Saturday, August 29, 2009

My Utopian Idea!

Ever since I was a kid, I've contemplated how human society could function differently, for the better. I've come up with a lot of naive ideas over the years (I'll bet Mathmom remembers what we came up with back in High School) -- which is fine because figuring out why a given solution wouldn't work helps you to hone in on a good solution. I assume many of the rest of you have spent time on the same problem, especially if you like science fiction. I've never liked being limited to the capitalist/communist dichotomy, as though no new possibilities or ideas have flowered over the past half-century -- despite how dramatically things have changed in that amount of time.

I'd like to ask you to pause a few moments (step away from the computer, if necessary) and think about ideas you've had about how society might be different. When you're done, please come back and read my new idea.


OK, here's mine:

All adults get one half-day of education per week for their entire lives.

Here's how it works: Each person takes one course per semester (six months), and the course can be anything at all that could potentially be offered by a university or a community college or even a vocational school. This would include subjects like art, music, and sports (even extreme sports) in addition to standard academic courses. The only restriction would be that you can't take more than three semesters in a row in the same broad subject area (eg. once you take three semesters of sports or three semesters of science, then the next semester you have to study something else). Anyone who employs anyone else would be aware that every employee requires one half-day of release time per week (in the same way that they are now aware that employees must be documented and have social security tax paid on them, etc.).

This came to me while contemplating the current U.S. health insurance reform debates. I think that a good government needs to be "of the people, by the people, for the people" (because rulers and oligarchs tend to see their needs/interests as outweighing others' needs, even when they sincerely believe they're being fair), and a functioning democracy or republic depends on an educated populace.

Education is one of the farthest things from a "zero sum game" there is. If one person gets a lot of it, that takes nothing from the big pot of education that's left for others. If anything, it increases the big pot, because if your friend learns something, she might find it interesting enough to tell you about it, and then you might learn something to and/or feel motivated to learn more on your own.

I'm discouraged to see the trend in the U.S. of viewing education as "every man for himself" and as long as your own kids get some, then screw everybody else. You (and your kids) have to live in the same society with everybody else's kids. (As an aside, I often wonder how much good could be done if all those people who home-school would instead send their kids to public school and then invest that same amount of time that they now spend home-schooling on improving the public school instead.)

In addition to the benefit from the education itself, my plan would have further advantages:

1. Linking the campuses would be a boon to developing viable public transportation. One of the problems with setting up a public transportation grid is that you need to have common destinations (as opposed to having all of the start and end points diffused over a large area). With this system, you just go to whichever campus is nearest to your home or work, and from there take a train to whichever campus offers your class. (Naturally the class itself would be less than half a day, to allow time for transportation.)

2. People would constantly be meeting people outside of their socio-economic-racial-cultural group (and making friends, since they'd be meeting people with common interests), which would diminish racism and classism, helping society to function more harmoniously.

3. The society would be more responsive to changing labor needs. If a given line of work starts becoming obsolete and some other skill is desperately needed, then the change in demand could be swiftly met by a change in the labor supply.

Naturally the biggest drawback to this plan is that the United States of America cannot afford to do this. And that's not to even begin with the political reality (that apparently a big portion of the American public would rather continue to be royally ripped off by the world's most expensive healthcare-payment-bureaucracy -- as long as that bureaucracy will reassure them that nobody will get something for nothing). Unlike health insurance reform, universal socialized adult education would cost a lot more money than it saves. And I'm sure I don't have to review for you what state the U.S. economy and treasury are in.

I'm just saying, if it were possible, what a wonderful world this would be!

Now, you've probably noticed that my plan says nothing about economics or about how to deal with the energy crisis. I have more about energy coming up (from a book I'm currently reading), and as for economics, well, as I said here, I should have taken more courses in economic theory. (Maybe I could, if only my utopian fantasy were a reality!) In other words, I'm open to suggestions.


Craig said...

I'd love to live in that world.

Anonymous said...

Are you suggesting that everyone would be required to take a class? If not, then employers might discriminate against those who choose to make use of this benefit. The poor who need the education the most would have the least power to actually take classes. They might opt to take another job instead.

