Ed Driscoll

Interview: Glenn Reynolds on The New School

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“It’s no secret that existing schools are underperforming,” Glenn Reynolds notes in his latest book, The New School: How The Information Age Will Save American Education From Itself. “We keep putting more money and resources into them, but we keep getting poorly educated students out of them”:

In 1983 – three decades ago – the report A Nation at Risk was published by President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education and famously observed, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” Since then, things have, if anything, gotten worse. But in the essentials, not much has changed.

Except that these days, as the University of Tennessee law professor and host of Instapundit.com notes in the excerpt of his new book published this past weekend in the Wall Street Journal, “In the field of higher education, reality is outrunning parody”:

A recent feature on the satire website the Onion proclaimed, “30-Year-Old Has Earned $11 More Than He Would Have Without College Education.” Allowing for tuition, interest on student loans, and four years of foregone income while in school, the fictional student “Patrick Moorhouse” wasn’t much better off. His years of stress and study, the article japed, “have been more or less a financial wash.”

“Patrick” shouldn’t feel too bad. Many college graduates would be happy to be $11 ahead instead of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, behind. The credit-driven higher education bubble of the past several decades has left legions of students deep in debt without improving their job prospects. To make college a good value again, today’s parents and students need to be skeptical, frugal and demanding. There is no single solution to what ails higher education in the U.S., but changes are beginning to emerge, from outsourcing to online education, and they could transform the system.

Those potential changes are the subject of our 20-minute interview, during which, we’ll explore:

● How today’s education system is an industrial age one-size-fits all dinosaur in today’s diverse Internet-driven world.
● “It’s not white flight now.  It’s just flight,” Glenn notes: Why families of all backgrounds that can afford to are increasingly pulling their kids out of urban public schools.
● Why technology alone won’t repair the current education system.
● Could education reform help break the logjam that political correctness has imposed on education?
● What does Glenn make of parents’ recent complaints over Obama’s Common Core agenda?
● Plus some thoughts on where Obama goes next as his administration reaches its nadir.

And much more. Click here to listen:

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Transcript of our interview begins on the following page; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.

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MR. DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and we’re talking today with the Blogfather himself, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit.com, and the author of The New School: How The Information Age Will Save American Education From Itself. It’s the newest title from Encounter Books, which is available from Amazon.com and your local bookstore. And Glenn, thanks for stopping by today.

MR. REYNOLDS:  Thanks for having me.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Glenn, to start at the beginning, could you walk us through the short history of modern education and why it seems so out of step with the twenty-first century?

MR. REYNOLDS:  Well, it’s really interesting, you know.  For most of human history, education wasn’t really something that happened in a classroom.  It typically happened either one-on-one with a tutor or a student, or maybe a few students, or it happened most often hands-on in sort of an apprenticeship model.  And it hardly mattered who you were, say, at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, you could be a ship captain, you could be a general, you could be a doctor or you could be a lawyer, but you had basically gotten there mostly through on-the-job training.

This changed in the nineteenth century, and for a lot of reasons, some of which were pretty good.  One of them was that the industrial revolution required a different kind of personality, it required people who were punctual, because you had to have everybody standing at the assembly line at once, if anything was going to get done.  It required people who could do things that were pretty abstract well, because a lot of times the stuff you did didn’t have a big connection, obvious connection, with the final product.  It required people who had some skills in measuring and following complicated instructions and things like that.  And most importantly, it required a certain degree of sort of conformity.

So what happened was, the first people to really put this model to work in education were the Prussians.  And they did this because they really believed that school should sort of be factories for producing citizens of the sort that the leaders wanted.  And this was also popular with some Americans.  And Horace Mann, who was the secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, traveled to Prussia, really liked what he saw, liked the idea of sort of rebuilding society.  His phrase was, “Men are cast iron, but children are wax.”  And so he brought this Prussian approach back, where it met some resistance.

You know, American literacy at the time was very high through a pretty decentralized model of sort of, you know, one room school houses and home schooling and things like that.  And his critics said that the Prussian model was wrong for America, because the Prussian model assumed that the government knew more than the citizenry, whereas the American philosophy was the reverse.  Which I think is a pretty cogent criticism, but —

MR. DRISCOLL:  Wait, the Prussian government believing it knows more than its citizens? What could go wrong there?

MR. REYNOLDS:  Can you imagine that they thought that?  Yeah.

