The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Zak Stein. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Zak Stein writer, educator, and futurist working to bring a greater sense of sanity and justice to education.
Zak: It’s good to be here.
Jim: It’s interesting that we haven’t connected earlier. Oh, I guess we did actually connect many years ago, but we travel in similar circles online and we know a lot of the same people. It’s really great to have you on the show and be able to get into your work in some depth. Zak studied philosophy and religion at Hampshire College, and this is interesting. Zak is now the third Hampshire College grad I’ve had on my show. The statistical unlikeliness of that is really unlikely. The first one was Lee Smolin, a physicist. I don’t remember who the second one was, but I remember pointing it out, that it was statistically unusual to have two. Now we have three. Something’s interesting about Hampshire College. After Hampshire college, Zak studied educational neuroscience, human development, and the philosophy of education at Harvard as a co founder of Electica, a not-for-profit dedicated to research-based, justice oriented reform of large scale standardized testing in K to 12, higher education, and business.
Jim: He’s also on various boards and various early stage and not for profits. Got his hands into various things in this area. We’re mostly going to talk about Zak’s book, Education at a Time Between Worlds. Links to the book and other resources we discussed will, as always, be available on Zak’s episode page at jimruttshow.com. Let’s start with the title. I usually don’t talk about the title much, but the title, I thought, was evocative. Education in a Time Between Worlds. Could you unpack “Time Between Worlds” a little bit?
Zak: Totally. It’s a few things combined, one of them is just actually a very theoretical idea from the field of world systems theory, which is founded by Emmanuel Wallerstein. He had this notion that there were, within the history of the capitalist world system, these periods when there were a hegemonic rollovers, when basically the longtime hegemonic force, which dominated the world system goes into decay. There’s a period where there’s not a clear overarching order to the world system until another one locks in. These were world system transformations. What’s interesting is that these actually align historically in terms of the [inaudible 00:02:38] with other models, like models from cultural evolution where you’re looking at the movement out of the late pre-modern to the early modern, and then from the early modern to the mature modern, and then for the mature modern to the postmodern.
Zak: There are several different models, including esoteric models from people like Rudolf Steiner, where looking at this notion that there are periods when, although we’re still on the same earth, we are moving to a different world. We are in one of those periods right now. Basically, when you’re in one of those periods, education itself becomes one of the primary vectors of collapsing the new world into order. That’s the way I’m framing the educational thinking I’m doing in the book, which is to say this isn’t the thinking I would have been doing back in the 1950s or 19060s, let alone 1890s or something. This is the thinking you do when you’re literally between worlds, when you are trying to reboot a very basic human infrastructure, like a hard reboot. Obviously, you can see how this links into the thinking around GameB, and there’s other groups that are holding similar notions. That’s a little bit about that notion of the, “Between Worlds.”
Jim: We’ll talk about that a little bit later. In fact, and I’ll just point people to my essay, “In Search of the Fifth Attractor,” which talks about the fact that the ball is going to fly out of our basin at some point, and we all have a moral duty to make sure it lands in a good basin and not a bad one. I think we’re all on the same mission here, essentially. We’re going to start off, again, a little unusually because you use some terms which may not be generally understood by folks in the wider world. By no means is all my audience, the GameB world, there’s lots of academics and business people and just regular old folks that listen. One of the things you say is that you see the central importance of education as an aspect of the global meta-crisis. Could you unpack the idea of meta-crisis a little bit?
Zak: Totally. There’s a few ways to think of it and there’s a few different people doing work on it. I’m going to give my view. You can think of it in a couple of ways. One is that there are many crises. So for example, there’s something like an ecological crisis. There’s something like a geopolitical crisis. There’s something like a local political crisis at the level of American democracy. There’s something like a crisis in the schools and the healthcare. Take your pick. You could characterize the fields as crisis written and that’s in part because of the time between worlds notion. If you take all of the crises combined, you get a superordinate crisis, which is the meta-crisis. You could think of that as the potentially being distilled into the generator function behind all of the crises, why are they all occurring?
Zak: You can also think of that meta-crisis as specifically educational, which is to say, if you’re in the woods and you get lost, that’s a crisis. If it gets cold, and you have to make a fire, that’s another crisis if you don’t know how to make a fire. The meta-crisis there is actually your own mind. It’s actually the state of your skills and your ability to keep your head on your shoulders. That’s the crisis behind the crisis. In a sense, the educational crisis is pivotal within the broader meta-crisis, because it’s the one that gets at the heart of the issue, which is the nature of human choice making, self understanding, and capacity. When you look at the situation, I’m seeing several things in that light. You’re seeing a capabilities crisis, which is to say the things we need to figure out how to do, who are not figuring out.
Jim: I’ll just jump in and say, it’s essentially capability versus complexity problem. Right?
Jim: We actually have more capability now than we did in 1850, but we’re confronting a much more complex world. It’s really a mismatch between exponentially rising complexity, and probably also exponentially rising capability, but rising on a lower exponential.
Zak: Yeah, that’s right. We’ve ended up building a civilization where the problems we’re confronting have become so complex so quickly that there’s a lag in the human capacity upgrade needed to meet them. That’s one classic dimension of educational crisis as the meta-crisis. You’re that capability crisis, but there’s also a legitimation crisis. This is also a dimension of the educational crisis, which is to say that it’s not just that we can’t figure stuff out from a capability standpoint, we can’t figure out who is the one with the legitimate authority, even say, they’ve figured it out. This is touching on the political crisis, but it’s even deeper because it’s about the legitimacy of authority, period.
Jim: The lack of social cohesion or social capital is one of the very strong amplifiers of the meta-crisis because, obviously, it undermines the ability to organize serious attacks on the meta-crisis. Just look at that clown like response of the United States of the coronavirus compare and contrast with say our response to World War II or the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Zak: Exactly. When you’re looking at it from the perspective of the schools, that ship sailed a long time ago. There’s been an absence of legitimate teacherly authority in the schools and universities for quite a while. That is what has produced the more widespread sense of illegitimacy across most of our major institutions. You also have the meaning crisis, which is adjacent to the legitimacy crisis and the capability crisis, which is basically what a lot of what Vervaeke talks about, and others, where it’s not just that there’s not legitimate authority and there’s problems that are too complex to solve, there’s also a sense of, “We don’t know what we’re about as a species or a nation or even an individual.” What’s the meaning of the suffering? What’s the meaning of the joy? What’s the meaning of death, sleep, and dreams? There’s such a dimension of cultural incoherence here.
Zak: This is part of what the conspiracy theory industrial complex plugs into is the opening, the question mark, in the place where there should be actual meaning. The final one is intelligibility crisis, which is to say, and this is different than a capability crisis, because it’s not about if we’re able to do anything, it’s about if we’re able to understand anything at the level of cognitive sense-making. It’s a sense-making crisis, which is also talked about by people like Jordan Hall, who’s a friend of mine. Those are the four. You’ve got the sense making crisis, the legitimacy crisis, the meaning crisis, and the capability crisis. That’s all on what’s sometimes called the anteriority of civilization, which is to say these aren’t infrastructure failures, they’re the condition for the possibility of infrastructure failures. They’re not political breakdowns, they’re the condition for the possibility of political breakdowns. They’re prior to them because they reside within the human psyche and body.
Zak: They’re within and they need to be grappled with in the dimension of consciousness, learning human development education. They’re not technical problems. I went to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which believe me is the low end of the totem pole when it comes to the Graduate Schools of Education at Harvard. The amount of importance that’s placed on education, the marginalization of it, vis-a-vis the law school and the Kennedy School of government and the God, the business school. These things are funded to the hilt, full rides for PhD students. Whereas the Graduate School of Education students are going into hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. There’s this question of, “Why given the primacy condition for the possibility of failures across all external systems or the interior systems? Why, if education is so important, has it been so neglected?”
Zak: Actually, at this point, it is being preyed upon by forces seeking to profit from the obvious crisis of capability and legitimacy of meaning. Predatory student loan lending being the main one, but also the overwhelming push to privatize the schools that make them profit centers in the same way that hospitals were made profit centers. That’s a little bit more there about when it comes to the meta-crisis, the sharp end of the stick is actually within our own minds and the educational system has been so poorly managed, since about 1972, that we’re looking at a potential catastrophic breakdown of intergenerational transmission.
Jim: It’s interesting. I graduated from high school in 1971 and it was a working class high school. My zip code, I later looked up in the demographic data in 1970, 50% of the adults were high school dropouts about 50% had high school educations, and 92% had college degrees. Yet, it was a great high school. I had a really good education, went to an elite college, MIT. I would say I was better prepared than the average fancy suburbanite who I was competing with and even the prep schoolers. Go back to that same high school today, and it is really failing for all kinds of reasons. I’ve got the sense that somewhere around in the 1970s, we talk in the GameB world that 1975 was when the ethics of business fundamentally changed, when there were limits on what people would do.
Jim: In fact, when Jordan Hall and I first met, I don’t know how long, 14 years ago at a board meeting at the Santa Fe Institute, our first conversation was about just that. Me being almost exactly one generation older than him, I was saying, “Hey, when I joined the business world, I was fortunate to have worked for some relatively ethical companies, and they would actually talk about what they would or would not do that was legal within their domain, but they thought wrong.” Jordan said when he entered the workplace in the mid 1990s, the rule had changed to the outer edge of what is permissible in the business world is what is arguably legal, not necessarily right or wrong. We both agreed that by the time we were talking in 2008, it had gone another step to what should be done in business is what can you can get away with, or where the penalties for getting caught are smaller than the wins.
