Monday, June 11, 2007

Information or education

Most of my friends and acquaintances are white, middle-class with post graduate degrees. They are also mostly liberals. We agree on a lot of issues and in many ways, I think my friends and associates consider me to have more radical views than they hold. I tend to think this makes me even more liberal, but often, upon reflection, I think my views are actually more conservative.

One of these areas is education. Most of my friends believe that a proper education can prevent the right-ward tilt of the population. They think if people had the right information and enough of it, they would choose to be more liberal and vote in their self-interest. All that is needed is more information. I beg to differ.

In my mind, I think more information solves nothing. We are all bombarded with information everyday from numerous sources. The right or proper information is not only unknowable, it is also not guaranteed to overwhelm other wrong or distracting information. This leaves our education system in a quandary. What is it we want to place in the heads of our little ones, so they can be informed citizens making informed choices?

I think the emphasis on informed is misplaced and we should instead seek to educate children to be morale citizens. Many will argue that morality is subjective to cultures and cannot be given foundations that we can turn to justify choices that we make. My arguments against what is called informed can be quickly turned against me by those who treat morals as subjective. Although morality has no foundations, it is not relative. Rather, we know what is the right way to live in the world and our culture is suppose to support this morality through an education system that reinforces our intuitions for love and respect for all creatures on Earth. Our education system is designed to break down these intuitions through massive doses of information that create confusion by design.

As an example, I offer my own education. My common sense, intuition, and/or morality told me that our economic system was not sustainable. I had an undergraduate degree in economics and I wanted to be an expert who could prove our economic system could not be sustained and then influence policy that would benefit all of humanity. Lofty ambitions, I know, but it felt like a calling. So, I went to graduate school to pursue a PhD in economics and enrolled in an ecological Economics PhD program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.

What I discovered was that by pursuing more information and learning techniques and models to prove my position, the best I could do was create more ambiguity that proved nothing. By manipulating the data and changing the assumptions in a model or theory, we are able to prove anything as long as we stay within the parameters of the model. When we went to the real world or the real economy, everything changes and most economic analysis is descriptive and not predictive and even its descriptive role constrained to the parameters of the model. All I wanted to do was confirm my conviction that our economy was depleting valuable resources and polluting our atmosphere and if we kept this up, eventually there would be problems -- if we were not experiencing these problems already. However, graduate school and more information provided me with very little useful tools to tackle this problem.

The problem is the model of education. We have an intuition and we are educated to go through the education system to become an expert, so we can have an influence on policy. However, more information and knowledge often leads us to conclusions that are contrary to our beliefs we started out with. This would properly be an education if our conclusions were right. But, what if our conclusions go are wrong and by wrong I mean morally wrong? If we know that killing is wrong or we know that destroying our environment is wrong, but our models feed us ambiguity by informing us that if we do not secure th oil in the MidEast through warfare or we do not knock off a mountaintop to mine the coal inside, then our economy will suffer and millions of more people will starve. That is the science. The morality, which I argue should take precedence, tells us only that killing is wrong and harming the environment long-term cannot be justified under any circumstances.

It takes only a day or two to teach a human infant or toddler morality and it takes years of programming to undermine this morality through information.

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