Dumbing Down the World

Public education has been a slowly degenerating disaster throughout the West, and now it seems we’re exporting it to the rest.

At a United Nations meeting 15 years ago, the world’s governments agreed on the goal of enrolling every child on the planet in primary schooling by this year.

Indeed, they have nearly succeeded, with 2014’s reports indicating that 90 percent of children in developing regions now attend primary school. Presumably, the numbers for developed countries are above 95 percent.

But strangely, this lofty plan did not say anything about the quality of the schooling into which we have now driven more than 9 out of every 10 human children; the whole idea is to get children into government-approved classrooms, apparently regardless of what happens there.

The reports of UN agencies like Education for All (EFA) are full of ideas on how to get kids to go to school in developing countries: making education entirely taxpayer funded (commonly by taxpayers from richer countries), providing free medication or food to students who show up, or even just paying cash to the parents in return for kids’ attendance.

But are the pupils who spend more time at these schools actually learning more as a result? Has the goal of putting more kids into classrooms actually led to more kids getting a proper education? MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel reports, “Several programs which have raised participation, from providing worm medicine to free meals, show no evidence that children are learning more as a result.”

And EFA’s Fast Track Initiative admits, “In nearly all developing countries the levels of learning achievement are shockingly low.… In many low-income countries students learn virtually nothing and end up functionally illiterate.”

In fact, the situation is so bad that Jameel says one area to be improved is “more regular attendance of teachers.”

A crucial fallacy

The international education agencies seem to have been duped by what Austro-libertarian Murray Rothbard calls “a crucial fallacy … confusion between formal schooling and education in general.”

Promising to educate every child in every culture through primary schooling is a bit like promising to clothe every child in every climate by giving them a parka.

In fact, until recently, nearly all children learned the important skills of life largely outside of schools, through observing and joining in with the activities of adults. Rothbard writes with respect to American education, “Education is a lifelong process of learning, and learning takes place not only in school, but in all areas of life. When the child plays, or listens to parents or friends, or reads a newspaper, or works at a job, he or she is becoming educated.”

All the medicine handouts and free school lunches EFA proposes are attempts to offset the direct economic opportunity cost of the child spending a day at school instead of working on the farm or in a factory. While these handouts do take into account the child’s economic contribution to the family’s labor, what about that labor’s educational contribution to the child? What about the educational opportunity cost?

If students in many schools are learning very little and graduating “functionally illiterate,” if attendance doesn’t actually produce real education, and if teachers sometimes don’t even bother to show up, perhaps the parents and children feel that they would learn more outside the schools than in.

The presence of this educational opportunity cost may help explain why, despite all the subsidies and bonuses meant to drive kids into classrooms, the 2014 report on this goal laments, “high dropout rates [of children] remain an impediment to universal primary education.”

The kids are going into school, they and their families are seeing the results, and they and their families are deciding they are better off elsewhere.

But sadly, this important educational opportunity cost doesn’t seem to be on the global pedagogical philanthropists’ radar. Jameel says only that “there is no consensus on why so many poor children don’t attend school, or the best way to increase participation. If children’s labor is crucial to their family’s welfare … it may prove very difficult to attract more children to school.”

There is no mention of any learning that might happen while the child is outside the classroom.

For the moment, let us grant this assumption: Only schooling is education. No learning happens outside of schools.

Under this assumption, not only do children’s minds profit nothing from a day spent at home or in the bush, but most of the parents of children in the developing world are themselves totally un-“educated” — benighted savages whose heads are filled with cobwebs.

Thus, for our benevolent pedagogical overlords, it could make sense to get those kids away from their parents and into schools as soon as possible, even if, as EFA acknowledges, “in some countries nearly every aspect of the schooling system is seriously deficient — infrastructure, teaching materials, teacher availability and qualifications, lack of student assessments and lack of incentives for improving learning outcomes.”

Furthermore, in many poorer countries, the office jobs (the only ones for which schooling is actually required) are nearly all government and international NGO jobs. That’s because these countries have not (or at least not yet) developed a strong market demand for literate and numerate workers. So those kids who do succeed in school end up moving to the capital and writing reports on the importance of international funding for schools.

The kids who do not do well in school go back home to the farms or the factories, having spent years of their lives learning, in some cases, “virtually nothing.” But since the bureaucrats seem to believe that the traditional cultures the children might have spent those years immersed in held no knowledge anyway, this result might not be seen as much of a loss.

