Institutions and Demanding “Results”

The Atlantic has yet another article on education in Finland and U.S.:  this time, the point is that the education system in Finland does not translate to US.  Too many restrictions, too much bureaucracy, too much paperwork.  The teachers with experience in Finland can’t exercise the kind of discretion and freedom that made their work effective in Finland and get burned out.  It’s a reminder of the old Jesuit joke:

At a conference about religious obedience, the Jesuit representative is asked, “Your Order places great emphasis on the vow of obedience. How do you ensure that Jesuits remain faithful to this vow?” He replies, “It’s simple. Our superiors first ask us what we want to do, and then they mission us to do it. Thus, we never have any problems with obedience.”

Another conference participant then asks the Jesuit, “But aren’t there some members of your Order who don’t know what they want to do? What do you do with them?” The Jesuit replies, “We make them the superiors!”

There is much truth in this joke.  Jesuits don’t do what they do for better pay or resources.  After all, they all have taken the vow of chastity and poverty when they became priests.  But what they do have is a sense of purpose, the calling to their mission, backed up by the socialist institution that is the Catholic Church that provides for their sustenance.

One great paradox about United States that I keep encountering is that a lot of very high quality work is being done for free:  some game companies practically rely on the modders to finish their games, which, in their “official” form, are often shoddy; a lot of fan fiction is of excellent quality; volunteer work keeps a lot of worthwhile institutions going; many writers, even in high profile publications, do so for no compensation.  In fact, a strange irony emerges:  many people need jobs to sustain their “real” work.  The jobs give them the means to do what they want to do, where they can be actually productive at and produce meaningful value, but they are not the “real” work.  What is more, when the work becomes a job, given the way jobs are structured in US., even the work that you love become “jobs,” things that you do to make money, not because you particularly enjoy it.

The problem is that most jobs in United States, even those that are nominally professional work where the person performing it should be allowed to exercise discretion and independence, are usually treated as a form of assembly line line.  Work needs to be done by rote, follow the patterns, and check the checklists, and hours need to be filled out.  On the other hand, however, this is demanded precisely because the people who are on the other end usually don’t have the time or the state of mind to engage either.  This is especially problematic in education:  the students don’t have time, as they have so many things thrust on them, not only by the demands of education, but by their livelihood, too.  K-12 students who come from underserved households have to deal with enough stressers in their lives, family, neighborhoods, various social problems, and so forth, that dealing with anything less than neatly packaged pieces of “education” will be difficult to handle.  Even at a state university, I was shocked at the number of students who had multiple jobs and literally did not have time to do more thinking than read the textbooks, and were downright angry when I told them that the textbooks do not contain the answers, but just the background so that we can start thinking about the answers.  The liberal arts education of the kind that teachers love is nice, but most students really don’t have time for it.

People point out that teachers in Finland are not especially paid well.  They are doubtlessly correct, but the same applies to the doctors, lawyers, academics, and corporate executives too.  It’s not just that the Finns have a system of values in which money is less important, but simply that money is less important in a society that provides adequate enough floors for its citizens–thus the analogue to the Jesuit order, which, likewise runs a similar form of socialism that guarantees adequate standard of living for all its people.  Once the floors are provided for, you can be selective:  not only would people want to get into the professions, they would be motivated by the love of the professions.  They can make the ends meet by choosing anything–but they can be happy doing it doing what they can do well, what they want to do, and what they feel valuable doing.

This is a peculiar, rosy picture of socialism, of the kind popularized by Star Trek.  If such a society can be made to exist (and even Nordic countries aren’t quite there yet), I imagine vast majority of the population does little or nothing.  (One could easily imagine doing a sitcom set in the Star Trek universe–the couch potatoes of Epsilon Gamma or something, where the loafers are desperately finding something useful and/or entertaining to do with their time, limited skills, and whatever equivalent of universal basic income they get from the Federation Government.  But this would not be very funny because those will be first world problems and we are not exactly the first world now.)  But it is also true that the productivity gains through technology has made a lot of labor redundant.  The choice is increasingly between whether the plutocrats of immense wealth can waste their money on crazy stunts like setting the world record in jumping from a helium balloon, or improve lives of many.  While many might balk at whether the “loafers” deserve stuff, it is worth remembering that many scientists, artists, and writers that we look back upon fondly were basically ne’er do wells:  Kepler, van Gogh, Schubert, etc.  Add on to them people who were essentially supported by the Church and/or rich friends while they did their odd things: Galileo, Copernicus, Mendel, de Maitre (ironically, we’d have neither evolution or Big Bang Theory without the Church paying for these fellas!).  How do you know if the “loafers” of today are not producing something worthwhile?  If, moreover, by being freed from overseers, the society can have more creative teachers, bolder scholars, and innovative artists, even for the present, will this added uncertainty be such a bad thing?

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