The free nature of Wikipedia and YouTube demonstrates a potential direction for education -- if we're smart enough to allow it to happen. Unfortunately, Wikipedia's relevance criteria for articles is based on the argument from popularity (the American Idol/democracy argument), while YouTube is a for-profit website owned by scummy capitalists in league with advertisers devoid of real values; both are interested in pleasing people en masse, either as a symbol of some arbitrary image, or to make massive amounts of money at the expense of everyone else. Never mind the issues with inheriting wealth, allowing profit-generating entities to have owners (or to NOT be owned by everyone), the lack of alternative service providers, or using symbols in the place of hard, empirical observation; that all sucks, but what this post will be about is how such incentives and lack of regulation will keep us retarded for decades, if not centuries, to come.
Let's put it this way: You don't have to pay for an ISP in order to gain Internet access (try a library, school, or other academic location), so if you can read free articles and watch free vlogs that are of higher value than the average, hugely expensive college lecture, then someone better realize the potential that's currently being wasted and pull a Napster for education. Knowing who Napoleon replaced when he came to power or how to factor trinomials makes no sense in the context of the modern person's highly technicized existence, so why are we continuing to teach people such functionally useless nonsense? Do we really get off on artificially conjuring up value in order to give our society the false appearance of being interesting and productive? What about all the stuff that's out there in the real world that actually matters?
Furthermore, now that, thankfully, the music and film industries are dying* (and the porn industry†, believe it or not), I think it's time that the same started happening to the education industry. Let's not pretend that it isn't an industry, either, because that's exactly what it is. Remember when I said that it makes no sense for the average person to learn about Napoleon and complex math? Well, it does make sense -- for the banks and academic institutions administering all the tests, texts, and other materials. Firstly, yes, there are some colleges that are for-profit (I go to one), and secondly, regardless of motive, it's nevertheless still the case that millions of dollars get wasted every year on producing and using crap that not only could be learned by browsing Wikipedia in far less time, but is also totally irrelevant to anyone's ability to:
1. Treat people properly or behave in a competent manner within a social environment
2. Produce things that actually improve society's overall quality by removing or reducing negative impediments
The monetary incentive aside, colleges are still usually interested in upholding an image, which is a symbolic gesture that, in this case, has positive social consequences for the colleges, but hurts both the minds and wallets of those used to this end. Offering needlessly complex math and history courses in order to show off your "standards of quality" and "reputation" is no different from a woman showing off how "graceful" and "respectable" she is by wearing dresses. So all you feminists out there who advocate the slutification of your culture as a means to "realizing gender equality" or some such silliness, drop your personal predilection for the one symbolic standard that hurts your cause and start promoting free education -- for the betterment of all!
Alright, facetious rundown over. Three points:
1. In the future, if we're all going to be streaming movies from hulu.com and downloading mp3s, we might as well take our "online" classes for free as well; it's more efficient than the alternatives, and the technology is already available (even if everyone is too interested in music videos and online shopping to care).
2. If we're doing all education online and for free, then we might as well choose "courses" -- or even individual lectures -- ourselves, and leave out the authoritative administrators altogether. If you want to fix toilets for a living, find a free online service provider who specializes in providing information and examinations for that stuff, then read up on it, participate in the discussions, do your real-life practice lessons, and take a few (hopefully not too memorization-based) tests. This will allow you to earn a certification for your desired skill set without all of the wasted resources and bureaucracy.
3. Even though general education in the modern sense sucks, there should still be a foundational set of ideas that gets taught to everyone at a young age, regardless of what they go on to pursue later in life.
If we as a society ever become interested in this direction, in order to make sure that 3. is established as a societal baseline, we'll first need to scrap the following:
1. Psychology - especially Freudian psychology (if your textbook admits that a concept that it's bringing forth is no longer accepted even by modern psychiatrists, you know you're holding a waste of trees in your hands), but all psychology, really, as it focuses on the individual rather than the environment, doesn't involve empirical observation and testing, and contrives arbitrary "disorders" where almost all people have at least some of the qualifications, even if they don't have enough to qualify for "treatment"
2. Math - Keep arithmetic and times tables, but get rid of trigonometry, geometry, calculus, etc.
3. History - I don't need to know about King Hammurabi or the Boxer Rebellion in order to fix your computer
4. Creative writing - Most fiction writers never go to college for writing, and the few who do often don't get anything out of it. Being graded for such a subjective activity is really silly, anyway.