Jim: Think about Facebook and its violations of its promises. There’s sort of a fundamental change. It started to be visible at least around 1975 in the ethical operating systems of our society. Culture is built in schools and in families, so somebody is failing to do their job, to build the right kinds of people to operate our society. This is certainly one of the key parts of the meta-crisis. One more bit of definition. It’s not really a definition. Let’s just hop into it and call it substance. One of the things that you call out, quite repeatedly, in your book is to contrast your ideas around education, with what you describe as the reductive human capital theory. It might be useful to define what you mean by the reductive human capital theory and contrast that at the highest possible level with what you think we need.
Zak: Yeah. Human capital theory is a pretty well known way of thinking about the way human beings fit into economic reasoning and decision making. Reductive human capital theory is basically the most simplified and crude way of thinking about this. The basic idea would be that human beings are like any other kind of capital or commodity. Just like getting a bunch of money allows you to do something, you call it capital, if you get a bunch of skills, it allows you to do things. You can think of skills residing within humans, the interiors I was talking about, you can think of those as a form of capital. Then, you can see the educational system as basically a sub component of the broader economy with the function of supplying that economy with human capital.
Zak: You reduce the multifaceted dimensions of intergenerational transmission to one, which is the reproduction of the economic system and that’s reductive human capital theory. Basically, it is, to use Schmachtenberger’s language, it’s a self terminating protocol for an educational system. It actually undermines the other aspects of culture, which are the hidden curriculum within the economy that actually allows it to function. This is something that’s been pointed out by Marxists for awhile, which is that, you think it’s the schools in the Ivy League universities that prepare your workers and CEOs, but it’s actually their mothers, who aren’t paid at all. The hidden labor of human development, which has long been in the domain of women, and completely un-remunerated and long neglected and actually prayed upon.
Zak: It’s not, Jim, that the cultural transmission takes place around the tables of the dining room and in the schools. That’s the case, but why are the schools and the dinner tables failing? It’s because of all the other predatory systems that are increasingly incursion, increasingly colonizing, the life world. When you’re looking at the human capital theory and you’re thinking, “Well, where are the human capital actually supplied from? Where do we actually mine it?” We mine it in the families first, and then we mine it in the schools. You’re actually praying upon this necessary dimension of intergenerational transmission and extracting from it, this simplified skill and capacity mindset, which ends up in the long run under-cutting the dinner table and the substance of schooling so that you get people who are, yeah, they have skills, but they have no source of motivation.
Zak: They have no source of creative thinking. They have no ethical compass, as you were saying. The over focusing on efficiency of the economy, although it seems like a good idea in the short term, ends up undermining the potential for productivity in the longterm because you’ve destroyed all of the intangibles and you’ve commodified all the stuff that actually shouldn’t be commodified. That’s a little bit about the human capital theory, which has been absolutely the predominant way of thinking about education. When you think about, “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s Race to the Top, and those models of educational reform, they’re absolutely dominated by the human capital mentality. You save the schools to save the economy. Similar to the global educational reform movement, sometimes called GERM, G-E-R-M. Gates Foundation, et cetera.
Zak: I’ve been to Africa and other places. Similarly, you’re seeing mostly the nature of the reforms themselves held within this human capital mindset, which again, reduces education to lowest common denominator, need to reproduce the economic system and end up pushing into the margins and actually offloading externalities into the other dimensions of intergenerational transmission, which are necessary like ethical and meaning making and legitimacy. That’s my thinking there. It is important not to actually blame the schools or the mothers, when in fact it is many of the institutions and systems around the household and the school, which make it almost impossible to do the right thing within them. This is a point I make in my book, in several places, especially the chapter on social miracles, which is that it’s not the schools that need to be reformed. It’s the civilization that needs to be reformed in order for us to have schools that we actually want.
Zak: Most of the most well-meaning educational reform projects fail, not because it’s impossible to do what they want to do in the schools, but rather because it’s impossible to have a school like that in a culture like ours and a society like ours. It’s the classic, “Well, that would be a great thing to do for kids.” That sounds wonderful, but how could they ever get a job? It’s like saying, “Oh, if you hand us one of Hampshire College’s problems, if you teach people to value meaningful work and to hate bullshit, and to not virtue signal, and to not go to the lowest common denominator, profit motive, types of incentives, and then you release them into the world to get jobs, where are they going to go?” Until we change the systems around the educational system, we can’t pretend that making changes to the educational systems are really going to do anything.
Jim: That’s a key point. That, I think, is something that the audience should internalize before we go further, because otherwise you could say, “Ah, that Zak, he’s a utopian screw ball. That shit won’t work.” If you take it in the consideration that we’re talking about it as a two part motion of education with cultural and institutional reforms, that the two eventually converge into a world where they both make sense, then we have something. I had a very similar experience on Facebook yesterday where I think it was actually Daniel Schmachtenberger posted a question on, “What would policing of the future look like?” I put up my idea and someone said, “That couldn’t possibly work. That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen, certainly, in a world like ours.” My response will be, “Exactly.”
Jim: My ideas about policing, and I come from a police family, my dad was a career police officer, my brother was too, one of my favorite cousins. I know a fair amount about the sociology of police from the ground floor. My ideas of how to do a great policing, yeah, they would not work in our current society, but that’s the point. There’s something wrong with our current society because a good ethical form of policing can’t work in the same sense that a good ethical form of education could not work in what we would call them GameB talk, advanced GameA, the hyper financialized ratchet of status as consumerism. In fact, I’m going to go off a little bit and respond to your talk about some of your comments about the family structure. Again, throw in a little personal history.
Jim: My parents lived a lower middle class and then gradually sort of a middle-middle class. By the time I graduated my high school, my father was making exactly the median family income in the United States as a Lieutenant and the Washington DC police department. My mother, who’s vastly more talented than my father, had chosen not to work for money, but she was very active as a volunteer. She ran the PTA, she ran the babysitting club, she later got into politics, and had eventually extremely large scale jobs in politics, including delegate to national conventions, being in charge of all the women volunteers in the Eastern third of the country in one of the presidential campaigns. But, always not for pay. People would sometimes say, “Marianne, you could be making the big bucks.” She goes, “Well, I don’t really want to, I don’t really care.” They were happy with who they were.
Jim: They were not on the status via consumption ratchet, that the later generations who have been indoctrinated by pervasive, psychologically astute TV advertising had drilled into them. Now, all the mothers, I’m thinking bout my mother, despite having left home when she was 14, could have had a large lucrative paid career, but to her, family and community and volunteer work was way more satisfying than being able to trade in our often beater used cars for some fancy new car or our little 960 square foot house for some big old thing. She just didn’t think that stuff was important, and neither did my father. That’s, unfortunately, been programmed out of most people today, starting with my generation, the boomers. Most of us were pretty damn status consumers from the get go. It had gotten worse since then though, maybe it’s turning around a little bit with the millennials.
Jim: A surprising number of millennials I’ve gotten to meet, particularly through local agricultural work that I do, the modern this time competent back to the landers, unlike the 1974 crew from Hampshire College and those involved in radical social change and their friends see much less in the matrix of status through consumption. That may be a sign that there are some opportunities here for us to bring in this better world. Let me jump back to one of the things you said twice, and that is the intergenerational transmission of essential human capacities for reasoning reflection could fail. When we talk about what comes next, we hope it’s one of the better worlds. If this truly were to fail in a fundamental fashion, isn’t it possible we could have a serious collapse of the fall of Rome sort?
Zak: That’s what’s happening. It’s not that it could fail it’s that it is failing. You could argue that it has failed already, and that we were in, and maybe pretty far into, collapsed dynamics that are at the end of the day, traceable to the fundamental breakdown in intergenerational transmission. Basically, as a result of the colonization of the life world. It was just precisely what you described in your fascinating reflections on your mother and the transition into a new generation who became status seeking. The transition, again, with the millennials into a generation who are not status seeking through consumerism, but that is in part because they are poor. That is in part because they did not actually have the opportunities for upward mobility that were provided for the Baby Boomer generation. They’ve been saddled with student loan debt, student loan debt which the Boomers didn’t have.
Zak: They’ve been facing a job market, which is saturated by Baby Boomers at the highest levels who are holding onto jobs 20 years longer than their parents did, which is to say there hasn’t actually been a turnover, generationally, since the Boomers took over. They are prolonging that seemingly indefinitely. There hasn’t been a turnover of resources or access to power or wisdom slash knowledge slash capacity. That’s just a striking situation which is having these ramifications up and into the meta-crisis.
Zak: It is happening. The result is actually, when it starts to set in, which is to say, when intergenerational transmission truly fails, you get a distance between the elders and the youth that is so great, the only result can be strategic relation, which means generational warfare. There were some Marxists who believed that, at the end of the day, class warfare would transform into generational warfare. There’s reasons to see that as actually one of the things I was playing out here, when you look at the nature of asset holding and the access to the halls of power, that’s being hoarded by the Boomers. I think we’re actually in a situation where we are approximating generational warfare and right now the Boomers are winning.
