Today’s Schools Are Yesterday’s Streetcars: How Technology Will Transform Education

We can predict the future of education by glimpsing the past of transportation. Fueled by technological innovation, namely electricity, streetcars gradually replaced the horse-and-buggy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, followed by mass-produced automobiles that ultimately toppled the streetcar.

Throughout the 20th century, cars became safer, faster, cleaner, and cheaper and allowed individuals unprecedented mobility and autonomy. Then, in the 21st century, car-sharing applications showed how technology could once again disrupt the transportation industry, expanding rider options and challenging entrenched systems of control.

Personalized Learning

Education transformation will take a similar path. Fueled by technological innovation, schools are now in the middle of their streetcar moment. Chalkboards are still ubiquitous, but computers are increasingly being used not only to supplement learning but also to administer it. Personalized learning, as this technology-enabled classroom education is called, is all the rage.

In public schools like those using Summit Learning, a personalized, online learning approach developed by Facebook engineers and funded by Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, the computer becomes the teacher, executing a largely self-paced curriculum and offering more flexibility and autonomy for students.True education transformation will come when learners realize that they don’t need an intermediary at all. The platform has sparked controversy, as some parents and educators resist change. Like the streetcar and transportation, personalized learning in schools is altering and modernizing the educational landscape. But it is just a launchpad.

True education transformation will come when learners realize that they don’t need an intermediary at all. Personalized learning in conventional schools will shift to self-directed education or unschooling, driven by the learner herself using the resource-rich networks of both real and digital communities. As Ivan Illich wrote in Deschooling Society:

The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.

Illich wrote those words in 1970 before the technological webs now at our fingertips were ever imagined. The funnel model of education, even when augmented by technology, is simply passé. Conflating learning with schooling, mired in coercion and a controlled curriculum, is an outdated idea. Schooling is something that others do to you; learning is something you do for yourself.

A New Perspective on Learning Itself

We already see how this works in our own adult lives. Just as the first automobiles began to disrupt old notions of transportation, recent technological innovations are recalibrating the way we learn. Whether it’s using YouTube to fix a toilet, Duolingo to learn a language, Audible to listen to books, or FaceTime to have lessons with your guitar instructor, technological platforms and applications are quickly helping us to shed our schooled vision of learning. Increasingly, we see that we can self-educate by following our own curiosities and pursuing our own personal and professional goals.

We can choose our own teachers and select the learning tools that work best for us. In his book, Illich wrote,

School prepares for the institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.

Technology frees us from this institutional paradigm of education and lets us teach ourselves.

It can do the same for our children. As our own relationship to learning shifts in response to new technologies that make information and knowledge more accessible, we may begin to question the worn-out ways our children learn. As we realize the value and reward of self-education in our own lives, we’ll want to give this gift to our children.

Minimally Invasive Education

In his academic papers and award-winning 2013 TED Talk, Newcastle University professor Sugata Mitra explains how children teach themselves without institutional schooling. His “hole in the wall” studies have been widely cited, showing how children from the poorest slums of India to elsewhere around the world are able to learn to read, to teach themselves English, and to understand advanced scientific content (like DNA replication) simply by having access to an Internet-enabled public computer.

Mitra calls this approach “minimally invasive education” and concludes in his talk:

If you allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges. It’s not about making learning happen. It’s about letting it happen.

Thanks to technology, we adults now see this learning emerge all the time in our own lives. It can be the same for our children.

In the 21st century, the transportation industry was jolted again by technological innovation. Uber, Lyft, and other car-sharing companies challenged longstanding local monopolies, granting riders more choice and flexibility with better service and lower costs. Next, autonomous vehicles may be the new wave of disruptive innovation in transportation. Meanwhile, in education, technology will continue to expand access to resources, information, knowledge, and skills that make self-education outside of schooling not only possible but preferable.

Like the streetcar and horse-and-buggy, institutional schooling will become a cultural relic, a quaint reminder of yesteryear. We will realize that non-coercive, technology-enabled, self-directed education in collaboration with others results in better, more meaningful, more enduring learning than its institutional predecessors can offer. We will realize that we can be educated without being schooled. Indeed, the future is here.

