As a wise philosopher from the Bronx once said: “predictions are hard, especially about the future.” I was reminded of this while reading an outstanding book by Brian McCullough called How the Internet Happened. If you want a good, concise history of the tech business, buy this book. It starts with Netscape’s IPO in 1995 and ends with present-day Smartphones. In between it covers everything from Microsoft’s browser wars, the dotcom bust, the rise of Google and paid search, PayPal and ecommerce, Facebook, and much more.
It catalogs two decades of incredible, unforeseen change. No one, and I mean no one, could have predicted where it would all lead. Too many twists and turns took place – some planned, most not – to create opportunity, innovation, and wealth.
I compared this with our own line of work (education) and thought: twenty years ago you could have predicted exactly where we’d be today. The classrooms of 2018 are essentially the same as the classrooms of 1995…and 1985…and 1975. This is pathetic. If there’s one field that should be on the cutting edge of innovation, it’s education.
No secret why that is, of course. The public school system is organized to benefit adults, not children. Yet if education could make the same breakthroughs as Silicon Valley routinely does, here would be my five predictions as to what the school of 2028 would look like.
First, the teaching staff would not be public employees – they would all be private contractors. I think this is inevitable anyway, given the fact that it’s too expensive to hire public employees anymore. The pension and benefit costs are crushing state budgets across the country. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Joyce Carmine, the Superintendent of Park Forest Public Schools in Illinois, retired in 2017 with an annual salary of $398,000. This entitles her to a $300,000 pension every year for the rest of her life – courtesy of the Illinois taxpayer.
I wonder what her neighbors in Park Forest think about footing the bill for that, given that the median income in that community is $44,000. How much longer will people in the private sector tolerate working into their 70s to support people in the public sector retiring in their 50s?
The replacement of public employees with private contractors not only makes good economic sense, but they would also be free of the regulations that choke government personnel decisions. Public school teachers are nearly impossible to fire, are paid on the basis of time served rather than results delivered, and cannot be rewarded for superior effort. Is it any wonder the good ones leave and the bad ones stay?
Second, say goodbye to the current school schedule. The public school of 2028 would be open year-round. No more spring, summer, fall, or Christmas breaks. Other than Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, there would be no other days off.
But don’t worry – your kids wouldn’t be in school all the time, because the third change in the school of the future would be to adopt a block system for classes. This means kids would take only one class a month. All day, every day, for that month, your child learns nothing but biology. And since our teachers are all private contractors now, parents can choose whoever they want. Maybe it’s a retired biotech specialist who teaches three weeks of standard biology and then takes her class into the lab for the last week so they can map out genomes.
If parents wanted their kids in school the whole year, fine. But everyone needs a vacation, right? That brings me to the fourth change: take vacation whenever you want. Right now that’s only in the summertime, but who wants to go to Disneyland in July? Why not go in October or February when the crowds are lighter? With the block system, all classes wrap up at the end of the month, so if you want to work through the summer because Dad’s company won’t let him take a vacation until November, you can do that.
And to really get maximum impact, classes need to be smaller, which means there would be more of them. That means maximizing the floor space in each school. To do that, our final change would get rid of the things you don’t really need in school: gyms, libraries, and cafeterias. Yes, I know this sounds radical, but we’ve got to be honest about what’s most important – teaching. I loved PE as much as the next guy, but it’s not essential. Break a sweat on your own time. Go for a run after school or play a pickup basketball game at the park. School is not for that.
But surely libraries are necessary? Well, how many kids have you seen in a school library outside of class? Most of them avoid it like the plague, and these days if they really want to read a book, they can do it at the public library or on Kindle.
And cafeterias? Granted, the free meals for at-risk kids are sometimes the only decent ones they get, but why does a cafeteria need to deliver this? Why not provide a food station somewhere with fruit, chips, wrapped sandwiches, etc. that they can get during a break and bring back to the classroom? That’s right – eat in the classroom. We routinely do this with our students and have never had a problem. In fact, I think they prefer to eat while they work.
So there it is: the school of 2028. Somebody should try it somewhere and see how it works. You could even name it after Yogi Berra.
Division. Red v. Blue. American Tribalism. There has been a lot of talk lately about political partisanship in the United States. Publications as diverse as the Washington Times and the New Yorker have even suggested that America is on the brink of another civil war.
Sometimes I think political columnists and “pundits” (one of my least favorite words – time to put it to rest) have way too much time on their hands. I guess they have to keep the pot boiling, and their subscription rates rising, by offering outlandish theories they only discuss among themselves.
None of the issues we face today are as stark as the immorality and illegality of one human being owning another. The contradiction slavery posed to our most cherished ideals was obvious to everyone with even an ounce of empathy. Those who supported the institution used all manner of political, religious, biological, and economic arguments to justify its existence, but I suspect that even they, in their heart of hearts, knew it was evil.