Jim: Yeah, it’s amazing. The Boomers have had the Presidency since 1992. Interestingly, Joe Biden is-
Jim: It’s 1992, right? Interestingly, Joe Biden is actually a silent, he’s not a boomer. He the very tail end of the generation before the boomers.
Zak: Right. But that’s even a more extreme example of the dynamic I’m talking about.
Jim: What the fuck? Here in the ’60s, being part of the ’60s, I was part of a really violent upheaval, which I heard a fair amount more second hand than primary because by the time I got to college in ’71, the previous four years had been when the radical changes had come. In 1967 at MIT, the dorms were strictly monitored, no girls allowed in the room, no drinking on campus, blah, blah, blah. By 1971, the boomers had routed the silence and the GI Joes and had totally intimidated them. We basically ran the goddamn place, for both better and for worse. I mean, I think it had some negative consequences, but we had terrorized the older generation into submission to our demands. And by 1971 our dorm was wide open. You want to have your girlfriend over for the weekend? No problem. We had a deal with a local liquor store that would deliver liquor to the front desk, totally illegal. Oh well.
Jim: The boomers routed the previous generations in an astoundingly binary way between about 1967 and maybe at the latest 1975. Nothing like that has happened at all. We had our first boomer president with Bill Clinton when he was quite young. So maybe the boomers learned from their victory how not to be displaced. We shall see.
Zak: I mean, it’s actually quite striking and disturbing when you think about the position of the youth of UCV, the elders, if it is a purely strategic relationship.
Zak: You mentioned that your first conversation with Jordan Hall, you were like, “Yeah. When I got into the business world, it was actually ethical.” But then the thing that remains unsaid is that, and then when my generation took over the business world it became completely unethical, which is the generation that actually caused, so it’s a striking thing.
Zak: I think we’re in that situation, when you look at the educational reform dynamics and the predatory student loan thing and the nature student loan market, the predatory student loan market and the nature of the de-professionalization of a lot of the work that’s taking place now.
Zak: It’s hard to see what the youth are going to do in the next decade. I worry a lot actually about ways to help to mitigate the most extreme aspects of this educational crisis. Right now, with the nature of the situation with the pandemic, we’re actually not in school. The schools have been shut down and most of the reports I’m getting from teachers are that it’s not working great. It’s an [inaudible 00:31:08] in my book. I said yes to that. All the schools should have already put in place something like a alternative educational hub network, that when the buses can’t run and the lunches can’t be served in the cafeteria, is there something like a generator for the educational system that you can shut the physical infrastructure and boot the digital infrastructure, and then have this backup system of a distributed kind of educational hub network. None of those are actually put in place, even though I had some conversations with school districts suggesting they do it.
Zak: In Vermont you can get a snow week in Vermont because it dumps whatever, two feet or something. It’s like for those weeks, the kids just simply aren’t in school. And so the whole country was basically asked to rapidly transition into a completely distributed, digitally facilitated kind of stay at home school system. It’s mostly been an abject failure. Although of course, there’s been pockets of innovation. What that means is these kids are going to advance to the next grade without actually having finished the previous grade.
Jim: Or not. I mean, there’s some talk that the right thing to do is just have everybody do this last grade over again, which will have all kinds of weird backups in the downstream system, including a whole lack of a freshmen year someplace.
Zak: Oh yeah.
Jim: It is interesting that unfortunately, because we’re a society that is reactive and is driven by short-term money on money return, we do not invest in robustness. This is one of the fundamentally deep broken problems that drives the Meta-Crisis and we’re paying for it right now. If we’d had a department of wicked risks, for instance, that could have tracked the rise of the COVID virus, had fully modeled the other viruses and could have called the play earlier, we could’ve reduce by trillions of dollars the damage to our economic system. We could have had kids back to school probably by the first of May, et cetera, but because of the fact that we invented on the fly only when absolutely needed, and we ended up paying way larger costs than we need to on these tail risks. And again, people who don’t understand that these kinds of big events are relatively common, so-called tail risk, and the failure to understand that is one of the greatest failings of our epoch.
Jim: Again, probably driven by education, even those who were well-educated, PhDs in sociology or business who have had lots of statistics, all they’re taught is Gaussian statistics. If all you know is Gaussian statistics, you’ll say extreme events are extremely rare.
Jim: I still remember being so pissed off during the 2008 crisis. Some senior executive from GE Capital said, “We can’t be held responsible. This was a 16 Sigma event,” meaning it’s once in 100 million years. I go, “Idiot. Only on a Gaussian distribution any reasonable read of fluctuations in economic social systems would say this is about a one in 100 year event. So shut the fuck up asshole. And who the hell let you be the CEO of a many, many billions of dollars of capital assets?” Again, a failure of education into understanding that we live in a complex world and a complex systems thinking is an absolute requisite for those who are going to try to steer our society or even exist in it.
Jim: In fact, one of the things I did like about your book at first, I was saying, “Oh, God damn it. This is a guy with a hammer and everything is an education nail,” but you could come out and say quite strongly that throughout the book, you’re looking at the interdependence between educational organizations, teacherly practice and the rest of society and culture, this idea of multiple systems that are coupled in various ways and have extraordinarily complex non-linear dynamics, I thought was something you could have done a little bit more of in the book, but you clearly are informed by that perspective.
Zak: Absolutely. We’ve been talking about the schools and that’s where most people locate education. I’ve been using the term intergenerational transmission to try to kind of signal that there’s actually a much deeper way to understand this function of education which makes schools actually a kind of relatively new historical invention. That’s a whole other conversation. But I’m coming from a complex systems view of societal evolution. And I mentioned Wallerstein and he pulls on Prigogine and background with the Santa Fe Institute type, Jeffrey West and Irvin Laszlo and other people who’ve modeled social systems as basically auto poetically reproducing themselves in terms of complex systems dynamics.
Zak: I see intergenerational transmission as basically the auto poetic function of the social system, which means that it doesn’t just happen in schools at all. That, in fact, if I make a grocery store the way grocery stores have been made, there’s a hidden curriculum there. I’m transmitting to the next generation something about what food is, even though I never mentioned in schools not in the curriculum, same thing with energy, same thing with water, transportation, et cetera.
Zak: There’s a deeper pattern of intergenerational transmission, which John Dewey noted early that all the institutions and patterns of a society are educative or educational. That’s actually the definition of education I’m working with, not just schools. In fact, I’m suggesting schools as we’ve known them are basically obsolete, modern inventions, which were useful in a certain period of time, but that are basically decades past their prime of efficiency for serving the auto poetic regeneration of the social system.
Zak: It’s important to see that if you can see education that broadly, then you’re actually looking at a range of problems which are outside the scope of just educational reform as we’ve usually discussed it, which means school reform.
Zak: The most obvious one is the informational ecology, which has in the last couple of decades, just become probably the main effect when you’re looking at people’s capacities and epistemics, their frameworks and their internal working models of who they are and what the world’s about.
Zak: When you look at adolescent culture right now in conjunction with everything we’ve talked about how the schools are failed in part because they’re obsolete, in part because they can’t handle this exact problem, which is how do you stop the kids from getting brainwashed by social media when the fricking adults are brainwashed by social medial? I’m amazed that grown professionals with a tremendous amount of other things to do, spend time on Facebook when they know that it is built to be addictive and that it is used to transmit micro-targeted advertisements to try to impact you at an emotional level, that it’s a extractive model of harvesting your time, attention, and capability for their profit, but we do it.
Jim: I’m going to push back on that just a little bit. I read some of your attacks on our information ecosystem. By the way, I do agree that emergently in the majority of actual humans around, the net result of all this is somewhat surprisingly a reduction in our sense-making capability.
Jim: However, there are certainly trends that point the other way, Facebook being one, while open general Facebook is just as useless, and as you say, manipulative. You are the product you’re being micro-targeted, et cetera.
Jim: On the other hand, Facebook has also developed an ecosystem, or the users really pushed it, which are the so called groups. I would say 90%, at least, maybe more now of my time on Facebook is in specialized groups of people who have self-organized in a network centric fashion to pursue a specific agenda. And some of those agendas are radical social change. In fact, at this point, the core hottest part of the GameB movement is on the GameB group on Facebook, about 2000 members, people from all kinds of different areas growing exponentially. I don’t even know if there’s ads in groups. If they are they’re unobtrusive. I don’t know what the hell their algorithms would make out of our GameB conversations on Facebook.
Jim: Now we have decided that the core group had gotten about two months ago, too heavily trafficked. It was too many topics. And so we took one of the affordances of Facebook, which they don’t even know probably could be used for this. We created a GameB page, the GameB page on Facebook, which then links to so far about 18 additional groups of GameB, GameB brand. We have GameB community building, GameB parenting, GameB education, GameB communities, et cetera.
Jim: We have taken the tools available that Facebook created for God knows what reason and have molded them to our own subversive purposes. So that’s number one, even though open Facebook is a cesspool. It gets worse by the minute, Twitter’s even worse in many ways, unless you’re willing to spend a lot of time on curation.
Jim: But these tools can be used. The second one, and you mentioned Google as being problematic. I think back as a nerdy smart working class kid who had depleted his school and community libraries of every interesting book on science by the time I was 11, if someone had turned me loose with Google Scholar when I was 12, holy shit, I don’t know what would have become, but I don’t think it would be bad. While the temptations to go in useless or worse than useless direction, certainly exists, there are amazing things on the internet. The whole MIT curriculum is available, almost all of it available on the internet, as are big parts of other elite colleges.
