Education for the Long Term

Learning how to learn is the most vital thing to learn.

The original four articles in  the "Education That Works" series pointed out that we've been educating children effectively for many generations, and discussed some of the ways earlier generations ensured that kids learned what they needed to know to become productive adults.

Eight years ago, we wrote an article discussing the leading threats to America which included our failing education system.  More recently, we published a similar article outlining long-term existential threats to our nation, specifically, unrestricted immigration and unrestricted spending.  We oppose these because we'd like to see America survive in pretty much its current form and spend its energy improving things rather than stirring up conflict.

Thinking about national survival got us thinking about family survival.  While bad education may not be quite as pressing and urgent as is the threat from unrestricted immigration, it still represents an existential threat to individual families to the same degree that open borders threaten our nation.

The only way a family can survive in the long term is to educate their children so that their children and grandchildren can succeed regardless of what happens around them.  The problem is that all too many Americans are having a very difficult time doing so as public schools become steadily more expensive and less effective.

Educational excellence works quite well in preserving families.  Back in 1427, the City of Florence faced a financial crisis, identified "the rich," and hit them for money.  The records were preserved despite centuries of tumult all up and down the Italian peninsula.  Lo and behold, families which were rich in 1427 are still rich!  Educating successive generations of their children preserved family wealth for nearly five centuries despite wars, changing forms of government, and even several changes of national independence.

Although teaching skills such as plumbing can lead to a good living, family preservation also requires teaching more general disruption-survival skills which are needed during what the Chinese call "interesting times."  This includes philosophy, history, and becoming familiar with what we loosely call the "great books" of philosophy which give generally-applicable insights to navigating the stormy waters of human nature.

It also requires creating and passing along connections to other families or individuals who can help your children survive.  The Clintons' history of rewarding loyalty is one of the reason the Clintons have so many dedicated defenders.  Even now, someone who wasn't concerned with morality might want a child or other relative to establish a connection to the Clinton Machine.  Regardless of whether Hillary goes to jail, the Clinton Machine will have enough money to be able to continue to reward loyal service, if necessary by protecting them from the consequences of their illegal and immoral actions in its service.

The bottom line today is that of all the players in the trillion-dollar public American K-16 educational system, only some parents care whether their children learn or not.  Legislators are too busy courting votes from teachers' unions and unions are too busy protecting incompetent teachers to care whether kids learn anything.  The few parents who care can't get much traction against the forces who benefit from and thus desire to preserve the expensive, failing status quo.

Some individual public-school teachers do care about their students, of course, but on average, the only teachers who can be relied on to care what their students learn work for private schools.  This is because the private school business model depends on getting graduates into a desirable institution in the next level of the education system, be it a super-competitive grade school or the Ivy League.  Otherwise parents will stop shelling out big bucks for private-school tuition and, having no union permanently attached to a taxpayer bloodvein, the teachers will soon be laid off.

Probabilities, Not Certainties

Giving your children the best possible education doesn't guarantee their economic success, of course.  We've read of Harvard-educated lawyers who ended up homeless.  Nor is formal education necessary: Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg famously dropped out of Harvard and achieved acceptable financial success.

It would be a mistake to call either of them uneducated, however.  Before they entered Harvard, each of them had learned how to learn whatever they needed to know in any given situation and learn it fast.  One of the fastest and best ways to acquire knowledge is to hire people who already have it; that's what Microsoft, Facebook, and Google have done since the beginning.

Hiring good people and getting high value from their work requires soft people skills and the ability to manage a dynamically-growing organization.  Deciding which skills should be hired into the organization requires a fair amount of technical knowledge of the business.  A bad hire can be disastrous for a small company which is why many start-ups rely on college roommates or family members whom the founder knows well.

These entrepreneurial skills are suited for the historical United States which has traditionally encouraged new businesses, though that's getting less so in Obama's "You didn't build that!" America.  We can't imagine the skills which were needed to survive in Medieval Florence, during Victor Emanuel's wars which united Italy, Mussolini's Fascism, or the battles during World War II, but whatever skills were needed, those long-wealthy Florentine families either had them or acquired them as needed.  Being able to learn quickly is one key to survival; being able to figure out what you need to learn is the other.  Those are the essential skills parents need to impart.

A Bit of History

Before public schools were established, parents directly paid for whatever knowledge their children acquired or provided it themselves.  Philip of Macedon hired Aristotle to teach his son Alexander for three years and hired lesser lights to teach him the military arts.  The lessons must have stuck - Alexander went on to be called "the Great" and conquered everything between Greece and India.  Rich Roman families purchased educated Greek slaves to tutor their children.  During the Middle Ages, educated wanderers could find a ready market for their services tutoring the offspring of the 1%.

This tradition has continued down to modern times.  Harold Macmillan, who was Prime Minister of England until 1963, started learning Greek from a hired tutor at the age of 5.  He went on to read the "great books" in their original languages, which helped him avoid having to re-learn many politically-disastrous lessons.

Family-guided education even boats ancient Biblical support:

Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father.

