‘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 In 21st-century America, those models are woefully out of date.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.
LOPEZ: You write that “as has been widely noted, the generic college degree is today what a high-school diploma used to be: a bare ticket to potential entry-level employment, even in fields that used to not require a college degree at all.” Isn’t that an indictment of high school in America? How would you do high school differently?
REYNOLDS: Well, we send a lot of people to college in part for the same reason that the old Soviet Army had lots of officers — they needed officers because their sergeants were lousy, so they had captains doing what sergeants would do in our army. We need college graduates now to do things — like show up on time, speak courteously, and make accurate change — that high-school students used to do.
LOPEZ: What’s your most practical advice to high-school students and their parents about what to do next?
REYNOLDS: Don’t go into debt, except in very rare circumstances. Even the lucrative majors — say, industrial engineering — aren’t such a good deal if you borrow a lot of money to pursue them. Plus, you might not complete them, and even if you do, engineers get laid off, too. Six-figure debt is a burden on anything you do.
LOPEZ: How is your work as a law professor looking “increasingly . . . more like that of an outsourced call-center worker than that of a plumber”? Did you ever really confuse yourself with a plumber before?
REYNOLDS: In the 1990s, people were talking about the ascendancy of “knowledge workers” over blue-collar types. But if you’re primarily working with information, you’re in competition with smart people all over the world. But no matter how smart he is, a guy in Bangalore can’t fix your toilet. Only a plumber in your town can do that.
LOPEZ: Why do we tolerate spending more than we can afford on education?
REYNOLDS: Two things: First, people don’t appreciate how much more it costs than even 20 years ago until they confront it firsthand. A lot of assumptions that parents have based on their own youth don’t apply when the cost of college has more than doubled in the meantime. Second, at least until very recently, people thought that student-loan debt was “good” debt. Now, as anyone who follows Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey, or Clark Howard can attest, they’ve learned otherwise. But the changes in the system are only just beginning to appear in response to that.
LOPEZ: How can college make income inequality worse?
REYNOLDS: Research indicates that students coming in with identical predictors (grades, test scores) come out with different prospects based on family income. Students from well-off backgrounds do better, students from less-well-off backgrounds often wind up worse off. There’s even research suggesting that many minority students actually leave college doing worse on academic performance tests than when they arrived.
LOPEZ: How should higher ed “sacrifice for the common good”?
REYNOLDS: Back in the 1930s, economist John Hicks said that the best monopoly profit is “a comfortable life.” The quasi-monopolies that have been set up by unionized teachers in K–12 and the tenured professoriate in higher education have given the guild members a comfortable life, but at great expense to students and families. If you favor redistribution from the well-off to the less-well-off, then academics’ lives should probably become less comfortable in exchange for cheaper and more responsive educational models.
LOPEZ: How serious is your “hotelling” for college idea?
REYNOLDS: Well, not quite serious enough for me to start rounding up investors. But the idea is that if people really want the “college experience” of late-night pizza, bull sessions, and beer, why not build a resort-like campus, hire some unemployed Ph.Ds as tutors, and then pipe in all your classes online? Put it in an attractive location, and students might be happy to pay. Grand Cayman is nice this time of year.
LOPEZ: What’s so special about the Khan Academy?
REYNOLDS: Well, lots of things are special about the Khan Academy. My nine-year-old nephew learned how to program Java animations via Khan, and now he’s online helping other kids learn. But one thing I like is the “flipped classroom” model, where the boring passive part — lectures — are watched online by students at home as homework, while working problems, the traditional homework, is done in the classroom where the teacher is available to help one-on-one. That’s much better than wasting the teacher on lectures, and then having parents try to puzzle out the homework at night.
LOPEZ: “It’s easy to miss just how many rigidities are introduced into American life by the traditional public-school approach, but those rigidities are legion. Getting rid of them may help address other problems.” Which are top on your priority list?
REYNOLDS: My daughter did online high school, and I discovered those rigidities amount to two things: time and space. The time part means locking students up away from the world all day. When she did online school, she was able to work at a real job during the daytime. She learned a lot more from working around high-functioning adults than she would have by hanging out with teenagers. The space part has to do with schools and real estate. All sorts of people wind up living in places they’d otherwise avoid, because of high prices or long commutes, just to ensure that their kids get a decent education. And if their neighborhood gets zoned for a different school, their property values might plummet for that reason alone.
LOPEZ: Are those rigidities part of the spiritual problem of American education you mention in the book?
REYNOLDS: I think so. The time part more than the space part, but yes. It’s fundamentally artificial to cram a bunch of people the same age in one place and separate them from society.
LOPEZ: Would you abolish the concept of teenagers if you could?
REYNOLDS: People think that teenagers act the way they do because of biology, but the teenager is mostly a modern social invention. We turned young adults into teenagers by taking away anything productive for them to do. A century or more ago, they were important parts of a family’s economic picture. Now they’re consumers, not producers. In pre-modern times, they were around mostly adults, and tended to try to act in ways that earned respect from those adults. Now they’re herded together with other teens, and tend to try to act in ways that other teens respect, ways that are usually a lot less constructive.
LOPEZ: You point out that you may be a potential loser in education reform — as a tenured professor “who is making out all right as it is.” You’re okay with that?
REYNOLDS: Yeah. The current professoriate has had a good ride, but in the past decade or two in particular, that ride has been mostly on the backs of increasingly indebted students and parents. That can’t go on forever, and shouldn’t.
LOPEZ: What’s so great about homeschooling?
REYNOLDS: Well, it’s not for everybody. But nobody cares as much about your kids as you do. Nobody.
LOPEZ: How has the Internet changed since you started Instapundit? What do you like of what you see? What would you caution against? What do you worry about?
REYNOLDS: Some things haven’t changed, and some things have. What hasn’t changed is that it’s still really open. There are lots of newcomers who become well-known based solely on their abilities, whether in blogs, on Twitter, or whatever.
I miss the fun of the early days, say from 2001 until late 2002. There was much more left-right camaraderie in the blogosphere because we were all doing something new and exciting, and that was more important than where we differed. That seemed to change really fast after the 2002 elections, but it was bound to happen. It’s like another one of my interests, electronic music. In the beginning, we were all dancing in warehouses and talking about Peace Love Unity and Respect. Then, after a while, it got big, and everything changed. But that’s the way of things.
My caution/warning is this: People are generally a lot nicer in real life than they are on the Internet. And I say that as someone who has mostly been surprised by how many nice people I’ve met via the Internet. But if you spend too much time on the Internet, the world seems like a meaner place than it really is. I worry that more and more people are spending too much time on the Internet.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.