I think Mann’s critics argued that what he was wanting was fundamentally un-American.  And nonetheless, he succeeded.  And to be fair to him, you know, it was a big deal.

America had a big task in the nineteenth century of sort of raising the lower classes into the middle class, of getting workers, all these manufacturing jobs that now we’re sorry we’ve lost.  And this worked.  And it was comparatively cheap, like industrial production itself.  The industrial model of education sort of produced a standardized product comparatively cheaply and repeatably.

So it was not necessarily a failure.  But it was designed to turn out dutiful assembly-line workers in the nineteenth century.  So now we’re in the twenty-first century, okay?

We live in the world where it’s not like Henry Ford’s Model-T, where you can get any color you wanted as long as it was black.  We live in a world now where we have 900 kinds of shampoo, and yet the public education model, fundamentally still assumes that you want one kind of education.  And we know now that kids are different, they have different abilities, they have different interests, they have different ways of learning.  And you know, in the industrial age, maybe it made sense to take all our round pegs and hammer them into square holes, but now we don’t have to do that.  And now we have the ability to teach kids in a whole bunch of different ways that work best for them.

And that’s the twenty-first century approach.  And I think that’s where we’re heading.

MR. DRISCOLL:  The subtitle of The New School is “Saving American Education from Itself.”  As you just mentioned, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century education model was designed to crank out compliant factory and assembly-line workers.  Other than yourself, is anybody in academia aware that those aren’t in strong demand anymore these days?

MR. REYNOLDS:  Well, you know, people are weird about education.  Because there are two things going on with education and all you got to do is look through some college catalogues and you’ll see this over and over again.  They tell you two things.  One, we are all about the future.  And second:  look how old we are.  Right?

I mean, every college has pictures of some gothic building, even if they built it last week, and they try to give you the sense that they’ve been around for a long time and they have all these traditions, and fundamentally, in some sense, that they don’t change.  And yet, at the same time, they also tell you how they’re all about the future.  And that’s this sort of weird relationship we have with education.

I think that that comes from a couple of places.  I mean, when you sell a university, one thing you’re trying to sell people, at least subliminally, is the idea that they’re going to be networked with a lot of big shots.  And for that to be true, you have to have been around for a while.  And even at the primary school level, parents kind of like the idea of their kids having the same school experience that they had.

And I think this is actually sort of evolutionarily hardwired.  I think that the cavemen who wanted to see their kids learn the stuff they learned, were more likely to have surviving offspring because, you know, you teach your kid how to avoid the cave bears and how to dig up roots and stuff.  And they were a lot more likely to make it.

So I think this sort of desire is there.  But the truth is, I just don’t think it works that well now, especially because the people with kids now are the people who were kids back in the eighties when the report “A Nation at Risk” came out and said that if a foreign county tried to impose our public education system on it, we’d regard it as an act of war.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Yeah, and that’s an astonishing quote that I don’t know if many people are familiar with these days. Glenn, the first impression I got reading The New School was that it reminded me of Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave, which was a burst of high-tech optimism from 1980, when otherwise, all around, the industrial-era rustbelt economy was melting down, and much of America seemed trapped in the malaise mindset of the Carter administration. Your book is being published at the perigee of the Obama administration. Are you optimistic that academia can find a way out of [its] current malaise?

MR. REYNOLDS:  Well, yeah.  I’ll tell you a couple of reasons why.  One of them is, at some point it’s not going to have a choice.  And you already see this.  You know, in the K-12 area, we’re seeing an implosion as a lot of big, traditional school systems in big cities with unionized teachers are hemorrhaging students so rapidly that they’re actually having to lay off people.  And that’s happening everywhere from New York to Chicago, never mind Detroit.

And even places like Prince George County outside of Washington, DC, which is a very wealthy and now probably the wealthiest black population in America, people are pulling their kids out of public schools.  It’s not white flight now.  It’s just flight.  Because they think the public schools are dangerous and not teaching them enough.

And as that happens, either the public schools will change or the alternatives will continue to grow to suck up the demand.  And either way, you’re going to see a lot of change.

MR. DRISCOLL:  But unlike most of Toffler books, your book isn’t envisioning a techno-utopia, where the Internet and technology are magic bullets that cure all of academia’s woes, right?

MR. REYNOLDS:  No.  And you know, it’s funny.  At the very end of writing this, as I was correcting the page proofs, I added a couple of sentences to the preface, just because I suddenly realized the horrible idea people were going to get from the subtitle.  And I stressed that I’m not claiming that technology is going to fix everything.  And I certainly don’t want to be confused with the sort of dumb, give every kid an iPad approach.