 - Galatians 4:1-2

Family management of education was common until recently.  Two centuries ago, most families worked on farms.  The wife managed the house, ran the kitchen garden, and gave the children whatever education they received beyond watching their parents care for crops and care for the animals.  Primary education, such as it was, was the woman's job.  The man labored in the fields and didn't have the energy to do much teaching; feeding the family required maximum focus because if he failed, it was "game over" regardless of how much his children had learned.

Parental involvement still makes a huge difference.  The Washington Post emphasized the major impact parental wealth has on a child's educational achievements:

Wealthy parents are famously pouring more and more into their children, widening the gap in who has access to piano lessons and math tutors and French language camp. The biggest investment the rich can make in their kids, though - one with equally profound consequences for the poor - has less to do with "enrichment" than real estate.

Wealthy families can buy pricey homes in nice neighborhoods with good school districts.  As competition for "good schools" becomes more intense, buying a house in such neighborhoods usually requires that both husband and wife work.  While the husband still feeds his family with the income from his job, most if not all of the wife's income goes to pay for the expensive house in a good school district.  Education is still the wife's job because all her money either goes to pay the mortgage in a house with a good school district or pays for a pricey private school.

The Homeschooling Option

Parents who teach their own kids don't have to live in high-priced neighborhoods because public school quality doesn't matter much to them.  That makes it marginally more possible for a family to provide a decent education on one income, but homeschool families are still stuck paying for school twice, once with their time, and once in their taxes.

Although homeschooling started out among parents who wanted to keep their children safe from wicked unGodly ideas promoted in public schools, more and more non-religious people are opting for homeschooling because they understand that they can do a better job and benefit their kids.

Home-schooling has gone so mainstream that the Wall Street Journal wrote about an $8 million dollar home school:

The family is part of a small subset of affluent homeowners who home-school their kids - but not for typical reasons of wanting to provide religious instruction or because they don't like the public schools nearby. Instead, they say they can create their own optimal learning environments by buying or building homes in which almost every room is a classroom.

People that rich are a small subset of home-schoolers, but the number is expanding.  Not having to cope with the hassles imposed by a school schedule, being able to travel in the off-season, being able to teach at the maximum rate possible for each child, and being able to educate kids year-round is worth a lot to families who're willing to sacrifice one parent's income in return for having a full-time teacher on-site.

The Socialization Scam

Critics assert that home-schooled kids aren't "socialized."  Nay-sayers claim that home-schooled kids are isolated which means they don't learn how to get along well with others.  Many studies have shown, however, that home-schooled students are better socialized than kids in the public school because they avoid undesirable peer pressure and because they spend proportionately more time with adults.

There is one other traditional method of producing successful outcomes which parents can implement but modern public schools cannot:

Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.

 - Proverbs 22:15

Instead of driving foolishness out of children, public schools collect all the foolishness in town, sort it by age, and put 20 or 30 foolish kids in a classroom managed by one adult.  It's no wonder that  kids become more mature with the much smaller class sizes found in home-schools where older children reinforce their own knowledge by teaching younger siblings.

So What To Teach?

Any parent who pays attention can help children through at least 6th grade and probably well beyond that given the vast amount of free learning materials which are available via the Internet.  At some point, it may be advantageous to seek out a "home-school co-op" where parents, volunteers, and the occasional hired tutor supplement the parents' efforts.  Kids gather 2 or 3 times a week for such learning activities.

Home school co-ops offer two other forms of socialization which parents might want to impart: the ability to get along with peers and the formation of life-long friendships chosen from a like-minded group.

The book Penrod and Sam by Booth Tarkington was part of an early homeschooling curriculum.  Penrod attended public school in a time when horses were being replaced by automobiles.  His parents wanted him to learn "social graces," and forced their reluctant scion to go to dancing classes taught by a stern French instructor.  This exposed him to a different peer group from his schoolmates.

The dance season culminated in a "cotillion" where each young gentleman was required to formally request a young lady to accompany him, then attend her properly at the dance.  Penrod avoided the dreaded dance by falling off a barn, but his invitation and his note of regret were delivered correctly even though both he and his "date" were so unhappy with the prospect that the invitation and acceptance were proffered through gritted teeth and tears respectively.  The teacher succeeded, though, because everything was done in the proper form no matter how badly Penrod didn't want to do it.

What did this accomplish?  While growing up, Penrod learned that there are some things you simply have to do, no matter how repugnant they may seem.  As the old saying has it, "A real man shoots his own dog."

After Penrod grew up, he could conduct himself properly in formal settings had he desired to do so, and as an adult in the early 20th century, this was an essential skill for getting ahead in life.  Even today, softer "character skills" such as perseverance, sociability, initiative, creativity, and curiosity are highly valued by employers.

Modern American culture has fewer consistent formalities than in Penrod's day, but it's still beneficial to know how to use the proper fork when dining, how to behave at a dance, and other such matters which might be more easily taught in a co-op.  In addition, the students in the co-op are likely to come from homes with similar educational goals so their aspirations can reinforce each other instead of tearing down.

