“Let no man live who is wiser or better or more famous or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level: all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals.”
- CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
We have, in American culture, most curious ideas about equal opportunity. Where once we valued inventive genius, we now tend towards something which is much more static, predictable, and stale. Fifty years ago, around 5% of Americans held college degrees, and fewer than 40% had graduated high school. Today, more than 30% graduate college and more than 90% from high school. It’s easy to make the assumption that such an improvement in the educational attainment of the common man means that the average American is becoming more intelligent.
However, this just isn’t what’s happening. We’ve been using standardized tests to evaluate college preparedness for nearly a hundred years, and those scores (SAT, namely) haven’t improved. In fact, they’ve dropped 40 points since 1967. Interestingly, scores haven’t dropped because the tests got harder, as the average man became more educated. The opposite is in fact true. Scores have declined, in spite of “re-scalings” and simplifications in the test format. Meanwhile, higher education is becoming exponentially more expensive, outpacing general inflation by 500%, and graduates are getting less from it. The problem is that we have, as a culture, become more accustomed to jumping through arbitrary hoops than actually becoming competent at something. Instead of being interested in really learning things, we set our sights on becoming certified to do it. Abraham Lincoln attended less than a year of school throughout his lifetime, yet taught himself to read and write. He took the bar exam, he passed, and at the height of his career he was handling more cases than any other attorney in Illinois. He didn’t come from a rich family, he didn’t attend a prestigious school – he practically didn’t attend school at all. He studied on his own, he took the test and he passed. People hired him because he charged reasonable rates, spoke eloquently, and knew the law well enough to win cases. Today, it’s not possible to “Read the Law” as Lincoln did. Our legal code is vast, but understanding it certainly doesn’t require formal education – it simply requires actually reading the laws, something so very few of us, including those hired to interpret the laws, do.
The list of professions requiring institutional licensure is vast. Lawyers and Doctors spend decades in school, beginning with childhood. Accountants, engineers, massage therapists, psychologists, speech therapists, even hair dressers and barbers, all must complete long tenures in education before they can begin practicing in their chosen profession. This doesn’t lead, as conventional wisdom would suggest, to better professionals. The institutional educational model is diametrically opposed to the style of learning that some of the most profound scholars, professionals and leaders in human history have followed. Under the institutional model, whether or not someone can do it is irrelevant. Whether or not someone aces the bar exam is irrelevant. The real requirement is that they spend years of their life and thousands of dollars at a state approved institution. If the intended output of our educational apparatus really is people who are capable of performing certain societal functions, as demonstrated by their performance on a final written exam, why do we not simply allow people to just take the test and spend the best years of their life doing something other than required drudgery? There’s a term in our prison system called “make work,” which describes work that is created simply to keep someone busy. I can’t help but believe that the majority of the things we engage in are simply that – make work.
We live in a world abound with free educational opportunities. Universities around the world publish lectures, notes and research on their public facing websites. Between Khan Academy, Udemy, Udacity, Coursera and Wikipedia, you can easily find every educational resource you would need for both a world-class K-12 education, and a competitive university education. The only thing you need is a bit of self-discipline. In a free market economy, one expects that when better, cheaper alternatives to goods and services enter a market, all of the costs for those goods and services will be reduced. The older, less effective, more expensive goods and services will at first have their prices lowered to remain competitive, and at some point, they will lose their economic viability entirely and disappear from the market forever. This isn’t happening in education, because education in the United States is not a free market. Economic vitality is tied directly to professional licensure, which is controlled by the educational system. Economic livelihood in the United States has become a walled garden. Someone could learn everything there is to know about medicine, but to practice medicine without going to jail, you have to stay in school till an institution says you can leave. We all pay for this – not just the aspiring doctor. Because the AMA tightly controls the process for becoming a doctor, and the amount of doctors who can enter the market, we all pay more for medical services. We debate about how to pay for national healthcare schemes, yet we don’t consider that the costs are so high in the first place because the design of our institutions makes them so.
I was drawn to software development because it’s difficult to regulate, and thus easier to practice without needing to do make work. I’ve spent thousands and thousands of hours learning, and as a result, I can make software. Because I can make software, people hire me to make software. It’s significant that, being one of the only professional fields which does not require licensure to practice professionally, software development has made such a significant impact to every other field. Electronic medical records, magnetic resonance imaging, synthetic biology, electronic diagnosis, etc., were all made possible by software engineering. It doesn’t matter what industry you examine – architecture, aviation, psychology – every single one of them have made huge advances in recent years only because of the advent of computers and those who program them. It’s ironic that these advances were largely enabled by unlicensed people. Yes, universities were involved and played a considerable role. MIT, Stanford, Berkeley and Michigan State all played huge roles in the development of the internet and of many advancements in programming tools, languages, and operating systems. However, the contributions of the unlicensed amateurs were incredible. Gates was educated by having access to computers at an early age. He dropped out of Harvard and his operating system enabled cheap desktop computing for a generation. Jobs dropped out of Reed and brought us Toy Story and the iPhone. Larry Ellison dropped out of high school, and went on to build one of the first relational database systems, power half of the world’s ERP systems and purchase an island in Hawaii. John Carmack revolutionized the video game industry with his physics engines after dropping out of public school, then went on to found Armadillo Aerospace, serving as the lead engineer. He landed a spacecraft on the moon and won a $500k prize. Nasa spent $25B in 1969 dollars to put a man on the moon, while the Soviets spent $4.5B on their Luna program. Going back to the very birth of electricity, Benjamin Franklin, the guy who appears on the $100 bill, had a famous disdain for institutions. He is remembered for such minor advancements as electricity, refrigeration and modern currency.
The point is that our society is totally reliant on progress made outside of our institutions, yet we chain ourselves to these institutions. We require K-12 completion to be admitted to public universities on scholarship (GED students are not eligible for state merit scholarships in most states, regardless of standardized test scores). We require degrees and licensure for so many professions and further study programs. We’ve decided that people must do one thing at a certain age, and another thing at some other age.
Today, we stand at the precipice of systematic collapse. Global food systems and ecology are on the brinke. Bees are dying, rain forests are being cleared at an unprecedented rate. Our currency is worth less and our lives cost more. Half the world lives on less than a dollar a day. Deserts are expanding as soil levels are depleted. And yet…an unassuming, sweet girl who just wants to get married and pop out a few kids has to stay in school for over a decade just so she can cut hair. A young Isaac Newton has to sit in class with that girl until he reaches the level where he can take an advanced class with only slightly less dumb classmates. As Lewis stated, “The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.”
Sure, there are exceptions. There are ten year old students who go to college, graduate and spend the rest of their lives doing something meaningful, the miserable make work out of the way. This exception requires a village of support, however. It requires not only that the pupil be extraordinary, which is surprisingly common, but that the parents are willing to take action to challenge the student outside of what is conventional, that administrators of educational and professional institutions are flexible, and both willing and able to bend the rules for unusual circumstances. A system which can accommodate someone with exceptional potential is, sadly, far less ordinary than the prodigy herself. In this regard, the responsibility lies more on society to allow for greatness, than for individual greatness to occur. What does all that mean? For starters, that if a fifth grader can test out of high school, that the local school district damn well better encourage her to. That the parents better cast away all fears about social acceptance. That an individual with no formal educational background, yet who has developed a substantial body of intellectual work, should be evaluated on her proven merits rather than her hoop jumping abilities. The “real” world – the world that produces the things that allow the rest of us to survive – already works this way. The trick is to make our institutional world – academia and government – mirror this rather than impede it.