate gap, and then the majority whose aggregate contribution may be huge but where any individual adds only a little. If that sense is correct, research should be able to identify that gap. If the demarcation line for receiving royalties runs through the gap, it will align with the intuition that only larger contributions deserve specific rewards.
The next difficulty is to identify the best group to make the determination that new material has been contributed, and how much. The people with the clearest concept of the work are others working on the same or similar projects, but they are also interested parties. If there are royalties to be distributed, they may be motivated more by a desire to keep the pool of recipients small than by an honest appraisal of work. Critics or specialists in the field who are unconnected with the project seem like good possibilites. Public comment should always be facilitated because expertise often crops up in unexpected places. Once the outside expertise and input on the originality of a given piece of work has been obtained, then the experts at the patent or copyright office would evaluate all the input on its merits and make a determination, subject to appeal.
The current process is supposed to work more or less like that, too, but for various reasons it’s veered off course. Patent officials are evaluated on how much paperwork clears their desks, not how well it stands up to litigation. So it’s become customary in the US to grant patents for practically anything and to assume that if there’s a problem, it’ll come out in the courts. Furthermore, possibly related to the desk-clearing standard, patents are granted apparently without anything approaching due diligence on prior art. The assumption throughout seems to be that litigation is a solution rather than a problem. In reality, it’s laziness and dereliction of duty to expect the courts to clean up messes that should never have happened in the first place. Patent and copyright officials who are doing their jobs will make a thorough and good faith effort to determine that a piece of work is indeed new, and how new. Litigation has to be a rare occurence when a mistake has been made. If it’s not rare enough, it’s indicative that the responsible bureaucrats need to be fired.
So far, creator’s rights have been discussed in the context of payment for work. The other aspect is control over the work. Obviously, minor contributors (less than 50%?) wouldn’t have a controlling interest in any case, but what of major ones? How much control is appropriate?
When discussing money, I stressed that real free markets and monopolies are incompatible. That is no less true if the monopolist is an artist or inventor. The creator has a right to be paid if someone is benefitting from their work, but that doesn’t give them monopoly “rights.” An unfair advantage is a privilege, not a right. Creators cannot prevent others from manufacturing their invention, playing their song, or publishing their books. The creators do have the right to be paid in proportion to how much their work is used and how critical it is to people’s lives. The government would disburse the funds based on pay scales that have been worked out for different classes of products. (I would say that ringtones, for instance, should have lower royalty rates than headache cures.) Royalties received for similar classes of products should be much more consistent under that system than they are now. The pay scales themselves would necessarily be a somewhat arbitrary because they’re set more or less by consensus. (The current system also sets royalties that way, but the only factor taken into account is the bargaining power of the creator.) Consistence should help avoid wide disparities in reward for equivalent contributions.
Requiring creators to license their work is currently called “compulsory licensing,” which makes it sound like a bad thing. “Compulsory” anything meets with reflexive resistance. But all it does is take away the ability to impose a monopoly. That reduces short term gain for a few people, whose objections are no different from those of anyone losing privileges. They’re not valid if the goal is equitability.
However, there is one sense in which creators would have more control over their work in a fair system than they do now. The entertainment industry has something called “moral rights,” which refers to how a creation can be used in other contexts. Consider, for instance, Shakespeare’s character, Lady Macbeth. There’s a famous scene in which she sees the blood of murder on her hands, and nothing can wash it out. Shakespeare did not retain any moral rights. They hadn’t been invented yet in the early 1600s. So a soap company could have made a zippy ad showing a relieved Lady Macbeth after one handwashing with their EverClean soap. The only thing saving Shakespeare’s legacy is that Lady Macbeth is too old and forgotten to be worth selling.
Moral rights clearly belong to creators. Their creations belong to them in ways that money can never buy. They have rights in them that money can never buy. Creators, therefore, have veto power over what they see as inappropriate alteration of their work. Like the fact of their authorship, moral rights are also permanent and inalienable. At least for expressions, but not tools, i.e. for copyrights but not patents, that control over usage is permanent. Creators who felt strongly enough could include instructions about moral rights in their wills. Those rights, however, cannot turn into a back door to permanent copyright. The scope of moral rights needs to be limited to relatively broad classes of usage. Creators have the right not to have their work perverted, but they don’t have the right to prevent legitimate use of it. Making moral rights explicit and enforcing them is probably more important in an age of remixes than ever before. It is only fair that if someone wants to use a character or another expression in a way that’s odious to the creator, then they’re under an obligation to come up with their own concept and not copy someone else’s.
There’s a point that may need stressing in a broader sense. The rights of a creator are inalienable because they’re matters of justice, not property. They’re not something that can be bought or sold or passed on to someone else. The creator, and no one else, has the right to moral control over their work, and the right to royalty payments at a level and for a period of time stipulated by law.
That would mean some changes in business practices. For instance, corporations or any other institutions would not be able to take rights to inventions made by workers. The corporation’s benefit comes from the profit of being first to market with a new product. The royalties go to the individual inventor(s) no matter whose payroll they’re on. The corporation recoups the costs of research from profits, not from taking the rewards for creativity that isn’t theirs.
In the case of celebrities, the valuable “property” may not be a work, strictly speaking, except in the sense that it’s the carefully constructed public persona of the celebrity him- or herself. Private citizens already have the right to control their personal images and data, as discussed under privacy in the Rights chapter. The creativity of entertainment and sports personalities is packaging a specific public face, but the mere fact of being a public person doesn’t make them lose all rights. In the private aspects of their lives, they have the same rights to privacy as any citizen. In the public aspects, they have the same moral rights to their personas that other creators have to their work. That would make paparazzi jobs obsolete and complicate the lives of gossip columnists, but those aren’t sufficient reasons to deprive people of their rights.
The more equitable rules of copyrights, patents, and trademarks envisioned here would obviously require big changes across a range of industries. The main effect would be to render armies of middlemen superfluous. As always when the application of just principles damages entire business models, the simple fact that profits vanish is not a sufficient reason to reject fairness. I’ll repeat myself by saying that slavery was once a profitable business model and that didn’t make it right. Nor does implementing justice mean increased poverty. On the contrary, every single time, there is more wealth when there is more justice. The illusion of lost wealth comes from the few people who lose the ability to milk the system.
Furthermore, insofar as the middlemen provide a real service, there’s no reason why producers or publishers or agents would necessarily all disappear. Expertise in packaging, distribution, and sales is not the same as making an invention or an artwork. Artists, especially, are stereotypically poor at those jobs. There’s a need for some middlemen. The difference is that they would have to be paid from actual added value and not simply because they’re gatekeepers who can extract a toll.
Moving on from creators to the creations themselves, one current large source of problems is the definition of what can be patented. In the US, things went along reasonably well for a while when the definition was narrowly focused on the sort of original work an amateur would recognize as an invention. New technology, however, introduced gray areas, and the unfamiliarity of judges and lawyers with technical issues made that standard hard for them to apply sensibly. The desire to give US business a boost also worked to promote the granting of patents, although that motivation doesn’t appear in the dense legalese of court arguments.
That’s eventually landed us where we are now. Patents are given for mere and obvious ideas, such as one-click shopping. Patents are granted on life although the life in question (parts of a DNA molecule) has merely been read, not created. There have been some actual DNA inventions, such as bacterial artificial chromosomes, BACs, but those do not constitute the vast majority of patents granted for DNA sequences. In the pharmaceutical industry, when the patent on one blockbuster drug is close to running out, it’s provided in a trivially different form, such as a weekly dose instead of a daily dose. Somehow, patents are granted for something which is nothing but a dosage change. User interfaces get patented, as if in a former time somebody could have locked down the concept of using dials to control machinery, forcing any competitors to use more cumbersome systems, such as inserting pegs into holes.
The situation with trivial and proliferating patents is complicated by the fact that copyrights are both easier to obtain and last much longer. In the software industry, for instance, that’s created an incentive to seek copyrights rather than patents even though nobody reads software like a book. People use it, like a machine. Yet the legal system has let the applicants get away with the travesty of copyrighting software. That could be due to a lack of technical knowledge in the legal system, or to excessive accommodation of those with money. Either way, none of this should happen in a rational system of patents and copyrights.
Rights should be granted when the consensus among knowledgeable people agrees that there has been non-trivial original work. And insofar as there are necessary differences between patents, which are granted basically for tools, and copyrights, which are for expressions, then the creation and the type of rights assigned should be in the correct class based on the merits. The salient feature is not which office happens to be processing the application. The important point is in which category the creation actually belongs.
The criteria for what is patentable is a matter of opinion. There’s no law of nature involved, and for most of human history the concept didn’t exist. As a matter of opinion, it depends on consensus. The consensus, after a few hundred years of experience with the idea, seems to me to be coalescing around the concept of a new tool. Stripped of its legalese, that’s the core of the criterion used in US patents in the mid-1900s when the system worked better than it does now. Adding some of the legalese back in, it’s called the “machine or transformation test.” An invention is patentable if it’s a non-obvious device or method of transforming one thing into another. There are, as always, gray areas in that definition. For instance, the linked Wikipedia article points out that a washing machine is a patentable tool that cleans wet clothes using agitation, but a stick used to agitate wet clothes is not.
That example points up the fact that patentability is yet another situation in which there is no substitute for good judgment. Unusual creativity deserves recompense. Common or garden variety creativity should be appreciated and facilitated, but it’s an attribute almost everyone shares and so it requires no special recognition. Distinguishing between uncommon and common contributions is what takes judgment, and always will. Most cases don’t require exceptional ability to judge. It’s possible to discern whether a tool is new and non-obvious, even if it’s not always simple to articulate why. In the washing machine example, it seems clear to me that the difference is the obviousness of the tool. Even I could think of using a stick to work the water through the cloth more easily. On the other hand, neither I nor most people have ever been anywhere near inventing a washing machine. Another example is the weed whacker. That useful invention was patented, but also copied. The patent was not upheld when the inventor sued, because the judge felt it was an obvious idea. However, it was obvious only in a “why didn’t I think of that” way. The fact is, nobody else had thought of it, and if it was really so obvious, that mechanism for weeding should have cropped up repeatedly. Perhaps a consensus of public comment by disinterested third parties would help avoid such miscarriages of justice in patent law. All methods that prove useful in promoting good judgment should be applied to the issue in the interests of maintaining a just, effective, and, ideally, frictionless system that requires no litigation.
