I’m not a fan of my son’s kindergarten. I’m not a fan of most kindergartens. To fully understand why, you’ll need to turn back the clock a couple hundred years to a time when the machinations of the enlightenment: demography, chemistry, calculus, the Copernican model, double column bookkeeping, stocks and commodities markets, credit; had given rise to actual machines: the combustion engine, the cotton gin, precision chronometers, thermometers, barometers, and tachometers. The rise of the worlds first true democratic republic, the United States of America, engendered a new demand for an accurate census, to account for the voting power of each state in the union. We counted men, we counted women, we counted children, we counted slaves as non-people but convertible at a ratio of 0.6 people per slave, and we counted output. We counted assets, sheep, acreage, and we estimated value. The value of a slave after the invention of the cotton gin might be estimated by the quality of his hands. Determining how well could his fingers could perform the micro-motions required to pick cotton for 18 hours a day was proportional to his expected output, and therefore determined his value. All this counting was to build a noisy estimate of an elusive and ethereal quantity; value. And so it has been since our nation’s founding. After denouncing slavery, our original sin, we continue to live in a world driven by the search for an ever-undefined notion of value. In the shadow of the machine born by Francis Bacon, today we measure the micro motions of 5-year-olds, to assess their ability to write letters. Something that they will be doing much of in the years to come. The ability to write each letter at an early age allows us to forecast the child’s future value to the machine. In summary, our society is a machine that eats souls of children and produces adult-size machines in its likeness. After six years of parenting this is the conclusion that I have come to.
There is another machine that does this. I’d call this machine the “state of nature”
The state as a state of nature
Thomas Hobbes will forever be linked to his description of a state of nature in Leviathan: the phrase “nasty, brutish and short” was in no small part inspired by the struggles he saw in the deserted American colonies such as Roanoke, where he observed starvation, factionalism, cannibalism, and death. It’s not hard to theorize that the events in this sequence formed a chain of causation. Starvation first leading to factionalism, somebody dies during a battle. Hmm, a dead body? Cut to image of a severed leg roasting over an open fire.
While we have a government (sort of), and mass starvation is not the top issue of the moment, there is starvation of a different form among our kids, and factionalism of a different form, and cannibalism. With periodic testing (also, literal starvation, but I’ll get to that later), our 5-year-old son felt starved of security. With a society that does not reward joy and play, families and children are factionalized and pitted against each other in a never-ending competition to avoid ostracism. Finally, the threat of ostracism is carried out. Children who “fall through the cracks” are devoured by a never-ending cycle of bullying and failure. That said, it’s the only game in town. If I’m honest, I will likely be putting my son back into the machine this fall.1
We know this system is immoral. The psychologists hate it. The teachers hate it. The principals hate it. The parents hate it. My kid certainly hates it. Who is this system serving? What sort of creature have we created?
When I went to school, kindergarten was for play. We learned a bit of handwriting, so academics were present. However, lunch was a full 45 minutes and there was a ten-minute recess. In between, many of the activities were playful things like macaroni art. Things are different now. Lunch is 20 minutes, with about 15 minutes used for getting to/from the lunch tables on short and stubby kindergartener feet. My child is a slow eater, so this meant he would typically eat nothing between the hours of 8 am and 5 pm when we picked him up. This also means that there is no playtime. His classroom had no toys. At least nothing fun. He claimed his main activity was going to the “math centre”, which was just a table with shredded paper, which he could count. The first time I heard this I laughed because it is so pathetic… then I was sad.
There is no state or city level mandate for this idiocy. As far as I can tell, it is all self-imposed by the schools in my area. From talking to other parents, it sounds as if the schools here are very competitive against each other. It’s not just the students, but the schools themselves are in a cutthroat battle against one another for public resources, awarded based upon student performance. If cutting lunch by 25 minutes boosts test scores, you better do it because the school next door is looking at the same data and probably thinking the same thing. If that produces a few dropouts while bumping the average score, then all the better. If you want to make an omelette, you’ve got to ruin a childhood or two.