Jim: Again, I use Google Scholar many times a day and just visualizing 12 year old, 13 year old nerdy Jim Rutt following his passion through a thread of scientific articles, is mind blowing. I would have been a way smarter person way earlier if I’d had access to that tool.
Jim: So it’s not all bad. In fact, there’s lots of really good, and one that you slammed a little bit, I’d love to hear your thoughts on, that was Khan Academy. Again, when I first stumbled across the Khan Academy, I go, “God damn it. I wish I’d had access to that when I was 10 or 11. That would have been amazing. I wouldn’t have to listen to these droning boring people who spent three quarters of each year’s math class recapitulating last years. Why can’t we move on sons of bitches? With the Khan Academy I could have been teaching myself calculus when I was 13.” There’s a lot of good in our information systems.
Zak: Of course. The overall recommendation of my book is actually to transition out of traditional brick and mortar schools into a educational system that has in massively new potentiality as a result of embracing digital technologies. But there’s this question of what is actually educational as opposed to just informational. Informational environments are not necessarily educational environments.
Zak: There’s a complex thing that’s happened when we think that using digital technology for education means getting kids to stare at screens all day. That absolutely doesn’t need to be the case. I have some design kind of recommendations in my book for educational technologies that would not actually depend upon increased screen usage and isolated kind of autistic exploration through uncurated informational environments.
Zak: That’s one factor, which is that Khan Academy is amazing. Actually, I think it’s an incredible resource, but it is kids staring at screens all day and that’s not what education is at a fundamental level. The idea that you could roll out a national digital curriculum which would have kids sitting in front of computer screens for seven hours a day and that’s education, that’s actually better than it used to be because they have access to everything, super naive. Most of education happens in conversation with actual other people in real space and time and sensory motor development, aesthetic development, ethical development, all of these things outside of the merely cognitive and science technology engineering and math domains, all of those things require real human interpersonal contact. So that’s one.
Zak: Two, I’m a Rawlsian so I actually think in a very principled way about the nature of justice. Justice is about the way basic institutions of society kind of set the conditions for people to work and thrive in. When you’re judging a system, the best way to judge it is actually by taking into account first and foremost, the position of the least well off. And so of course, 13 year old Jim Rutt would have done great with Google and Google Scholar. My sense is, in fact, even if that Jim Rutt had access to Facebook, he may have been disciplined enough to not go on Facebook or to use Facebook in this really sophisticated way.
Zak: But when you look at what happens to those kids who are not self directed learners, who have trauma or who are in other ways not talented enough to turn an informational ecosystem into an educational ecosystem, you get in a situation where you look at what Facebook does to those people who are just captured by it. It’s like, totally, there’s a park, beautiful park. People sell crack in the park, but there are places in the park where you can play basketball. So you’re saying basically like, “Hey, we can play basketball in this park.” And I’m saying, “Yeah, but there’s crack dealers in that park.”
Jim: I love that. I love that. I’m going to steal that. I’ll give credit, but that’s a perfect example of Facebook. It’s a nice park, there’s picnic tables, you can take your family, because a lot of people use Facebook mostly to communicate with their family, particularly boomers, and so it’s good. But oh yeah, there’s crack dealers and there’s hypnotists that will turn you into a sex criminal and all kinds of weird shit out there.
Zak: No, and what I’m saying is what most people know is Facebook’s actually open question, like show us the data Facebook. What are people doing? The advertisers know what most people do on Facebook, but it’s not clear to me what is actually going on there. We know it drives depression. We know it drives addiction. We know it drives conspiracy theories. We know it drives lowering self-esteem in adolescence and cyber bullying and a whole bunch of other stuff. I’m not saying like it’s a nice park and the drug dealers are hiding there. I’m saying it’s a park where drugs are dealt. There are places in it where it’s maybe safe, but in order to get to those places you have to walk through the places where it’s filled with drug dealers.
Zak: It’s by design. Facebook brought in people with an expertise in addiction to help them think about design features. Not that it’d make them not addictive, the same way that fast food companies put chemicals to basically make flavors that are radically addictive. This is by design that it’s capturing attention, completely distracting and destroying the epistemics of the youth and some of the adults, many of the adults.
Jim: We’ve talked about this on the show quite a bit. In fact, just recently I did an episode with Steven Levy who wrote a book about Facebook and he gets into a lot of this and my friend Tristan Harris was on the show. I think his group, Humane Tech, is doing some of the very best work at theorizing and capturing to the degree they can, as you point out, the inner data is not available, but there’s a fair amount of scientific research that’s been published on Facebook on how people are using it and what it’s actually doing to us, and some of those dimensions you talked about, teenage depression, teenage suicide may well be causally linked.
Jim: The really big turn up is suspiciously well correlated with the introduction of the smartphone and the proliferation of Facebook as the default meeting ground for teens in the 2010 timeframe.
Jim: I’m going to pivot here now a little bit to what I took away as maybe the central theme of your book, which, to use your words, the importance of re-theorizing teacherly authority and responsibility and contemporary educational configurations. This struck me as being very relevant to the discussion about Google Scholar or Google itself or Wikipedia as a resource, but without having something like teacherly authority to help guide and error correct and form the broader contexts and indeed something would be quite lacking in the sort of self configuration that some people might even the 13 year old Jim Rutt would have failed to do if they didn’t have excellent teacherly authority in some form.
Jim: I’d love to have you riff on that. One, let me know if you think that’s close to your theme. And second, riff pretty deeply on what a really good new modern form of distributed teacherly authority might look like.
Zak: Teacherly authority, it is at the root of the theorizing idea in the book. It’s actually at the root of resolving the educational crisis and therefore the Meta-Crisis. It’s something like the reestablishing of a new kind of teacherly authority.
Zak: What’s interesting is that you actually don’t get anything like human culture without teacherly authority. I’ve made some arguments based on the work of Michael Tomasello, who was at the Max Planck Institute for a while as a comparative psychologist looking at the differences between primates and humans in particular. And although he doesn’t put it in these terms, this is actually definitely the conclusion of his work, which is something like there’s a species specific trait to the human, to homosapien sapiens, and that species specific trait, which is the real differentiator, because there’s so much that we share with monkeys and other primates and then even things like whales, that is actually this teacherly authority, that it’s a specific kind of intergenerational transmission, which is facilitated by joint attentional awareness. That’s to say you and me engaging with something in a context where you have greater knowledge and capacity and I have less, and we both know I’m trying to learn from you. This is the kind of species specific kind of anthropologically deep seated kind of like archetype of teaching and learning.
Zak: People have argued with Michael Tomasello, well, no, it’s very clear like monkeys teach other monkeys. He’s like, “Yeah, the mother monkey will put the stick in the anthill and bring out ants and then leave the stick there and then the kid will try it. But there’s nothing like the complexity and abstraction of joint attention that you get even in the simplest interaction with a toddler.”
Zak: Just a simple example is that monkeys don’t point. He did a lot of research on this like 20 years ago and I’m sure other people have followed up and there may be some complexity, but if I point at something most or look carefully, most young humans will follow my point. Dogs follow points because they’ve been evolved with us. But in nature, spontaneously monkeys don’t point for other monkeys to follow. This is something about joint attention and it’s something about, again, the things that set humans apart and allow for the kinds of civilizations that we have. Where do those reside? They reside in this dynamic of teacherly authority and the level and sophistication of intergenerational and cultural transmission that we can facilitate.
Zak: What I’m saying with all of that is basically that when I say teacherly authority, don’t think teacher in a school. Don’t think that at all. We think teaching and education, we put them in schools, but that’s this modern bias. In fact, teacherly authority is a deeply rooted aspect of what it means to be human. And we’ve had structures, both formal and informal, of teacherly authority in play for as long as we’ve been human. In fact, as soon as we started putting them in play is when you could say, “Oh, okay, human.”
Zak: They work as I described and the teaching a child to tie his shoes is an interesting example, but you can do any number of them. You have an asymmetry of knowledge and capacity. You also tend to have an asymmetry of power, but a relationship is entered into nonetheless where the person on the plus side of that asymmetry, which is say, the smarter more powerful person, they are taking the best interests in mind of the younger person with an intention to engage in teaching and vice versa, that the student, the role of the student also has to be. You have to know that you’re in that situation.
Zak: I’m not talking about tacit learning and mere imitation where you pick up things by being around someone. That’s not teacherly authority. Teacher authority is an explicit relationship, a kind of a social role dynamic. It hinges upon the perceived legitimacy of the relationship.
Zak: If I claim to have an asymmetry of knowledge and power, but in fact I only have an asymmetry of power, then I have pseudo teacherly authority, which has been the big problem lately, where I have actual asymmetry of knowledge, then you can actually have something like legitimate teacherly authority. Because we’ve been in state run institutionalized schools where teachers have teacherly authority by virtue of power differential, and maybe sometimes knowledge differential, but definitely by virtue of power differential, then you lay the groundwork for slowly undermining the ability to perceive legitimate teacherly authority.
Zak: This is what’s important. When people talk about a working group coming together, and it’s a bunch of people with different capacities and then a spontaneous hierarchy emerges within the group. It’s not a bureaucratic hierarchy, it’s a hierarchy of competence and skill. We all want to be in those kinds of situations, but that relies upon the ability of people to perceive actual differences in capacity and fall into line in terms of the dynamics of authority.