So we’re not that bad off. And since then we’ve had 150 years of common history to further cement our sense of nationhood. If nothing else, the white headstones at Arlington National Cemetery should do more than anything to remind us that no one cared about blue or red when laying these patriots in their graves. Unless, that is, the blue signifies their loyalty and the red the color of the blood they shed.
At issue today is really just a garden-variety disagreement over the role of government in the lives of its citizens. Some want more government activity, some less – nothing new there. FDR convinced a majority of Americans to support the former; Ronald Reagan convinced a majority of Americans to try the latter. Back and forth the pendulum swings.
What might be different now is how politics has seeped into areas where it was previously unwelcome, or just unheard of. Who would have ever thought we would argue over the weather? Were the California wildfires caused by global warming or bad forest management? Disagreement reigns even there.
I bring this up because our company’s vision is to accomplish the one thing George Washington wished he had done before he died: create a national school where America’s youth, regardless of background, could be sent to “acquire knowledge in the principles of politics and good government.” I think by “politics” he meant civics, and what he had in mind was a civilian version of West Point – a place where the best and brightest could live and work together while learning what America stood for and how self-government could be maintained.
At its heart, it is an attempt to promote national unity and strengthen the fabric of our country. That is what Mile High Education Services is really about. We don’t gloss over the dark pages of our history or paper over its differences, but we always start with the Constitution’s preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” Note the wording – at once idealistic and pragmatic. Since perfection in human nature is impossible, we can only ever strive for something more perfect than what we are now.
What worries me about today’s climate, especially the example it sets for our youth, is the tendency for people to dig in their heels and not give up an inch of ground – over anything. If you have to defend everything, you protect nothing. Knowing which battles to fight is an important skill, maybe the most important.
One of the units we teach is built around a book written by William Shirer called The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It’s the best history of Nazi Germany I know of. But Shirer also wrote another, lesser-known, book called The Collapse of the Third Republic. It’s an analysis of how France fell to the Germans in 1940. Having explained what made Hitler and the Nazis tick, Shirer wanted to find out why they were able to achieve in six weeks what their fathers had failed to do in four years – conquer France. It was not inevitable, or even likely. Together with the British, French forces outnumbered the Germans. They had better artillery and tanks, and actually had more combat aircraft available on the day they surrendered than on the day they were attacked.
So what happened? Shirer points the usual fingers at poor leadership, tactics, and decision-making, but then he goes a step further and says it was the decay in French society that was truly to blame. Not decay as we normally think of it – a society going soft from self-indulgence and hedonism. Those exist in every society. Shirer suggests that what weakened France was a lack of national unity. This didn’t happen overnight. It was the cumulative effect of sixty years of bitter and usually bloodless fights over nearly everything: Republicanism versus Monarchism, Church versus State, Army versus Government, Countryside versus City. Frenchmen could have survived any one of these dilemmas, but not all of them. In the end, says Shirer:
"They seemed to dwell more and more in two separate, hostile worlds, divided not only politically but by their fundamental attitudes toward morals and religion. There was no tolerance, no breadth of understanding, which might have led toward reconciliation in the interest of national unity. One more imposing layer was added to the wall which had been raised between the two Frances by the Revolution and which had been built up ever higher, layer by layer, by the successive crises of the June Days, the Second of December, the Commune, the Sixteenth of May, and Boulangism."
When the time came to meet a real threat – Adolf Hitler and his legions – the French had no appetite for the struggle. In fact, the day the Germans invaded, France didn’t even have a government, and its army had no field commander.
The battle was over before it even started.
Okay – time to plan for our next retreat. We have two groups lined up from Detroit and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In addition to logistics like hotel and travel reservations, I need to decide what subject we’ll teach. Generally it’s whatever dominates the news that week. Since new sanctions against Iran are coming into effect, I’m leaning toward that.
A popular saying has it that “the problem with the younger generation is that they haven’t read the minutes to the last meeting.” Not our kids. One of the things we’re really good at is teaching them how to absorb information faster. We do this by taking a subject and reducing it to a few main ideas. In the case of our Iran unit, the main idea is to identify the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Islam. This is a big one in the Middle East; one of the many fault lines that bisects that troubled region and provides the fuel for much of its conflict.
I came across a fact the other day that astonished me. It is believed that Hizbollah – the proxy guerrilla force in southern Lebanon financed by Iran – has 100,000 rockets there, all poised to attack Israel. This is an incredible amount of firepower and very destabilizing. Revolutionary Guard forces have been active in Iraq and Syria, and Iranian proxies are also fighting in Yemen.