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Let People Opt Out of “Good Ideas”

Would you rather live in a world where it’s normal for people to try to convince each other of something, or a world where it’s acceptable to just give an order and shoot anyone who doesn’t immediately comply?

I’m firmly in the “convince others” camp.

To convince people, you’ve either got to have reasons or ways to play with their emotions. If you convince them with good reasons, the convincing sticks.

If you use emotions, someone with stronger appeals to emotion will come along and get them to change their minds again.

If you rely on threats, as soon as the threat is out of sight they’ll go back to their old path.

This is why I’d rather convince others with reasons and avoid using force. It doesn’t matter to me what the issue is.

I prefer everything to be voluntary. Work together, ask for help, or do what you can on your own. Don’t try to force anyone to join you. If you need to use threats or force, you probably ought not do it at all. I don’t support or need those who use coercion.

In your personal life you probably already avoid force. I’m assuming you aren’t a thief or murderer.

You and I don’t need to be threatened and forced; it’s only “those other people.” Well, they see it the same way. Someone’s got to be the first to grow up.

Gandhi is quoted as saying “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It’s true enough even if he never said it.

You don’t need to wait for anyone else to do the right thing with you. You can start now. You don’t have to wait until others join you or until they agree with you. You don’t need to wait until the law changes to allow you to do the right thing. Yes, there’s danger in stepping out first, but who said life is supposed to be safe? Do the right thing anyway.

Don’t violate the rights of others. Liberty is the freedom to do everything you have a right to do; everything that doesn’t violate anyone else’s equal and identical rights. Anyone who violates your liberty isn’t one of the good guys.

Be big enough to let people opt out of your “good ideas” if they can’t be convinced. Of course, you’ll still need to defend yourself against people who refuse to cooperate. That’s a fact of life nothing can ever change.

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The Value of a Self-Directed Summer for Kids

It’s all over the news these days. Kids are stressed-out, not playing, and, most worrisome, experiencing sharp increases in depression and suicide.

Last month, a new paper published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology revealed that adolescent mental health has deteriorated over the last decade, with soaring depression rates for young people ages 14 to 17. This month, a research paper published in JAMA Pediatrics found that between 2007 and 2015, the number of children and adolescents who visited hospital emergency rooms for suicidal thoughts and actions doubled. The average age of the suicidal child was 13. Dr. Gene Beresin, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who was not involved with the study, told CNN in response to the new research. He said that

Kids are feeling more pressure to achieve, more pressure in school, and are more worried about making a living than in previous years.

So what can parents do?

Self-Directed Activities Reduce Stress

Childhood anxiety and depression can be linked to a high-pressure environment and not feeling in control of one’s life and circumstances. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that anxiety and depression are a major concern for teens and that academics are a top stressor. Parents can help to reduce this pressure-cooker environment by prioritizing self-directed activities over structured, school-like ones. Summertime can be a great place to start.

Rather than continuing a schooled schedule of structured camps, adult-led enrichment activities, and academic catch-up, parents can use summertime to grant their children true freedom and agency. Let them be kids, with wide open days to fill as they choose, pursuing their own interests.

But won’t they just play video games or stare at their smartphones all day? It’s possible that after such a programmed academic year, young people may need to decompress a bit. Video games may be something that kids gravitate toward initially, as they often provide a sense of control sorely lacking from many young people’s lives. Smartphones, social media, and other technologies are often vilified as exacerbating adolescent anxiety and depression—despite new research showing that this is not the case.

A key characteristic of a self-directed summer, though, is that if young people are given real freedom combined with the opportunity to explore and discover, they likely won’t languish long in front of a screen. Laura Kriegel and Jack Schott, who run Camp Stomping Ground, a fully self-directed summer camp in New York, confirm this. Unlike most summer camps, Camp Stomping Ground allows young people to be fully in control of their camp experience.