Education Strategy

The first step in preparing children to learn is teaching them to read, preferably starting as they're learning to talk.  A parent who seeks to build a child's vocabulary can pat a wall while saying "wall."  This teaches children that everything has a matching sound.

At the same time, get some large plastic letters, trace around them to make signs, and put the signs where they belong.  Then, when you say "wall," sound out the letters one at a time.  This teaches the child that everything has a sound, sounds are made up of symbols, and each symbol stands for a sound.  After that, reading to your child and pointing to the words helps get across that "a" has a sound, it has a shape, and it has a taste which the child explores by chewing it.  None of this is groundbreaking news: it's been known for years that reading with your small children makes a world of difference.

What is new is how profoundly the Internet has expanded educational opportunities for everyone with access which includes just about everyone in the West and many in the Third World too.

For example, once your child begins to read, the goal is to increase their reading speed as much as possible.  Doubling a child's reading speed doubles the learning per unit time spent up to a point.  There are dozens of web sites which help teach kids to read faster.

You also need to teach your children to type - maybe someday voice recognition software will be reliable, but it's been 10 years away for nearly half a century now.  Teaching typing is actually fairly simple - insist that they always use the correct fingering which you can teach in five minutes.  If they do that, speed comes with practice, which online programs excel at enforcing.

Even if someday speech recognition will render typing less important, they'll still have to correct anything they've dictated.  For now, more than ever, typing fast pays for itself many times over.

On the assumption that the Internet will be around at least until your kids get out of high school, it's imperative to teach them to learn from computer-based courses, many of which are free.  Learning in that way gives them experience interacting with computers, and jobs which require no computer interaction are already few and far between.

Knowledge Vs Credentials

The major unsolved problem with on-line learning is that nobody knows how to keep students from cheating, so it can be hard to get employers or colleges to recognize knowledge gained in that way.  A student can claim the equivalent of a high school graduation certificate by passing GED tests, however, and most states allow parents to issue their own home school diploma which is accepted more often than not.

For post-secondary education, CLEP tests allow students to get academic credit from participating colleges by passing tests.  As long as the parent makes sure the student is actually covering the material, passing tests helps the student gain certification as well as competence.

The Economist had a recent special section on the amazing advances which have been made in artificial intelligence which is loosely defined as teaching computers how to do things that used to require people.  Nobody knows which new jobs will be created or old jobs destroyed; this is another reason a child needs to learn how to learn fast.

Artificial intelligence is making computer-based instruction more effective as computers "learn" what instruction style is best for each student.  The effects on education are already so shattering that the Economist's AI report had a special section on how it will affect learning.

The leader starts by observing that a Stanford University course "Introduction to AI" was offered on-line in 2011 and 160,000 people in 190 countries signed up.  "Only" 23,000 completed the course, which has led nay-sayers to complain that on-line learning has too high a failure rate; advocates argue that the course taught one thousand times as many students as would have been possible with traditional brick-and-mortar instruction.

Given that this course was offered for free, even those who dropped out probably benefited from realizing that learning AI was not their dish of tea and they should seek success elsewhere.

The Economist points out although the lessons in the "great books" have stood the test of time, technical know-how goes stale much more rapidly than it used to.

“The old system will have to be very seriously revised,” says Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University. Since 1945, he points out, educational systems have encouraged specialisation, so students learn more and more about less and less. But as knowledge becomes obsolete more quickly, the most important thing will be learning to relearn, rather than learning how to do one thing very well. Mr Mokyr thinks that education currently treats people too much like clay—“shape it, then bake it, and that’s the way it stays”—rather than like putty, which can be reshaped.

Although apprenticeship is an effective way to learn, long apprenticeships don't make sense if the knowledge changes every three to five years.  Plumbers have to keep up with new materials, new standards, and new appliances; truck drivers will shortly be rendered obsolete.  That's why a solid foundation of literacy and numeracy is essential - the rules of algebra and geometry haven't changed in thousands of years, but the way different professions use them changes daily.

These changes will have profound effects on our society and politicians are being forced to take notice.  As John Stuart Mill observed, “There cannot be a more legitimate object of the legislator’s care” than looking after those whose livelihoods have been disrupted by machines.

We can't predict how our politicians will react to the expanding world of educational technology, but we can help parents use it to the best advantage for their children.  The next article in this series discusses some on-line learning sites and ways in which they can be useful.

Parents must realize that the list changes rapidly enough that only Google can keep up; the point of the list is to show that any parent can put together an effective K-6 or even K-12 curriculum at no cost and which students can learn at their own pace.  Given the wealth of material which is available to anyone with a decent Internet connection, there's no reason a diligent student couldn't achieve "16 by 16," that is, learn the expected material contained in 12 years of grade school and 4 years of college by age 16.

If your offspring are beyond school age, there's no reason why you shouldn't bestir your own neurons by learning something new.  Are you really confident that you can cruise on to retirement doing exactly the same thing you are doing now?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
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