Futurology 1

Fixing public education, the last great monopoly, should be left to the capitalist

Today remains the age of the capitalists. It is their enduring observance to a single principle that has afforded them so glorious a reign: Give the People What They Want. They have established a well-oiled system, elegantly rigged to benefit the common man by bringing him endless servings of whatever he and his family want. As societies slowly fix one of their most intractable problems, failed public education, I predict that they will grudgingly settle on the only credible solution—let the capitalists have a go.

The capitalist, who knows only how to Give the People What They Want, will act predictably. He will do the same for American and international education as he did for the meatpacking industry, the automobile industry, and the pharmaceutical industry. He will invest in research to produce a polished product, and then he will market that product to as large a group of people as possible, ignoring every natural or national boundary. Unpretentious and supremely practical, he will surely engage in the dirtiest of commercial habits: He will spy on his competitors to stay a few steps ahead, fire incompetent employees with alacrity, and invent new business models, all in an effort to capture new market space. It is hard to fathom the ingenuity we would witness if capitalists participated fully in the one-half-trillion dollar market of educating American children, sights set broadly on the trillions more that lay beyond our borders.

I predict: If public subsidies are shifted from the school to the student, regardless of where or how that student chooses to be educated, the best teachers, with the experience to know what works and what does not, will use technology to reach a wider audience. The amazing proliferation of software, video, and the Internet in every part of business and private life is the surest fact of our times. But slow has been their trickle into classrooms. Is it because these tools have no place in the teaching trade? No. Rather, public schools and their tenured employees, unused to the forces of creative destruction, are uniquely ill-suited to develop and deploy new technologies.

My own education, crafted by two ambitious immigrant parents, was a good deal ahead of its time. In 1994, I was one of the first young students of Stanford’s Education Program for Gifted Youth. A pioneering multimedia software program for teaching mathematics, EPGY has now grown into a full suite of distance learning products. I have consumed numerous multimedia education products over the years, from games to video lectures, which taught me more than I ever learned in any classroom. Bill Gates is a regular customer of the products of The Teaching Company, which sells the life changing lectures of star professors.

The substantial innovation that has occurred in this space has occurred despite the long-lived (and criminal) monopoly of the lumbering and depressingly incompetent American public school. This innovation in private and interactive e-education has benefited only those children whose parents take initiative. The public education system is right to treat knowledge as too essential a commodity to be left for only the wealthy to enjoy; That is, it is morally correct to subsidize education. However, its proponents fail to understand the absurdity—in light of modern innovations in learning—of maintaining the status quo and subsidizing the school (to the tune of $10 thousand per pupil per year) rather than subsidizing the student.

When this tremendous mistake is undone, entrepreneurs will collaborate and compete, remaking in ways we literally cannot yet imagine the business of educating the flower of our youth. The drab monotony of a nation’s students taking notes off of a chalkboard in classrooms unchanged since Ike will be remade precisely the way our phones have been remade: with an explosion of unimagined options and quality, and with an eye to helping us remain productive in a newly complex and global world.

My definition of capitalism is somewhat unorthodox: the system that allows poorer people to have the comforts only rich people once had. In the not-so-distant future, parents will be able to buy their children an education produced under the same competitive stresses that gave us cheap LCD televisions, the iPhone, Lipitor, and Phillips Exeter Academy. Block-heads paint the public schools as a sacred cow, vouchers as undemocratic, and unionized public school teachers as modern heroes. Were trains so holy that today there are no planes? Was cotton so consecrated that we lack polyester? Likewise, the monopoly local middle school should not consider itself a temple. We cannot forget the lessons of productive innovation when it comes to education. I do not ask that public schools as they exist today be shut down. But I submit that, after the subsidy is shifted to the student, public schools compete against the full force of a veritable entrepreneurial revolution.

The shape of the river in education must quickly change, and the stakes are high. We will soon have to turn to the only group whom we can definitely trust to Give the People What They Want. Such is the earnestness and flexibility of the capitalistic class that they saw our love of fish, cars, and shoes, and gave us ubiquitous sushi, Formula 1, and Crocs. They made us an SUV nation, a hamburger nation, and a CrackBerry nation. Let them now make us a learning nation.

Kiran R. Pendri ’11 is a chemical and physical biology concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.