Many activities are offered, but nothing is required, and it is possible that kids could just lounge around on their phones the entire time. But it just doesn’t happen, say Laura and Jack. It’s hard to stay sedentary and alone, they say, when giant shaving cream wars are happening outside or interesting, optional classes are offered with dynamic camp counselors. According to Laura:

Stomping Ground offers choice-based programming that lets kids decide, try and quit. This autonomy and trust build more authentic relationships and empower kids to be their best selves.

Enrichment Activities Can Be Counterproductive

Autonomy and choice are central to a self-directed summer, in contrast to the control and regimentation that define so many children’s days all year round. Parents from all socio-economic backgrounds face mounting pressure to have their children’s summer days filled with structured, and often expensive, enrichment activities; but poorer parents may confront the most coercion.

In an effort to close the academic achievement gap between poor and affluent students and prevent alleged summer learning loss, school districts across the country increasingly offer full-day, academic summer programs for low-income students. The result, however, is that poorer children may have even fewer opportunities for play and self-direction than their wealthier peers.

To overcome this disparity, and to help prioritize self-directed summer play for low-income, urban children, Janice O’Donnell launched Providence PlayCorps in Rhode Island in 2014. As the longtime director of the Providence Children’s Museum, Janice lamented the loss of childhood free play she witnessed during her 30+ year career. To bring back play to urban neighborhoods, she implemented PlayCorps in public parks across the city. Kids can come and go as they wish to the designated parks that are staffed with young adults trained in play work.

Parents and children alike feel the increased pressure of academics and enrichment activities.

The facilitators, many of whom grew up in the city, are there if needed, but they know not to interfere with or direct the children’s play. Instead, they offer various materials and creative supplies, like cardboard boxes, scraps of cloth, tools and “junkyard” materials, balls and ropes, and so on, that the children can incorporate into their free play if they choose. PlayCorps has been so well-received that it is has expanded to include a self-directed after-school program during the school year, in addition to its summer program.

Parents and children alike feel the increased pressure of academics and enrichment activities. Parents want their children to succeed, and children don’t want to let their parents down. This race to the elusive top, however, is causing many young people to experience severe anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. These kids may be “succeeding,” but they’re miserable. Parents can take charge and halt this pattern of overwhelmed and over-scheduled children. They can begin by using summer as a launching pad to a freer, more self-directed, more play-filled, and happier life for their children and teens.

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Problems Don’t Call For Policies

The existence of a problem doesn’t beg for a policy.

A policy will probably make more problems than it solves, especially if the policy is political in nature. Political “solutions” usually come in the form of legislation; a counterfeit “law”. And even if it does somehow manage to solve the problem, it is unethical. Legislation always is.

The statist mind is always assuming every problem needs a policy to address it. When theft and coercion is in your tool kit, that’s the lazy way to approach it. Statist “solutions” are a band-aid, not a permanent solution.

If, like me, you rule out those statist approaches automatically you’ll need to find real voluntary solutions. Voluntary solutions will be more robust and longer-lasting, too. Partly this is because people are willingly embracing these solutions. No gun in the face is needed. With political “solutions”, when the political winds shift the gun often ends up pointing the other direction. All political “solutions” are subject to change every time a new ruler is holding the gun. That’s not a real solution. Not a long-term solution. You can do better.

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Dan Moller’s Governing Least

Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority is definitely my favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  Dan Moller’s new Governing Least, however, is definitely now my second-favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  The two books have much in common: Both use common-sense ethics to argue for libertarian politics.  Both are calm, logical, and ever-mindful of potential criticisms.  Both strive to persuade reasonable people who don’t already agree with them.  Both are packed with broader insights.  And despite these parallels, both are deeply original.

So what’s most original about Moller’s position?  Instead of focusing on the rights of the victims of coercion, Moller emphasizes the effrontery of the advocates of coercion:

[I]n my account libertarianism emerges from everyday moral beliefs we have about when we are permitted to shift our burdens onto others. In fact, my account intentionally downplays the role of rights, and is motivated by doubts about what we may demand of others, rather than outrage about what others demand of us.