Setting young minds free

No doubt, some kids who would profit from schooling are being kept out of it by very bad things: wars, forced prostitution, and outright poverty. EFA’s programs to make schooling more accessible could have a huge positive impact on these children’s lives.

But instead of focusing on gimmicks to get kids into the classes governments want to teach, educators should focus on materials that kids want to learn — or that their parents are willing to invest in.

James Tooley has reported on the existence of an entire underground economy of black- and gray-market private schools in the slums of India and Kenya. Since these schools either hide themselves from the local authorities (to avoid being shut down) or are hidden by the local authorities from the national and international authorities (to avoid embarrassing the public schools), it’s difficult to know how prevalent they are.

What is clear is that these dirt-cheap private schools are operating with a profit motive under serious competition. Students’ parents often have to choose whether to pay for a loaf of bread or a day in school. How good would your kid’s school have to be for you to pay for it under those circumstances?

Meanwhile, these schools’ profits are being siphoned off in bribes to the local inspectors.

We could unleash these not-quite-legal schools from their government shackles by breaking the chain between government and education. Ending the drive for compulsory, state-run, subsidized schooling would, in Rothbard’s words, “give children their head” and let them seek out “a genuine and truly free education, both in and out of formal schools.”


This article was originally published in the Freeman online, and is based on an older article written for Mises Daily. Many thanks to Max Borders and BK Marcus for the opportunity to publish in the Freeman, and to Dan Sanchez for the opportunity to publish in the Mises Daily during his tenure.

Privilege in the Classroom

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I just finished teaching my intro anthropology course on Thursday afternoon. At the end, the students heartily applauded me.

Every year, between 30% and 100% of my students are indigenous women (I’m never totally sure, because I don’t take a survey, and random chromosomal sorting and centuries-long interbreeding mean that you can be half Ojibwa and look like Cameron Diaz): Cree, Ojibwa, Dakota, Metis — you name it.

My indigenous students are extremely diverse intellectually and culturally. Some of them grew up telling their friends they were Italian in the hopes of avoiding getting called a dirty Indian. Some of them grew up declaring, loud and proud, who they are. Some of them grew up thinking they were of pure French stock, and only later found out the dirty family secret that they were Metis.

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Some of them are energetically engaged in shamanic rituals. Some of them are fiercely Christian. Some are quiet atheists.

What my students were applauding was that I’d kept a strict classroom environment (so the douchey cellphone-wielding students don’t interrupt us), provided a welcoming discussion environment (so the dedicated students can engage verbally in the class), provided clear evaluation criteria that incentivize learning, entertained them with jokes and anecdotes, and helped them understand interesting phenomena in human nature and their lives.

What I find is that my indigenous students (and everyone else) are fascinated and empowered by my course if I drop hints along the way explaining how their own experience and their family’s history of anarchic indigenous traditions, recent domination by the state, discrimination by everyday racists (and very often, internal cultural breakdown and internalized, self-hating racism) connects to broader phenomena of human nature and cultural diversity.

Throughout the course, I make sure to cover a few cultures that have similar experiences of anarchic tradition and colonial oppression. There are some striking similarities with the once-nomadic Ju/’hoan of southern Africa, for instance.

And when my students eventually start raising their hands to say “Hey, that’s just like on the Indian reserve I grew up on!” Or “Is that like what happened in Canada to the Aboriginal people?” I encourage them enthusiastically: “Yes, that’s exactly right!” By the end of the class, when we actually do talk a bit about North American indigenous cultures, these students are confident and curious enough to engage fully and bring their personal knowledge to bear.

I developed this technique based on the good things I learned from the privilege-oriented leftists I went to grad school with. Actual aggression (especially by states and state-backed corporations) against the indigenous people is one layer of the problem. Hostile racism and other douchey attitudes (especially by state officials and rightists) are another layer. But there’s a subtle, third layer, which is patronizing racism (especially by academics and leftists: “Oh your people are so in tune with nature! So egalitarian!”) and the assumption that only experts have the ability to explain “exotic” cultures. Layers 2 and 3 can be stupefying and degrading even when they aren’t violent.

So if the professor goes into the classroom and (as some of my colleagues do) starts talking right away about how evil Western cultures are and how dignified and beautiful indigenous cultures are, the students can fall prey to that third layer. They never develop their own voice and vision.

If you go in and lay down a bunch of conclusions and facts to memorize for the test, the students never get the incentive do their own intellectual work of asking how their own individual lives connect to the broader themes of academic study. Maybe they adopt the prevalent academic interpretation (capitalism BAD!). Maybe they just shut up and don’t share their vision with the class because they know it’s not “what the teacher wants to hear.” Or maybe they simply decide that they must not really know what their own life means.