If people are required to take classes, then you flood the education system with people who would rather be somewhere else. This degrades the quality of higher education which owes some of its high quality to its non-compulsory nature.

Maybe if you mandated a maximum 36 hour work week (including salaried employees?) in combination with a voluntary education benefit.

Also, regarding your homeschooling aside, I doubt that it would make much difference. We're homeschoolers and circulate among homeschoolers. The truth is that most of us are among a socioeconomic class that would allow our children to go to good public schools by affording homes in the neighborhoods zoned for those schools. These schools don't need much help because they have a reasonable amount of money and parental participation.

However, I live where English is the second language of 80% of the children. The schools around here are doing poorly for a number of reasons. One is because teaching ESL is a financial and academic burden. The students start behind from the beginning. They also lack the money that schools in other neighborhoods receive. They get the inexperienced teachers. And the parents have to work hard to pay the bills. The parents don't have as much time to help with education.

There's not a lot of homeschoolers around our neighborhood. I doubt that they would make up the difference created by the class gap.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Craig!!!

Hey Jonathan!!!

As I said above, it would not be optional. In the same way that employers would discriminate against workers who want their employers to pay social security tax for their employment, we avoid this problem by making it a requirement for all employment.

Regarding whether the people are required to attend classes: ultimately they could opt to sit way in the back of some class or take "rocks for jocks" or something, but honestly I think you're strongly underestimating people. If you give a big enough range of options, most people will find something they'd like to learn about. This is why I suggest allowing not-exactly-academic subjects, perhaps gardening or dance. Even if it's not an academic subject, they're still edifying themselves and improving their quality of life. You'd have to be pretty cynical about humans to think that a big percentage of people don't have anything at all they'd like to learn, given the opportunity. I'm not talking about immature kids here, I'm talking about giving grown-ups the opportunity of exploring their interests.

Regarding homeschooling: I understand that everyone has different challenges and that we all have hard decisions to make. I understand that you can't put idealism above what's best for your own kids. However, I think that if you have the opportunity to have your children educated by qualified professionals with extensive experience in child development, why wouldn't you want this for your children? And if you (and your neighbors) don't have that opportunity, then that's a problem that one might be concerned about solving rather than being satisfied with a workaround.

Anonymous said...

You may have a point if you allow any class to count, but the compulsory public education system is a great demonstration that forcing someone to learn is the best way to kill their desire to learn. I'm not so much cynical as listening to what history has shown us.

Regarding homeschooling, let's remember that public education is the workaround, not homeschooling. In the United States, free public elementary education wasn't available to all children until circa 1900. Public education is an ongoing experiment intended to help poor children receive an education.

Until public education, the poor received little or no education, and the wealthy were educated at home or in private schools.

Don't misunderstand. I want to help the public education system succeed. I just don't think sacrificing my children to the beast would really help.

There's only so much a few parents can do in the schools of a working class neighborhood. We can't get the parents better paying jobs so they can afford to spend more time on their child's education. And we certainly can't make up for the funding gap between rich and poor schools by ourselves.

And again, from my experience, the majority of homeschoolers live in neighborhoods with functional public schools, so asking them to pitch in only improves already good school.

The causes of the deficiencies of the public education system are rooted in the socioeconomics that have divided rich from poor forever. The children of rich parents can still get a decent education in public schools. The children of the poor receive an education, which is a step up from where we've been, but it's not a great education, and, regrettably, it hasn't narrowed the gap between rich and poor or increased social mobility much.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that last post's from me. Blogger and Firefox seem to be be having a tiff. (Jonathan, in case it happens again.)

angryyoungwoman said...

I want that Utopia. A lot.

I do wonder: What about people who aren't employed (STAHMs, people who are disabled, retired people)? Are they still allowed to take these weekly classes? If they have more time, are they allowed to take more classes?

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Jonathan!!!

The whole idea that "public education can't possibly work on principle" is incredibly America-centric. You want America to continue to fall behind other countries in terms of critical items like having an educated populace? Then continue to bury your head in American soil and keep trying to prove why "It's impossible!"

Hey AngryYoungWoman!!!

