Posts filed under ‘Education’

The Price of Paradise

A couple of years ago I moved to the small town of Avalon on Catalina Island. I discovered that like any place there are advantages and disadvantages to living there. I must admit, Avalon is very appealing in many ways. It’s a small town of about 5,000 people living in a one square mile area. It’s picture perfect with a beautiful harbor to view every day. People greet each other. There is no commute time except for the 5 to 10 minute walk to work. There is hardly any crime and it seemed to me a haven from the “real world”. This “paradise” did not come without a cost and that was the extremely high cost of living with very few jobs that could sustain those costs. But in my conversations with people, they would reply that this was “the price of paradise”. I disagreed and moved back to the mainland to continue my search for paradise. But my experience raised an interesting question: if the world is to become the utopia we all hope for, what will be the costs and will people be willing to “pay” for our paradise?

What if the price of paradise is a world with no private cars. As a major source of pollution, an intense user of resources and a source of economic division (see “Rethinking the Sources of Poverty”) its very likely the world will need to depend on mass public transportation to achieve a sustainable and equitable world without poverty. Will people be willing to give up this symbol of freedom and individuality? I would definitely give up the costs, the frustration of traffic and pollution and crime cars create for a paradise that has affordable, accessible and safe mass transit.

What if we each have to “pitch in” a little more to achieve our paradise? Speaking for myself, I get bored doing the same types of activities and enjoy being both a thinker and a laborer. I look forward to picking grapes of helping on a farm. Now if that were my only job it might get old, but such chores were a community effort as it is in a Kibbutz, I would rather do that than pay taxes or exorbitant food prices to avoid that chore. I’m not sure where people develop these notions of what jobs are important and which are not, but every job fulfills an important place in modern communities. It seems to me that such distinctions are a result of ego and to achieve paradise we each will have to recognize the essential needs of each role, job and task and “pitch in” to achieve equality and sustainability.

What if we each have to tolerate the ridiculous beliefs of others? It seems that our paradise will be defined by peace. But peace does not happen just by itself, it happens through our choices. Peace could be achieved by a benevolent dictator, but I don’t think any of us want to be told how to live. Peace could also be achieved by creating a homogenous population – one religious belief or one race, but I think diversity is a resource and offers strength. And, once again, I get bored being around people just like me, don’t you? Perhaps in paradise we will just have to choose to be tolerant of each other which means we will also have to exercise restraint in the public sphere. I think the great freedom we seek will require great responsibility from each of us (see “Lost in Freedom”).

What if we each have to eat more fruits and vegetables to make our paradise a reality? It may sound silly to contemplate, but our food habits are causing many of our health and ecological problems. For example, beef production is a major source of methane gas and our overfishing is depleting stocks in the oceans. Our agricultural system is overly complex relying on fossil fuels for transport and toxic chemicals to increase yields. And, in general, we overeat because we are depressed and lonely and the excess weight fuels high healthcare costs. Paradise will have none of these problems, but that is because the solution is to buy more locally available organic produce and in general rely less on resource intense meat and fish. In fact, in paradise we might each have to grow a small vegetable garden so as to take on some of the responsibility ourselves.

What if we each have to better educate ourselves and think before we act? We all want to be needed, to be heard by others and contribute to the solutions – the ideal of a direct democracy. But, the founders of America knew that a democracy required a well educated public to make informed choices. It seems to me that in paradise we will each need to be educated. We will each know when to speak up and contribute and when to be quiet and listen. None of us are equal in our gifts, but we each have something special to offer. In our paradise we will all be empowered to achieve our potential (see “Educationally Challenged”).

A key notion of paradise is that it is something different from how we live now. And, in order to achieve this paradise there needs to be change. The distance from where we are now to achieving that paradise is the time it takes us to make those choices. I’m not saying that what I’ve outlined is the price of paradise, but if it were would you pay it?


May 28, 2007 at 6:01 pm Leave a comment

Educationally Challenged

I recently saw an interview with Melinda Gates who is attempting to bring attention to the poor state of the American educational system. The good news is that our system is just broken in contrast to many countries where education is non-existent. But, whether we are considering the United States or a developing nation, I think the key to addressing the education challenge can be summed up in one phrase: maximize our resources by focusing on the educational mission. And, what is that mission? In my mind it is to empower people to realize their individual potential by providing them the basic tools to inform and educate themselves. And, by resources I am referring to time, talent and money.

Time is our most precious resource — especially when considering the attention span of children. Imagine if the educational mission could be accomplished in just four hours a day. This could increase attendance, better utilize short attention spans and save money. I believe it can be accomplished by designing an efficient and comprehensive curriculum that maximizes time via complementary learning and by focusing on an essential core curriculum of math, science, language and history. By complementary learning I mean that each class supports what is being taught in their other subjects. People say that if you want to learn a new word or remember someone’s name it’s helpful to use it at least three times. A complimentary curriculum would utilize the same technique on a daily basis. There is history and language to our math and science and there is literature to our history. By classes reinforcing each other’s lessons that are grounded in our practical world, I believe we can increase learning retention and understanding.

Both teachers and students make up the talent base and I fear that both are underutilized. First, I personally believe the American grading system is a societal cop-out. Students either know the material adequately or don’t. To say that one student is more familiar with material or not, but pass them on to the next level reflects our society’s failure to prepare them. Maybe it is naïve of me, but I truly believe we each have the capacity to learn. The challenge is to frame the message in such a way that the individual can relate to and comprehend it. We each have different learning styles and teaching methods need to take this into account. It seems to me that a mentoring system would best utilize the available talent. A teacher can present the lesson in the first part of the class. The second half should focus on insuring that everyone “gets it.” In every class there is a spectrum of comprehension. The brightest students should tutor what we might now consider “C” achievers and the teacher can focus of the stragglers.

In the United States we seem to think the solution to every problem is to throw money at it. If money were the solution, why are children in India better educated than American children? A major expense in America is the textbook that is bulky, expensive and constantly out of date. Our investment in this resource does little more than support the corporations that manufacture them. Lessons can easily be printed in inexpensive newsprint booklets that can be updated each year. Better yet, a standard curriculum should be available free over the internet. Computers are here to stay and affordable laptops would be a better investment in skills building and curriculum distribution. I looked on the US Department of Education website for a k-12 curriculum, but couldn’t find one.

I raised some of these ideas to friends who are educators. They commented that such ideals are not practical. While it would be great to have a four-hour class day, most parents have to work. I agree that they may not be practical now, but I find these “thought-exercises” in ideals useful in pointing out contemporary systemic failures. So what is the bigger picture here? The primary source of our education comes from our parents. To be blunt, our resource-intense economic system is pulling families apart with benefit neither to our society nor our environment. While the socio-economic puzzle can seem mind-bogglingly complex, many of our modern social problems stem from the fundamental flaw of a consumption-based, economic structure.

Education is a global issue and is the key to addressing many of the problems that plague our world such as over-population, environmental pollution, discrimination and ineffective government to mention a few. If we ever want to achieve the ideals of social equity and justice, I continue to believe that only a true democracy can lead us there and that requires an informed and educated public.

On the Web

One Laptop Per Child

Gates Foundation Takes on Education

MIT OpenCourseWare

April 30, 2007 at 7:02 pm Leave a comment

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