Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Education Corporation

I have work experience in both the private and public sector, and have noticed a fair bit of commonality between the two.  This is not surprising, as no matter what kind of work you are involved in, no matter where the funding is coming from, there is a job to be done. 
I worked at a space engineering corporation in the private sector for a few years.  Like any corporation, the whole point of its existence is to make money, and thus the whole function of the worker at the end of the day is to contribute to that cause.  This is the fundamental reason why I could not stay in the private sector; the capital driven corporate culture does not propel me out of bed in the morning.  My reaction was not extreme disgust, but rather, apathy for the cause.  How much does money drive corporations?  It is illegal for a CEO of an American corporation to make a decision that could reduce its shareholder’s share value.  Illegal! 

If a CEO wishes to pursue an environmental cause in the name of his oil company, he could be sued for his efforts, as the move could be seen as a waste of capital.  As a lemming working on the ground floor, the work environment felt rather backwards.  If the only goal is to make money, you may succeed, or you may fail.  If your goal is to do good work, make a good, useful product, have a positive impact on the world, you will likely succeed in that, and derive profits as a natural consequence.  Turning the whole work culture onto its side in this way amounts to eliminating the fear culture.  Money as a motivator is simply a fear mechanism in the workplace.
I currently work at a public institution; a college where I teach Physics to sometimes eager young minds.  My measure of success now is “Did my students absorb the intended content of the course?”  Now, I feel motivated to get out of bed; teaching is a rewarding job in this way.  As I am motivated by fear to a much lesser extent, I am excited to do good work, and success is arrived at in a natural, unforced way.  My students are not as lucky as me.
I was a student for umpteen years, and am thus qualified to comment on the culture of the education system.  It is in large part, a culture of fear.  The currency in the school system is not money, it is marks.  The vast majority of students who enter my class have a goal, but it is most certainly not to learn.  Their goal is a number.  This number, if high enough will allow them to pass the course and never take it again.  Other more ambitious students strive for an even higher number, which may allow them to pursue studies in a field that makes them lots of money later.  Do good marks lead to good money?  I suppose it is possible.  In the first class of a given course I offer the following advice to my students:
“If your goal in this course is to get a certain mark, you may succeed in doing so, or you may not.  In the process you may learn something.  If, on the other hand, your goal is to learn and to do good work, you will very likely succeed at that.  In the process, you will no doubt achieve good marks, but it will be a natural offshoot of your learning and good work.”
This mentality would probably make the classroom a much more fun place to be.  I cannot say so with assurance, as I have never seen the majority of the students in a class follow this path.  Rare is the student who puts learning first, but it is not their faults.  The fear culture of the education system is simply flowing through them; it has been painfully instilled in them since their parents reviewed their first report card.  When parents encourage kids to do well in school, they are asking them to get a good report card – kids know that.  As the students mature into young adults, they may feel that their lengthy experience of chasing good marks has been a waste of time.  This is not the case, as these kids have certainly learned a great deal as they moved through the school system.  However, I think that the experience, the journey, could be made more pleasant by turning the system on its side. 
Something deeper is going on here.  Perhaps it is the fear culture as a whole that has flowed down into the education system and the corporate world.  It may turn out that fear is a good thing, or at the very least, a necessary thing.  Fear is what often dictates to us what directions to choose in life.  Fear was without doubt the entity that allowed man to survive through its most difficult times; and survival is what life aims to do with more rigour than anything else.  Without the fear of dying due to hunger, we would not have hunted when we were hungry.  Fearlessness tends to go hand and hand with recklessness, and is not a quality one should strive for.  It could lead one to speed excessively on the highway or try to jump out of a three-story window.  Fear keeps us grounded, and, historically, has kept us alive.
Things are different in the culture of today’s developed nations.  It is just a minority of its citizens who struggle for survival.  For the vast majority, survival, in the day-to-day sense, is an expectation.  Our instinct to survive is not being tapped into on a daily basis.  As survival has become a given, man has become greedy; people in this culture wish to thrive, to succeed.  But, while the goal has changed from surviving to succeeding, the mechanism relied on to achieve that goal has not changed in the slightest; it is still fear.  I don’t know if fear is the best means to reach our current goals.  Maybe we have kept it with us like an old friend.  It serves as a reminder of our history, and is deep-rooted in our brains.
Without question, a certain amount of fear is useful to have as a motivation to accomplish a given task.  But let us not make it our only motivation.  A student is not legally bounded to strive solely for high marks the way a CEO must strive only for lots of money.  Today’s student can choose how to approach learning, just as teachers have autonomy in their approach to teaching.  We can all balance our fear with other things, like passion and integrity.  As a society, let’s loosen up a bit, relax, and take a deep breath ... we’ve survived.  We are likely to survive tomorrow and the next day.  With that in mind, let us live with a minimal, acceptable level of fear, and remember that there is a lot more to school and life than marks and money.


