Book information: The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself by Glenn Harlan Reynolds. Jackson, TN: Perseaus Books, 2013. Pp. viii + 106. Paperback. $21.50.

Instapundit’s Glenn Harlan Reynolds’ The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself is a clear and succinct, yet thorough, essay on creative destruction and American education. This slim volume (only about 100 pages) is divided approximately into 50 pages on higher education, 25 on secondary and elementary, and 25 on predictions and concluding remarks. While this might seem surprisingly brief, those of us who have been following the education crisis in the U.S. know that, actually, the problem really isn’t that complex.

As Reynolds summarizes his dean’s comments on the crisis, “Everybody knows there’s a problem; they just don’t want to talk about it because they don’t know what to do about it, and they’re afraid of what they might have to do if they did.” Very simply, what we have is a product (college degrees), whose cost has greatly outpaced inflation over the last 30 years and whose quality has plummeted, calling into question its key selling-point, viz. the idea that getting a college degree is a reliable means of upward income mobility. “The current system isn’t working,” he writes. “And, alas, neither are too many of its graduates. There may be a connection.” In the face of this, growing numbers of people simply aren’t buying the current model.

Both higher and “lower” education today still largely operate on a model manufactured in the 19th century to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution. The problem: “Well, how many 19th century business models do you see flourishing, here in the 21st?” Nearly every other industry has moved on, adapted, or been outmoded in some way, but education has dragged its feet to enter the Information Age, much like journalism. Certainly, we will always need education, but whether we will need the university as it is or public elementary and secondary education as they are, argues Reynolds, is unlikely to say the least. “[C]omfortable or not,” he writes, “change is coming. Those who face it are likely to do better than those who refuse it.”

What the 19th century needed was a workforce with basic literacy and mathematics training who could form a line and follow directions. “Today’s schools, however,” he writes, “aren’t even successfully teaching the basics.” Rather than the now failing 19th century model, one of several “quasi-predictions” that Reynolds offers is that education is moving in a direction toward increased customization:

We live in a world with thousands of different varieties of shampoo; why should we be satisfied with so little real variation in education? If the 19th century was about standardization, the 21st is about customization…. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the distinctions between K-12 and higher education (both, after all, 19th century models) blur or vanish.

The coming creative destruction no doubt will leave many now comfortable educators (and — thankfully — overpaid, superfluous administrators) out of work or otherwise greatly downsized, yet our “educational future is … one that, post-transition, is likely to be brighter for consumers,” i.e. students and parents.

With regards to “lower” education, the trend is toward cheaper, better, more flexible, more diverse, and more parent-friendly models. As for higher education, Reynolds outlines the following possible future scenarios: contraction back down to more sustainable sizes (deflation of the bubble); reconfiguration in the direction of less expensive options (online, community college, cheaper state schools); substitution of degree programs with certificates in more practical and needed fields (such as skilled labor); exit from higher education altogether (less income without tens of thousands of dollars in debt is becoming increasingly more appealing); or, lastly, new and unforeseen models of higher education.

This last point highlights the entrepreneurial opportunity the creative destruction of higher education affords. “The chances of this happening are actually pretty good,” Reynolds writes. “There are a lot of smart people thinking about the problem, and what they come up with may be as hard to predict today as Facebook or Twitter were in 1993.”

One minor criticism of The New School is that its subtitle does not really fit the book. Reynolds does not really seek to show how “the information age will save American education from itself” but simply argues that it will. This is actually a major strength of the book’s content, in fact. Without saying too little, Reynolds maintains a respectable intellectual humility. He offers several clear trends and possible outcomes but ultimately does not claim to know precisely what the future of American education will look like. Rather, the one thing he is clear about — and most certainly right about — is that American education cannot continue on in the next decade or so as it has in the past. Reynolds repeatedly references economist Herb Stein: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

A bigger criticism would be that with such a clear analysis, it is disappointing that the moral dimension of our education crisis does not receive a more detailed treatment from Reynolds. It is not absent, but neither is it conspicuous. Our education system continues to be sold to parents and students as an effective means for upward income mobility, when, in fact, this is less and less often the case. Unless students are pursuing STEM fields, this amounts to demonstrably false advertising. The fact that many Christian liberal arts colleges and universities would equally fall under this critique is especially troubling to me. With more than $1 trillion in student debt in the U.S., this is a major issue of social justice, and Christian institutions, who proclaim that God “will bring justice to the poor” (Psalm 72:4), ought to be leading the way in pioneering new models and approaches to provide cheaper, higher quality education tailored to the needs of the 21st century.

“Everybody knows there’s a problem” — what Reynolds offers is a sober, yet hopeful, picture of that problem’s likely resolve. In that regard, The New School is essential reading not just for educators or commentators but for everyone. I would particularly recommend it to parents wondering what is the best path to pursue or recommend for their children. The New School doesn’t promise specific answers, but it certainly can point people away from the current outdated and failing model and toward many exciting new alternatives. And that alone is an achievement.

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  • http://palamas.info/ Fr Gregory Jensen

    Thank you for this Dylan.

    Toward the end of last semester, together with the other chaplains at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I’ve heard presentations by administrators on the State of the University. What I found interesting was the absence of any consideration of the moral dimension of education.

    In one talk, we heard about the UW’s commitment to diversity, albeit a diversity that fits within the limits of the secular and progressive model of the Wisconsin Idea (more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisconsin_Idea). What was interesting to me was the presenter explicitly rejected my characterization of diversity (and the Wisconsin Idea) as a moral argument.

