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.