So instead, I like to drop some breadcrumbs and let the students do the detective work.

Yes, yes, yes, “privilege” is all around us. And yes, yes, yes, I’m a white dude privileged to teach in this environment. But what makes my classes work, for me and my students, is not some guilt-ridden confession session about privilege, nor some moralizing lessons from me, lecturing them on how valid their life experience is, and lecturing the white students on how privileged they are. Instead, what works is to set up the incentives for my students to study hard and talk lots, and then to set up the clues so they can do the work of connecting the dots on their own.

Furthermore, “privilege” guilt sessions and “antiracist” moralizing have a very high rate of turning off the white folk in class, because they feel (somewhat rightly) that they’re being attacked. So, 9 times out of 10, they lash out or dumb down their own voices and visions. But when I drop the breadcrumbs, the white students can connect the dots too. And because I use fun, discussion-based classes, they can discuss the evidence and discover the truth step by step along with their indigenous peers. Fun is a better motivator of learning than guilt.

I do hope that my teaching leads in the long run to some liberation in the NAP sense. But I am certain it leads to some liberation in the psychological sense of shaking off the subtle, sneaky, racist, collectivist assumptions that tend to sneak into classrooms.

***

Originally published at Liberty.me.

We Can’t Bomb Our Way to Sanity

With Canada still reeling from last week’s unprecedented terror attacks, can we make ourselves safe from the threat of “radicalized” Muslims?

It is now pretty clear that both of Canada’s two terrorist attackers last week were mentally disturbed men. Their acts of violence were not caused by a religion the police can censor or a terrorist organization the military can bomb.

These two men weren’t “radicalized.” They were losing their minds.

Wednesday’s Parliament Hill attacker, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was a drug addict who once robbed a McDonald’s in the hope that he could “get to jail to atone for his sins and get clean from a crack addiction.”

In other words, this man suffered mental torment. He decided that by attacking others, he could force them into a response that would cleanse his guilt and silence his troubled mind. When getting locked in a cage didn’t do the trick, Zehaf-Bibeau decided to up the ante and get himself killed.

Monday’s hit-and-run attacker, Martin Couture-Rouleau, apparently underwent a radical personality change two years ago. He lost his car wash business and became alienated from his friends, his father, and his wife. Only later did he convert to Islam, start talking to his horrified friends and family about the redemptive power of suicide terrorism, and then run over two soldiers with his car.

At the time of his car attack, his wife was seeking sole custody of their child because of the changes in her husband’s behavior.

This was not a functional Muslim man who decided to take up arms because he saw some beheading video on YouTube. He was a superficial convert dealing with, at the very least, some serious emotional changes and relationship problems.

The kind of personality transformation Couture-Rouleau apparently underwent seems to be consistent with the onset of schizophrenia, which usually happens in a man’s early 20s. Couture-Rouleau would have been 23 when the changes started.

These men were not good Muslims on the accepted path of proper conduct in their faith communities. Couture-Rouleau’s imam had been meeting with him in an attempt to talk him out of his interest in acts of violence. Zehaf-Bibeau had recently been kicked out of a mosque in British Columbia for his erratic, drug-induced behavior.

These were unstable men living with intense mental and emotional turmoil.

From the point of view of the mentally disturbed person seeking to end his psychological suffering, authentic religious devotion has a downside: you have to keep at it day after day. You pray, you work, and you still have to face your inner demons every morning and every night.

Suicidal violence has the advantage that you only have to do it once.

That these recent attacks have more to do with insanity than with Islam or ISIS may not be convenient for Western governments. It does not provide a shadowy supervillain against whom to defend ourselves. It provides no outlet for the Western public’s fear and anger, and it provides no justification for war. We cannot bomb our way to sanity.

This fact is also not advantageous for ISIS propagandists, who would prefer to congratulate Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau as holy warriors rather than express sympathy for them as mentally ill.

But there’s a plus side for those who prefer peace. The mental instability of last week’s two Canadian terrorists is a reminder of why suicide terrorists are really not that dangerous. The desperate people who usually carry out these attacks are likely not capable of the kind of delicate, slow-moving, secret operation required to set off a dirty bomb or a biological weapon in a Western city.

They have what Ludwig von Mises would call a high “time preference.” They want to end their own suffering and they want to end it now.