    The second presentation talked about the curricula of the university. Standard stuff about STEM until the presenter addressed the role of the liberal arts. Here again though, any hint of the moral character of liberal education was left unexamined. Instead the emphasis was on the ability of a liberal education to help students succeed professionally and so economically. While this might have been true 50 or even 25 years ago, based on my conversations with undergraduates I don’t this is still the case the humanities having become politicized and radicalized according to progressive ideals.

    That the UW has a moral vision of the good life is clear. And it is just as clear that while many taxpayers in the State agree with this vision such agreement is far from universal. This disagreement doesn’t distress me nearly as much however as the unwillingness of the speakers to acknowledge that they are making moral arguments about the nature of society and the person.

    I disagree with the vision of the good life and the value of the humanities as they were presented by the speakers. However, and to return to your review here, to address the moral dimension of education only implicitly does a great disservice to students, their parents and the taxpayer. By all means, let the university make the argument that secular and progressive ideals are morally superior to those of religious conservatives. But to do so with integrity require that they not only make the argument and accept the criticism of those with whom they disagree.

    When we fail to do so, whether through omission or attempts to change the subject, we are guilty cowardice and undermines the educational mission of the institution. And this is as true for religious as it is secular schools.

    Again, thanks for the review!

    • Dylan Pahman

      You’re welcome. Reynolds doesn’t totally leave out the moral dimension, but he does not address it head-on or in much depth. In his defense, after reading how badly the current system is failing, the moral dimension of this failure becomes hard to miss, but it could be explored more, and more clearly.

      Another moral aspect, which you seem to touch on above, is that education itself, inasmuch as it is a pursuit of truth and knowledge, is to some extent a moral imperative: it is a matter of proper stewardship of the minds God has given us. Individual gifts vary, of course, but nevertheless education has this moral foundation. When the quality of education (higher or lower) continues to be diluted, this itself is a moral problem, even apart from the question of utility (which is a moral problem as well).

      I’m not sure if you have seen it, but I explored this in more detail (with additional emphasis on the utility side) at Public Discourse last October: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2013/10/10888/

      And a bit more here on the question of student loans: http://www.acton.org/pub/commentary/2013/09/11/federal-student-loans-problem-subsidiarity

      • http://palamas.info/ Fr Gregory Jensen

        Thanks for the links Dylan–I read both essays when they came out but it’s good to be reminded of them.

        On the question of higher education and justice, have you seen this in today’s WSJ (http://www.acton.org/pub/commentary/2013/09/11/federal-student-loans-problem-subsidiarity)?

        “Well-off students at private schools have long subsidized poorer classmates. But as states grapple with the rising cost of higher education, middle-income students at public colleges in a dozen states now pay a growing share of their tuition to aid those lower on the economic ladder.

        “The student subsidies, which are distributed based on need, don’t show up on most tuition bills. But in eight years they have climbed 174% in real dollars at a dozen flagship state universities surveyed by The Wall Street Journal.

        “During the 2012-13 academic year, students at these schools transferred $512,401,435 to less well-off classmates, up from $186,960,962, in inflation-adjusted figures, in the 2005-06 school year.”

        Whatever we might think of the justice of the practice, it is interesting to note that the universities themselves are not forthcoming about what they are doing. Instead the “opaque college financing generally keeps this accounting hidden from public view.” The reason for this according to Joni Finney, of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania is because

        “Institutions don’t want people to know how they are financed because you might get upset,” she said. “We barely accept the idea of redistribution of income at the government level and this is basically what we’re doing in higher education.”

        Eek!

        • Dylan Pahman

          I did not see that. Thanks for the link.

          The lack of financial transparency combined with the willful denial of how bad things are (“Everybody knows there’s a problem; they just don’t want to talk about it because they don’t know what to do about it, and they’re afraid of what they might have to do if they did”) is a recipe for disaster.

  • http://rdmckinney.blogspot.com/ Roger D. McKinney

    I don’t think there is a problem with our educational system at all. We have merely been trying to educate people who don’t have the abilities to learn the material taught.

    Schoeck in his “Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior” describes how the UK and US went about trying to establish equality of outcomes using education. The UK made education free, but required passing stiff exams to get into the better colleges. The US decided to educate everyone with the same curricula regardless of ability. In the UK, education played almost no role in reducing inequality of outcomes.

    In the US, many colleges had to dumb down the curricula dramatically to get unqualified people through it. There was no other choice possible. When you try to send people to college who are not academically college material, something has to give and it was the quality of education. At the same time, the government created unlimited demand for a limited supply.

    Something similar happened in K-12. Graduation rates are higher, but at what expense? Again the curricula were dumbed down extraordinarily. Now people complain about the quality of education, but if you increase the quality, the graduation rate collapses.

    No one in the US wants to admit that not every person is college material, but it’s true. You can’t graduate everyone in the nation and maintain the quality of education. The goal is impossible.

    But only educators and politicians are fooled. Colleges all know which high schools maintain high standards and which don’t. The best high school students go to the top ranked colleges, the middle students to good state schools, etc. Businesses aren’t fooled either. They know which colleges still maintain high academic standards and which don’t.

    The only problem is that while the educators, media and politicians are busy fooling each other, they’re wasting tax dollars trying to make scholars out of people fit only for manual labor.

  • http://rdmckinney.blogspot.com/ Roger D. McKinney

    PS, when bachelor degrees became common, the better students were forced to earn masters degrees. Before long they will need PhD’s to set themselves apart. We have accomplished nothing in terms of education or equality. We have merely wasted $billions. What are the opportunity costs?

  • thorgodofthenorth

    Did the Kahn Academy start saying this years ago, at least to some extent? I can learn more in (5) 15 minutes lessons there than a week in school. And if I need to go back and review I can do that as well.

    • Dylan Pahman

      Reynolds highlights the Kahn Academy throughout. I think he sees it as a good example of one direction education may be going.