Fair use is a shorthand term to describe a type of usage for which royalties are not due. In practice, people tend to view it as any small scale, private usage, as well as socially important ones, such as in libraries, archives, education, or quotations that are part of other work. In the system envisioned here, the entity not paying would be different, the government rather than the individual, but the principle should be the same. And the principle should explicitly date from the time when fair use meant that people could use what they had. The current push by content owners to turn copyright into an excuse to extract rent every time anyone touches their “property” is an attempt to charge whatever the market will bear. It has no relation to a fair price or to fair use.
I’d like to spend some time on a topic not usually included in discussions of creativity or intellectual “property.” The government doesn’t only administer the rights involved, it’s also a major customer for the products. Under the current system where patents grant a monopoly as well as rights to royalties, that can mean the government in effect becomes a factor in creating monopolies as well as becoming one of the trapped customers. Neither of those is acceptable for an entity that must treat all citizens equally. I assume the situation would not arise in a system that requires compulsory licensing. If it nonetheless should develop, it’s clear that it has to be stopped. The government should make the explicit effort in its purchasing to buy from different companies, if their products are of similar quality. The most efficient way to do that is probably not to have preferred vendors at all, but to leave buying decisions up to individual bureaucrats subject to audit, as always, and random reviews for conflict of interest. The primary criterion, of course, is getting good value for the taxpayers’ money.
The mandate to spread the government’s custom brings up a tangential aspect of compulsory licensing. As tools grow increasingly complicated, user interfaces became more and more of an issue. People don’t generally think of interfaces as a tool of monopoly, but they can be, and they can be the most effective one of all. There’s nothing we prize more than the time and effort we have to put into learning something. If using a competitor’s product means learning a new way to do something, then it won’t be used, even if the result is better. Just look at the impossibility of getting the world to use anything but qwerty keyboards.
Inventing a new and improved interface is a real contribution and a real invention. But compulsory licensing has to explicitly include the right to use that interface wherever appropriate. The relevance to the government’s situation is that the requirement to avoid favoritism among vendors does not have to mean reduced efficiency of the workers. The desired interface could be ordered with any product, since the two must be independent of each other.
That leads to the further implication that promotion of competition requires rules that ensure interoperability. It’s essential at all levels: in simple hardware such as electrical plugs (at both the wall and appliance ends), in machines where drivers for different hardware must interface with all software, and for users where people must be able to take the interface they’re comfortable with to any application or device of their choosing. That would require an effective standards setting process whose primary mission, in an equitable society, would be the convenience of and least expense to the most users.
The requirement for interoperability does not, by itself, preclude closed and secret processes. The government itself, however, has to operate on stricter rules because it cannot be in the position of relying more on some citizens than others. The government itself must be transparent and equally accessible to all, which means the tools it uses have to share those characteristics. Unless they do, there’s a big and unacceptable loophole in the transparency requirement. There’s nothing to stop the government from using proprietary tools, but they must be open. Closed source hardware, software, or other tools has no legitimate place in government offices.
Archiving is another function where interoperability and transparency has not been an issue heretofore. Librarians preserving books for posterity might have had to worry about physical preservation, and the time and expense of transcription, but they never had to worry about losing the ability to read the books themselves. The words wouldn’t turn into a jumble of unrecognizable characters unless the language itself was lost. However, through the miracles of modern technology, we’re now in a position where the ability to read something written a mere twenty years ago depends on the continued existence of a company.
The problem is currently most evident in computer games, where it doesn’t worry most people since games are considered worthless. Some games from the early history of computing are already unusable because their programming was closed and the companies who held the secret of it have vanished. Whatever one’s opinion of the games themselves, they’re the canaries in the coal mine who are showing us the future of much larger and weightier things.
It is not right for work to be lost because of a rights holder’s desire for secrecy. Right to a patent or copyright does not include the privilege of destroying the work made when using the tool. How best to implement that limitation in practice would need to be worked out. Maybe it should be a requirement to deposit all necessary information with the government archivist whenever a product starts being used by more than some tiny percentage of the population. Maybe some other method would be more effective. There do have to be procedures in place to ensure that work isn’t lost simply because the knowledge of how to read it was once kept secret.
Getting the rewards for creativity right is probably more important in an equitable society than the kinds we currently have. In a world of peace and equitable distribution of wealth and time, people’s focus is likely to be on finding ways to amuse themselves. For many people that means having fun in the usual sense, playing sports, engaging in social life, and the like. But there’s a large minority for whom fun has a more extensive definition. It means learning and doing, as well as being amused. If the society as a whole facilitates that activity, and if it’s justly rewarded, that’ll lead to a beneficial cycle of innovations and more satisfying lives for all citizens.
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I don’t remember the actual details of a question Ray Bradbury was once asked. It was something like what would be the most significant aspect of the future. Faster than light travel? Immortality? Brain-computer interfaces? Limitless power from quantum foam? Those were mere details, he said. The gist of his answer is what I remember. Pay attention to the first grade teachers. They hold the keys to real progress.
There really is no way to overstate the significance of education to the survival of any advanced society. More precisely, it’s critical to the survival of any advanced society worth living in. Survival of equitable and sustainable countries — or worlds — depends on education. It is not a luxury that’s interesting only when there is nothing else to worry about. Without it, crises are guaranteed and the wisdom to avoid them or solve them will be gone.
Further, important as survival is, it’s not the only reason a fair society has to make education a priority. Given that there’s a right to a living, education is also a bedrock necessity toward putting that right into practice. No human being can make a living without learning how to do so.
Last, there’s the plain political fact that an informed citizenry is an essential component of democracy. Without it, there can be no democracy because the whole system depends on informed decisions, and without the tools to understand the issues, it’s a logical impossibility for voters to make fact-based decisions.
Having said that education is the most important factor for democracy, a reminder of the caveat. As discussed in decision making in the fifth chapter, there are very strong intuitive influences on decisions that operate well before the slow conscious mind catches up. They bias the results. No amount of education will prevent those influences unless decision making situations are explicitly set up to promote rational elements ahead of intuitive ones.
The tools provided by education have to be much more than merely making some information available before an election. They include accessibility, in all senses of the word, of information at all times. They include enough education to understand the information. They include a sufficiently quiet environment, in a cognitive sense, so that the information can be heard.
Education has to be defined correctly if it’s to fulfill its vital functions in society. In a narrow sense, education is about learning a specific body of subjects, such as math or history, in a formal setting. In the broad sense, and in the one relevant to a discussion of social implications, education is any avenue by which people absorb information. That includes formal institutions, but it also includes media, advertising, stories, games, and news.
All of those things inform people one way or another, so all of them can play a role in making a society more or less useful to all its citizens. Because these tools are so powerful in their cumulative effect, it’s important for them to adhere, without exceptions, to the principles of a free and fair society. If they do, they’re likely to facilitate that society. If they don’t, they can destroy it.
It’s because information and education in the broadest sense are so powerful that they have the potential for such a striking Jekyll-and-Hyde effect. An informed and knowledgeable citizenry is the vital element of a free, fair, and sustainable society. A misinformed one is toxic. Unless that is recognized, and unless misinformation is actively fought, a well-informed electorate is not possible and neither is democracy. There will always be people who stand to gain by shading the truth, and it will always be necessary to counteract them.
That means limits on noise are critical to prevent information from being drowned out. The distinction between the two is covered in free speech vs. noise in the chapter on Rights. I’ll repeat briefly in the next few paragraphs.
First, the right to free speech has to protect all matters of belief and opinion, as it does now. Statements about politics, religion, or any other subjective matter, are protected.
Factual matters, on the other hand, can be objectively evaluated. There’s an effective tool for that called the scientific method, and once there is a high degree of certainty, it’s just plain silly to make up one’s own “facts.” It’s even worse than silly to push untruth to advance an agenda.
The rules can err on the side of free speech rather than suppressing misinformation because protection against counterfactual babble is not quite as critical as protection for opinions and beliefs. An occasional untruth has little impact, just as tiny doses of arsenic don’t do much. Repeat doses and large doses, however, damage the body politic. The brain is wired to accept repetition as evidence of what to expect in the future, in other words as evidence of something real. Nor is that wrong when dealing only with Mother Nature. (References for that effect are legion. It was part of the textbooks all the way back in 1920. It’s also evident in the close correlation between numbers of ad buys and numbers of votes seen in Da Silveira and De Mello, 2011 pdf 2009. On the other hand, Ben-Bassat et al., 2012 don’t see that effect in Israel. They hypothesize this is because people in developed countries are not so impressionable. Given the nearly r=1 correlation between money spent and election outcomes, it seems rather likelier that their methodology was deficient.)
Furthermore, and this is the most damaging aspect, it doesn’t matter whether one is paying attention or not. There’s even evidence that the effect of repeated messages is stronger if they are “tuned out.” That way they avoid conscious processing altogether, which is a good thing for those trying to manipulate attitudes.
Discussion of the extent of manipulation by repeated messages tends to meet with disbelief. The reaction is some variant of “Well, it doesn’t work on me.” Partly, this is because the whole point of manipulative messaging is to fly under the radar of conscious thought, so it’s hardly surprising that people don’t notice it in action. (And after the fact, the tendency is to insist that preferences are based on pure reason.) Partly, it’s because it indeed does not work on all people all of the time. It’s designed to work on enough people, and that’s all you need to manipulate whole societies.
Manipulation is a very bad thing in a society predicated on rational choices and therefore on freedom from it. Nor is manipulation tolerable in a system without double standards. It requires a perpetrator and subject(s). It would be ineffective without two classes of people, unlike reasoned arguments which can be applied equally by everyone.
Because untruths are toxic to the rationality on which a fair and sustainable society is based, and untruths repeated 24/7/365 are especially toxic, it is essential to dial back the noise. It is not enough to provide analysis or responses after the fact. The model needs to be truth in advertising laws. They don’t suggest education campaigns after someone has promised immortality in a bottle and made millions. By then, the damage has been done. It doesn’t matter how soberly anyone refutes bogus claims. Too few will listen and the scam will work. The lies have to be prevented, not bleated at after the fact. It has to be illegal to push falsehoods, and even more illegal to push them repeatedly. (In free speech vs. noise I discuss how this might be done.)
The idea of limiting free speech in any way is generally anathema because the dominant philosophy holds that silencing is the only problem. So long as nobody at all is ever suppressed, then ultimately the truth will out and everything will be fine.
I agree that silencing is bad and cannot be tolerated. But drowning out free speech is no less effective at stopping it from being heard. Both ways of destroying free speech are toxic. A drowned voice is lost just as surely as a silenced one. The truth will indeed eventually prevail, but unless our actions are aligned with it, its inevitable triumph only means that we’ll be dead. It’s a complete fantasy to imagine that people live in some universe where they have all the information and all the time to study it, and that they’ll carefully check through all the inputs available regardless of cost or time or status and identify the best. Call that the myth of the Rational Information Consumer to match its equally preposterous twin, the Rational Economic Actor.
