Education Stinks


Ever since Vinge’s innovation feedback loop idea was introduced to me nearly twenty years ago, I’ve always been very interested in searching for and understanding the damping mechanisms for it. I had a feeling that Vinge and especially Kurzweil have oversimplified. This was something that I suspected vaguely for quite some time but Bob Seidensticker’s book gave me the coherent rebuttal that I was looking for.

This will be the first of a series of essays where I try to examine each of Seidensticker’s points in turn.

The Futuristic Vision

In the movie, The Matrix, there were several scenes where the characters had access to some kind of perfect accelerated learning process. I winced when I saw those scenes. It was almost as bad as violating thermodynamics by positing humans as energy sources for the robot civilization.

I had a hard time with this because in the few seconds Neo learned martial arts and Trinity learned how to fly a helicopter, their poor little monkey brains would have been cooked by a molecular activity needed to make these changes possible.


(Ahem. Sorry. It’s a very funny image. I picture Keanu standing there woodenly, drooling, with steaming gray matter burping from his ears and nostrils.)

The human brain is not a hard drive. The complex motor skills and experiences represented by tap dancing or martial arts is not a simple file you can copy into the cerebellum in the space of seconds. One day, to write and edit memories in our heads, nanobots probably will reshape, prune and rebuild neurons and synapses, molecule by molecule but, they will go slowly so as to not cook us. Such nanobots would be the last word in accelerated learning.

But long before that, there should be other avenues open to us.

The Near Term

There was a science fiction story by A. E. Van Vogt, where one of the lead characters had a wide variety of tools to speed up and enhance the learning process. They included such things as hypnotic and subliminal stimulation, drugs that increased the plasticity of memory, organizational methods, fact chunking, lateral thinking, mnemonics and so on. This story was written in 1939.

Not really a lot has come of this, has it?

Subliminal suggestion has largely been debunked. Hypnosis only seems to have a limited ability to aid memory retention and is very hard to make reliable. Drugs that aid memory, creativity and concentration–caffeine, nicotine, ritalin, inositol, etc.–are still very primitive. And we’ve all read and discarded self-help books that promised us better ways to digest and memorize large volumes of information. Time-management never really seems to crawl out of the self-help ghetto to form a genuine pedagogical revolution.

Why is it that education is so persistently primitive? It really hasn’t changed that much since the early 19th century. Frankly it hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years. You could take a teacher from 1906 and drop him or her into a classroom in 2006 and, aside from hating the computers, which really wouldn’t make them unique, they really wouldn’t have a hard time adjusting to it. You can’t do the same thing to an engineer or doctor from 1906, too much has changed.

You stick a bunch of kids into a room, lecture at them for hours on end, assign them a bunch of uninspired make-work and hope that enough of them will learn to read, write and do sums to prevent your economy from collapsing.

The Frustratingly Slow Progress of Pedagogy

Computers and other pedagogical technology has been a huge expense for schools, public and private, and still not a lot has come from it. Schools seem to be perversely resistant to techno-fixes:

  • Edison predicted in the 1920s that film would replace textbooks.
  • In the 1940s and 50s, radio and television were introduced into classrooms.
  • In the 1960s B. F. Skinner imagined behaviorist teaching machines and programmed learning to double the rate students could learn.
  • Remember New Math?
  • In the late 1970s and early 80s personal computers began to be introduced into the more prestigious high schools of the United States. (I know because I was in one them.)

Personal computers have been in classrooms for nearly thirty years and still no great revolution has come from them. Seymore Papert, Doug Englebart, Ted Nelson and others have explored this issue and each proposed innovative solutions for it but still not a lot has come of it.

The grading curve really hasn’t shifted at all. The population of remedial students hasn’t diminished. The population of achieving students hasn’t increased. In fact, we still seem to get geniuses despite schooling, not because of schooling. The students that do poorly aren’t necessarily stupid. In fact some might be so smart and idiosyncratic, classrooms are simply a waste of their time.

Actually perhaps I’m being a bit pessimistic. Actually novel technologies and approaches have reached some students who wouldn’t be reachable in any other ways. I remember some wonderful educational films and documentaries. I remember some well written textbooks that I even appreciated at the tender age of eight. I remember so good teachers and some really bad ones.

The point is why aren’t they all good? Why is education still a shotgun method? Why are learning disabilities so intractable? Why is progress in this area so agonizingly slow?

This is an important point for the Kurzweil crowd to consider because this appalling waste of talent slows all technical and social progress in general.

Anyway that wraps this one up. Expect another in about a month’s time. Comments?

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