5. Arbitrary guidelines for research papers - It doesn't matter whether your student indented twice or only once for his block quotation, so stop throwing a fit about it and do something meaningful with your credentials for once
6. Political Science - This is just "Spend hundreds of dollars to listen to the news in person 101"
7. Sex Ed
8. Phys Ed
9. "Philosophy" - This is just "Spend hundreds of dollars to have someone give you a list of their favorite philosophers while refusing to in any way indicate that one might have better ideas than the others, or that other not-so-famous people probably have the same ideas... 101"
12. Any other liberal arts courses
13. Creation "science" and Intelligent Design
14. The pledge of allegiance
16. Grades - Either you're good enough to do it in real life or you're not -- no arbitrary, base-10 nonsense necessary.
After we've scrapped all the junk, we'll need to teach the following to all young people before they go on to pursue an occupational field, regardless of what they become interested in learning about later on:
4. Philosophy (the real kind -- not the "all ideas are equal and memorizing the names of famous people is more important than thinking coherently" kind)
6. Science (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy)
7. Computer Science (or at least basic computer competency and troubleshooting skills)
Obviously, anyone who wants to specialize in something will be able to go more in-depth in some of the above areas than what the general requirement entails; additionally, they'll be able to take entirely separate courses for the purpose of acquiring the above mentioned certifications. However, when it comes to what is a requirement, there are certain skills and concepts that should be stressed.
Specific things that everyone should be taught at a young age:
1. How to formulate logical premises and conclusions; logical fallacies and why they're fallacies; how to construct a logic flowchart; what things like non sequiturs are
2. The ever-present possibility of being in error, or of being deceived by one's senses
3. A methodology for living, including methods for how to manage processes, formulate values, and accomplish goals; an understanding of why something is more valuable than something else, or at least appears to be based on sensory information; an understanding of how to determine what to do in various situations and how to make decisions based on opportunity cost, value equations, etc.; how to isolate variables for problem-solving; how to perceive the world as an integrated system dictated by cause-and-effect, relations, input, processing, and output that can be infinitely broken down into subsystems
4. Waste management, which expands upon 3., but is a bit more specific
5. How to conduct an experiment (of the thought variety of otherwise); how the scientific method works; why peer review is important; the differences between dependent variables, independent variables, and controls
6. How to spot any kind of prejudice, bias, superstition, fear/attachment, emotionally-made decisions, or religious thinking (regardless of whether it applies to what people refer to as "religion")
7. The nature of pleasure as a termination of deprivation
8. The arbitrary nature of most criteria in all areas of life, including deadlines, work hours, and weekends. For example, there is no scientific evidence in favor of the idea that working eight hours a day is more effective than working seven or nine, or somehow optimal. In any case, the ubiquity of the arbitrary criteria phenomenon needs to be stressed at a young age.
9. The arbitrary nature of the self; why a peer of yours who is very similar to you ideologically is more "you" than your seven-year-old self; why memory is the only neurological component that prevents individual sentient organisms from realizing that they're the same, in substance, as all other sentient organisms; why your pain and someone else's pain are substantively equivalent in the same way that one chunk of iron and another chunk of iron are substantively equivalent; how chemicals enter and leave the body, and what they do during metabolic activities; why living organisms are sort-of-open systems, complete with processors, memory, storage devices, buses, input devices, output devices, system software, etc.
10. Statistics; how to collect a sample; how to deduce probability outcomes; the significance of sample size; how to calculate odds; how to interpret odds (to avoid wishful thinking, etc.). Note: If 3. and 8. are properly taught, then the idea of percentages will not be taken seriously, even if percentages will still be used on occasion (or maybe not, depending).