Zak: For example, right now I’m kind of holding forth with teacherly authority about teacherly authority.
Jim: How meta.
Zak: But when I go to the auto mechanic and he is telling me about this problem with my car, and I’m asking him questions like, “How does that actually work?” And then the auto mechanic is on the up gradient of the capacity differential. He is exercising teacherly authority over me.
Zak: It’s not that it’s like one person’s always in a position of teacherly authority. That’s super pathological. It’s actually these suit very flexible and dynamically shifting structures. It’s the ability to basically create containers, and this is the notion of a school and the notion of a place in society where education takes place in particular, create these containers where legitimate teacherly authority can be most easily recognized and harnessed and where the student and the teacher are able to fall into the dynamics of trust and interaction that are required. There’s more to say, so you can look also as a developmental psychologist, which I’ve, that’s …
Zak: You can look also as a developmental psychologist, which that’s like my formal training. You can look at those capacity differentials that lay the groundwork for teacherly authority and can look at them very specifically, you know, and it’s most clear in early childhood, but even in adulthood with high order, conceptual frameworks and capacity acquisition, it’s possible to mark the learning sequences that unfold in these different domains and see where just, how much more knowledge does that person have, right? Like how legitimate is that teacherly authority? Is it just that they have a novel way of speaking and they’re charismatic or is it that there’s actually really a knowledge and capacity differential? And so those kinds of discernments which need to be made on the part of the student and the teacher, if they’re honest and self-reflective, those things need to be revealed and thematized and felt.
Zak: So I mentioned the problem with teacherly authority being based solely on bureaucratic power, but there’s also this problem, which is more novel, which is teacherly authority being based on something like the popularity of a platform or the number of likes or views or celebrity status. So I’m talking about the transformation of teacherly authority in the context of the digital information ecologies. And this is kind of what in the last couple of decades has actually brought what was already an educational crisis to a head, which is that the water has become so muddy in terms of how to detect legitimate teacherly authority, that now we don’t even know it when we see it. And when we do see it, there’s often a knee jerk reaction to destroy it, that teacherly authority is not wanted. And so now we’re back to the legitimization or legitimacy crisis, which is to say, if you land in an institutional situation where you’ve undercut teacherly authority in the places it needs to be able to show up and be detected, then you’ve undercut the ability for intergenerational transmission.
Zak: And if that goes long enough, then even when you come forward as a legitimate teacher, there’s no one who will assume the role of student. And some of this has had to do with kind of the way that schooling and family structures and other things have been preyed upon. So that much, and back to the education productive human capital theory, that, you know, too often, people understand intergenerational transmission strategically, which doesn’t require entering into an actual relationship of teacherly authority. So for example, if I go to a college and I pay money to go to the college, I’m actually taking out as much as a house, I’m taking a mortgage out as a 18 year old in order to go to college. And I’m making that decision strategically, because I want to go to the college that’s going to give me the biggest return on that investment in terms of future earnings, right?
Zak: So this is human capital theory. So now I’m sitting in the classroom and I’m super aware that like every hour I’m in this classroom costs this much money because I’m aware of that. I took out $40,000 or whatever, probably even more to be sitting there. And then the teacher starts challenging me and the teacher starts saying things that I do disagree with, right? And the teacher starts inviting guest lecturers that say things that I don’t want to hear that bother my identity. Right? So now you’re in a situation where student as consumer disrupts the ability to be student as learner, disrupts the ability of student to actually get in a relationship of teacherly authority. So what I’m saying is that, and this is my notion of the education commodity proposition that, you know, consumers are always right. The customer’s always right.
Zak: Students want to be proven wrong. So for as long as we hold educational interactions and intergenerational transmission in the frame of commodity exchange and strategic intergenerational relationship for return on investment of education that we actually have really made quite fragile and delicate, where does teacherly authority actually arise in those contexts? Right? It’s like in the back rooms, it’s like the random, you know, fortuitous student-teacher relationship that emerges. It’s not systematic. What’s systematic in the system is the strategic relation between generations almost as a form of commodity exchange. And so similarly it’s like, you know, a lot of teacherly authority resides with some other.
Zak: If I knew that my mom was my mom, because she was getting paid by the state, let’s say … Right, this has been recommended. Like your mom didn’t get paid to take care of you when you were a little gym rat. Now, should the state have paid her to do that and then actually monitored her behavior and paid her more if she was like a quote, “good mom,” right?
Jim: Ah, fuck that, right?
Zak: This is what I’m saying? So it’s like, that actually would be the most devastating undermining of intergenerational transmission you could imagine, because it would undermine the intergenerational transmission of love, right? There’s this question of, “Okay, my mom’s nice to me. Why is my mom nice to me? Because she loves me.” But then in the back of your mind, there’d be this, “Oh, no, she’s actually being nice to me because she’s virtue signaling to the monitors who will pay her more.” Right? And so you have to understand how much we are approximating this kind of situation in many institutional contexts where intergenerational transmission takes place and the undermining, again, just to reiterate the undermining of teacherly authority has ramifications out into all of the other aspects of our institutional structures.
Zak: And there’s no way for example, to get out of the political crisis we’re in right now, like with the Congress and the Senate and the president and the voting and all of that stuff. If you want to call that politics, that whole situation hinges on this notion of legitimate teacherly authority, the whole problem with the informational ecosystem, with the kind of fake news and alternative facts and conspiracy, isn’t that also like the blue church kind of like homogenized kind of like New York times. All of that is in question because teacherly authority itself is in question. So yeah, we have to find a way to get into a position where we can first recognize this problem and then create new contexts in which actual teacherly authority can reemerge.
Jim: Yeah, that’s great. I mean, that is the heart of your book that I took away from it that, you know, as we move the world towards a better and new social operating system, a nuanced and distributed and non dogmatic form of teacherly authority broadly construed. Now, that’s … and you make that point several times, not somebody standing in front of 30 kids tapping on their desk with their ruler is going to be absolutely essential to make this not only an intergenerational transfer, but because we’re living in a world where there’s a demand for exponential increase in capacity, it has to be an intergenerational upgrade between each generation, which makes the problem even more difficult.
Jim: Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got a few things I wanted to hit on, that these comments brought forth. One, the tight linkage between teacherly authority and parenting. You mention it in places in the book, but I didn’t find that you developed it in a really rich fashion and you could probably say more about that. I’ll give you a chance to do that in a bit …
Jim: And you mentioned the criticality of mothers. No doubt in my mind, the most influential person in my life was my mother. She was a great person in her own way. Grew up in a house without electricity or indoor plumbing, left home when she was 14, made her way to D.C. when she was 16, saved up nickels, dimes, and quarters from being a waitress. But she was a great person in her own way and I would not be who I was without her. And you know, the fact that she was able to eschew status through stuff was what allowed her to do that. And all three of her kids, got to say, we all had great lives, been really solid citizens, been very successful in our own very different domains, and basically because we had that great experience.
Jim: I can also point out and again, another anecdotal story, to my wife, she taught Headstart for a year and part of Headstart was doing family visits. And so they visited the families of all the students. At the end of the year, she quit for two reasons. One during the time she was working at Headstart, she read the research which showed that Headstart didn’t stick. And then the family visits told her that, sorry, these families are so dysfunctional a couple of years with Headstart is not going to make much of difference. And so parenting and capacity in the family has got to be intimately crafted as part of this social operating system of teacherly authority.
Jim: My next point is, and you point this out specifically in your book, that there are trends of so-called hyper progressive reforms like unschooling, or what I’m familiar with raw learning or maker-space based learning, learning by imitation essentially where the teacherly authority is very much downplayed, and while I think some of that is good I’m with you that, you know, as a full way to educate the next generation and do that intergenerational upgrade a capacity that does not strike me as likely to be successful.
Jim: And third, the one you in your nice discussion there pointed to this undermining of all authority and particularly teacherly authority and parental authority. There are a lot of crazy ass fucking theories running around about parental authority, right? There are actually people who would advocate what we both laughed at. I think I went beyond laughing, you know, the idea of paying the mother and having social workers come in and assess her once a quarter and giving her a grade and give her a bonus. I mean, what the fuck? Right? But there are people advocating that and it strikes me that an awful lot of that rot comes from the capture of a fair amount of our academia, particularly in education departments, by what I call postmodernists, people who have lost their way in thinking about reality and have kind of generated these bizarre theories within theories that just are not practical, that have no real traction with the real world. And particularly in education schools, those things have made considerable progress and have led to some really pretty crazy shit.
Jim: I can give you one personal experience. I was, after I stepped down as Chairman of SFI, moved back to Virginia, I started living at my farm again, I took on a gig as a Consultant to a major research university, which will remain unnamed, who wanted to establish a PhD, cross-disciplinary PhD program in cognitive science. They had one of the top undergraduate psychology programs in the country, and they wanted to upgrade it to a PhD program. And so I helped them for quite a while. And we found tremendous support from all the other schools from medical school, nursing school, engineering school, for their computer science department, even the business school.