I’ve stressed the importance of reducing counterfactual noise before discussing education itself because no matter how good or well-funded learning is, it’ll fail in the face of a miasma of misinformation. Seductive lies are just that, seductive. Telling people they “should” be critical and they “shouldn’t” be swayed is a lazy refusal to deal with the problem posed by objective untruth. It’s like telling people they “shouldn’t” catch colds on an airplane. The real solution is to filter the air well enough to prevent infection, not to put the burden on individuals to spend the flight in surgical masks and rubber gloves. Likewise when it comes to education, it’s not up to individuals to take out the garbage before they can begin to find the information in the pile. It’s up to the people fouling the place to stop it.
So, an important part of the function of the government in education is a negative one. It’s administering the methods used to claim falsehood, administering the evaluation of those claims, and applying the appropriate corrective action in the case of repeat offenders (as per the discussion in the Rights chapter).
Effectively administering dispute resolution takes money. All of education takes money and, as I’ll try to show in a moment, cheap education is the most expensive option of all. Who is responsible for providing that money? Since education is a right and a social good that requires considerable coordinated action for no immediate return, it falls squarely into the functions of government.
Citizens have a right to enough know-how to make a living. Schools, obviously, should be publicly funded. Any advanced society will need more skills than a general education, so taxpayers should also fund students obtaining that certification, which takes place in technical schools and universities. The research activities of universities also provide social benefits, sometimes incalculable social benefits, almost always without immediate payoff.
That leaves only one relatively small component unfunded: learning purely for fun. My guess is that it would be foolish to leave it out. I don’t know of research proving it (and certainly haven’t seen any disproving it), but I’m sure a mentally active citizenry will not only pay for itself but will also add those priceless intangibles that make a society worth living in. Furthermore, the marginal cost of letting the whole adult population learn at will is bound to be smaller than setting up an elaborate — and doomed — scheme to verify that the student’s goal is certification. Or, worse yet, setting up a whole parallel system of private “adult education” that will never be able to provide access to most subjects. A rocket scientist or a scholar specializing in tercets of the 14th century would be unlikely to attract enough students at a small private school. At a university, students without a goal would add only a tiny marginal cost to the total. The social good of increased choices for all far outweighs the small extra outlay.
Anyone who might be thinking that a nation couldn’t possibly afford all that, on top of the other government obligations, should remember that the better-run countries do afford all that, and they afford it at around a third of their GDP taken in taxes. These better-run countries don’t have large armies. It’s a question of priorities.
Moving on to the positive aspects of education, and starting with the most specific case, that of informing citizens, there are a number of government functions to cover. The most basic of all is election-specific voter information, although even that has its own complexities.
Consider California voter information booklets as an example. They’re reasonably good. For each issue they include the arguments of supporters, opponents, lists of supporting organizations, and a summary by a legislative analyst. Unfortunately, the only simple and effective way to fight through the verbiage is to note which are the sponsoring organizations, and even that takes some inside knowledge. Without any truth-in-labeling laws for politics, who’s to know whether “Citizens for Tax Reform” promote flat taxes or corporate taxes or taxes on the importation of exotic parrots?
Further, in a system where objective facts must be supported, the voters can be shown the extent of that support. I’ve discussed objective statements as if they’re either factual or not, but since the support is statistical it’s never a fully binary system. In issues subject to vote, there’s likely to be quite a bit of room for interpretation as to what the facts are actually telling us. In those cases, a simplified variant of the scholarly procedure is indicated. Proponents can explain how the facts support their view and provide the confidence levels for that support. Understanding the meaning of confidence levels would be part of basic education. (There’s nothing about a 95% probability of being right versus a 75% probability that would be hard to grasp even for a fifth grader. All it needs is to be part of the curriculum, which I’ll discuss shortly.)
Voter information booklets that go the extra mile to assist voters would be laid out with the same attention to readable typography as a magazine article or a web site that wins prizes for presentation of information. Statements of fact by either side or by the analyst would be accompanied by the associated confidence level in the ten independent and most widely cited studies on the subject (or fewer, if that’s all there are). If relevant points that weaken their argument were missing from either side’s summaries, the analyst would point them out. The analyst would also add a one sentence description to each sponsoring organization, making clear what their mission is. For instance, “Citizens for Tax Reform: promote the use of plain language in all tax documents.”
Good voter information is more difficult, but entirely possible before 100% literacy is achieved in a country. Even after that’s achieved, basic information can always be provided via audio and graphic channels. During transition periods, it’s essential that illiterate groups in societies be informed to the extent possible by whatever means works best.
Information about elections and the government generally are only part of what citizens need. Facets of private enterprise that have social consequences must also be equally accessible to public scrutiny. Ease of oversight is one of the basic concepts, so any aspect of an enterprise subject to regulation must also be transparent and subject to citizen as well as regulatory oversight. It’s an essential element of making sure there are many lines of defense against abuse, not just one.
Confidentiality of trade secrets can be an excuse against transparency in some cases, but the larger the company, the lower the priority of trade secrets. When not much damage can be done before the problem is evident, then one can give things like confidentiality more leeway. The larger the company or the bigger its clout, the more weight needs to be given to oversight and regulation and the less to the company’s concerns. They can do too much damage too fast to cut them any slack.
Information must also flow easily the other way, from citizens to higher authorities. Citizen feedback and reports of potential problems are an important component of ensuring effective regulation. That requires more than sufficient education to know that one can make a complaint or a report. It requires personnel at the other end to process it, as discussed in the chapter on Oversight.
Distributed and active information flow can happen only when the facilities for it exist. Ben Franklin’s concept of public libraries in every community was an expression of that ideal, and he was right that they’re a vital part of the information system in a free society. Some people think they’ve been superseded by the net, but I disagree. The two complement rather than replace each other. Both are needed. In the interests of the greatest ease of access, everything that can be available on the net should be. But to facilitate deeper study, libraries will always have a function. Not necessarily because they’ll have books in them, but because they have different ways of organizing information and, mainly, because they’ll have librarians. Finding good information in the glut now available is actually more difficult, not less, than it was in the days of scarcity. Librarians are information specialists who have a vital teaching role to play in helping people find and use information, so they are an essential part of the education system in the broad sense.
Tangentially, regarding my statement about the complementarity of different kinds of information delivery, there’s growing support for that view. Gladwell’s recent discussion of the US civil rights protests and “strong” commitment vs “weak” in the real vs virtual worlds refers to some interesting studies. The same difference is very evident in online teaching, although I hadn’t put my finger on it quite so clearly. Dissertations are appearing (for instance, 2006, 2005) pointing out qualitative differences as online methods become more widespread and their limitations more obvious. The 2005 reference is particularly interesting as it studied software developers who, of all people, are least likely to need face-to-face interaction. Yet even for them it was essential. Real public libraries with real librarians are important even in a world where the sum of human knowledge is also available on the net.
The flow of information requires physical infrastructure. Since the Enlightenment in the early 1700s it’s been understood that free speech is only possible when narrow interests cannot control the flow. More generally, the vital resource of communication, the nervous system of the body politic as it were, has to be free of any manipulation by special interests. Properly understood, the post office, communications, and the net are all part of a society’s system of information, a system without which everything breaks down. Like other vital systems, such as defense or medical care, providing for it and sustaining its infrastructure has to be a government function. No other entity has the accountability to society that fulfilling a vital social function requires.
Furthermore, in a fair system everyone must have the same access to information and the same ability to communicate. Like a postal system, it must either be cheap enough so that price is not a consideration for individuals, or it must be free at the point of use, like the internet before commercialization. That doesn’t preclude payment for commercial services that are not socially vital, but it does mean there must be an accessible layer for the part that is. A commercial service can never fulfill that function since, if nothing else, it has to discriminate at least on the ability to pay.
Thus, communications and information are a function of government and inextricably tied in with education in the broad sense. The government needs to provide and regulate the physical infrastructure, whether that’s mail coaches, fiberoptic cables or satellites, and provide a basic tier of service funded from taxes. That basic tier should include text and images for information, education, political, legal, and feedback purposes. It would also include some quota of emails, phone calls, or letters per person. Organizations or businesses with requirements exceeding the quota would need to use commercial services.
Another area that shades from public good to purely private is entertainment. Whether Shakespeare is purely fun or purely education or something in between is an opinion. Whether Starcraft is good for teaching strategic skills and hand-eye coordination or is a silly game is likewise an opinion. As in other matters of opinion, those are best decided at the community level.
Since there must be complete separation between the State and matters of belief, taxpayers couldn’t be asked to fund religious teaching, organizations or communications. The one exception is that individuals can do what they like with their personal quota of free communication.
The idea to be realized is that everyone has access to information and communication so that they can take full part in the political and legal life of the country. Communication without much social significance, such as status updates, does not need to be taxpayer-funded, nor does commercial communication, which should be paying for itself. But it can be very hard to draw the exact line between optional messages and important ones, and it is always more important to facilitate free and open communication than to scrimp on the marginal cost of a few more bits.
On Teaching and Learning
Education in the narrow sense of formal training is necessary to be able to use the information and communication tools the government should be providing. Before discussing that, however, it seems necessary to discuss the nature of teaching and learning, because it’s essential to get these right for a fair or a sustainable society. Misconceptions about both teaching and learning lead to little education and lots of wasted money. Even worse, the resulting ignorance leads to ignorant votes, which includes, naturally enough, ignorant votes on schooling, and so on in a descending vortex. (This section discusses the same ideas as in the “War on Teachers” series, I, II, III.)
Going through the motions of sitting in school doesn’t always teach anything, so the first question is, “What is effective education?” It’s one of those things whose definition changes depending on the goal, but there is a common thread. We’ve effectively learned something when, faced with a quandary, we know how to approach an answer, which facts we need and where to look them up if we don’t know them, and once we have them we know how to integrate them into a solution. That’s true of a sixth grader solving a word problem in math class, of a business executive figuring out how to sell a new computer model, or of a philosopher ruminating on the relationship between different classes of thought. I’ll use the word “competence” to summarize that result, although it’s really much more than that.
There are many active components in learning. Remembering the relevant facts or sources takes effort, making the relevant connections to find solutions to problems takes even more effort, and figuring out where the gaps are in one’s knowledge and filling them takes perhaps the most active commitment to effectiveness of all.
Anything that requires active participation requires willingness, and willingness cannot be forced. That is a hugely important point that much of the current popular discussion about education overlooks. So let me repeat it: learning can only be done willingly. It cannot be forced. Punitive measures have never worked, don’t work, and will never work because they can’t work.
