Dave Perell interviewed Seth Godin who has nuanced views on education.
My favorite excerpts:
Homeschooling is unavailable to many, many families because they can’t afford it. Homeschooling is really expensive because somebody needs to be home. And among families that can’t afford it, homeschooling is scary. And it’s scary because it requires accepting responsibility for one of the most important things in your entire family’s life, for which you have almost no training. And it’s also socially frightening because it is not the norm.
On the importance of public school:
Now, I am a huge believer in public school. I think we have really significant benefits from if it’s a quality education, people getting the same thing, it builds culture [Scott Young explore this idea specifically inCultural Literacy: Does Knowledge Need to Be Deep to Be Useful?]. But I also wish we could homeschool every kid from three o’clock in the afternoon until 10 o’clock at night. Because most of what we learned, most of what we believe came from what happened in our home. If you are fortunate enough to win the birthday lottery and grow up in a home that’s filled with stability and possibility and encouragement, that is a huge advantage over people who don’t have that ability. And we’ve got to figure out how to build structures and support in a remote world, in a video world, in a digital world, so that this is all much more evenly distributed. Because we’re paying for it every day.
On the outcome-orientation of school:
I think outcome-driven is fine. I think picking the wrong outcome is wrong. Picking the wrong outcome is a mistake. Purpose of kindergarten is not college, right? And there are prizes to people who get a certain level of prestigious college education. There’s no doubt about it. But life is long. And the question is, what are we training people to do? What culture are we building? What is the point of 12 or 16 years of compulsory education if it’s not about learning and possibility and community and resilience and care and generosity and justice? I mean, if you have all of those things, why are you going to have someone who’s good at standardized tests?
On the scalability problem of independent thought
I co-lead a summer camp for nine to 11 year olds. And one of the most surprising things is it’s based on… So just some background it’s based on design thinking and project based learning. And so we’ll have these nine-year-olds and on the first day, we’ll say you get to pick a problem that you want to research. And by the end of the week, you are going to solve the problem in the way that you see as best. And the hardest part of running the camp, isn’t helping kids solve problems. It is realizing that they have the agency to choose in the first place.
Exactly because compliance and authority scale way better than freedom and responsibility.
The presence of Moloch in our approach to education [recall Moloch as a metaphor for when competition becomes unhealthy by narrowing our values]:
What we have done in the last 50 years is leveraged everything. So, whereas in the old days of business might be able to go four or five days with no revenue because they didn’t own the bank, anything because they didn’t know the mortgage, anything. Now, if you want to compete, you need to have raised the money, to have run the ads, to have lower the price, et cetera, et cetera. So one business after another, big and small are leverage to their eyeballs. And we’ve done the same thing with education. That if other people are leaning into it, levering up, competing for scarce slots, it’s really easy for a parent to believe that balance will be punished. There’s no way to win that game against someone who’s unwilling to compromise. So what you have to do instead is play a different game. And you had to figure out what other agendas are available for my kids and my family…
If you talk to freshmen at Harvard, not one of them says they came to Harvard so they could get a job in finance. And if you talk to graduating seniors, they’ve somehow persuaded themselves that that’s exactly what they’re going to do. So what happened? Well, they’re not vocational schools in the sense that they teach you how to be an investment banker. But they are definitely labeling and finishing schools in the sense that they make it easy for investment bankers to know where to go, to get more investment bankers. The thing is that colleges that chose not to play this game got less famous. The ones that said you’re here to read great books, you’re here to explore what it means to be on the planet, you’re here to think deeply about meaning and philosophy and connection didn’t attract the same people to their placement office.
Which meant a signal went out to parents. And the signal was if you’re about to invest $200,000 or go into debt for something choose wisely and your peers will judge you for it. And so we created this capitalist driven ratchet that says money and success are the same thing. And that success means you’re a good parent. And success means you have a good kid and we’re defining that success in terms of money, but there are plenty of ways to make a living where you can be happy and make a contribution where the goal isn’t to make the most money.
On the superiority of the “flipped classroom” as pioneered by Sal Khan:
I don’t understand why we would take this precious thing, real time, synchronization, public space, and waste it with someone reading from their notes…The reason it’s absurd is synchronization is more expensive than asynchronization. It’s absurd because you can speed things up and slow things down if you’re on your own. But mostly it’s absurd because interaction is where we learn things. So if everyone comes together, everyone might only be eight people or 80 people having all seen the lecture the night before and then actively engages in problem solving with each other, that is the way human beings have learned everything, always. This whole idea that we have to put people in a room and read something to them because it’s the best technology has to offer, there’s about 75 years out of date.
