Blaze Books Review: The New School by Glenn H. Reynolds

Blaze Books Cheat Sheet

Title: The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself

Author: Glenn H. Reynolds

Turner or Burner: Turner – 4.5/5

Blazing Fast Review: Professor Reynolds (aka @Instapundit) argues that bubbles in both higher and lower education, paralleling the housing bubble, are about to burst, causing widespread “creative destruction.” The end result will be a massive realignment in the education industry leading to a better product at a lower price. Along the way he puts forth the compelling argument that America has been retrofitting a 19th century “industrial” model of education to society that no longer fits in the information age of the 21st century, but new models are on the way.

[instory-book ISBN=”9781594037108″]

You will probably enjoy this book if…

– You are interested in subjects like EDUCATION, ECONOMICS, ENTREPRENEURSHIP, or HISTORY

– You admire FRIEDRICH HAYEK, PETER THIEL, RAY KURZWEIL, or MICHELLE RHEE

– You liked the books Coming Apart by Charles MurrayThe End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome by Kevin Williamson, or Great Books by David Denby

The Hard Sell: Glenn Reynolds’ “The New School” is about far more than the trillion dollar credit bubble in education threatening to blow at any moment. It is about more than the ballooning price of school while academic performance stagnates. It is about more than university budgets gone wild with lavish spending on everything from athletic fields to 15 layers of diversity administrators. It is about more than teachers’ unions and their sycophantic politicians. While “The New School” incorporates all of these elements, what Glenn Reynolds’ book is really about at its core is capitalism. And gravity. Capitalism because in a market economy (however distorted it may be), disparities between price and value will ultimately be corrected through competition, over and above entrenched interests political and apolitical, and if Reynolds is right in the case of education by entrepreneurs who shatter and replace existing business models. And gravity because industries artificially propped up by government on both the supply and demand side ultimately must fall. What goes up must come down. Truth ultimately reveals itself. Prices normalize, debts are charged off, resources are re-allocated into more productive uses, and growth begins anew. “The New School” explains how we got here, and where we are going, along the way teaching a valuable lesson in Schumpeterian “creative destruction” and how markets, driven by underserved consumers (i.e. all of us) will force our education system to improve for the betterment of society — whether progressives like it or not. Pick up this book for insight into how the bubble formed, why it is bursting and perhaps most importantly (and most enjoyably), what the increasingly bright future may hold.

Blaze Books Review

At all levels, I think the trend is moving away from old-fashioned models to more variety. We live in a world with thousands of varieties of shampoo; who should we be satisfied with so little real variation in education? If the 19th century was about standardization, the 21st is about customization. If the technology that underlay everything in the 19th century was the steam engine, what should education look like in a century in which the archetypal technology is something more like a 3-D printer? – “The New School”

Why indeed is it that in an age with more information and better technology at our finger tips than ever before — in which goods and services once deemed luxuries for the rich are now readily available to the masses in seemingly infinite styles and quantities — that education, a product so integral to society and whose value is so timeless continues to rise and rise in price while falling or stagnating in quality? Why is it that we have a “one-size-fits-all education [system], run on a Fordist model?” Glenn Reynolds’ “The New School” addresses these questions, and perhaps more importantly the follow-up as to whether or not the status quo can continue. If he is right as is already starting to be corroborated: the answer is a resounding “no” which we should all be cheering for, as it means a superior education system, or systems, at a lower price.

But as with any issue, crucial to understanding where we are going is where we have been.

Reynolds begins “The New School” by bringing us back to a man, Horace Mann to be precise, who anticipated John Dewey and the entire K-12 education apparatus that exists today. While ironically (though unsurprisingly given similar hypocrisies among public officials today), Mann homeschooled his children, as Secretary of Education in Massachusetts he heralded in a Prussian-style public school system which as Reynolds notes was modeled on “an institution of ‘police’ and a way of making students ‘useful as future tools.'” The Prussian system, emphasizing “producing punctual obedient factory workers, orderly citizens, and loyal soldiers” would be used to turn America’s children into effective cogs in an industrial machine. The classroom would provide the training wheels for entering life in the factory, with the school a mini-factory separating classes (shifts) by a bell, desks and students lined in orderly rows like heavy machinery, and the same subjects and assignments and tests given to children regardless of skills and abilities, all directed by a blacksmith teacher.

