In 50 years, most schools and universities will not exist

The other day I put up a tweet. It was a deliberately provocative tweet, linking to this article in the Guardian, titled Under digital surveillance: how American schools spy on millions of kids, and I suggested that a better way forward than putting a large portion of the population under 24-hour, state-administered digital surveillance simply because they attend a school would be… well, to abolish the schools. By which I mean replace expensive, capital-intensive, centralized, state-run education with inexpensive, remote, free market, electronic methods, which we should be doing anyway since we have the technology to do it.

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This is, of course, the default libertarian answer to any inefficient state-run bureaucracy. Where the state retreats, someone will build the roads. Someone always does. Immediately my feed was flooded with large numbers of people who ignored the context of the tweet, with prodigious facial hair or “their pronouns,” or both, in their Twitter profiles (protip: 9,999 times out of 10,000, your Christian name or profile picture is a dead giveaway, so listing your pronouns as well is superfluous. Also, third person pronouns are for other people to talk about you, so it’s not going to be relevant if I’m talking to you). e.g. this charming fellow, sounding off with what I suppose they thought were clever replies:

Cool beard, bro.

First, Gab is for free speech and Infowars is, in certain respects, a better news source than CNN, in that it is at least honest about the partisan nature of its coverage, whereas CNN denies partisan bias up and down. Denies it, that is, until a Project Veritas exposé comes along and pulls back the veil on CNN’s own internal partisan bias, following which they admit everything – just kidding! – following which then they continue to deny it. An outlet that openly displays its agenda allows the viewer to know what they’re buying when they tune in. I prefer that kind of honesty.

Second, it’s a great idea. This being Twitter, subtlety was lost in transit when it found its way into the hands of the deliberately obtuse.

Of course it would be absurd to solve a problem relating to schools, if we assume the schools themselves are not problematic, by abolishing the schools. The point, my point, is that the state shouldn’t be in the business of education at all. Proposals to surveil students in real time on all their devices take a bad situation and make it worse. 

Schools that look like factories and have been designed to prepare young people to work in factories, and today are designed to prepare them to work in corporate offices, are not the way they are because the laws of physics demand it.

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They are the way they are because people demand it. Accordingly, we should always remain open to the possibility that radical design changes in the model of delivery could have unintended side-effects and other externalities, negative and positive. We should be looking to abolish state education and replace it with software. If we replace professors with software, many of the political problems the educational system creates – financing, admissions criteria and scarcity, and many more – will disappear. And people will need to find new things to complain about.

Without taking any sides in the gun control discussion – apart from pointing out that I think that much of it is bogus, anecdotal and hype-driven, considering that violent crime in America is at a 25-year low – I generally assume a couple of things when trying to think about policy.

First, in a country where the Fourth Amendment is on the books, I assume that it is bad to condition a generation of Americans to having their civil liberties curtailed and instantaneous intervention from state-funded supervisors. If you disagree with me on this, you are welcome to stop reading this blog post, pack your bags, and move to North Korea.

Second, I also assume that the American system of education produces abysmal results at astronomical costs and it ought to be abolished, although for reasons I will explain shortly, its abolition will hardly be necessary. If you think that the American educational system is the jewel in the crown of our great country and deserves to continue to exist forever as it is currently structured, I would encourage you to look at both the results of the U.S. educational system and the expense incurred in producing those results.

One of the major policy issues going into the 2020 election is the cost of tertiary education. I agree that education is far, far too expensive, and that the vast majority of American graduates obtaining a B.A. on the basis of anything other than in-state tuition at a state university are, for the most part, being horrifically ripped off.

On average, per the National Center for Education Statistics, the cost of tertiary education in the United States has increased fourfold in the last 40 years, inflation-adjusted.

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The same phenomenon is observed if we look at public education as a whole as a percentage of GDP:

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What changed in those 40 years? Did the education get so much better that the princely sum the average college student pays for their freshman year used to buy them all four years? Is a college education now worth nearly $200,000 of debt, accruing interest, which will leave them more or less completely undifferentiated from their peers?

Virtually nothing, except perhaps the existence of vast federal loan subsidy programmes that have permitted the universities themselves to become bloated, top-heavy, and run by increasingly well-paid armies of administrators who busy themselves with regulating every aspect of the university experience, rather than focusing on the teaching. At least that was my impression when I returned to do a year of graduate school in 2017, which stood in stark contrast to my fairly unregulated undergraduate experience in 2002.