Effective teaching is whatever enables effective learning. That requires knowledge of the subject matter, certainly, and of how to present it so that students can learn most easily. But that’s just the first step. After that, the teacher has to pay attention to each student, to try to get a feel for what they’ve understood, what they’re still missing, and how best to fill the gaps given the student’s way of organizing information. It feels a bit like an exercise in mindreading, and the teacher has to care about the student to be able to do it. Understanding someone else simply doesn’t happen without caring. The teacher may not even care about the student, strictly speaking. They may only care about doing their work to a professional standard. But whatever the origin, they have to care. The final and most important step is for the teacher to take all their own knowledge and understanding and apply it to lead the student to greater knowledge in a way that gives her or him a sense of improvement and mastery. It’s that “light bulb going off” moment that fires the desire to continue learning which is the best gift of education.
One tangential note: the most demanding teaching is for students who know the least. That takes the greatest skill and commitment. Advanced students have enough understanding of the field to need less help integrating new information. The kindergarten teachers are at the cutting edge of the field. Teaching microbiology to medical school students is, by comparison, a simple job. (I speak from experience, although I’ve never taught kindergarten. I have taught biology to university students, and it is very clear to me who has the harder teaching job.)
Another tangential note: knowing the subject matter becomes increasingly important the more advanced the student. In the US, at least, people complain more and more about teachers too ignorant to teach. There are several sides to that: the teachers need to have mastered their subjects, the administrators need to assign the teachers correctly, and the conditions of teaching need to be good enough to retain people with a choice of jobs. Only one of those depends on the teachers themselves. I’ll discuss conditions of teaching below.
One objection to the discussion of what’s involved in teaching is probably that it’s irrelevant to the real world because only the very best teachers do more than know the subject matter. Everyone who teaches knows that isn’t so since everyone who teaches does it to some degree. Parents showing their children how to button a shirt are doing it. Anyone who doubts it should pay close attention to themselves when they’re trying to help someone they care about learn something. There’ll be that distinct feeling of trying to get inside their minds in order to figure out how best to explain it. The main difference is that non-teachers do that briefly, generally only with one or a few people at a time, and usually only for relatively simple concepts. Multiply the effort and attention involved times the number of students in a class, the amount of the subject that needs explaining, and the number of hours teaching, and one can start to have some concept of what it is that teachers do.
To get a more complete concept, think about doing a teacher’s job. The closest thing to it that most people have done at some point is public speaking. That addresses the first step, presenting information to a group of people. The act of doing it requires intense concentration because one’s mind has to be doing several things at once: keeping the overall presentation in mind, speaking coherently about the current point, and simultaneously preparing the next few intelligent sentences while the current ones are spoken. A practised teacher will also, at the same time, be gauging the level of understanding in the audience, modifying the presentation on the fly as needed, and answering questions as they come up. When the students being taught are young, the teacher will also be keeping order and checking for untoward activities, all while not losing track of any of the above six simultaneous aspects of the act of teaching. That level of concentration and engagement is standard during all of in-class time. It’s not special or something only the best do. Some do it better than others, but every teacher does it.
That is fundamentally different from many other jobs. The level of preparation, concentration, and energy required, all at once, is very unusual. Aspects of it occur elsewhere, whether in insurance adjusting, software coding, or bricklaying, but the need to have all those factors, all functioning at a high level, all at once is uncommon. The closest parallel to in-class time is performance art. As with performance art, the great majority of time spent on teaching happens outside of class. And, also as with performance art, it won’t amount to anything unless the individual involved puts a great deal of her- or himself into it.
All of the above should make clear that teaching requires even greater active involvement than learning. Teaching, like learning, also cannot be forced. Punitive measures have never worked, don’t work, and will never work because they can’t work.
Trying to force good teaching would be like taking someone by the scruff of the neck and banging their head down on the table and yelling, “THINK, dammit!” It is not going to happen no matter how much it seems like the simplest solution.
Good teaching cannot be forced. It can only be enabled. Luckily, that’s not difficult.
Humans actually enjoy learning and teaching. It’s probably got something to do with our 1400 cc or so of brain. It’s evident even in small things, like preferring new places for vacations, and watching new movies rather than re-runs. It’s more fun. And teaching is fun, too. There’s nothing quite like watching that “Aha!” moment light up someone’s face. To the extent that there’s tedium involved, and there definitely is, a proper start on the road to learning puts that in the context of the skills gained and it seems like quite a small price to pay for happiness. In the same sense as the difference between eating and force-feeding, discipline is needed to learn but nobody has to be forced to learn or to teach. On the contrary, force makes people not learn (which currently happens too much). All that’s needed for education is an unstressed environment with enough time and resources, and it happens.
What does “enough time and resources” actually mean? First and foremost, it means small class sizes. It’s inevitable that the amount of attention a teacher can give any individual student is inversely proportional to the number of students requiring attention. In a class of thirty-five or forty children, a teacher’s time will be taken up with keeping order. Education will be a distant second. The fact that many children do nonetheless learn in such environments shows how strong the tendency toward learning is. Small tutoring groups of less than five or six students measurably result in the greatest amount of learning. That’s why students having trouble with a subject get tutoring. It’s not because all tutors are brilliant teachers. It’s because the format allows for a great deal of individual attention. Class sizes much bigger than twenty or so are getting so far from the optimum as to be problematic.
Another important facet is time. I’ve mentioned the time needed to give individual attention, but there’s also the time needed simply to effectively present and absorb information. A student can’t study constantly. The neurological processes need time to assimilate and organize the information on a biochemical level. There’s an optimum beyond which more courses or more studying means less useful knowledge in the end. That’s why longer school years don’t automatically translate into much of anything. Education is not the same as manufacturing poppet valves.
Similarly for teaching. As a high performance activity that nonetheless requires a lack of stress, there’s an optimum to how much actual teaching can be done in any given day before quality starts to suffer. It’s not a desk job. The optimum is nowhere near eight hours a day. Three hours every other day, up to a maximum of five hours on occasional days, is closer to the standard that needs to be applied. (That’s actual, in-the-class teaching, not supervising study halls or the like.) To those who want to insist that’s preposterous, I suggest they spend a semester or two teaching.
Basic resources are essential. Teachers and students lacking comfortable buildings, pencils, paper, and basic texts are being asked to do the work of learning in a vacuum. Given human ingenuity, sometimes education happens even in that environment, but it is never an optimum use of either teacher time or student brain power.
Advanced resources are nice, but the amount of improvement they confer approaches zero for increasingly large sums of money. They may even cross over into negative territory if the bells and whistles serve to distract the student from the primary task of learning and integrating knowledge.
The teachers themselves are the most critical resource, and people are aware of that. There’s much talk about how to be sure that schools hire only “the best.” Unfortunately, although the intentions are good, that goal is a logical impossibility. Most people will have average teachers. That’s the definition of “average.” Most people can’t have “the best.” That is why it’s crucially important to make sure that “average” is also adequate. Small class sizes, for instances, are necessary for average teachers to be good teachers.
The other critical flaw in the concept of hiring “the best” is that we (and I do mean “we,” all of us) aren’t omniscient enough to discern the best for a hugely complex task that requires commitment and caring as well as above average intelligence. A system built on hiring “the best” will excel mainly at justifying hires after the fact, not discerning good ones beforehand. The way to find good teachers is to require good training beforehand and then judge by actual performance on the job. A probationary period, such as three months, would wash out the least capable, including those who looked good only on paper. (I’ll discuss evaluation of teachers’ skills in a moment.) Once again, if we try to avert the worst and judge by actual performance, rather than delude ourselves that we can discern the best, there’s a fighting chance of success.
Salaries for teachers and administrators are a major expense in any educational system. Administrators tend to be background noise in the mix and the public often hardly notices them. Like administrators generally, they are good at growing their empires and their salaries far beyond any optimum. In a sustainable system, they would be subject to the same limitations and controls as all administrators. One of those limitations is that their salaries are directly proportional to those of the teachers they work for, so runaway pay should be less of a problem.
Teachers’ remuneration comes in two ways due to the unusual nature of the job: salary and security. The actual money tends to be low compared to other work requiring equivalent training and commitment.
Before continuing, I’d like to dispel the illusion that extra time off is part of the compensation for teachers. Teachers always and everywhere spend more time on their work than the hours that appear on paper. Writing exams, grading, helping students, preparing class work, setting up labs, and all the hundreds of other outside-of-class aspects of the job cannot be dropped simply because enough hours have been worked. The jobs have to be completed no matter how long they take. Just as one example, under current conditions, it’s a rare teacher at any level, school or college, who doesn’t do job-related work every evening and weekend while school is in session. That amounts to around a 70-hour work week for those 36 weeks. That’s 2520 hours per year. That doesn’t count work over the summer, which is also standard for nearly all teachers. For comparison, a 40-hour per week job, two weeks vacation & ten paid holidays equals 1920 hours. It’s because of the unpaid overtime that long vacations are not only justifed, they’re essential. Work that takes away one’s evenings and weekends rightly compensates by providing a much longer block of time off.
In a more balanced educational system, unpaid overtime would not be expected, and teachers really should get more free time if their salaries are below average for their level of training.
The second aspect of compensation is tenure. The word tends to be misunderstood to mean sinecure, whereas it’s real meaning is closer to “due process rights.” A teacher with tenure can still be fired, but only for very obviously not doing their job. Tenure means that evaluations have to be done strictly on the merits, and that any personal biases have no place. Anybody who wants to apply a bias will have to find some objective excuse for it and be ready to support it during outside review. That’s not nearly as simple as making one’s own decisions without much chance of challenges. Tenure forces supervisory personnel in academe to restrain their personal biases. It’s not some ivory tower luxury that insulates eggheads from the “real world.” It’s an essential component to make sure that the lineworkers, as it were, can do their jobs instead of worrying about their bosses. (Would that be a good idea everywhere? Absolutely. What we need is more tenure, not less. But this is a discussion about teaching, so I’ll limit it to that.)
The security conferred by due process rights is a big part of an unstressed environment, which is essential to good teaching. Academe differs from other work in one important respect. Its “product” is education, and if it’s not done right the damage lasts forever. But the damage is very slow to appear — decades, usually — so there are few personal consequences for getting it wrong. In this it’s unlike other critical jobs, such as nuclear reactor control room technician. An incompetent technician will get washed out even if they’re good friends with the boss because the stakes are too high. But a competent teacher who is not friends with the principal is in deep trouble.