11. Attachment avoidance - for death, life, work, loved ones, ideas, beliefs, isms, and material possessions. I'm not sure if I'd take it as far as meditation and related practices, but there should definitely be an emphasis on preparing for the inevitable decay of the "fun" things around you, as well as how to maintain a productive psychology in the absence of fulfilled desires.
12. How to use a personal computer; how to use a mouse and keyboard; how to navigate the Windows operating system; how to keep your PC free from malware, security threats, and performance problems; how to upgrade your PC. Note that this doesn't need to be incredibly comprehensive or technical; it just needs to allow the general population to be computer literate. This deserves far more attention in school than dinosaurs or Pilgrims. Sorry.
13. The different spheres of influence on the individual, and how to recognize them in everyday life. For example, the media wants you to stop smoking not because it's the only thing (or the most painful thing, or the first thing) that can kill you, but because there's plenty of money to be made in ineffective products advertised as being capable of helping you to quit. It's unlikely that lung cancer will be less pleasant for you than the average cancer; likewise, it's likely that you'll live almost as long as you would have had you never started smoking. Besides, quality is more important than quantity, which is always absurdly tiny when weighed against eternity. Oh, and all that marijuana that you think "isn't a drug, man"? Yeah, no one has gotten lung cancer from it yet because your grandparents didn't consume it in massive quantities every day for years. In a nutshell: Do you hold a fairly popular belief or presumption? If yes, then odds are good that someone is making money off of your gullibility.
14. The flaws inherent in the English language and why, despite our needing conventions in order to effectively communicate, most of the rules of English are totally arbitrary and meaningless. For example, synonyms are often superfluous, and capitalization was only necessary in times of hard-to-read Gothic script devoid of paragraphs.
15. What the Bible actually says; comparisons between modern values and ancient Semitic values to demonstrate the huge contrast between the two; emphasis on the barbarism of the Old Testament and why it makes sense in the context of a pastoral people with few resources; emphasis on the previously henotheistic nature of proto-Judaism; how religions, like languages and species, share common ancestors and are related to one another, in spite of the commonly held view that they are spontaneously generated
16. The differences between harmful radiation and harmless radiation (wavelengths, frequencies, photons and electrons, etc.). Honestly, people being afraid of ghosts and Satan is bad enough in 2011. Do they really need to be afraid of cell phones and microwaves, too?
17. Maybe a LITTLE bit of drawing technique or music theory as part of a larger course on something else, just to demonstrate why no one should make millions of dollars by painting portraits of women without eyebrows or by singing songs about love
18. How slaughtering livestock actually works; why meat is just a preference and not a basic human need; how much money and resources could be saved by feeding grain to all of the starving people on the planet as opposed to the pigs and cows on your burgers, which don't need to exist in the first place
Updated 6/2/11: 19. First aid; a mild amount of medical knowledge
Doing all of the above will only be possible in an environment where everyone with innovative ideas is allowed to start his own organization or website and subsequently generate publicity for his efforts; it won't be possible in an environment run by corporations, and it certainly won't be possible in the current academic environment. We must, to the best of our abilities, separate not only education but all forms of human conditioning from money-making; if we don't, we'll never promote proper skill acquisition or social understanding and competency, and courses will continue to waste resources and brain space in the meantime.
Why doesn't anyone talk about this stuff? Well, the majority of people are not in school, so they don't care, because it doesn't affect them -- at least not directly. If more people would stop treating education as either some compartmentalized facet of existence that "just happens" or a pathway to corporate enslavement, then maybe it would be easier for them to see just why our inability to raise children properly leads to war, world hunger, and any other huge, generic problem in the world.
Feel free to add onto one or more of the above lists in the comments section if you have any additional ideas. I'm always looking for more.
* This is the place where I'm supposed to link you to articles proving that I'm right, but I don't feel like Googling for the obvious.
† Apparently, because so much porn is available for free all over the Internet, producers are struggling to stay in business. I find this kind of amusing for some reason.