A comprehensive exposition of the U.S. educational system is not my forte or chosen area of focus. What I know is that system which produces identical results at greatly increased costs is being run incorrectly.  In the United States, education and healthcare are two such systems.

While the U.S. way of education ought to be abolished, there is no need to abolish it, as market forces will perform that task well enough. Bricks and mortar are expensive ways of handing out credentials.

Let me illustrate this with a story from my personal life. I’m a lawyer. I started out my career in England, and pretty soon after completing my formal education in the UK I explored the possibility of taking the bar exam (2009). Back then, lectures were predominantly delivered 9-to-5 for 12 weeks straight in a lecture hall. Students had to attend the lectures, the professor was available to answer questions, and the bar review course was completed in person.

Fast forward to 2018, when I took (and passed) the bar exam. The course I took (Themis) was delivered entirely over the Internet. The other course (BarBri), which has long been the category leader, was also delivered, predominantly, over the Internet. I knew of not one person – not one – who elected to receive the teaching in person. And why should they? Choosing not to commute for 90 minutes a day just to do rote work in a lecture hall, when one can commute zero minutes and do the same work from home, is an easy choice.

The reason that law teaching everywhere is not already administered online is because of the stigma – backed by law – that is attached, in my profession, to the practice of taking correspondence courses. When I looked to get admitted in America, for example, one of the prerequisites was physical, personal attendance at an ABA-accredited U.S. law school for the 24-credit LL.M. degree – correspondence courses will not do.

This is despite the fact that it is passage of the bar exam, not completion of the LL.M. or J.D., which is ultimately required before anyone can be admitted to the practice of law. It’s possible to become a lawyer without having first attended law school in a handful of states which give a nod to the English system of articled clerkship, such as New York and California, each of which permit bar exam qualification by “reading law” as an apprentice, as Kim Kardashian West is doing. But it is not possible to become a lawyer without passing the bar exam. Passing the bar is the one credential that matters, the one hoop through which every prospective lawyer must jump.

Yet nearly every law student in the United States opts to receive the course that prepares them for this crucial task by correspondence (online) – completing it in their own time, at their own pace, in a way that works for them, rather than on a 9-to-5 schedule where they clock in and clock out. The online course is more convenient, more effective, less expensive – superior.

The educational industry – and it is an industry, not a sacred cow – is not exempt from the perennial gale of creative destruction.

The factories are gone. The assembly lines are being replaced by just-in-time additive manufacturing. The back offices are being replaced by SaaS companies. The modern-day skilled laborer – a developer – is not expected to show up at a fixed place for a fixed duration, but rather is expected to complete tasks in a reasonable timely fashion and, often, remotely.

Education itself is starting to be automated, with companies like Lambda School churning out developers without debt (instead asking for a share of future earnings). I regard Lambda as the most culturally significant startup of the last 20 years. While I have, over the last few days, seen some complaints on Twitter about that program as compared to a graduate of a 4-year CS degree, Lambda’s record of placing graduates cannot be denied – it has proven the concept of debt-free remote education delivery. Getting the quality up (if indeed there is an issue, which I am in no position to assess either way) is not a question of proving the concept. It’s a question of optimization.

We look at factory housing in 19th-century England and see something antiquated. So our grandchildren will look at our universities and schools, conceived as fixed, physical spaces. These expensive, inefficient monuments to our industrial past and post-industrial present will have no home in our digital future, where rather than leaving home to faraway places and distant cities students will be able to learn and build in their own garages and backyards, choosing from a vast array of subjects and courses, online masterclasses from world experts, rather than the limited, commodity “social studies,” “English,” or “art.”

I suspect this mode of living – education that is delivered, not administered, and self-directed, rather than imposed – will grant students more flexibility in choosing what they want to learn, will allow them to specialize earlier, and will allow for more transparent credentialing. What is now spent on administrators, buildings, security, and mass surveillance could be redirected to academic contests and prizes or project grants for community development.

Expensive methods of teaching that produce poor results should be abolished. Institutional inertia prevents this from happening. Fortunately, abolition by law will not be necessary, as technology and market forces will do the dirty work as surely as natural processes erode the mountains into plains. The only questions are how much of a fight educational institutions will put up to stay relevant as they get outflanked by software, and how long their resistance will last. In the fullness of time, the scalable qualities of computer-delivered education will eradicate bricks and mortar schools and universities, just as Amazon eradicates retail, additive manufacturing eradicates long global supply lines, cryptocurrency eradicates central banks, and photovoltaics eradicate coal fired power stations.

Digitization and decentralization are our future, and nothing will escape.

 

Postscript:

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