ddd said...

fear certainly does that to people.

but there's an alternative. purpose. (however fear can drive a man towards his purpose)

when i found my purpose, i was shaking hands with death. It wasn't fear, i wasn't scared. I had a choice. If i'm going to die now or if prolonging life doesn't help, I'll die anyway, If i have nothing to lose and everything i do, everything i decide, every choice i make is a Plus, a Gift, an act of Miracle, then what would i do? What would my final words be?

ah, go give our species an experience of ultimate wonder and excitement never felt before. Something man has wanted since the dawn of our evolution.

Merlin said...

I really like this blog post.

I understand your motivation in leaving the private sector, and I can't argue with the outcome—you're a lot happier for having done it. Personally, I identify with and idealize free market principles, which the private sector embodies. The free market aims to please—successful companies are in tune with the desires and demands of consumers, and sustain themselves by satisfying those demands. If they weren't satisfying demands, the customers would go to competitors and the business wouldn't be sustainable. It's a meritocratic system that culls the not-useful.

I like the blog post title's recognition of the education system as a corporation. It reminds me that the system (in its current form) is a failure from a free market point of view. The education system's primary consumers (students) are, on the whole, unhappy. Their demands are often not even considered. If the students' parents are seen as the consumers, they too, more often than not, end up unhappy when their children (often, in my opinion, as a result of being pushed to decide what to do with their lives while still in a formative period) drop out of school or graduate with a Bachelor's in Puppetry and can barely afford a living, forget paying off their student loans.

And what about production? Teaching students useful skills creates prosperity, right? Well, on the whole, no. One need look no further than the student debt crisis to see that higher education (as it is today) is not a net positive. It's an economic bubble waiting to pop. One of the common products of the school system is school teachers, who, in turn, create more teachers. What are you supposed to do when you can't find employment to pay off your student loan debt because you majored in English? Teach English to more victims. It's a cycle of parasitism. And make no mistake—while, yes, not everyone needs to be an engineer, society relies on productivity to continue.

No slight, of course, to the author of the blog, as physics is a tool for many highly productive endeavors, and teaching it is praise-worthy.

On another note, I appreciate that you love your job as a teacher without being inconsiderate of the struggles of students. While I agree that setting out to learn, and letting good grades come as a matter of course is the ideal approach, there's an impediment to that. In CEGEP, at least, the forces (physics pun intended) of general education act against you; you might genuinely want to steep yourself in a subject, to explore it and develop fluency... but wait, don't forget to finish your Humanities essay on spirit animals. Definitely don't neglect to study for your poetry midterm for English class. Then attend your 3 hour French class and arrive home with just enough free time left in the day to be sad about how little free time you have left in the day.

The cursed system gives rise to the efficiency-driven mindset of "aim to do only as much learning as it takes to get the grade you want". Students have the right to approach their learning as they please, and universities have the right to tell students that the way they chose to learn earned them grades insufficient to continue studying for a degree that "proves they learned the material".

There's a LOT more I want to say on this topic, but I have to finish my Humanities essay on spirit animals.

The Engineer said...

Merlin, you are one insightful person. I agree with most of your statements. The closing paragraph about the rights of students and universities does not hold water in my view. The university has nothing against one's 'learning methods' or pedagogical philosophies... Educational goals boil down to 'competencies'. These are evaluated numerically, which, while flawed and imperfect, is much like the democratic process: totally unsatisfying but the best idea we've had so far.