Without tenure, it’s too easy to follow personal biases. Skill becomes a secondary consideration. (I know that nobody will admit to being less than objective. The evidence tells us that people are, no matter what they admit.) Yet skill in teaching is the critical factor in effective teaching, not relationships with important people. Without tenure, only exceptional supervisors will disregard networking when handing out perqs, promotions, and even pink slips. Exceptions aren’t enough to keep the system working, and skill becomes an accidental feature. With tenure, teachers can focus on teaching instead of devoting their best energies to office politics.
So far, the simple matter of enabling education involves small class sizes, secure, not-overloaded teachers, and good basic facilities. Those few factors by themselves may explain why people are so dissatisfied with the quality of schooling. None of them are the cheapest option.
In education, you don’t exactly get what you pay for. The optimum amount intelligently applied returns many times the investment. Too much spending generates decreasing marginal returns. Too little spending yields less than nothing because ignorance is expensive. It’s a nonlinear relationship, but people who want education on the cheap can be sure of landing in the third category.
The final issue is how to see whether students have learned and teachers have taught. It’s to evaluate results. This is another area of great current ferment because the public at large wonders uneasily, as a President famously put it, “Is our kids learning?”
As far as students go, we know how to do evaluations. Grades based on demonstration of active knowledge are what work. If the education system isn’t dysfunctional to begin with, in other words if teachers can do their jobs with the required autonomy, they’re the ones with the skill, training, and familiarity with the students to best evaluate them.
In contrast, a note on what doesn’t work: mass tests of passive knowledge. The US school and university systems are increasingly engulfed in national multiple choice testing schemes that are incapable of measuring competence. The top third of students who pass through the system go on to college. Those are identified by the tests as the best. So many of them have such poor ability to integrate knowledge that colleges throughout the country have to keep expanding their remedial courses or raising their entrance requirements. People sense that the tests we have aren’t doing the job, so the obvious solution is … to require more of them. It’s getting to the point where tests aren’t measuring learning. They’re replacing it. That definitely does not work.
As to evaluating teachers, I hope the foregoing discussion has made clear that teachers are not the sole ingredient determining student success. The conditions under which they teach are more important than the skill of the individual teacher. I mean that literally. An average teacher with a class of fifteen will be able to transmit a good bit of knowledge to the students. A brilliant teacher with a class of forty will only be able to affect a very talented few, if that.
However, even under ideal conditions teachers need oversight and feedback like everyone else. There are three different approaches that don’t work. The traditional one in the US is evaluation by the teacher’s principal, and the new ones either incorporate student feedback or use tests of student knowledge to judge the teacher’s merit.
The traditional principal-centered methods of evaluation aren’t weeding out bad teachers or rewarding good ones. Principals have too many chances for intuitive and personal bias. Without counterweight from other authorities of at least equal status, the system will suffer from too many teachers retained on factors other than their skill. There’s a reason why unions insist on seniority as the sole criterion. At least that’s objective and not dependent on the principal. The current focus on tests is also groping toward objectivity. However, selecting an outcome by throwing darts at a board is also objective. It’s just not very meaningful.
Student evaluations of teachers were all the rage for a while but are starting to recede as people grasp the fundamental problems with that approach. Teachers can affect the results by giving students what they want, which is fun and easy classes. Learning becomes secondary. By far the simplest, least-work method for teachers to reduce the time they have to spend on students and the flak they catch from them is to give them higher grades. Grade inflation has become so widespread and severe that everybody is noticing. And it’s gradually dawning on people that it’s not a good thing.
There’s also a fundamental problem with student evaluations which would exist even in a perfect world. Students don’t know enough to know what they need to learn. That’s why they’re taking classes. It’s only after they’ve learned and used the knowledge that they can even begin to evaluate the teaching. Student evaluations after ten or twenty years might give very useful insights, but they could never provide more than partial feedback on the current situation.
Student evaluations do provide valuable and necessary feedback, but it’s essential to keep it in perspective. It is useful as a tool for the teacher to modify their own teaching style or methodology, but it can never be a factor in job evaluation without undermining the mission to educate students.
The newest hot topic is testing students to see how much they’ve learned. If not very much, then the thinking goes that the teacher must not be very good. The assumptions behind the approach are ludicrous: that multiple choice tests indicate effective learning or competence, that the teacher rather than the conditions of teaching is more important for student learning, that the student is not the primary determinant of student learning, and the list could go on. (There is an introduction to the topic and some further links in War on Teachers I.)
Most fatal of all, though, is the flaw in the very concept of measuring teaching. Only tangibles are quantifiable, and only quantities can be measured. But teaching, especially teaching at the school level, has essential components that involve attention, understanding and caring. The hard truth is that there is no way to measure those. They can be evaluated to some extent by other human beings with similar capacities, but they cannot be measured. If we insist on measuring how “good” a teacher is, all we’ll succeed in doing is throwing out the very thing we’re trying to measure: effective teaching.
All that said, it does not mean there is no way to evaluate teachers. It means there’s no simple objective method of doing so. I think most people actually know that, but they keep hoping a few multiple choice tests will do the trick because that would be so nice and cheap. That shortcut doesn’t exist. What can be done is to try to ensure the objectivity of the evaluators, and to have clearly stipulated methods that sample the totality of a teacher’s work.
The method doesn’t even need to be invented. It’s been used in similar forms in many places. The important factors are inspectors, a pair or more who can act as a check on each other, who come from outside the district and are not any part of the teacher’s chain of command, who evaluate the administration as well as the teachers, who make class visits, and who, when evaluating teachers, look at all of their work, such as syllabuses or lesson plans, exams, grading, student work and in-class interest, and so on. The inspectors must themselves be former or current teachers. There’s no need for the visits to be a surprise. Teaching ability improves with practice, but it can’t be faked. Even months of warning won’t turn a bad teacher into a good one. However, a few days’ warning is plenty, otherwise there’ll be too much motivation to put on a show.
Assuming the inspectors are professional and honest, which could happen in a system with transparency, easily accessible results, and feedback, then such complete evaluations will actually provide usable information to the whole system, rather than mere numbers which could just as well have come off a dartboard.
A real method of evaluation is not cheap, any more than education itself it. Like education, it returns many times the investment by improving the larger system. And, also like education, the methods that seem cheap are actually the most expensive. They can, by themselves, kill off good teaching.
Education has many purposes: ensuring general literacy, providing training and certification, enabling the advancement of knowledge, and providing opportunities to broaden one’s mind or learn new skills. Some learning is best done full time in a school. Some is most useful as an occasional class tucked in around the other demands of life. Educational institutions need to have the flexibility to match diverse purposes and interests to provide maximum functionality and choice.
First and foremost is basic education. Democracy itself is hardly possible without literacy. Increasingly in the technological age it’s not possible without numeracy either. Democracy could flourish in a world with nothing but clay tablets and wooden wagons, but not without a basic level of knowledge and information.
At its best, schooling can accomplish what’s needed these days. How and what to teach is known and many students around the world graduate with a good education, which proves that it can be done. There’s a common thread running through what works and what doesn’t.
Studying a vocabulary list for a multiple choice test teaches nothing. The words themselves are soon forgotten, and the ability to use them in context never appears. Following a set of steps for a specific set of math problems teaches nothing. The steps are forgotten right after the exam, and the notion that it ever had any application to the real world never arises. The examples could be multiplied, but the gist is always the same: getting the right answers from students does not, by itself, prove that they learned anything. Knowledge must be actively used and integrated for a person to “own” it and to be able to use it in life.
Thus, for instance, writing and revising essays teaches an enormous amount in any number of subjects. Working through mathematical word problems or using math elsewhere, such as shop classes or in a model rocketry project, teaches analytical skills as well as integrating arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. Labs are essential in the sciences, in language classes, and wherever the ability to turn knowledge into actions is required. Passive knowledge never turns into active knowledge without practice.
The shared characteristic of everything that works is that it takes a great deal of student and teacher effort and time. There is no way to do it effortlessly. There is no way to do it quickly. There is no way to do it in large classes. There is no way to do it with overworked teachers. There is no way to do it cheaply. In the longer run, it pays for itself many times over. If you look no further than this year’s budget, there seem to be plenty of corners to cut. But if the things that actually make education work are cut, then children learn much less than they could and have a harder time of it than they need to. And some learn so little they go on to become society’s most expensive adults.
It’s important to remember that education, real education, can’t be done on the cheap. Like other vital services, from police to medical care, a sustainable society, if it wants to continue sustaining itself, has no choice but to provide at least the bare necessities of all of them. Microscopes may not be necessary for every student in biology classes, but small class sizes and well-trained teachers are an absolute requirement in every class. The intangible is almost always more important than the bricks and mortar.
Getting back to the large amount of required knowledge, two factors work together to alleviate the difficulty of learning. A child’s earliest teachers have to know how to transmit the excitement of mastery so that the tedium of learning is in its proper context. And the earliest phases of instruction have to be much more individually tailored than they are now. Day care workers are highly specialized teachers, not babysitters. Their training needs to include skill in providing more advanced learning opportunities, seeing which children are eager to use them, and helping them do so to the extent of their interest.
The idea isn’t to generate a raft of precocious little geniuses for parents to boast about. It’s for children to learn what they’re interested in when they’re interested. Learning to read at the right time, for instance, is downright fun. Learning as an adult is a real slog. That’s an extreme example, but there is also variation in readiness at young ages. Some children have an easier time learning to read at three and by the time they’re six it’s actually more difficult for them, not less. Others might be better off waiting till later than six. There does need to be a maximum age by which a child must start school because there are parents who will keep them out forever to save money or to prevent cultural taint. At some point, all children are ready to begin formal learning. The consensus among educators seems to be that that age falls somewhere between five and seven. The same variation in development exists for numeracy, for hand-eye coordination and physical skills. All of them happen on their own schedule in each child, and learning is easiest when fitted to the child and not the other way around. It’s an extension of the principles of flexibility and choice adapted to the youngest citizens.
The idea of instruction based on individual needs should then be continued right through the whole system. Children will reach the first grade level at different ages. That doesn’t have to be a problem if they can also enter first grade at different ages. The grades need to be defined by subject matter, not age of the children. A six year-old math genius could be in the same tenth grade math class as a twenty year old with a different level of aptitude. That six year-old might be just starting to read, and during recess be part of a playgroup that’s mainly seven year-olds. There is no child-centered reason to segregate children rigidly by age into one regiment for all activities.
If we don’t waste the brain power of children at the earliest stages of learning, there’s a chance they’ll be able to absorb what they need to become effective citizens by the time they’re adults. Because that’s another area where the system now falls short. Children don’t learn near enough. Too many graduate with so little literacy that they associate having to think only with failure. The same goes double for numeracy. Practical skills are hardly part of the curriculum, except for some rudimentary sex education, or shop classes for students on a technical track. Basic life skills such as managing finances, nutrition, fitness, how to interview for a job, how to fix small appliances or simple plumbing or how to know when the mechanic is making sense are too lowbrow to even mention. The idea that skills are low class dates back to the days when education was only for people who had personnel for that sort of thing. An egalitarian society should be providing an education that helps everyone through life, including all aspects of it.
