Thursday, August 20, 2009

Got school?

"School sucks." -- Dan Urman, circa 5 hours ago (and perhaps for all of eternity)

In the eleven plus years that I've known Dan, he has time and again stated his distaste for the current educational system. In contrast, I've instead maintained a perhaps puzzling allegiance to academia. As our most recent discussion is still fresh in my mind, I thought I'd share my thoughts regarding some of the tidbits we touched on, as well as some random ponderings I've had since then.

Ideally, one attends school in order to explore a variety of different disciplines, make connections with professors and fellow students, and ultimately develop a marketable skill set and embark on becoming an informed citizen of society. Unfortunately, reality can be a rude bitch, especially for those who never really accept (or rather, put up with) the existing institutional inefficiencies and, one way or another, fall through the cracks. Why isn't there more incentive to reach out to these students?

If we consider schools as service providers and the students as clients, then we might ask whether we live in a buyer's or a seller's market, since that determines who has more leverage. For most "highly ranked" schools, it's almost certainly a seller's market since they are perceived as being high status and receive far more applicants than they have openings. As such, institutions of higher education can often be overly arrogant regarding their role in society. (Side note: Robin Hanson's take.)

For instance, it might seem quite paternalistic and condescending to force students to enroll in courses, complete homework, and jump through other hoops such as maintaining good attendance all in the name of education (I somewhat disagree). Nonetheless, schools do this all the time in some form or another. Why not implement more flexible criteria for measuring and certifying aptitude? Well, if we could afford it, we'd probably all hire the best personal or small group tutors available. But due to the aforementioned rude bitch, compromises must be made and large classes must be managed. Things certainly become easier if we can discover stronger and more diverse (i.e., less correlated) indicators of educational success.

Perhaps schools would have greater incentive to innovate and improve educational efficiency (as measured in the cost of the student's time and money versus benefit realized) if they did not own a monopoly over their incumbent students. Analogously, a big reason for government waste stems from the effective monopolies they hold over their citizens. The Seasteading Institute hopes to work towards more efficient governments by removing the monopoly aspect via floating cities (on water) with detachable components that are free to join with other cities. Suppose it were much easier for students to transfer between schools. If that were the case, then the market might shift to favor the buyers (the students), which would in turn spur competition and innovation between the different educational institutions (Patri Friedman's take). Sometimes, that's all you need.

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