These terrorists (if we want to use that word for such tormented souls as Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau) were not actually trying to achieve mass casualties. They were trying to end their own pain and shame.

Suicidal violence with a hastily adopted patina of Islam was just the rope they chose to hang themselves with.

***

Originally published in Anything Peaceful.

Canadian Vengeance

This is a sad day in Canada, presaging even sadder ones to come.

Today, an as-yet-unidentified man shot a soldier near Parliament Hill, and then rushed further, armed and aggressive, into the halls of Canadian government. He was then shot and killed himself.

Two days ago, another man—a recent and very superficial convert to Islam—rammed and killed another Canadian soldier with his car.

I do not know the real political affiliations of either of the attackers, but clearly among their personal intentions we can list the intent to commit suicide. You don’t expect to survive if you kill a soldier and then, by rushing into the seat of government, practically guarantee hero status for whoever shoots you.

In other words, both of these men sought a way out of this mortal coil, and decided that the best and most dignified way to get out would be to go on a killing spree against strangers in uniform until someone else killed them in return.

Whether or not these attackers were in any way authentically associated with ISIS or Muslim terrorism, politicians, newspeople, and the common man at his dinner table will associate them with it. The steady spread of plausible, self-confirming rumour about the evil of Islam will grow and accelerate.

Like all acts of Muslim-branded terrorism hitherto committed on North American soil, although the casualties are numerically miniscule, the symbols are profound.

Because the terrorists attacked soldiers and politicians, the very embodiments of Canadians’ self-identification with the state, Canadians at large will feel that the terrorists have attacked them personally. Canadians will feel frightened and vengeful. We will find it psychologically very easy to dehumanize Muslims and Middle-Easterners. And we will feel more ready to kill them.

This is only one of the early incidents in a long and self-perpetuating cycle of vengeance, quasi-racist and quasi-religious xenophobia on both sides, and death, death, death for everyone.

Canadian politicians will shake their fists at the shadowy foe, and promise to send more brave Canadian soldiers, and especially more nice, clean bombs to go and kill the enemy.

Even if the enemy (ISIS? Militant Islam? Middle-Eastern sexist violence?) could be well-defined, when those bombs fall, they will kill and maim noncombatants, innocents, and children too.

Then the vengeful victims and their kin and those who feel some symbolic self-identification with them will cry out for more murdering.

And some new mentally unstable Canadian will adopt their cries for vengeance as a way to escape his own muddled life in a sudden act of purifying suicidal glory. And that mentally unstable fellow (almost always, it is a man) will kill some more Canadians, numerically insignificant but symbolically profound.

Killing some more of those Canadians will let you escape your life with glory, they say to their audience on Twitter and YouTube. Killing some more of those Arabs will bring peace to us and them, we whisper to our children as we tuck them into bed.

In the spiral of bloodshed into which we are now descending, the Canadian public at large may succumb to historically illiterate self-congratulatory neoliberalism (“We just have to go over there, bomb those sexists, and educate some girls; and then then they’ll all be ready for the gift of democracy.”) Or the public may succumb to implicitly genocidal self-congratulatory neoconservatism (“We just have to kill the bad guys until there aren’t any more of them, and then the Middle-East will be safe again and send us their oil in return for the gift of democracy.”)

Either way, if collectivist violence continues to be accepted as a wise and honorable pursuit, the blood will flow until the sands of time blot it over with some new catastrophe.

There is, as far as I know, only one hope for peace. And that is the humble recognition that other humans are people too — not nations we can rescue or demons we can destroy. Just people.

Both of this week’s amateur terrorists are dead. We can exact no further vengeance upon them for the fear they have struck in our hearts by attacking our symbols. If the politicians want (and they probably do), they can issue orders to have some more Canadian people kill some more Syrian or Iraqi or Turkish people. But that cannot resurrect our dead or erase our fears or refute their religions or save their nations.

It can just kill more people.

A decade ago, when I marched along with thousands in the protests against the Iraq War (2003 edition), I wept in the beauty of our songs (“Give Peace a Chance”). I laughed with the cleverness of our placards (“Who Would Jesus Bomb?”)

This year, weary and engaged more in fatherhood than in politics, I did not march to protest Canada’s involvement in the latest vaguely defined bombing of Middle-Easterners.

And this morning, I have no tears or laughter. I have only sadness and sympathy for all those people who will wave the flag of a nation or a religion and kill other people, and die themselves.

***

Image courtesy of the National Post. More details certain to be forthcoming.

Also posted on Liberty.me.

 

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