Parenthetically, it should go without saying that technology changes and specific skills learned in school might become obsolete. One could learn how to replace hard drives in computers only to graduate into a world where memory storage has shifted to photonic crystals. But the type of analytical thinking applied to solving practical problems does not change, does take practice, and can be taught. It’s also different from the analytical thinking needed in math or science or philosophy. It needs its own training.
Numeracy is another big deficiency in current education. Students achieve better math skills in some countries than in others, but from a citizen’s perspective it’s not adequate anywhere. Math skills are taught in isolation and the usual refrain later in life is “I never used that stuff even once.” A great deal of time and mental effort is wasted for nothing. Actually, for less than nothing because the process makes people allergic to numeracy, which is a dangerous loss.
The problem in math as in other academic subjects is that the curricula are established by experts, and they know what is needed to eventually be successful in their field. But children don’t need the foundational elements for an advanced degree. They need a sampling that confers useful skills. In math, they don’t need to factor polynomial equations. They need the fundamentals of logic, they need arithmetic, basic methods of how to solve for an unknown, basic statistics and how to evaluate numbers presented to support an argument, and where to look when they need methods they haven’t learned. None of these are impossible to teach to children. The curriculum just needs to be tailored to them instead of to a theoretical requirement for an advanced university degree. Schools need to prepare children for the skills they’ll need in life. University prep courses can prepare them for the knowledge they’ll need if they go on for advanced degrees.
Besides literacy, numeracy, and practical skills, children need enough introduction to the larger picture of human life on earth so they at least know how much they don’t know. They need enough introduction to history, other cultures, art, music, chemistry, biology, and geology to have some idea of what the discussion is about when these subjects come up in the news or in entertainment. And also so that they have some idea whether that’s where their talents lie and they want to learn more about them.
In short, there’s a great deal for children to learn. It should be obvious why it’s essential not to waste their time and to tailor the curriculum so they learn what they need rather than what they don’t. I suspect there’d be a great deal more willingness among children to learn things whose practical application is made clear to them, and they’d absorb more with less effort.
There’s so much to learn that school is bound to be a full time occupation in the early years. But just as the transition into academic learning should be gradual and individual, the transition to work should be the same. Furthermore, there’s no good reason why one ever has to end completely and the other to take over all one’s time. Some people might stop all formal learning. Others might continue taking classes their whole lives, whether for fun or profit. Work and education could fit together in larger or smaller proportions throughout life. Equality does not mean that everyone does the same thing. It means that everyone can do what works for them. The educational system can be an important facilitator of that goal.
A flexible educational system would not have the same rigid barriers between stages and institutions that there are now. Day care would turn into school, which would shade into college, and some of those would also be loci of advanced research. All of them would be open to anyone who fulfilled the prerequisites. The more experienced the students, the more use could be made of distance methods, where they’re effective. Obviously, some age stratification is inevitable and good, since children at different ages learn differently. But that’s the point. The stratification should be based on what’s best for effective learning with the least effort, not on a chronological age.
Certification is a small part of education, but it’s nonetheless important. The general idea is to prove that the bearer completed a required body of courses and practice within an appropriate period of time. Whether that was done as a full time student or part time is not the issue. All that matters is how well it was done, something that should be recognized at the school level as well as at the university. Just as there’s no “Bachelor’s Equivalency Degree,” why should there be a high school equivalency degree? These things mark off levels of education, and that’s all they need to do. One level might be required as a prerequisite to further study, but that doesn’t mean it somehow makes sense to put people in a straitjacket as to the time required to reach it.
Another way to facilitate flexibility in the certification process is to separate it from education in the broad sense. The basic level of knowledge a citizen needs should come with a high school degree. Call it a General Education degree to make the learning involved explicit rather than the manner of acquiring it. On top of that could come certification for specific lines of work, be it plumbing or medicine or accounting, and those would include courses directly relevant to that work.
Further general education, however, would be a matter of individual predilection. It’s a waste of everyone’s time, and in a taxpayer-funded system also of everyone’s money, to expect adults to absorb information for which they see no use. I’ve taught college long enough to know that for a fact. Children are capable of absorbing everything, when they’re taught well, but by the time they’re 18 most people are more interested in getting on with the business of life. General education is something they come back to, and when they do, then they can really make something of it. A system that gives people the time and infrastructure to do that is the one which will see the flowering of intelligence and creativity people hope for from general education.
One aspect of school life could be worse in a flexible system than it is now. Bullying is a consideration whenever children of different physical abilities are thrown together, so it has the potential to be worse if children of different ages are together. It’s probably clear by now that attacking children, including when it’s other children doing it, and including humiliation or non-physical attacks, are just as illegal as similar behavior in adults. It’s not a minor matter just because adults aren’t the victims. It has to be suppressed as vigorously as any other criminal behavior. Prevention should be the first line of defence, using proven methods of education on the issues, reporting, and enforcement. It should also be appropriately punished if and when it does occur. This is not something to handle leniently because “they’re just kids.” Bullying is the beginning of adult patterns of behavior that are against everything a fair society stands for.
Flexibility in education and its adaptability to different schedules could be promoted also by the academic calendar itself. Scheduling may seem like a pathetically pedestrian concern, but just as with other administrative trivia, the effect in reality can be greater than that of high-minded principles. Academic schedules now hark back to medieval times, when the students needed to attend to their “day jobs” of helping with farming during summer and early fall. Thinking purely in terms of academics, though, another arrangement would work better. The school year could be divided into three 3-month semesters with one month between each one. Short or intensive courses could be taught during the one month intersessions. Three-month classes packed into one month would count the same as the longer versions for both students and teachers. A school year would be eight months, and any given semester or any of the one-month periods could be used for vacations in any combination. This would allow school facilities to be used on a continuous basis without pretending individual students can be constant learning robots. Major holidays would be treated as they are in other jobs, with one or two-day breaks. It would allow academic scheduling to fit more different kinds of work schedules, which would be desirable in a system aiming to promote the widest latitude of individual choices.
Whenever the government has an essential function there’s the question whether it can also be appropriately carried out by individuals or commercial interests. For defense, the legal system, elections, and regulation the answer is “no.” For care of the vulnerable the answer is “yes.” For education, I think the answer is “maybe.”
Having parallel systems of education results in two separate problems. One is financial. When the rich can buy themselves a completely different education than those with median incomes, that promotes artificial divisions in society based on money alone and it fosters inequality. That is unequivocally a bad thing. At the very least, where private education is available, there needs to be a rule that all people on taxpayer-funded salaries must send their children to the public schools. Possibly, the same rule should extend to everyone whose wealth or income falls into the top ten percent.
The other problem is cultural. If a given body of knowledge is needed for an informed citizenry, and that citizenry is essential to an equitable and sustainable government, it makes no sense to say that some people can pull their children out of the community. Because children are the group affected. Alternate schooling for cultural reasons is not about universities. It’s about parents who want to set their children on a different path than the larger society. I would argue that parents don’t have the right to make that choice for their children. Unfortunately, the children don’t have the knowledge to make an informed choice for themselves. It’s a very difficult question.
On the other side, private schooling can provide a valuable check on public education. It can experiment with new methods, like the Montessori and Waldorf schools. If the public schools start slipping, it can provide a vivid counterpoint showing how far they’ve gone.
One way of making sure that the same body of knowledge was available to all schoolchildren would be to have the same requirements for all types of schools, whether public or private. More could be taught in private, but not less. They would also all be subject to the same evaluations and inspections.
However, that requirement would be costly to implement for home schoolers. Home schooling has unique issues of teacher and student competence. The latter could be promoted by requiring home schoolers to take the same exams as public school students, graded by teachers for extra pay.
Teacher evaluations, however, become a real quandary. Holding home schools to the same standard is fine in theory, but any system of valid teacher evaluation will be resource-intensive. When applied to a micro-scale situation like home schooling, the cost per pupil will be huge. Should taxpayers have to pay that bill? If they don’t, and the costs have to be borne by the home schoolers, none but the richest would ever have that option. I don’t see an equitable solution to the dilemma. Maybe there wouldn’t be very many home schoolers if they were held to the same standards as public schools? Maybe they could all be convinced to use the distance learning component of public education?
In most countries, there would be a distance learning option to accommodate children who couldn’t reach schools. At the school level, I’d envision distance learning as a supplement to, not a replacement for, in-class learning because of the differences in commitment that I discussed earlier. Some part of the child’s school year, such as at the beginnings and ends of semesters, would be in regular classes while living in boarding facilities.
Turning now to what basic education entails on the teacher’s side, it clearly would need competent teachers if children’s capacity to learn is to be fully utilized. In the US, there might be the feeling that, right there, is a fatal flaw in the whole idea. The current feeling is that far too many teachers are incompetent and need to be kicked. Sometimes that’s to make them improve, sometimes it’s to kick them out, but either way, they need “better standards.”
People have it backwards. Work that requires a high level of caring and personal commitment cannot be improved by kicking the person doing it. The time to set standards is before they’re hired, not after. Afterwards, you can only make sure they keep meeting them. And if the objection is that you can’t get good teachers nowadays, well, that’s the problem. If the conditions of work make too many competent people go elsewhere, then the thing to change is the conditions of work, not to try to force competence where none exists.
To get the good teachers the system I’m discussing requires, they need to have relevant certification requirements and real evaluation on the job. They need adequate salaries. They need control over their own jobs so that they can do what they’re expert at, teaching, without interference. They cannot be construed as the cheapest solution to a shortage of other staff or as a supply cabinet to make up for budget shortages. And they need small class sizes in schools and in other classes where the students are beginners. Ensuring good teaching is simple. After hiring good people, after having real evaluations to make sure they stay good, and after providing them with good working conditions, the only thing anyone has to do to ensure good teaching is to get out of the teachers’ way.
That brings me to the administrators in the system. Teachers are not necessarily good administrators, or vice versa, so, except for the hybrid position of principal, there doesn’t need to be a requirement for educational administrators to have been teachers. There do need to be the usual limits on administrators. In keeping with the principle that power devolves to those actually doing the job, administrators administer. They submit accounting (based on teacher data when appropriate), settle disputes, hire janitors, order supplies, make sure the school is prepared for emergencies, that there’s a nurse available, and so on. They’re appointed by the usual process for administrators: either random selection from a qualified pool for the higher offices or simple hiring for lower offices. They’re subject to the same oversight and recall potential. As with other administrators, their salary is tied to that of the people they work for, in this case teachers. They don’t tell teachers how to do their jobs, hire them or promote them. That needs to be done by experts in the field, who are other teachers. In the interests of objectivity, teachers from outside the district should have the main voice in those decisions, and they shouldn’t include the same ones involved in evaluations of the teacher concerned.