Education vs learning:
The reason that some people who are listening to this are being skeptical, is are you in the business of education or learning? Someone who was describing how easy it was for him to slip through classes without doing anything. I was like, “But you just spent a hundred thousand dollars on these classes.” The purpose is not how little can you get, the purpose is how much, that’s learning. Education is about do I get the degree? Okay, you’re going to get the degree. But learning says, “I am eager to transform myself into someone who understands what I just read.”
Seth calls actual learning enrollment not education:
Earning enrollment is hard because from the time that kid sees the sign in kindergarten that they can’t read, it says “the road to college starts here”, they’re being reminded that enrollment doesn’t matter. And all that matters is the certificate. I don’t do online education. I do online learning. I think online education plays right into the hands of the factory mindset. If you want it to make the most efficient education system in the world where education is, do what I say, and you get a prize, it looks like solo machine. The machine is drilling, practicing somebody until they get the right answers. And it’s about regurgitation and compliance and authority to a scalable machine. Online education is going to be a disaster because we don’t need more people who are online educated. [We need online learning] Online learning is spectacular. It causes deep and permanent change and it works at scale, but it doesn’t work if you don’t have enrollment.
Opportunity to learn is cheap and abundant:
We are already seeing people who can enroll on their own. Lots of free ways for people to find the others, work together and do something. If you want to be a video editor, go find four other people and use YouTube videos to learn the technique and then challenge each other to get better at video editing, do it together. You don’t have to pay anybody anything. And the mistake we’ve made with the college industrial complex is saying the scarcity of the university, the more it costs, the more it costs, the more it’s worth. And so we have famous colleges and famous colleges charge a lot because they’re in high demand. But the thing is, once you go online, you don’t have to have scarcity because you can have an unlimited number of people take it.
So MIT has put all their courses online for free, but people still go to MIT, the institution because they’re selling a different thing, which is the place and the paper. And I think it’s important as we look at the evolution of online learning to say, if we don’t sell enrollment first and foremost, none of it’s going to work. The hardest part is getting people to trust themselves enough to enroll. And then once they’re in it with passion, the amount of learning goes through the roof.
Boundaries and the challenge of building healthy communities:
Wikipedia came from the grassroots, but there are only 5,500 people out of the millions who have edited Wikipedia, who have editing privileges without approval. Because if they didn’t do that, Wikipedia would disappear in three days. And if there wasn’t a structure and a method to keep down trolls and to eliminate vandalism, to model successful behavior, to establish cultural norms, then organic community that isn’t based on something tangible is really hard to build…Scarcity is either created by geography or by man-made structure. And in the case of the internet, there is no geography, really. So what you’re left with is what are the boundaries? And who’s enforcing them? And I think a big piece of the mess that social media has enabled is their aversion to boundaries. And I don’t think it’s paying off. I think that you don’t walk into a bank wearing a stocking over your head and expect that somebody’s going to honor your request for withdrawal. And so I think we want to find communities where people are taking responsibility and are enrolled in a similar journey.
The beautiful moment when people gain insight is a clue that it is important to create “surprise” and “delight” in the learning experience:
If there isn’t, it’s not going to work. Think about the look on a kid who’s been trying for hours to ride a bike and then they can ride a bike. Does anybody in that moment have a frown on their face? Right. No one expected it would feel like it feels. You don’t go, “Oh yeah, this is exactly what I expected.” It’s surprise and delight. And the surprise and delight comes from seeing the world differently and becoming a different, better version of yourself. And we see this in online learning all the time. We see it when people learn to program, we see it when people learn to sing, it’s that structure that lets you feel like you leveled up according to a construct that was there before you got there. People who don’t know how to ride a bike, know that there is a thing called riding a bike. And they’re imagining that there’s a level they can reach. And levels work, they’re not there to create a hierarchy. They’re there to create a chance for self achievement.
Formal and technical educations remain critically important:
I didn’t take that many liberal arts courses in college. I was an engineer. And I want to speak up on behalf of the engineer. Because one of the things you learn, if you study engineering in your education is you have to ship work and you have to ship work that’s either right or wrong. And I think we need a blend of that and thoughtful commentary on how the world works.
Because it’s too easy to just become a critic. I think we got to be able to say, “I built this bridge and it stands up.” And I think we got to be able to say, “And the bridge needed to go live on Tuesday. And it did.” Because we live in a world that’s based on bridges and dates. But within that, I think we can learn to become the people we’d like to be.