The effrontery is most blatant when you speak in the first person:

Imagine calling a town hall meeting and delivering the following speech:

My dear assembled citizens: I know most of us are strangers, but of late I have fallen on hard times through no fault of my own, by sheer bad luck. My savings are low, and I don’t have friends or family to help. Now as you know, I’ve previously asked for help from you as private citizens, as a matter of charity. But unfortunately that hasn’t been sufficient. Thus, I’m here now to insist that you (yes you, Emma, and you, John) owe me assistance as a matter of justice. It is a deep violation if you don’t work additional hours, take fewer vacations if need be, live in a smaller house, or send your kids to a worse school, in order to help me. Failing to do so is no less an injustice than failing to pay your debts.

Moreover, calling this an injustice means that it’s not enough that you comply with your obligations by working on my behalf. No, I insist that you help me to force your fellow citizens to assist me. It doesn’t matter if these others say to you that they need the money for their own purposes, that they prefer worthier causes, or if they’re just hard-hearted and don’t care. To the extent you care about justice, you must help me to force these others to assist me whether they wish to or not, since that is what is owed me in light of my recent bad luck.

Could you bring yourself to make this speech?

The fundamental objection to Moller’s position, he thinks, is to claim that governments have “emergent moral powers.”  But Moller firmly denies this.  Governments are just groups of people, so they are morally obliged to follow the same moral principles as everyone else.  While this may seem like libertarian question-begging, there’s nothing uniquely libertarian about it:

It is notable that many who wish to block rights-based objections to state action are nevertheless eager to enter their own moral objections to what the state does. Many of those unsympathetic to attacks on taxation rooted in individual rights also portray the absence of welfare provisions or various immigration policies as “unconscionable.” There is nothing inconsistent about this; the one set of moral claims may be right and the other confused. But the objection then cannot be based on the emergent moral powers of the state. We cannot both reject appeals to individuals rights on the general grounds that morality has nothing to tell us about what may emerge from government institutions, and then do just that, substituting our own preferred brand of interpersonal morality. Once we notice this, support for emergence should shrink drastically, since it will only come from those who think there are no policies of the state that can be rejected on fundamental
moral grounds. The non- emergence assumption per se has no particular ideological leanings.

But doesn’t common-sense morality admit that rights to person and property are not absolute?  Of course; exceptions abound.  Moller sternly emphasizes, however, that these exceptions come with supplemental moral burdens attached.  In his “Emergency” hypothetical, for example, you steal $1000 under duress.  What then?

I propose the following non-exhaustive list of residual obligations for cases like Emergency:

Restitution: although I didn’t do wrong, I must repay the $1,000 if possible, perhaps in reasonable installments.

Compensation: to the extent you are otherwise harmed by my actions, I should attempt to compensate you. For instance, if I smashed your windows getting in or forced you to incur some loss because you had to come home at short notice, I must compensate you at some reasonable rate.

Sympathy: it is incumbent on me to convey, if not an apology for my (permissible) actions, at least sympathy for the harm I have caused you. (“I’m very sorry I had to do that” would be the natural if slightly misleading phrase.) I cannot offer a Gallic shrug at your distress and announce, “I did nothing wrong— it’s your problem” as you survey the wreckage of your home. To do so would exhibit a serious character flaw.

Responsibility: my obligations are not just backward looking, but forward looking. If I can reasonably foresee that some action of mine will put me in the position of facing an emergency that will then render it permissible to harm you, I must take responsibility to avoid such actions if possible. I should not think that I have less reason to take responsibility because I can avoid harms by transferring them to you instead. And failing to take responsibility weakens my claim to impose costs on others when the time comes.

A related principle is worth mentioning as well:

Need: my warrant for harming you depends on how bad my situation is. I cannot harm you if I am doing fine already merely in order to improve my position still further. I may be permitted to take your $1,000 to avert a physical threat, but not in order to make a lucrative investment in order to get even richer.