Jim: But when we went to call on the Dean of the School of Education and the department heads of a couple of the sub departments, it was like, we were like aliens from Uranus coming here to sell them some kind of crazy shit. And what were trying to sell was I would say state-of-the-art cognitive neuroscience and cognitive science. And we looked at the courses they were offering and things like educational psychology. And we were all saying, “This is 50 year old stuff. And some of it wouldn’t even have been considered good psychology 50 years ago.” And, you know, I didn’t know it at the time, but the other folks that were more knowledgeable than I, about the politics of education, again, they pointed to the fact that, you know, that particular school had been taken over by postmodernist and therefore had descended into a maelstrom of nonsense and that we should not waste our time talking to him. And we didn’t. So anyway, that’s a number of reactions. I’d like to get your reactions to my reactions.
Zak: Yeah, there’s a lot there. So I mean, the postmodernists took over a lot of the university system and especially those departments that were again, kind of least well off, you know, education as a field has been on the defensive basically since it began. And the trend has been scientific experts who are men come in and tell women who have 30 years of experience with young children that they’re doing it wrong and there’s a more scientific way for them to do it. If you look at the history of the IQ testing movement, which is intimately tied to the eugenics movement, which is intimately all tied to the birth of our large scale public education systems in the United States, as part of the urbanization and immigration that was occurring, you know, this is just pre World War I. You’re looking at a unconscionable intervention into the life world with a ostensibly, but mostly bullshit scientific instrument running rough shod over the dynamics of teacherly authority.
Zak: And so it’s not a surprise to me that as postmodernism emerged, it took our presidents most rudely in certain graduate schools of education, because, you know, postmodernism began as a set of extremely valid criticisms against, well, let’s say, hyper omniscient and reductive form of modernism. And the question of, you know, how a critique that was simply deconstructive could ever be transformed into something that was reconstructive remains open. So I guess I’m, you know, and I encounter this myself. So I was in the head teaching fellow briefly of a mind brain and education department at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It was founded by my advisor, Kurt Fisher, who actually recently just passed away, one of the most brilliant developmental psychologists ever, but it was the first program of its kind, which was a program in a graduate school of education, integrating cognitive science, neuroscience, and pedagogics, basically, education.
Zak: And there was tremendous resistance, tremendous in part, and I came to detect it as part of this narrative I was just telling, in part, it was a fear. It was a fear that we would, based on the latest trendy scientific findings about the brain override decades of intuitive tacit knowledge accumulated by underpaid teachers, right. That we would, and this has happened. This is in part what the field of educational neuroscience turned into in certain areas. It turned into brain based education, which was using scientific findings that were specious and would be overturned within a year, using them to think about rebooting whole curriculums, right, which is foolish, completely foolish. Education is not a technical problem. So science only gets you so far. And the aversion, many teachers have, and of course the postmodernists in particular, give them kind of like some ammunition to, to reify these arguments, I think more than they should.
Zak: The resistance comes from that long history of education being basically the least well off of the institutions. So, yeah, so that’s some of the way I think it makes sense to read that situation. And then there’s that question of, well, why is education the least well off given that it’s so fricking important, right? And this is a really interesting question. And when you look, especially at the history of educational reform in the United States, you’re seeing the public education systems, and that means the teachers within them, right, who are, have always been and remain, although a little bit less, so predominantly women who are underpaid, given their skill capacity, these educational systems have been the hobby horse of the industrial elite philanthropic classes. And that then needs to be noted, as well, when you’re looking at it. Well, why did the postmodernists take over the education department?
Zak: It’s because the education has got the most screwed by the kind of overt reductionistic human capital theory, modernist views of education. So that is unfortunate, but unless there’s a major change in the way we understand the value of education and we actually make education something more like being a lawyer or a doctor or a CEO, unless we do that, there’s no way to resuscitate the degree of teacherly authority that’s needed to right the ship at this point.
Jim: Well, would your theory say, rather than a doctor type teacher, I thought you were talking about the idea of spreading teacherly authority, much more widely, you know, into the hands of the local expert NY who also puts on his teacherly authority hat to teach the aspiring 14 year old, a little bit of rudimentary thermodynamics.
Jim: Or the mother who puts on the teacherly authority hat to say, “Here’s how you do ethical reasoning, et cetera.” And maybe there’s not a need for a doctor, like person, at least in the lives of-
Zak: Yeah, I wasn’t suggesting that they are understood as having a kind of like special class of expertise. I was suggesting that they, that it’s perceived as a social good.
Jim: I see.
Zak: That there’s a prestige associated with being good at conducting intergenerational transmission, right? It doesn’t mean your need to be remunerated the way we remunerate, you know, brain surgeons or whatever. But it does mean that there is a shift in cultural perception about the value of what’s taking place in these spaces that needs to happen because they’ve been spaces that have been subject to capture by forces that have not educational interest in mind. But again, these reframings of the full spectrum of what education needs to be in terms of this productive human capital, limiting it. And yeah, so that’s, that’s kind of there, like the state of graduate schools of education in the bad, they have been taken over by postmodernists, but that’s because they’ve been in this position of the least, well off, you know?
Jim: Yeah, they went from the fire to the fire pan, you know, incompetent social engineers and then they went to just utter insane nonsense, right? Hardly progress, but it’s understandable.
Zak: Yeah, it’s funny, because it’s like the teachers aren’t incompetent social engineers. It’s the people who came in thinking they knew better than the teachers.
Zak: And thinking specifically, and in a sense, they did know better than the teachers about how to make the school system reproduce human capital, but they didn’t know better than the teachers about how to have the school system reproduce human beings that can actually perpetuate a civilization in perpetuity. So that’s the one, and then the, remembering the parenting one, what was the …
Jim: The one in the middle was the tendency amongst some people who consider themselves educational progressive to move towards unschooling or raw learning or maker based learning. That’s basically imitative.
Zak: Yeah. I mean, I’m definitely in the kind of like unschooling movement. Like my book is I’m resuscitating Ivan Illich’s arguments about deschooling society, but I’m doing that in the interest of teacherly authority, not as a protest against it. I’m basically saying that because the schools have run the way that they’ve run for so long, it’s going to be very hard to create the conditions conducive to teacherly authority in those contexts. Because it’s like as soon as a kid walks into the school, if he is a reflective adolescent, if he’s not trying to be strategic and get into college and he’s just being honest about what’s going on in the school, it’s what Graybar would call a bullshit job. Right? What goes on in the school? You’re doing busy work, right? You’re mostly could take the learning that you’re getting and do it in a couple hours a day, which are there for six hours a day, and the projects are all abstract.
Zak: The projects aren’t having you use your skills to help the community around you. They’re you having to use your skills to get yourself promoted, to get into a college, to maybe eventually get a job, which then you can help the community, right? So there’s this postponing of meaningful work, and that’s one of the, again, the other things that undermines teacherly authority. So I’m in favor of dismantling the schools, creating something like an educational hub network in which there’s distributed teacherly authority, but that requires contexts in which teacherly authority can appear, and that means contexts where younger people and older people are engaged with actual meaningful problems together, where both have an interest in solving the problem.
Zak: So no more bullshit in the schools, there’s so much work to do. There’s so many problems to solve that it’s ridiculous, we’re having kids take tests that have no relationship to the world when we could them have them in apprentice like relationships in kind of neo guild-like structures, where as soon as they’re able to, they’re helping the community under the guidance of more knowledgeable elders, building skill and also contributing.
Zak: And so maker spaces and radically kind of like de-authoritarian or anti-authoritarian homeschooling and things like that are reactive. They’re not going to help us in the long run, but they are kind of pockets of like temporary autonomous zones in the educational space where you can get in and actually do amazing things because in those contexts, spontaneous, legitimate teacherly authority can arise, where it’s actually disincentivized from arising in schools often.
Zak: It’s another conversation about how scripted some curriculums actually are and how the standardized testing infrastructures in particular make it, so that were legitimate teacherly authority to arise, it would be seen as suspect and maybe potentially undermining the kind of metrics by which the school is gauged. But in these autonomous areas where education’s occurring, much more spontaneously, there still can happen but if we start to design for it to happen and again, think about ways to create contexts where real legitimate, meaningful teacherly authority can arise, then we’re in a different situation.
Zak: So I do think that … you know, so think about it. It’s like if you watch Fox news, then anytime you see something on CNN or the New York Times, you’re not going to buy it. You’re not going to buy into the teacherly authority of the New York Times simply because it’s the New York Times and vice versa. So if you’re a kid and you’ve learned over the course of grade school and maybe up into middle school, that these teachers aren’t really all they’re cracked up to be, and I don’t understand why I have to learn this, instead of that. And you know, you’re basically seeing through some of the illusion of school and then you, in a school, encounter a teacher who’s legit, you’re going to discount them simply by virtue of the fact that they’re in a school, right? So I really think that we’ve gone quite far down a trajectory that has undermined teacherly authority in the schools.
Zak: And I blame the standardized tests primarily because everyone knows that the interest of the teachers actually to get the kids to do well on the test, even if he, she loves the kids, right? And there’s this potential … and she’s super smart … and there’s a potential for a real authentic teacherly authority to emerge at the end of the day, the overarching motivation of the school and everyone in it is to pass tests that have very specific content in a very specific assessment type of modality, and again, that’s highly unnatural from the perspective of intergenerational transmission.
Zak: Whereas if you’re in an apprenticeship model and you’re concretely working every day on problems together that you both care about, you don’t need a standardized test at the end. Every day there’s multiple assessment instances, there’s multiple assessment engagements and conversations and learning that’s taking place. So that’s, that’s a little bit on that.