The desperate structure that pits school against school mirrors the structure that pits family against family and child against child. This race to the top is a race to the bottom where starvation and factionalism transform all participants into metric obsessed zombies. And yet, this is only the first layer of the pyramid. The leap from child-to-school is the leap from the sub-atomic to atomic. Let’s go one level higher. Who is driving the schools to push literacy earlier? What force has replaced macaroni art with STEM? It’s largely policy driven by think-tanks and academics who observe that our economy has a high demand for STEM, and what is our economy but a group of firms competing for life in a world with limited resources. Firms that fight one another to survive, and then cannibalize one another through mergers and acquisitions.
So we have an answer to the question, “who benefits? Whose nightmare is this?”. It’s not collegeboard.com. It’s not incompetent politicians. It’s not some evil cabal of capitalists. It’s not even a powerful aristocracy (the aristocracy has kids too, and I live near some of them. They’re not thrilled either). The primary beneficiary is the repeated structure of hunger and factionalism itself. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s a strange organism that produces copies of itself at different scales. In the limit, the structure exists at all scales. There’s a name for this. Mathematicians call it “self-similarity”, and the structures are called fractals.
Our fractal nightmare
I’m pretty sure the terms “self-similarity” and “fractal” are attributable to Benoit Mandlebrot, famous for exposing countless pot-heads to higher mathematics through posters such as this one
These structures are made by taking a formula (in this case ) and applying it over and over again, forever. In nutshell, this is where self-similarity comes from. You apply a thing everywhere in sight. In the case of economy-schools-students, that formula is the market solution.
In theory, the market should be serving its constituents. However, the reverse is occurring.
Wag the dog
a dog is smarter than its tail, but if the tail were smarter, then the tail would wag the dog
How is it that the masters have become the slaves of the market. The computational scientist in me is attracted to market solutions because they are human-powered Monte-Carlo algorithms. Briefly, a Monte-Carlo algorithm is an optimization algorithm that can roughly be summarized as “do a bunch of random things, something will work out”. It’s a method that was developed by Stanislaw Ulam and implemented on the ENIAC in the 1940s by Jon Von Neumann for computing numerical solutions to problems in thermodynamics. It’s a very flexible method that often works, and so it was applied everywhere in sight. Intuitively, that’s the beginning and end of the story. Market solutions are a similar sort of algorithm, also easy to apply, and so they are applied frequently.
The issue might not be market solutions in and of themselves, so much as it’s our unoriginal repeated application of it. If we view market solutions as optimization algorithms (which is a view I hold), then they are great as long as the thing they are optimizing is something that makes us happier. In other words, the performance metric should be something we want more of (such as “happiness”). However, the entity which kicks off the chain, working backwards from miserable kindergartners to overworked teachers to policy wonks to corporate board rooms to is consumer demand. Indirectly, we are taking it on faith that the things we demand as consumers are also what makes us happy.
I’ve lost my faith. In the year two thousand and twenty AD, the market is great, the CPI is high, and inflation is low. Yet something tells me, we are not hunky-dory. Many believe we are in an epidemic of deaths from despair. It seems as if consumer and market behaviour is decoupling from emotional health. This decoupling should not surprise anybody who buys things (i.e. everybody). There are many things that I wish I could pay for:
- A community
- A sense of purpose
- A stable climate
However, these are not available for purchase on Amazon. The list of things you can’t get on Amazon illustrates the discrepancy between consumer demand and our demands as citizens.
The purpose of education
In some sense, this is an exceedingly unoriginal thesis. Just another rant to complain about how capitalism has permeated every aspect of life. However, I’ve not seen the thesis framed in quite this way. If the principal of your child’s school told you that a Monte-Carlo algorithm run on a supercomputer had determined your children should skip lunch. I doubt you would roll your eyes and shrug it off.
So, what’s to be done? This is what education is for. Education is supposed to mould children into successful adults. The argument then hinges on the term “successful”. Whoever, or whatever, defines that term would be a driver of education decisions. Currently, success is defined by market demand, albeit indirectly. This has the virtue that by linking the success of the individual with the market, we can sate our demands as consumers. However, I am not hungry as a consumer. I am hungry as a citizen.2
This post began by reviewing how the enlightenment era brought out of the dark ages. Now I fear the party is over, and we are about to descend back into the dark, into a future where adults are drones and children are not children. Without getting too wonky, ponder the following question. Is childhood valuable? The market has suggested it is not, and will, therefore, go into the dustbin of history along with Betamax and Google Glass. After that, I’d ask What adults come of children without a childhood, and how do they treat their parents?