Advanced Education and Research
In terms of teaching students, universities are not as far away from where they need to be as (most) schools. Knowledge of subject matter plays a greater role than teaching skill, although the latter is never completely irrelevant. The importance of subject matter and the ability of students to learn on their own means that large classes are less of a problem (although large labs don’t work at any level) and that distance learning can be more extensively utilized. However, just because they work a bit better than schools, doesn’t mean universities are actually where they need to be. Even in as simple a matter as teaching (it is simple at that level) there’s still much that could be improved.
In other respects than teaching, universities have drifted far off course, at least in the US. (The indications are that the situation is not materially different in other countries, but I’m intimately familiar with the US system, so this discussion reflects that.) The main problems are in the treatment of faculty and in the focus on research for university gain. Both of these negatively affect students and the advancement of knowledge. Those are not minor functions. So, by slowly destroying the whole point of universities, those two trends also waste a great deal of taxpayer money. How well universities function has major social implications, so, although it’s tangentially related to government, I’ll give some suggestions on how the situation could be realigned.
First, a micro-summary of how the current situation developed to put my suggestions in context. Research received government funds because of the incalculable social benefits of the occasional breakthrough. Research requires infrastructure, so the government included money for “overhead” and didn’t limit it to the actual direct costs. It was intended as support for the critical social function of universities generally. So far, so good.
University administrators saw money, which, with a bit of accounting to beef up infrastructure costs, could be turned into larger amounts that they could do something with. Government grants became what would be called profit centers in industry. Administrators allocate funds, so they never have a hard time convincing faculty of the importance of their priorities. The push was on to get research funding. As time went by, administrators grew increasingly dependent on that overhead. The reward structure for faculty became increasingly intertwined with getting grants.
Grant proposals take time to write. (Imagine doing about 100 complex tax returns in a row, to get a sense of the tedium and attention to detail involved.) The chances for funding of any given proposal are small, so several are done by many faculty every year. Most of that work is inevitably wasted. Further, publications that prove one did something with earlier grants are essential to getting future grants. So publications proliferate. Writing them, submitting them, and revising them also takes time.
All of that is time that cannot be spent on teaching. Status naturally accrues to research as a less humdrum activity than teaching. When in addition to that, promotions and pay raises depend almost entirely on quantity of research output and grants received, teaching falls only slightly above emptying the wastebaskets. A necessary job, but one tries to get someone else to do it.
Much of the teaching is passed down to those who have little other choice. That also fits well with the administration agenda of reducing spending. Teaching assistants, temporary, and part-time faculty are all many times cheaper than tenure-track faculty. This serves to lower the status of teaching still further until academe has become more or less a caste system. Poorly paid people teach far too many classes and are hired only for three months, sometimes a year, at a time. Looking for work every few months takes time. Both the overload and the job hustling reduces the time they can spend on individual students. The result is that nobody can really afford to make individual students a priority. Teaching faculty are just trying to cover their classes when there are only 24 hours in a day, and research faculty are mainly concerned about funding. It’s not that any of these faculty are bad teachers, but either it’s not their real job or they’re overloaded.
Teaching and learning suffer under the current reward system, but so does research even though it’s supposed to be the whole point. The problem is not just that people generate chaff to get the money. It’s more systemic than that. Government-funded research is for those projects without obvious payoff. Studies with a clear potential for profit are rarely basic research and should be funded by the industries that benefit from them. But potentially breakthrough research has a problem, and that is its position out on the cutting edge. Nobody who isn’t themselves on that edge is likely to understand it, and the few who are out there may well be professional rivals. They may be friendly rivals, but they are still less than objective reviewers. So funds are doled out either based on the opinions of those who don’t understand the research or those who could have a stake in undermining it. None of that promotes brilliance, even though the system has sacrificed everything else for excellence in research.
That summary should show how far-reaching the consequences of minor and well-intentioned changes can be. Provide money for unspecified indirect costs as a proportion of the direct research funds, and before you know it, overhead is at 50% and proposals are porked up to cost the taxpayers as much as possible. It is essential to get the reward system right, and to re-evaluate it periodically to see where it’s slipping and to make the necessary changes.
The solution is to realign rewards with desired outcomes, and at least one component of doing that is always to pay for things directly. If you want well-taught students, make teaching the actual job of professors. Make it impossible to hire or promote them on any other basis. Furthermore, the teaching should actually and realistically fit into a 24-hour work week, the same as everyone else’s. Faculty members wouldn’t have to fear turning into teaching drones who are bored to death. They would have as much time as everyone else to pursue interests for which they’re not paid. Professors who are hired partly or entirely to do research should likewise have to meet realistic and explicit expectations. They should be paid to do research. They shouldn’t also be funding building upkeep. Buildings should be paid for by funding for buildings. Money for administration would be assigned using the same independent methods of assessing prices as other government functions. In all aspects, the point is to pay directly for the thing being bought, and not to pay for something else and hope some of it ends up facilitating the actual goal.
Basic research, however, still presents a problem because in important ways the goal isn’t what it seems to be. It’s to study a given topic, of course, but the goal is generally understood as more than that. It’s presumably all about the results. Yet the results of real research are unknown at the beginning. That’s why it’s being done. So trying to pre-judge results by funding interesting conclusions is only about playing it safe. It’s not about new discoveries that, by their very nature, never have foregone conclusions. Trying to fund “promising” research is actually a waste of money rather than a prudent use of it. When it comes to basic research, the government is in the same position as the scholars doing it: they have to give it their all without any preconceived notions, and then when it doesn’t work, they just do it again for a different question. That’s hard enough for scholars to do after years of training. It’s not something governments have ever done, but that’s how it must be done if they actually want to get what they’re paying for.
Another reason to give up on trying to evaluate the research itself is, as I’ve mentioned, that very few people besides the researcher actually know enough about the topic to do that. Trying to limit funds to those proposals the reviewers understand is another way of trying to play it safe, instead of taking the risks that a step into the unknown requires.
Potential payoff might seem like a good way of identifying promising research, but, except for applied research taking small incremental steps, it is not. Once again, this is because there is no way of knowing the outcome of basic research. Sputnik was launched in 1957, but the telcos heavily dependent on satellite technology only made fortunes over four decades later. In medicine, potential payoff can be a bad goal for a different reason. What we want in medicine are the cheapest solutions, not the expensive ones. We want a measles vaccine, not topnotch eye transplant surgery after a bad case of the disease. In many important ways, profits can actually cost us cures. The likely payoff is only worth considering in the broadest social terms and with intangibles weighted far more than money. That’s not what people usually mean by the word “payoff.”
A rather different way of funding research is needed: one that recognizes the inevitable ignorance of both the research and its results. I could see a system working as follows. Some proportion of taxes is dedicated to research based on what is deemed an optimum balance between affordability and fostering social advancement. That pot is divided into a few large sums, more medium ones, and many small ones of a few thousand dollars each.
Short proposals can be sent in by anyone with the requisite academic credentials, whether they work in education or not. Universities would be obligated to provide facilities for funded research as part of their charter. The proposals indicate which funding size class they need. If the money is awarded and not used up, the remainder could be used on further work to develop the idea. The goal is to reward intelligent frugality in research. The proposals outline the idea, but they’re evaluated purely on the soundness of their methodology. Can the proposed methods produce the data the researcher needs? Scholars are good at evaluating methods and what they say about a researcher’s grasp of their field. Methodology review would also serve to filter out proposals for perpetual motion machines and other silliness, if somebody with academic credentials were foolish enough to submit such a thing. To promote objectivity, the reviews need to be double blind, not single blind as they are now. In other words, identifiers on the proposals need to be removed so that both reviewers and proposers are anonymous (or as much so as possible). Part of the evaluation of methods would be whether the proposal asks for a realistic amount of money given the methods involved. The reviewers would be drawn from a pool of qualified people, using similar procedures to other matters requiring review (Government II, Oversight).
If the proposal passes the review for methodological coherence, then it goes into the pool for funding. Funds would be allocated randomly to proposals in the pool until the money ran out. If not funded, the same proposal could be resubmitted without being reviewed again for some period of years, after which it would be checked to see whether it was still relevant. If the proposal is funded, the researcher could be asked to show daily or weekly log books describing work done, but there would be no requirement for publication because there might not be any results worth publishing. Negative results would be posted or publicly logged at a central library so that others would know of them and the same research didn’t continue to be repeated. Receipts for funds spent would be mirrored to the government auditing arm which would be expected to pick up on any irregularities.
As always when I outline specific approaches, I’m only trying to flesh out my meaning. Experience would show whether there were better ways to spread research money as widely, as effectively, and as frugally as possible. Incentives should be aligned with enabling scholars to concentrate on their work instead of extraneous distractions.
Direct payments, whether for teaching, research, buildings, maintenance or administration, are simpler under a single payer plan, when the government funds all of education. Then one source of funds doesn’t need to try financial acrobatics to influence a sector outside its purview.
Humans can keep learning throughout life, but the obvious implication is generally avoided. It’s not just children who are at risk from their impressionable minds. Any suggestion that adults might uncritically absorb messages tends to be met with offended objections. And yet the evidence that adults can learn without wanting to or trying is unequivocal. The entire advertising industry is based on it. I would think that the prospect of messages attaching themselves to one’s brain would worry people. The rational reaction would be to avoid unwanted messages before they could take hold. Denial does nothing but allow the involuntary learning to proceed.
There’s resistance to the rational approach mainly, I think, because of the fear that others might start to take away one’s favorite entertainment. The general idea is, more or less, “It’s none of your business. Don’t tell me what to do.”
In a free society, one where everyone can do anything that doesn’t interfere with the same rights in others, that is indeed true. What you do to your brain is your business. The same rule applies to more tangible drugs.
But that right does end where it affects others, and if enough members of a community learn lies from pervasive background messages, they’ll start to act on them. Lies don’t reflect reality, so actions based on them cause damage, and that will affect everyone. The fact that it’s impossible to draw a line between what’s damaging and what is not, and the fact that narratives are a culture’s soul whether they reflect reality or not, doesn’t change the fact that sustainability depends heavily on reality-based actions.