Thanks!!! I thought about this point, and I'm leaning towards saying that people wouldn't get additional free classes because the materials, facilities, and teachers really are expensive. However, one possibility would be that people with extra time who have a certain skill level in various subjects could teach or assist the teacher in beginner level courses. It would be a little like how graduate schools work with universities. Also, people would be allowed to pay for additional courses.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to play the pragmatist to your Utopian (a fly in the ointment comes to mind), but I'm not saying good public education is impossible. I'm just saying it has problems and limitations.

Hell, I work at a public institution of higher education and have a piece of paper on my cube wall that says, "The foundation of every state is the education of its youth."

mathmom said...

The problem with all utopian dreams is that it is incredibly easy to come up with ideas why it won't work. What needs to happen is for someone to say, Well, I know you don't think it will work, but let's try it anyway.

I was thinking about that as I was listening to a story about the Harlem Children's Zone
One man had a dream about education and community in his neighborhood, and implemented his dream in 100 blocks in Harlem. It's quite inspiring, and seems to be doing what he dreamed.

Of course, there are other questions that would need to be answered before implemation: does research really bear out improvement that seems evident anecdotally? Is this something that could be scaled up indefinitely? Is this something government could implement more efficiently than private organizations? But without the improbable dreams, we would likely not come up with the practical solutions either.

Holly said...

as someone who is currently taking advantage of free or almost free offerings of adult education in her community, I LOVE your idea.

the compulsory public education system is a great demonstration that forcing someone to learn is the best way to kill their desire to learn.

Actually, our education proves the opposite, since most people stay in it, graduate, and go on to college. And having taught both high school and college, I can say that most students actually do want to learn--just maybe not every subject.

Anonymous said...

Don't think of me as offering reasons it shouldn't be done. I think of my objections to the idea as hurdles that must be cleared in order for it to be successful. When Utopian ideas fail, it often seems that the grandeur of the vision has blinded its followers to the road necessary to get there.

I think a pertinent example is the failure of the Soviet revolution. It began with a grand vision of a workers' collective, but it failed to achieve that goal because (among other reasons) it failed to account for human nature. It failed to realize that communist leaders will be just as tempted to abuse power as other leaders. It also failed to realize that when people are forced to work under a communist system, there is very little incentive for the average person to do work hard.

Jonathan Blake said...

I forgot to add, when I criticized the public education system for killing the desire to learn, I meant that people coming out of the system have often lost their thirst to actually learn.

High school graduation and college attendance can be poor surrogates for a desire to learn. People often attend school because they want to get a good job and make good money. After they complete a class, they forget what they've learned because they didn't want to learn it and because they won't use the knowledge in the future. This is born out by all those embarrassing surveys that show how ignorant the average high school graduate is.

So yes, we succeed in graduating most high school students, but by the time we've churned them through the system, I imagine most of them think of education as a means to a good job, not something to be enjoyed.

Perhaps this is about my libertarian streak rebelling at the thought of going through a lifetime of government mandated education. I doubt that I'll be the only one who feels that way.

Holly said...

Don't think of me as offering reasons it shouldn't be done.

don't confuse bad teaching with individuals' dislike of learning.

As I've said, I've been a teacher. For years. I've seen lots of students, in lots of different courses, at lots of different levels--including relief society. There's something magical that happens when you actually succeed in making an interesting point (yes, even in RS), and students learn either a skill or an idea they didn't have before. You can see the engagement and aliveness in their faces. It's really quite remarkable, when 95% of the students in a classroom are looking at you, focused intently on processing what you're saying. It's pretty clear evidence that Aristotle was right: "To be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of humanity, however small their capacity for it."

When Utopian ideas fail, it often seems that the grandeur of the vision has blinded its followers to the road necessary to get there.

At what point do we admit that the utopian vision of democracy--that average citizens are wise enough to recognize and for vote for their individual and collective best interest, and to elect representatives who will carry it out--is a huge failure? Sure, the vision was grand, but the current turmoil in our country and what seems to be its impending collapse certainly suggests that it's a failure, and that we haven't been realistic about the steps necessary to make it work in a really sustained way. Monarchy, after all, has lasted much longer than democracy.

Aerin said...

Holly - I agree that the majority of students in public education graduate from high school, but do a majority go on to college? I know from my community growing up, the percentage of kids from my high school who went on to some college was high (around 80%), but I didn't think it was that way everywhere in the states. Particularly in less affluent communities.