What technology does, though, is it allows for a lot of alternative models.  And it’s the flourishing of those alternative models that’s really going to save things.  Technology is just the enabler of that.  I’m not just predicting a bright, shiny Utopia with a lot of flashing lights in the background.

A lot of the stuff that technology enables is really stuff where the technology is not doing anything especially sexy.  For example, the Khan Academy has the so-called flipped classroom model where instead of the teacher lecturing in classes and the kids going home to struggle with their homework, the kids watch the lectures on video at home, and then they come into school and do the “homework” in the classroom where the teacher’s actually there to help.  And that makes a lot more sense.

Now, the fact that the kids can watch the lectures on video at home makes this possible.  But that’s not really where the action is.  The action is that instead of struggling with homework at home and having their parents try to figure out the completely changed nomenclature of math problems that appears every decade, the kid’s doing the homework in a room with somebody who actually understands that stuff and can help.

MR. DRISCOLL:  In the last few years, we’ve seen a rapid growth in political correctness in American schools at all levels. It really reminds of the headlines I saw coming out of England in the late 1990s. How related to academia’s other woes is the growth in PC, and will the reforms you suggest in The New School help to cure some of those excesses?

MR. REYNOLDS:  Well, I think so.  You get a sort of flowering of idiocy in institutions that are hermetically sealed from consequences, and because academia has been very successful, there’s been a lot of that.

I mean, Thomas Wright, who’s an evolutionary biologist, says every successful system accumulates parasites.  Well, what happens is, academia has accumulated a lot of parasites, and the PCism is just one of the things that’s happened.  They don’t provide any value, but it was rich enough to afford them for a while, and now it’s not.

A lot of people who are moving their kids out of public schools are doing so in part because — especially if their kids are boys — they feel like they’re not going to be well served, and that they’re going to be taught things that they disagree with and disapprove of.  And of course, as somebody once said to me, nobody ever got shot or knocked up in an online school.  So there’s that.

And I also think at the college level, between the extreme expense that college offers now, and the often unwholesome environment of hard drinking dorms and things like that, a lot of people think online school looks good for college too.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Glenn, you mentioned already the great quote from the Reagan-era report that “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

There’s another quote in The New School that’s worth mentioning as well. You write that quote, “In the 1930s, the economist John Hicks famously wrote, ‘The best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life.’” You went on to write in response that quote, “Change is uncomfortable, and teachers — and, for that matter, administrators — value their own comfort.”

It sounds like academia is pretty comfortable with the current status quo that they believe exists today. How will they react to all of these new and varied education models being introduced?

MR. REYNOLDS:  First with denial, which is still what we mostly see.  And later on, with resistance, which we’re beginning to see some signs of.

You know, it’s funny, because when I first started writing about this stuff, I was talking to my dean and I said, I’m surprised I haven’t gotten more flack.  And he said, look everybody knows this is true. People just don’t want to talk about it, because they don’t really know what to do, and if they did figure out what to do, it would probably be something they didn’t want to do.

And it kind of reminds me of conversations I had with journalists ten or twelve years ago, where they would sort of sheepishly admit that their current business model was unsustainable and then allow as to how they were just hoping it would last until they could retire.  And now you hear sort of similar things from a lot of academics.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Since we’re discussing education reform, what do you make of parents’ recent complaints over Obama’s Common Core agenda?

MR. REYNOLDS:  Well, I understand the basis for it, which — which is, at some level, sort of a quality control idea.  But I think it’s kind of a nineteenth century idea, which is to say, behind Common Core as a concept is the idea that there’s stuff everybody should know.

Now that might be true.  That’s defensible.  But I don’t really think that our biggest problem right now is getting everybody on the same page.  Rather, I think it’s that our system isn’t flexible enough.

Now, the other problem with Common Core has been that its execution has been pretty awful.  And that’s not surprising, because it’s been executed by education bureaucrats, for the most part, and frankly, they’re just not that bright.

MR. DRISCOLL:  There’s a great quote in The New School, from an earlier book by Joseph Allen and Claudia Worrell titled, Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old, which quotes from a man who worked as a teenager in a clothing store in the 1970s, which sounded a lot like my own experiences working as a teenager in my parents’ retail store.  Could you talk about that anecdote, and how important it is for students to blend education with real-life experience?