The political implications are expansive, starting with:

A welfare state justified in virtue of overriding reasons to promote the good of the beneficiaries incurs these residual obligations. Flouting them amounts to unfair burden- shifting. What would it look like actually to satisfy them? For starters, if I were the beneficiary of some emergency medical procedure that a third party compelled others to contribute to— say a state agency— I would be obligated to
repay those charged for my benefit, possibly with some compensatory surcharge. If unable to pay, I would be required to pay in installments, with the agency keeping track of my income and tax records to ensure that my repayment were in line with my means…

Moreover, in repaying, my attitude toward my fellow citizens ought to be one of gratitude for coming to my assistance, as opposed to viewing these services as entitlements due to me as a matter of citizenship. This may seem curious: by hypothesis, the services I received made it past the threshold, meaning that the wealth transfers involved were permissible, and since I am repaying, they won’t
even be net transfers in the long run, barring misfortune. Depending on how badly I needed aid, aiding may even have been obligatory on a third party. Why should I express gratitude for others fulfilling their duties? Consider the Gallic shrug— that supreme expression of indifference at someone else’s misfortunes, while disclaiming all responsibility for rectifying them, frequently encountered
in Parisian cafés. Why shouldn’t I shrug my Gallic shrug at the rich complaining about their tax bill, and point out I merely got what I was entitled to, as would they in a similar situation?

This complaint would be apt if appropriate moral responses were a function solely of whether our acts are required or permissible. But there are all kinds of inappropriate moral responses even when what we have done is permissible or when what the other has done was required. If we are to meet for lunch and an urgent business affair obtrudes itself, I may be permitted to skip our lunch, but
I shouldn’t treat putting you out lightly. What makes a Gallic shrug a vice here is that beneath the outer layer of permissibility there remains an inner structure whereby you have been harmed for my sake, which ought to be a source of concern, leading to some appropriate expression of regret if I am a decent person.  And the same is true in the case of welfare services. This is easy to ignore because
of the opaque veils of state bureaucracy. But behind the faceless agency lie people who are harmed for the sake of benefiting me.

Governing Least manages to be at once readable and dense.  And though you can’t tell from the passages I just quoted, Moller also repeatedly appeals to and grapples with cutting-edge social science.  What, for example, should philosophers think about Greg Clark’s work on the long-run heritability of social status?  Moller’s take will surprise many of you.

Last question: Why do I still prefer Huemer to Moller?  Intellectually, because Huemer’s appeal to individual rights is just more clear-cut than Moller’s objection to “burden-shifting.”  Furthermore, Huemer focuses on the broader case for libertarianism, while Moller self-consciously focuses on opposition to the welfare state.*  And while Moller’s book is beautifully written and well-organized, Huemer’s is stellar on both counts.

Thus, if you’re only going to read one book of libertarian political philosophy, I still say you should read The Problem of Political Authority.  If you’re willing to read two such books, however, read Governing Least.  I loved it.

* Moller: “I also ignore the many noneconomic causes that libertarians have sometimes taken up, like free speech, gay marriage, and drug legalization. This is the fun part of libertarianism and requires little heroism to defend. Many disagree with such policies, but few think their sponsors cruel or ungenerous, while resistance to the welfare state and programs intended to foster economic equality evoke precisely that response.”

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Theft and Coercion Shouldn’t Be Your Default

I have a few things to add related to my recent post about Scott Adams’ mistake about “climate change” not being a “power grab”.

You and I know it is.

Scott would say this just shows you are pretending to read their minds. Plus you would be assuming they don’t actually believe AGCC is the apocalyptic crisis they claim it is.

My counter to that is that since we can’t actually read minds, what we have to do is infer what someone is thinking by their actions. Even if they actually believe AGCC is a life and death crisis, they are choosing the path which gives government more power.

There are paths to solving “climate change”, if it needs to be solved, which don’t give government additional power. Paths using economic means rather than political means. Why are they not promoting those paths?

You could imagine they don’t know those other paths exist. Yet, they do exist and they aren’t hard to find or come up with on your own unless you can’t imagine solutions which don’t involve government. Theft and coercion shouldn’t be your default. If they are, there’s something wrong with you. Probably what’s wrong with you involves at least a bit of power lust, and hoping that the new system will put you a little higher in the power hierarchy.

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