I agree that most people have a desire to learn - if nothing else about something like changing the oil in their car or fixing their sink. Or how to win at texas hold 'em (but that may not be necessarily great for society). The free internet usage classes at my local library are still going strong (and from my understanding) still well attended.

I also like the idea that learning is a lifetime pursuit - not something just left to high school/college.

It is true that forcing someone to do something usually doesn't work very well. Yet I agree that everyone has at least one thing (or multiple things) that inspire/inspires them - or that they would like to learn more about. And I don't usually make those kinds of broad, generalized statements.

Holly said...

Aerin--I don't have exact statistics, so you might be right that it's not a simple majority of students who go on to college. It's pretty high, though.

I agree with you that almost everyone has something they'd like to learn more about, and I like chanson's idea of making that easier.

In the past decade, I've taken classes on yoga, swing dance, belly dance, knitting socks, and various computer skills.

The local community college offers adult courses in (just for starters) basic web design, dog training for older dogs, belly dancing, digital photography & advanced retouching techniques, selling your house without a realtor, dealing with the bureaucracy involved in adopting a child, computer skills for seniors, and the art & science of heraldry.

Out of curiosity, when I called to register for a class myself, I asked if most of these usually fill up; I was told that yes, they usually do.

All of which suggests to me that making it easier for people to take courses like these, and making it more lucrative for institutions to offer them, would be a good idea.

Also, if you think about it, Mormons already have a lifelong education requirement, which happens every Sunday for three hours. If you want an example of how NOT to get people excited about lifelong learning, check out the way Sunday school is handled in most wards. And yet, boring as it is, people still go--many for their whole lives.

And, fyi, Sunday school originally started in 18th century England as free education for boys who were too busy working all Monday through Saturday to learn to read. It was INCREDIBLY popular, quite successful, and a predecessor to that great socialist innovation, free public education.

Anonymous said...

Democracy has failed to live up to the original ideals, and will probably continue to fail for as long as it's run by human beings. But it hasn't failed to offer something valuable.

Here's how I think this idea would have a chance of working, especially in the individualistic US. 1) Reduce the typical work week to 36 hours to be spread over no more than 4.5 days. 2) Offer a lifetime credit to take one class at a time from an approved list of classes (lest the taxpayers pay for T&A 101 at the local strip joint). 3) Let the people decide what to do with 1) and 2).

Holly said...

it hasn't failed to offer something valuable.

that's true of most things.

C. L. Hanson said...

I'd just like to start with a few remarks about the idea that classes would be in some way harmed by people who don't want to participate.

First off, although we would need to make it mandatory that employers allow employees time off for this, there is no reason to make attendance mandatory, particularly given the fact that many classes would likely be given via Internet for people who live in isolated areas. As with any other type of adult education classes, the only penalty for not doing well is that you fail to learn something and you fail to earn whatever certification may be offered by the class.

If many people voluntarily choose not to get anything out of this program, it ultimately would make the program a lot cheaper, with more resources (and teacher attention) for those who want to participate. A bigger problem would be the opposite, eg. everybody wants to sign up for horseback riding. Some courses that require expensive infrastructure would have to allotted by waiting list. Many other courses that would undoubtedly be popular such as "History of the Civil War" or ESL or foreign languages are easy to expand according to demand.

In my experience, getting to take a class (when you would normally be working) is a perk that employees have to negotiate for. Continuing education in your own field can help you advance your career by increasing your skill set. The employer also reaps the benefits in terms of both increased morale and a more skilled workforce, which is why many employers will pay for continuing education for their employees. For example, have a look at what I wrote about the in-house software testing certification course that my last employer organized. Similarly, an earlier employer (in France) brought in teachers to teach English and French (as a second language) on company time. These courses were organized at the request of the employee advocate organization within the company.

Actually, one of the main reasons why I suggested a "no more than three semesters in a row in the same subject area" rule was to avoid the problem of employers pressuring their employees to use up all of their free education on stuff that's relevant to their job.