Zak: And then yeah, parenting is in a sense, the other place where education has been kind of relegated to in the modern world, right? So we think of like the schools and we think of the home, and these are the places that are like saddled with the burden of accomplishing democracy, right? And so blame the teachers, blame the moms, if you want to figure out what’s wrong. But what you have to understand about the breakdown of family structures is that it’s not a moral failing at the level of the individuals in the family. It’s a moral failing at the level of the society, which allows a society to exist with this much, for example, inequitable distribution of wealth, right? So the question of why your wife, when she went in to the Headstart home visits by those families were so dysfunctional. It’s a macroeconomic question. What immediately confronts you is a psychological and sociological question, questions about attachment theory, questions about trauma and things of that nature.
Zak: But if you pull out and look for the generator function of families like that, it’s not in a moral failing of the individual, it’s in the moral failing of the society. And so again, I hugely support the notion that the family is actually at the core of civilizational redesign, but that is the most dangerous thing to say as well. So here’s what I’m basically getting at, which is that the insight that the family is so important is what leads to the insanity of wanting social workers, to monitor every mother and wanting there to be parenting licenses and parenting mandatory parenting curriculum and these kinds of things. But that’s the most Orwellian shit show you can possibly imagine if you have a civilization that’s micromanaging familial life, right?
Zak: The need to micromanage familial life only takes place if the environments in which families grow are devoid of nutrients, right? Which is to say like, if you plant a family in a cultural and social contexts where normal, healthy human interaction isn’t possible, then you have to go in and try to force them to do that. If you could create enough … and then back to my social miracles chapter, if you could create enough surrounding the family, then you could actually ask people to step into the responsibility of being in a family.
Zak: Instead, what you’re doing is asking people to step into the responsibility of contributing to the economy and then the family takes on the externalities of that, right? The family is one of the places and actually literally the minds and
Zak: Right. The family is one of the places, and actually literally the minds and the brains of the youth, are part of the places where we actually deposit the externalities of our current social system. So, until we flip that, then there’s no use in actually lamenting the state of parenting and getting angry at irresponsible parents and all of that stuff. And that’s usually stuff that’s said by middle-class white people. When you really look at the situation with the families, you have to look first and foremost, what the hell is the economics around this family? And in Vermont, you’ve got generational, rural poverty. Generational rural poverty, which has to do with a lot of things like agricultural subsidies and changes and manufacturing locations and all of that stuff. Probably similar to rural Virginia. And what you have are families in situations that are… Basically, it’s extremely difficult to understand how these folks actually get by, let alone how they manage to have loving conversations around dinner tables, reliably.
Zak: And there is some sense that those are the same people who are also voting for Trump, and who are also not believing in climate change, and who are… So, there’s this cluster of things which are occurring, which we like to read as almost like the moral failings of these people. And similar to the way when a child struggles in school, we blame the child, and eventually we blame their brain, and we give them ADHD medication, right? It never occurs to us to blame the school when the child fails. It’s certainly the last place I would put attention is on the child’s nervous system. The first thing I would look at is the context in which the child is trying to do the work. And so similarly with the need to think about how to help families and how to re-vivify the virtue and value of family life. I think for the sake of intergenerational transmission and true teacherly authority and just like sanity.
Zak: Same argument as education reform, right? Don’t focus on the school. Don’t focus on the family. Focus on what is surrounding it, focusing on all the things that use the family to offload externalities, that use the family as a point of extraction and rent-seeking. The family’s preyed upon. And yet we blame the family for the breakdown of family values. So, yeah. That’s some of my view and it’s similar. I don’t blame the schools for the failure of democracy. There are huge potential scapegoat teachers in particular, huge potential scapegoats. When everyone pointing fingers at them should actually be pointing fingers at themselves, usually business leaders, et cetera.
Zak: Yeah. So, that’s a bit more on your reaction to me.
Jim: Yeah. I’d say that fits into what we talked about earlier, about the complex coupled systems nature of the problem. There is no one point fix in a complex system typically, right? And at least our Game B Theory is we have to co-evolve our institutions and our people together, more or less, over probably two or three generations to solve these problems. No silver bullets, right? Unfortunately. We’re getting kind of far into our time here, and as we discussed prior to showtime, we’re going to do a second episode probably in a month or two, and hit the other half of my topic notes. Zak’s book is so rich. I just recommend you should read it. There’s no way we could do it justice in one 90 minute session.
Jim: But one last topic, and I think this is one that a lot of people will find interesting and scary and controversial and lots of other things. Before we wrap up today, you write very passionately about the pharmacolization K through 12 education, and particularly this proliferation of ADHD and similar diagnoses, particularly for boys in the K to 12 system, and the attempts to douse them with various chemicals. And that is being a canary in the coal mine at least, and maybe even more than that. So, why don’t you talk a little bit about the pharmacolization and medicalization of K to 12 education.
Zak: Totally. And this is of course a very a controversial topic, right? When I’ve spoken about ADHD medication, ADD, the rapid, not quite exponential, but probably now with the pandemic approaching, exponential growth rates of psychotropic drug prescription to children. When I speak about these things, I often get a lot of push back. It’s interesting. And the push back’s on multiple levels. Some of it comes from confusion about the nature of what a disease entity is and the nature of how the brain works and how these drugs actually act on the nervous system. But some of it comes from the perceived dire situation of many young people within the schools. And the perception that failing in the schools ends up having ramifications for the rest of your life.
Zak: So, what this means is that those people who will probably react to what I’m going to unfold here, I have tremendous sympathy, in fact, for just how dire the situation is for many young boys in schools, and understand the kind of almost overwhelming sense of obligation one has as a parent, sometimes as a teacher or administrator, to try to help those kids, whatever it takes. What I’m trying to do when I speak about these things is provide a language that can be used to make better sense of what the decision is we’re actually making when we decide to put a child on a psychotropic drug to positively impact educational performance.
Zak: So you mentioned it, and this is what it comes down, the medicalization of academic underperformance is the issue, right? So, the medicalization of academic underperformance turns the dynamic of teacherly authority almost necessarily into a strategic one. And it ends up undermining a whole bunch of the conditions for the possibility of identity formation in certain forms of intergenerational transmission.
Zak: So, I’m actually not going to talk about the science of ADHD and the dynamics of psychopharmacological interventions from a scientific standpoint. It’s worth saying that, and this gets back to the broader crisis of teacherly authority. It’s worth saying that there has been a massive tendency for bias within ADHD research. And, I’m not going to get into a broader conversation about how a pharmaceutical company is run, and the nature of direct to consumer advertisements, the nature of where publications that go through certain journals come from, but we know those stories and how they play out. And it’s not conspiracy. It’s actually just, I think, easily find-able knowledge. But what I am going to speak about is the kind of difference between the raising of children and the designing of children. And this actually brings together a bunch of the themes we’ve been talking about. So I’m going to try to do this justice in the five or so minutes I have left.
Zak: So, the basic idea is that legitimate, authentic teacherly authority, as I’ve described, is a process of raising a child into their unique self, right? It’s a process of collaborative intent, non-strategic interaction, where the interest of the child and the interest of the adult align, that there’s a shared educational goal between them, which matters to both of them. And good parenting, you can feel it when you see it in the interaction between the parent and the child, that the learning and development that’s taking place in that relationship is not being imposed upon the child. It’s not being done to the child. It’s being done for and with the child. So, that’s raising children, right?
Zak: But, since Skinner, basically. And then, of course, when you get into the decade of biomedical science, and then the human genome projects and other things, there’s been this notion that we could actually design children. And I’m not saying this is some science-fiction scenario, I’m saying this is actually a particular way of relating to children intergenerationally, where you do an end-around the normal dynamics of teacherly authority, and directly, strategically intervene into the biological substrate of the child, in the interest of perpetuating one view, which is the view of the older generation, right? So Habermas, Jürgen Habermas, a great German social philosopher writes about this in a book called, The Future of Human Nature. And he talks about it. He’s basically saying, most of intergenerational transmission and most of the way civilization has evolved has been on the organic life world, communicatively-rich, intergenerational transmission, where you’re negotiating and sharing joint-attention, working with, working for. But, we’re approaching the potential for an asymmetric, unilateral, strategic intervention into the biological substrate of the up and coming generation, which would actually short-circuit the ability to work with, and work for, and only be working on, all right?
Zak: So, reframing academic difficulties and struggles as medical problems transfers the locus of intervention from the cultural dynamics and communicative and interpersonal dynamics of teacherly authority to the biomedical dynamics of strategic intervention. And so, basically, regardless of if these things actually work, and by the way, it’s not an open question. That’s a longer conversation. There’s this question of, what’s the right way to actually frame intergenerational relationships? Is it one where we work with them and for them, for the needs and ends that they have in which we help them shape together collaboratively, or is intergenerational transmission strategic? They’re going to do what we want them to do, even if we have to drug them, right? So, you have to step back in any context where someone’s struggling in academic context and look at the dynamics of teacherly authority first. Is there a shared learning goals? Is there a shared understanding of context and motivation. Is there enough communication and transparency, where both parties know that the interests of the younger person are being basically understood?
