‘Something that can’t go on forever, won’t,” Glenn Harlan Reynolds writes in his new book The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself. “And despite (or because of) the fact that my day job involves higher education,” Reynolds, best known for his pioneering Instapundit blog, writes, “I think it’s better for us to face up to what’s going on before the bubble bursts too messily.” Reynolds talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the book, education, and life online.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: So what’s the cocktail-party answer to what “the new school” is?
GLENN REYNOLDS: Both higher and K–12 education in America are based on models imported from 19th-century Germany. In 21st-century America, those models are woefully out of date.
LOPEZ: How is education like the newspaper business?
REYNOLDS: A decade or more ago, I used to have conversations with journalists who reflected that their industry’s business model was collapsing, but who somewhat sheepishly hoped the collapse wouldn’t come until they reached retirement age. Now I have the same kind of conversation with academics.
LOPEZ: Why is it “dumb but popular” to say, “Let’s give every kid an iPad”? What’s dumb about it, and why is it popular?
REYNOLDS: It’s popular because iPads are cool. It’s dumb because the tech is the easy part. Getting the software right — and by that I mean social software, in terms of teaching methods, student expectations, etc. — is a lot harder. So there’s a temptation to focus on cool gadgets and hope the hard part will somehow miraculously come together.
LOPEZ: How can thinking about blacksmiths help us with education reform in 2014?
REYNOLDS: Before the industrial revolution, we had blacksmiths, running essentially one-man artisanal operations. They worked when and how they liked. If you wanted ten times more blacksmithing done, you hired ten times more blacksmiths.
With the industrial revolution, this artisanal approach was replaced by division of labor and an assembly-line approach. There was less creativity, and less freedom for the producer, but you got a lot more product a lot more cheaply.
In education, we did much the same thing, going from the one-room schoolhouse — much like a blacksmith shop, where the teacher taught as he/she pleased, and students learned as individuals — to an industrial-model school where students were separated by age and moved along what amounts to an assembly line. Students come in at one end as kindergartners, move step by step along the assembly line getting standardized instruction, and emerge at the other end as graduates. In the industrial era, it worked pretty well, turning out lots of future assembly-line workers, already familiar with following instructions, standing in line, and starting work when the bell rang. But this isn’t that era anymore.
LOPEZ: Who are the audiences for this book and how do you hope they’ll read it and make use of it?
REYNOLDS: There are basically two audiences: parents who are unhappy with things as they are but don’t quite understand why, and educators (and investors in educational innovation) who want ideas on where things are going. I hope that both will find it helpful and interesting.
LOPEZ: What was so wrong about Horace Mann?
REYNOLDS: I’m not sure “wrong” is the right word, exactly. But when he brought the Prussian system to America, the response from his critics was that it was in some sense un-American: The Prussian system, the critics said, was based on the idea that the government was smarter than the people, while American society was founded on precisely the opposite belief. I think that the critics were onto something here, and I think subsequent history proves it.
LOPEZ: At what point do we stop thinking of college “as a path to prosperity”?
REYNOLDS: As soon as possible. Some students do better by going to college. Others do worse. Four out of ten students, according to Gallup, wind up in jobs they could have gotten without a college degree. That makes the time, and money, spent in college a waste, at least as far as prosperity is concerned. And some students actually do worse by going to college, developing problems with drugs, alcohol, or sex that may plague them for years, or a lifetime. Then there’s the debt, which can run into six figures, and isn’t dischargeable in bankruptcy.