C. L. Hanson said...

Now I'd like to take a short aside to discuss the tangent regarding American public education (for young people):

Unlike adult education, child/youth education has a babysitting role in addition to the task of educating the kids. This is true across the board (public or private, American or foreign) the kids are required to be physically present in class because their parents and/or the state insist that they be there (except in places where children are required to work instead). Some of the children don't want to be there, and unfortunately this can cause problems if teachers are required to spend a lot of teaching time on discipline. A school that is run well by competent administrators and teachers should be able to handle this challenge along with the other challenges of teaching kids.

In the U.S., however, there's an unfortunate dynamic in which the public schools vary in quality dramatically from one community to the next, creating a vicious cycle as where bad schools get worse -- as parents who have an interest in their kids' education and who have the means to get their kids out of a poor school will do it. I discussed this problem in my post European Dream, so I don't want to spend too much time belaboring it here. I'll just add that -- as an American -- I'm not happy to see so many Americans giving up so easily on the idea that America is and can be a land of opportunity. If the principle of the thing isn't enough to motivate people to put some serious effort in to thinking about how we can do right by all of our society's kids, I'll put it in practical terms instead: giving kids real educational opportunities when they're young is a whole lot cheaper than supporting than supporting them through the prison system later.

C. L. Hanson said...

Now, on to individual comments!

Hey Mathmom!!!

I'd kind of been hoping that you'd say a few words about the Utopian island we'd worked out in High School. It was an interesting learning experience. :D

I agree that experimenting with various ideas is a big part of problem solving.

Hey Jonathan!!!

I completely agree with your point about the Soviet system failing to take into account human nature in terms of concentration of power, among other things.

One interesting thing I noticed when reading The Jungle was that some theorists had come up with some clever ideas about how society might be different (explained in the last couple of chapters), and this first set of off-the-cuff ideas practically seemed to have gotten enshrined in stone for some reason. To this day there exist people who argue in favor of a "dictatorship of the proletariat." That was an interesting idea before anyone tried it, but (as I explained in the commies and me), I'm frustrated by how little progress has been made since the cold war in the realm of social/political ideas. Most Americans have unfortunately decided that the lesson of the fall of the Soviet Union is that private interests are the most efficient providers of every type of goods and services a society needs. This leads to incredibly simplistic binary thinking (eg. every problem has a right-American-capitalist solution and a wrong-Russian-communist solution) which is a huge stumbling block to analyzing and addressing complex problems.

Hey Holly and Aerin!!!

Excellent points. Your examples of courses that adults take (on their own time and on their own dime) are exactly what I'm talking about.

I especially like your point (Holly) about dismissing representative democracy as having failed. That is an excellent comparison. Even if there are serious challenges to both democracy and public education, that doesn't mean we should give up and decide that doing nothing is a pragmatic solution. Let's analyze the problems out there and brainstorm about how they might be solved. Naturally, that's the whole point of this post. :D

Allan said...

The current health-care "debate" reminds me of how willfully and militantly ignorant most people are. They honestly seem more concerned with hanging onto their beliefs than to actually confronting facts and information that might conflict with their preconceived notions.

In Utah it would be interesting to see how such a system would be used to fund church seminaries and institutes...

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Allan!!!

The question of religious and other supernatural instruction would naturally have to be addressed. I think it can be handled in the same stroke with Jonathan's contention that some would see this free education as limiting their freedom:

The once-weekly adult courses would have to be on subjects that have some objectively-verifiable basis in order to qualify for funding. My key example would be chiropractic: it would be OK to offer a class on how to make someone's spine more comfortable by cracking it, but it would not be OK to offer a class on how to use chiropractic techniques to cure cancer unless you have some reasonable evidence that it works. Similarly, there would be classes on the literature of the Bible and the history of how and when it was written, but not on how to use texts or divination to determine the future or the will of God. Same for teaching the cultural history surrounding Tarot cards or Astrology. A board would determine which courses pass muster, much like accreditation today.

However, people would have the option to use their free educational hour per week to do independent study or to take a non-accredited course. Taking the time off as a free study period is the one selection that wouldn't require you to choose a new subject area after three semesters of study in one subject area. When you choose to take nothing instead of getting free education, then you're totally on the honor system to use the time to edify yourself in some way. Or you can protest the program by deliberately avoiding edifying yourself during that time.