MR. REYNOLDS:  Well, this is really one of the great disadvantages of public education, as we have it.  Most people think that teenagers have always been teenagers.  But the truth is, the modern teenager is a modern invention created sometime around the turn of the twentieth century.  Before that, teenagers weren’t segregated together by age away from everything else.  They were a major part of economic activity.  They typically worked around a lot of adults.

And like most people, you want to be respected by the people you’re around.  When you’re around adults, you act in ways that make adults respect you.  But when you’re crammed together with a bunch of teenagers, you act in ways that impress teenagers.  And since teenagers are mostly idiots left to their own devices, that involves things like slacking off on school, drinking, sex.  You know, the usual.

And in fact, the modern teenager — and this is a pretty well-documented historical study — is really not a biological product of teenage hormones but rather a product of being crammed together with other teenagers at a time in their life when in some ways their potential is the highest, and then given nothing very meaningful to do.

And the anecdote in the book, which I think is really interesting, is about this guy who was in high school, and how he got this part-time job working at a clothing store, and how after he started working there, he started wanting the respect of the older man who worked there as their full-time job, and how after he’d done that for a while, he came to value their respect more than what he saw as the kind of shallow respect of his peers and how much that meant to him.

And I think that is an experience a lot of people have working.  And I think it’s a reason why we should make it easier for teenagers to work, not harder.

And just on a personal note, as I mention in the book, you know, my daughter finished high school — actually did almost all of her high school in on-line schools, and that let her work at a job during the daytime through pretty much her whole high school career.  And she was working at a TV production company.

And, you know, most of her work wasn’t glamorous.  She made coffee and she filed DVDs.  Sometimes she got to do stuff that was sort of important like writing treatments or doing research.  But the main thing was, instead of being around a bunch of teenagers in an artificial environment, she was in a real place working with sort of high-level adults, where actions had consequences, and it was really important to, you know, meet deadlines and do things right, and you wanted people to think well of you.  And I think that was a better experience.

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MR. DRISCOLL:  We’re recording this interview at the end of 2013.  Since Barack Obama is the perfect example of the sort of product that modern academia seems to crank out, do you mind me asking a few questions about him to wrap things up?

MR. REYNOLDS:  Sure.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Could we start with, how do you explain the disastrous year he just had?

MR. REYNOLDS:  Reality eventually bites back.  I think that Obama is the ultimate example of sort of the academic class’ belief that if you think the right thoughts and say the right things, the right results will happen.

And the problem with that is that it’s just not true.  If you live in a world that’s sort of divorced from actual consequences where all that really matters is impressing your peer group — and in this, it sounds a lot like being a high school student, doesn’t it — then it’s true.

But once you actually connect with the real world, what you say and what you think doesn’t matter nearly as much as what is.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Where do you see Obamacare going, both in 2014 and beyond?

MR. REYNOLDS:  Well, I was joking on my blog the other day that we keep delaying and getting rid of mandates and things like that.  So my joke was that by June Obama will be adopting Rand Paul’s healthcare plan and calling it a modification to Obamacare.

It’s at debacle.  It’s worse than a debacle.  It is a debacle wrapped in a catastrophe, shrouded in a disaster, and founded upon a lie.  So it’s going to fail; exactly how doesn’t really matter.  But it has consequences, and they’re going to be bad.  And you can tell by the way the White House is acting panicked that they are beginning to figure that out.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Glenn, last question. As Obamacare burns itself out, as Americans discover that big government isn’t the cure to all their woes, and along with the education reforms you propose, do you think that America could be poised for a Reaganesque rebirth in the post-Obama era?

MR. REYNOLDS:  I think so, to a degree.  I mean, I think people are capable of learning.  It seems like every generation or two people sort of forget “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” and have to be reminded.  And that reminder comes at varying levels of severity.

My only hope is that people will learn this lesson without anything too horribly disastrous.  And because I’m an optimist, I think that will probably happen.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Well, I hope you’re right. This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and we’ve been talking Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit.com, and the author of The New School: How The Information Age Will Save American Education From Itself. It’s published by Encounter Books, and available from Amazon.com and your local bookstore. And Glenn, thanks once again for stopping by today.

MR. REYNOLDS:  Thanks for having me.

(End of recording; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.)

Transcribed by eScribers.net, with minor revisions (including hyperlinks) by Ed Driscoll. Artwork created using elements from Shutterstock.com.