Since Iran will remain a thorn in our foreign policy side for some time, the kids will spend the first day of the retreat working through this lesson plan. It’s important for them to understand the background of U.S.-Iran relations and why they have been so bad for so long, because that informs the decisions we make now. It will also inform the decisions these kids will make in twenty or thirty years. Where do we go from here? What happens if Iran gets the Bomb? How should we react to that and to Iranian efforts to spread their influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria?
For possible answers to these questions, we will teach two more units that week: Appeasement and the Vietnam War. The former addresses the infamous policy to appease Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. This was the classic justification used to fight another enemy at another time in Vietnam. We’ll teach that unit on the last day of the retreat to show our students how the wrong lessons of history can be applied too. It is the exception to the old saying that “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.” The men who led us into Vietnam knew their history all right, but supported a doomed policy anyway.
The lessons of Neville Chamberlain’s sellout at Munich in 1938 are clear and true enough. Appeasing Adolf Hitler by giving him German-inhabited sections of Czechoslovakia was a terrible idea. And not just in hindsight. Winston Churchill most famously condemned it at the time when he said, “His Majesty’s Government had to choose between war and shame. It chose shame. It will get war.”
So it’s important to stand up to aggression, sure – but what about Vietnam? Every President from Eisenhower to Nixon used appeasement as the justification to fight Communism there, but Ho Chi Minh was not Adolf Hitler and South Vietnam was not Czechoslovakia. To oppose one and defend the other was not synonymous.
Our students will learn all this too, and the field exercise on Thursday will have a scenario in which they must surveil our Iranian “agents” downtown to determine their intent. All I can say is that it will have something to do with money laundering and circumventing financial sanctions to acquire prohibited nuclear technology. The kids will need to bring their A game for this because it will require them to do A LOT of research and connect A LOT of dots.
But by the end of the week they will be semi-experts on Iran, presented with the question (if not the answer) of how to deal with that country in the future. Should Iranian aggression be met with military force, as if the ayatollahs were Nazis bent on conquest? Or should we assume we’re in a new cold war and counter Tehran’s influence through political and economic means?
That’s the decision the younger generation will have to make.
When you were a kid, did anyone ever tell you, “If you’re going to act like a child, I’ll treat you like one”? This is one of the oldest tricks in the book to get kids to behave. There is some truth to it though. The more responsibility you get, the more you grow into the role. If everyone treats you like a child, how do you grow up?
I didn’t really feel like an adult until I was 20 years old. I was in college and needed a job that made better money than washing dishes or cutting grass. At the time, I think the minimum wage in Colorado was five or six bucks an hour, but I needed something that paid more.
I found it in Alaska, where the minimum wage was higher ($7.50 an hour) and you worked crazy overtime. The salmon season just happened to run from late June to late August – a perfect fit for school. The work was decidedly unglamorous: I spent three summers pitching fish from a boat hold, then gutting and cleaning it inside a factory. Occasionally I would drive a forklift or shovel ice out of the icehouse. The longest week I ever worked was 100 hours, but I earned $1,000 for it – good money in those days (and not bad still). On break we would go out on the dock and watch the bald eagles fly by, see moose foraging for food, or watch the Northern Lights. Honestly, one of the best times of my life.
In fact, had I known about it sooner, I would have gone up there in high school. This is a tender age, to be sure, but you grow up fast with grizzled dock foremen yelling at you to pull your head out your rectal orifice, or short-tempered fishermen looking over your shoulder to make sure you weighed their catch right. That was their livelihood after all, and if you screwed up a tare weight or marked a tote wrong, they lost money.
It was a business, and a rough-and-tumble one. I loved it. I was being treated like an adult; held accountable if I made a mistake, rewarded if I did well. This is the essence of self-respect. It’s why people enjoy their work, however mundane it is. You are meeting your responsibilities. There is great satisfaction in that.
I bring this up because after working with at-risk kids in Denver high schools for six years, I felt this was a big piece missing from their lives: the dignity and satisfaction of a job well done. This is not something school can provide. I guess a student can work hard on a paper or a class project and get an A, but it’s not the same thing as surviving and thriving in the real world.
So how about this for a solution – let kids graduate high school after their sophomore year. If they are not college-bound, let them enter the job market at 16. Most of them are itching to do so anyway because they view school as a waste of time. And given how many schools fail to teach reading, writing, or math, it is a waste of their time. Why keep them in a failure factory for another two years? Let them graduate and move on. It will be better for them, their teachers, and the school districts.
For those who are college-bound, let them take concurrent enrollment classes as juniors and seniors so they have a couple years of college under their belt and won’t have to pay for four years at a university. And for those wanting to join the military, let them spend at least a year preparing for it by joining a Junior ROTC program so they can improve their ASVAB and physical fitness scores.
Why stay with K-12? Make it K-10 instead. Treat these kids like adults and they may start acting like one. Plus, they get two years of their life back to work and prosper. And who knows – they might even like Alaska.