Zak: Or is it a dynamic of teacherly authority where the kid actually has no idea why this matters, except that he’ll get punished or he won’t advance if he doesn’t do well? He doesn’t actually share the goal of the teacher with what he wants to be doing with his time, right? So, the teacher wants him to be studying this thing he doesn’t understand. He wants to be talking to his friend and you actually haven’t given him a good reason to why he shouldn’t, except some conventional reason that you need to work hard in school, right? So, for as long as the school system is actually demonstrably irrational to the perceptions of the child, then it’s very hard to talk about anything like a disease entity of attention deficit disorder. You actually need to give him a reason to pay attention. And that means you need to create enough context of legitimate teacherly authority, where it is felt to matter in an embodied sense.
Zak: So, instead of that equation being run, where we start to look at the culture of schools and we start to look at the dynamics of teacherly authority and the psychologies of adolescence, and the dynamics of the unrest that occurs when the perception of bullshit work sets in. We’re not looking at that. What we’re doing instead is claiming that the kid has a genetically predetermined biological dysfunction in his nervous system that’s akin to a disease entity that needs to be treated with biomedical intervention for the rest of his life, right? What was happening at school wasn’t working for him, but what ends up getting the understanding, what’s understood by the family, the kid, et cetera, is that this kid’s nervous is basically broken. And I’ve had people tell me that kids need ADHD medication like diabetics need insulin, right? And this is a completely erroneous view, but it is held. And there’s been some research into the self-conceptions of kids who had been medicated on ADHD medication and they buy this. They believe that their nervous systems are broken, that they were genetically disadvantaged.
Zak: So, that right there is an example of why the postmodernists took over the ed schools, because you had a team of… You have this strange symbiosis between medical experts and pharmaceutical companies and school administrators and other things happening that are radically stigmatizing and running interference on reasonable self-conceptions in adolescents and turning what is actually a political and cultural problem into a medical problem. So that’s just endemic. And actually it expands beyond just academic struggles into a lot of the terrain that is constituted by psychopharmacology in general.
Zak: The deep politicization of deviance and the medicalization, therefore, of deviance is a really sticky wicket. So, we’re going way far down that line. When you hear people from the blue church, and the East and the West coast, and the New York Times readers talking about how the Trump supporters are actually insane and should be medicated and things of that nature. You end up realizing that the same slope that we sat down on when we medicalized academic underperformance, we can actually expand that and go down an even slippier slope and start trying to medicalize any view we disagree with, and any lifestyle that doesn’t make sense to us.
Zak: So, we need to much more carefully disentangle the way we look at cultural and social problems in our institutions, and the knee-jerk reaction to biomedical intervention in the schools for academic struggles, and the diagnostic creep in that just the sheer numbers of kids getting put on these drugs, it’s an experiment of a massive scope because we actually don’t know enough about the longterm effects. Again, it feels like generational warfare to me, where instead of raising these kids, and actually grappling with the problems that they have and grappling with the institutions that are not working for them and their future job markets that are not there, and the mini crisis that has been created around them, instead of grappling with all that, we’re just going to make them do it.
Jim: Yep, root for it. It’s reminds me a little bit of Thomas Szasz’s critique of the psychiatric movement of the ’50s and ’60s, which basically housed-
Zak: Oh yeah.
Jim: A billion people in insane asylums, right? And he pointed out, wait a minute, we may have this backwards, right. This may be an indictment of our society. I strongly believe that about this medicalization, pharmacologicalization of school. That ought to be a screaming sign, there’s something seriously wrong with schools, right? And particularly that it’s gender very unequal. Was it 15% of boys and maybe 2% of girls or something around these things?
Zak: Right. But if you expand it beyond ADHD medication, you realize that the girls are just on different meds for anxiety and…
Jim: Yeah, they’re on antidepressants and things like that sort, yeah. But, I would also say that, hey, being a guy who liked to dabble in his drugs and his misspent youth, speed works mother fucker, right? I wouldn’t want to do it for very long term. I mean the idea of doing Adderall for 15 years, what the fuck, right? But, doing a few lines of crystal, go out and party, hell yeah, right?
Zak: Well, what’s worth our understanding is that these are class 2 substances. This is basically speed. Ritalin and Adderall have surpassed alcohol and marijuana as substances abused on college campuses. And so yeah, it is worth people knowing that actually this is just speed. What’s interesting is that in the army, the Nazis were actually the first ones to weaponize amphetamine.
Jim: Yep, benzedrine. How could those sons of bitches march like that? Benzedrine.
Zak: So that’s where it starts. And of course the IQ testing also starts with the Nazis. People don’t realize it. So, then the Americans emulate that in the military with the IQ testing and these and the amphetamines, and then they bring both the amphetamines and the IQ testing into the schools.
Jim: I bet people also forget the Nazis got their ideas of eugenics from the Americans.
Zak: Right.Yeah, totally.
Jim: Margaret Sanger, those people, they were like big time eugenesis of a homicidal variety. It’s really not pretty,
Jim: One last thing here and then I think we’ll wrap up. Again, and this issue that these problems seem to be infecting boys more than girls strikes me as real, and it resonates with one of my very favorite books from David Graeber called, Utopia of Rules, where the late Game A, everything becomes a fucking rule, right? Nobody has discretion about anything anymore. Everything is black and white and highly bureaucratized. And I believe that that has had a gigantic negative impact of the experience of boys, particularly in schools. Again, I’ll just use my own life as an example. Fortunately, prior to all this horseshit, for instance, we started carrying knives, I think when I was in third grade. I had a Cub scout knife I always had in my pocket. And by the time you got to junior high school, I had a really cool knife that an electrician friend of my father’s gave me. It was beautifully made case knife.
Jim: And then in high school, by senior year, a significant percentage of the boys considered a standard part of manly dress, was a folding buck knife. A big old buck hunter on your belt with a leather scabbard. Can you imagine if half the boys in a public high school showed up with buck knives on their belts? They’d call out the fucking National Guard. They wouldn’t even bother calling the police, right.
Jim: Another one of my pet peeves is no fighting, right? Yes, fighting was against the rules when we were kids. And depending on the context, worst case, you might get three days suspension. But, more likely to get five days after school, one hour detention or something like that. But, adolescent boys spar. Look at the equivalent of any kind of primate or frankly, a lot of mammals. Sparring amongst adolescent boys is part of life. And the idea we’re going to have, “no fighting, zero-tolerance, we’re going to call the fucking police.” What kind of hell bullshit is that?
Jim: Finally, this might even be the worst of them, and they’re all bad in my opinion for boys. But the reduction in the amount of recess in elementary school. Boys are high energy. They’re fidgety. And again, they want to establish boy kingdoms, right. And I will honestly say, I believe I learned more in recess in elementary school that I did in the classroom. And particularly the stuff that was most useful in my business career, how to organize, what is culture even, right? What are real friends for? And so this utopia of rules and everything being, teach to the test, no recess, because we might put our standardized test points scores up by 1%, strikes me as all being very disadvantageous to an honest and normal boyhood.
Zak: Yeah. No, I obviously completely agree that the disappearance of recess and spaces for relatively unsupervised play during grade school is actually a very serious problem from the perspective of moral development. And there’s a lot to say there, but if kids don’t have the freedom to creatively resolve their own interpersonal problems without adult intervention, then they never actually get to exercise the muscles that are necessary, the kind of cognitive muscles that are necessary to later in life be autonomous moral reasoners. So, it’s both the physical activity of recess that’s important. I completely agree. Please don’t put kids on ADHD meds. Give them fricking recess. That’s just a no brainer, and also their diet, and a whole lot of sleep and other things that factor there.
Zak: But even deeper than that, I think is the absence of the freedom and spaces for, as you said, children create culture without adult supervision. And this is again, the raising versus designing thing. The desire to control every aspect of the young child’s life tends towards design. Whereas, the ability to create safe contexts in which kids can be free to explore what spontaneously arises in their native child cultures, that’s what raising a kid is. If you truly love something, you set it free. There’s something that is passive-aggressive and neurotically controlling in the way that we’re limiting the freedoms of children and The Utopia of Rules book by Graeber, that book was a revelation to me because he was articulating things that I’d been seeing in my studies of standardized testing and bureaucratization processes within the school systems. Understand, a lot of this is also legal. A lot of this has to do with the litigiousness of society, that it’s not even that they care about the kids. It’s that they don’t want to get sued.
Zak: So, you have to look again. It’s not just that the rules in the schools are changing, it’s that the ecosystem of legal precedence around the school has shifted, so that schools are extremely vulnerable, and the behaviors of children are not outside of the litigious calculus of adult authority figures. So, there’s a complex set of things that has basically fenced in the youth. And again, back to the generational warfare, it’s not a coincidence that the boomers in particular would be like, “Hey, remember all that freedom that we had when we were kids to work together as adolescents to overthrow the adults?” Let’s not have that happen again, let’s make it so that there is no chance for these kids to become sovereign agents, and that they are designed by us, more or less, to perpetuate the economic system that we created, which advantages us and systematically disadvantages them. And it begins with taking away recess and taking the spirit out of the boys who would otherwise have been leaders of men.
Jim: Yeah, don’t let them fight. I mean, if you want to turn guys into capon, don’t let them fight when they’re 14 years old.
Jim: And oh, if you want school shooters, that’s another nice way to do it, right? Well, I think we’ve covered some amazing ground here. This has been one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had on the Jim Rutz show. And I really want to thank you for the depth which we went into, and the very excellent back and forth. And I look really forward to picking up on the second half of my topic list and doing this again in about a month.
Zak: Sounds good, Jim. This has been a blast. I appreciate your hosting.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Mueller at modernspacemusic.com.