So, even though there’s no question that it’s a can of worms, societies do have to think about what the prevailing diffuse education is teaching. They need to be at least aware of what’s going on. Living in the comfortable fantasy that it doesn’t matter which stories we tell ourselves hasn’t worked and won’t work. Ironically enough, that attitude is often justified by the equally comfortable fantasy that we know reality … when our grasp of it is mediated by those selfsame stories that supposedly don’t matter.
There are currently three main ways of floating messages to people: ads, entertainment, and news. That includes aspects of new media and social media, which fall into one or more of those categories. How messaging should or can work along those different paths is an open question. In some cases, the answer, or at least a good starting point, seems clear. Consider ads, for instance. Truth in advertising laws and limits on repetitiveness of commercial speech would change ads into something barely recognizable by current standards. Both that and some entertainment related issues were discussed in Free Speech vs. Noise.
However, the point being made there related to preventing a counterfactual din. The point here is the much murkier one of examining what the various messages actually teach.
There’s a justifiable horror of establishing limits measured by what fits in the narrowest minds or by what serves the interests of the powerful few. And yet it beggars belief that any constant message can have no influence. Censorship does nobody any good. But just because thought control by silencing is bad, doesn’t make thought control by repetition good. The issue has to be addressed, although I’m not sure how.
I’ll discuss a few examples of diffuse but highly consistent messages that have a pernicious social effect, and how it may be possible to counterbalance those situations without censorship that silences ideas. Some of the most obvious one-sided messages permeating media are the usefulness of violence, the sexiness of women, and the admiration of tall lean body types.
The narrow range of body types defined as attractive is an interesting example of how the stories we tell ourselves influence the subsequent stories in an increasingly tight spiral. Preference for long, thin women has grown so extreme that for the vast majority of women the only way to meet the ideal is anorexia. Some countries have actually noticed the health costs of anorexic girls, and started making motions toward a better balance. Spain, for instance, began requiring fashion shows to employ less etiolated models.
All that remains is to take that intelligent approach all the way. The images of us that we present to ourselves should reflect us. The cultural expectation needs to be that the people elevated as representative of humanity actually are representative. Across the totality of media, they should reflect the mix in the population. Ads, fashion magazines, videos, and all the rest should all reflect the actual demographics of the populations by gender, race, age, and body type. This doesn’t place an undue burden on casting directors or their equivalent. They’re already incredibly precise and careful in their selections. They just need to reprioritize their criteria. The penalties for not doing so could be to hand over casting to groups that have proven themselves capable of selecting diversity as well as talent. The grounds for “eminent domain” in casting could be a new class of misdemeanors called “bad judgment.”
The one-sided messages about sexiness are a problem because they’re one-sided. By faithfully reflecting the sexism of the wider society in which men have sex and women are sex, the needs of an entire half of the population become invisible. That damages the half who are denied, obviously, and it damages the other half by putting them in an adversarial situation for an activity that’s fundamentally cooperative. If the heart and soul of the activity are avoided, what’s left is obviously going to be a pale shadow of the real thing. Men, too, get far less than they could. And yet, even though the attitudes damage everyone, they strengthen over time because that’s how stories work. The new one has to top the old one or there’s a flat feeling of “been there, done that.” If they’re headed in a good direction, they can get better. If they’re headed in a bad one, they get worse.
The situation up to that point is already damaging, and has already passed beyond the point of being a private matter. But it doesn’t stop there. Sex becomes conflated with rape, as might be expected when it’s construed as a fight. By dint of repetition, rape then becomes a joke, and currently we’re in the realm where anyone, victim or bystander, who doesn’t get the joke is a prude or a spoilsport or both. And at least one source of this brutalization of everyone’s humanity is the inequality at the beginning of the road.
That also points to a possible solution. There’s a way to distinguish sex from dehumanization. Sexual messages, whether they’re relatively subtle in ads or not so subtle in pornography are not damaging when both points of view are equally evident and equally considered. In ads, for instance, men would sometimes be desirable and not necessarily behind the camera whenever sexuality is involved. Women would generally be just humans, as they are in life, and not always sexy. Pornography could actually serve a useful purpose if it taught people what works for women, since that’s clearly far from self-evident to many men. But something like that would have an uphill struggle to even be classed as porn at this point. A rejection of harm would cut out much of what’s now misunderstood as porn, and the requirement to represent women’s own point of view would dump most of the rest. But there might be ways to foster socially beneficial attitudes without instituting a toxic morality police. More on that in a moment.
Pervasive violence in media is generally considered irrelevant to the real world because most people don’t become measurably more violent after partaking. But the most pernicious effect of a constant drumbeat of violence in entertainment is defining it as fun and turning it into something normal. We’re to the point now where reacting to a decapitation (in entertainment) with “Cool!” is cool. The fact that such a thing is supposed to be fun, for some value of the word “fun,” isn’t even considered a symptom of anything, let alone madness. The mentality leaks out of fantasy, which people like to pretend is separated from reality by an impenetrable wall of reason, and is already evident in ordinary life at the extremes. How else to explain the widespread easy acceptance of torture in a country which once wrote the Bill of Rights?
Assuming violence in media is harmless because it doesn’t lead to observable viciousness in most people suffers from another fallacy too. Violence has its social effect not by the actions of most people but by those of a few. It may affect only a tiny minority, but depending on what they do, the human damage could be immense. The point with violence in media is not whether it affects most people, but whether and how it affects anyone.
If violent entertainment leads to, say, increased low-level bullying by a few people it will pass under the scientific radar unless the experimental design is explicitly looking for that. (I’m saying “people” rather than “children” because workplace bullying is no less of a problem than the schoolyard kind. It’s merely different in execution.) Yet the bullying will damage much more than the victims, criminal as that is. It will have a chilling effect on the freedom of all people, who’ll be constrained not to behave in ways that attract bullies and, even worse, not to help the victims out of fear for themselves. That last is a lethal corrosive at any age. I don’t know of any studies that have even tried to measure subtle long term effects. I can’t imagine how you could, given the sea of variables involved.
Repeated messages of violence in entertainment, as entertainment, run counter to everything that makes either a fair society or a sustainable one work. It seems pretty obvious that such messages would need to be counteracted.
I can think of two approaches that might help reduce the lessons violence teaches for real life. One is that the only acceptable victims of it — this is supposed to be entertainment, after all — are machines, such as obvious non-humanoid robots. It shouldn’t be acceptable to define the suffering of any sentient creature, let alone humans, as entertainment. That way, one could still shoot at things, but they would be things. The taboo against harming living, breathing creatures would be part of the message.
The other approach could be an ethos that requires an allegiance to underlying reality. The assumption behind violent entertainment is that violence solves problems. The enemy is gone after being smashed. The question that should be asked is does violence really solve the conflict in question? If no — and there are very few situations where violence works the way intuition expects — then the resolution in the story needs to reflect what happens in the real world. (Yes, those stories will be harder to write.)
All of the remedies to the specific examples discussed involve cultural shifts. It becomes unacceptable to have cookie cutter models or women who could be replaced by rubber dolls with no loss of function. The creative classes can work with those paradigms just as they now manage to make movies about detectives who don’t smoke or blacks who don’t play a banjo. The social function comes in where damaging repetition is identified, brought forward, and by social consensus is taken out of the repertoire. It’s been done before. There is nothing impossible about it.
There is one other lever besides good will and intelligence that can be brought to bear. Whenever there is talk of limiting expression, the objection arises that interfering with artistic expression is a bad thing. There’s a good deal of truth to that. On the other hand, the pattern to most of the objectionable repetition is that it is designed to extract money from people by stimulating their adrenal or other glands. The artistic expression only becomes an issue when the revenue stream is threatened, for instance by a requirement to soften the high their users can expect. It’s never brought out as a reason for lower profits because the creators’ artistic integrity required them to make a less salable product. Real artistic expression seems far less dependent on money than the kind whose main function is pushing a high.
That should point the way to a possible method of suppressing objectionable repetition. When a community decides it’s had enough of violent “fun,” something they could do by vote, or when the courts decide certain kinds of expression run counter to the founding principles of a fair society, it could be illegal to produce it commercially. The whole production and distribution would have to be a volunteer effort. People with a real message will continue trying to get it out under those circumstances. People who are trying to make a quick buck off a rush will quit.
News forms a gray area when considering repeated messages. On one hand, reality may be what’s providing the messaging, in which case a news organization does right to report it. On the other hand, news which is trying to draw in viewers is evidently quite as capable of pandering to the lowest common denominators as any other medium.
I’ve already discussed the likelihood that for-profit news is a logical impossibility. The mission of news organizations has to be reporting truth without fear or favor to the best of their ability. The mission of a for-profit is to do whatever it takes to get the most profit. Those two missions might overlap on rare occasions, but they have nothing to do with each other. Maybe the use of news as an avenue of entertaining excitement will be a thing of the past in sustainable societies with only highminded not-for-profit news organizations.
In case that assumption turns out to be overly optimistic, I want to stress that news programs are more responsible than other outlets, not less, for ensuring that they inform rather than manipulate. They need to guard against not only misinformation on their own side, but also the willingness on the part of their listeners to believe convenient statements. News organizations would be subject to the fact-checking standards in any case. Their role in fostering an informed citizenry is so critical, however, that they should be held to a very high standard in the more nebulous area of general messaging as well. They should not, to take an example at random, spend more time on sports than educating the public about global warming. The elevated standard could be expressed in actual punishments, such as revocation of license, for a persistent pattern of diffuse misinformation.
Not all diffuse education is bad. Useful information can also permeate many channels. Social support for repeated messages should be limited to those which are unequivocally valid statements of fact, such as public health information.
Libraries, physical or virtual, also provide diffuse education. It’s available in whatever quantity or time the user wants it. That would be important for all the information on which a fair, and therefore necessarily transparent, society depends. Transparency provided by diffuse availability of information isn’t reserved only for issues of obvious social significance. There are also, for instance, such apparently mundane matters as transparent and easily available price information which, in the aggregate, is essential for the economic system to work.
I’ve spent some time on diffuse, repeated messages because they’re the dominant avenue for misinformation, and misinformation is not something a sustainable society can afford. However, it’s only dangerous when repeated. If it’s not continual, there’s not much of a problem, so it’s important to keep the response to it proportional. It’s better to err on the side of carelessness than to be so vigilant against bad messages that all speech starts to suffer. It’s only the egregious cases that need action, and then they need carefully considered action that targets them specifically and leaves the rest of the life of the community alone. I’ve tried to give some examples primarily to illustrate what I mean by egregious and what some possible actions against them could be. There may be far more effective methods than those I’ve imagined.
To sum up, education is a vital function. Without good information, equally available to all, and without enough education to understand that information, democracy itself is impossible. A fair system of government is ensuring its own survival when it fulfills its obligations to support education.
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