Bad Heuristics and Bad Education

Part of being human means dividing our lives into neat little boxes, boxes that are easy to look at and understand from the outside.  It comes as a matter of course that in order to simplify what would normally be complex decision-making, we must reduce the complex world around us into categories.  This can sometimes be extremely helpful, but in many ways, it is horribly painful for everyone.  The most obvious negatives are the tragic ones: like racism, political extremism, ultra-nationalism resulting in wars and conflicts.

The goal of those who wish to control us, our minds, our thoughts, our money, make it their business to reduce complex decision-making to very simple emotions.  Nowhere is this more evident than the super market aisle.

A Fred Meyer's Supermarket in Portland.

What is it about the small, repeated decisions in life –why do they lend themselves to being made with little to no thought at all?  When most people buy a car or a large appliance, they take time to read the reviews, they research how and where it was produced, what the quality standards are for it, what makes one cost more than another.  But when it comes to food, there are simpler, more primal heuristics that take over: what did I eat last week, what do I like the taste of, what packaging do I like?  Something I find even stranger is that one is more likely to also be made fun of, or ridiculed for having standards for their food –e.g., “Why do you want to eat grass-fed beef, does that make you better than everyone else out there eating meat from a factory farm?”– when having standards for an automobile engine or brake pads is perfectly practical.  How many would question a friend if they had used brake pads for their car that were from a junk yard because they were cheaper?  Most would because they feared for their friend’s safety.

Yet, I would argue that food has just as great of an effect on us, our bodies, as do brake pads.  What do we have a more intimate relationship with than food?  It is the only product that most of us buy that we put into our body!  It is one of a handful of necessities in life that without it, we would certainly die.  And yet most of have no idea where the food we eat comes from, how it was produced, how we would make it if we needed to.  In fact, there are many in our great country who have advanced degrees who do not know how to grow their own food!  Yet, this is not seen as the least bit ridiculous.

Ursula Franklin Academy in Toronto, Canada.

This goes on to one of my bigger “beefs” (no pun intended) with our current school system, which is intent on pushing certain subjects as “necessary” and “required” which are a complete waste of time for most.  If we want to look at the reason why we have so much class division in America, we need look no further than our schools, which are intent on making an Engineer out of every child.  They teach “Math” and Geometry without teaching basic carpentry skills, or how to balance a checkbook, or how to invest your money.  They teach “Verbal” –whatever the hell that is– without teaching Literature.  And they teach “Science Reasoning” without ever engaging a child’s mind with Nature, Astronomy, or Navigation techniques.  Maybe the reason our children cannot concentrate in school, is because the content we’re trying to push in their brain is completely useless outside of an SAT, which many people will never have the chance to take.

If we are serious about a commitment to our children in America, it will not mean an overwhelming commitment to standardized tests, and raising metrics.  It will mean a complete reordering of the way we think about “Education.”  It will be a de-standardization of our curriculums.  (Every school is not the same, as every child is not the same.)  It will mean finding out what is necessary in the world, and focusing on those areas first, before a child is tempted to drop out of school.

For the LOST Generation, the items of highest priority are obvious.  Learning how to provide food and water for oneself seems like it would be high on the list.  Then comes how to build a shelter for oneself.  After these items, come how to earn an income for oneself.  For many in America, the simplest and easiest way to make money is the black-market drug trade and or the oldest profession.  The sooner we recognize and admit to these problems, as politicians are not prone to do, the better off we’ll all be in the long run.

Finally, and if it is indeed the goal, we should be looking to think realistically about class ascent.  It cannot mean that all Inner City children born to mothers working minimum wage jobs become doctors.  Perhaps it means something simpler, like being able to learn a trade, becoming an Electrician, learning to build something with their hands. Similarly, maybe Johnny from the Suburbs would be happier being a Plumber, than going to Harvard.  We need to be bold enough to re-imagine the American Dream in our current context.

One of the most refreshing documentaries I’ve watched as of late was one on PBS about the Green Schools Movement.  Green Schools aim to educate students on how to grow their own food, and involve them in activities such as composting, planting, weeding their gardens.  They train high school students to improve energy efficiency standards in buildings by installing solar panels, energy-efficient appliances –to put the items which our Engineers design to work.  The buildings themselves are also designed to let in more natural light and save money and resources.  This is relevant in that many of the buildings in our school system are running on sadly outdated infrastructure and are in need of updating.

This is a good first step towards a new kind of “Education”, one which will become increasingly more relevant as our dependency on foreign oil grows deeper and deeper every day, and the amount of energy we can produce from Fossil Fuels become less and less.