Reynolds continues this insightful and paradigm-shifting analogy by showing us that just like the heavy industries that built America, the education system too ended up unionizing, demanding ever-increasing wages, pensions and benefits until ultimately the industry grew unsustainable.

Higher education also imported a German model of academics, creating the modern research university with classes developed based on German seminars. College education would become a real business and democratize as campuses sprung up across the country, aided by the government as we will see.

But along the way, education did not follow the trend of other American industries, producing superior products at declining prices. While at the K-12 level, the below graph (reproduced from Reynolds’ book) might seem somewhat intuitive given its aforementioned industrial industry-like plight, how did we end up with such a frightfully expensive higher education?

College Tuition vs Medical Care vs Home Prices vs CPI: All Items (1978-2011). (Source: mjperry.blogspot.com)

Reynolds explains that due to a variety of factors including over the last 50 years massive federal research grants and federal student aid including Pell Grants, and before that the G.I. Bill, and before that the Morrill Land-Grant Acts (to greatly simplify the issue the particulars of which are beyond the scope of this review), aided one might add by financial innovation that enabled banks to take on larger credit risks, prices have levitated beyond value. The combination of subsidization both implicit and explicit on both the consumer and producer sides has mimicked the pattern of the housing bubble and countless others, which like all artificial bubbles as Reynolds convincingly argues will pop.

But also like any bubble, the bursting will be painful in proportion to size, and in this case the bubble is quite large and effects almost everyone, one of the reasons why this book is so important. For those who are already heavily indebted, life-altering decisions such as marriage, let alone buying a car or a house anecdotally and empirically are being forestalled, which has widespread effects well-beyond mere economics as Reynolds examines in some detail. In part as the quality and focus of teachers has declined, and our culture has transformed, many students are now infantilized, failing to receive an education with any real rigor, leaving an incompetent workforce lacking in basic fundamental skills such as logical reasoning, writing and critical thinking. For those paying for public education, declining value and increasing price may ultimately cause subtle rebellions as Reynolds notes such as demanding more transparency on state school spending or requiring “draconian” spending cuts to more drastic approaches including widespread home-schooling or mass migrations to stronger school districts. Of course there are major knock-on effects to these shifts too, both politically and in civil society.

How actors on both sides of the education equation react according to the Professor will likely not be monolithic, but Reynolds suggests that both sides can do things to make the transition easier on themselves: namely, not going into debt, or at least incurring any more debt. Students and parents: don’t pay for an education the value of which you won’t be able to recoup. Educational institutions: don’t spend on unessential luxuries, including administrators, the number and expense of which have greatly outpaced those of actual teachers in recent decades. On the educational side, Reynolds examines how the leftist university bias further exacerbates the profligacy in expanding all sorts of programs that have little or nothing to do with teaching students how to think.

Glenn Reynolds’ book ends with predictions as to improvements in the new educational models to come, and some thoughts as to how they will look. Reynolds argues that new solutions will be (i) cheaper, (ii) better, (iii) more flexible, (iv) more diverse and (v) more parent-friendly. On the types of models to evolve, among others, he expects there to be elements of (a) customization, (b) gamification (think how the military uses video games to train troops), (c) integration (between education and a job) and (d) overall transformation (from an artificial intelligence/futurist perspective), among others.

For more details on these points, you’ll have to pick up the book. But driving all changes will be pools of data and technology yet to be applied to the industry, which like in all other fields in the knowledge economy will lead to customizable and scalable innovations far beyond what companies like Kaplan and the Khan Academy are doing today.

Along the way, Reynolds, that rare professional (and academic to boot!) who can view his field objectively as a dispassionate observer (remember, the ramifications could be negative for him as a professor at a state school) provides great insight into behavioral economics, entrepreneurship, culture and a variety of other topics. These aspects of the book alone are worth the price of admission.

And in the end, we are left with a positive message: if Reynolds is right, and logic and history from the tulip bubble to the internet bubble appear to support him, we need not fear the bursting of the education bubble, but rather should look ahead to a brighter, cheaper, better future for ourselves and our country.