An Automatic Progress Prevention System

Classroom.[or “How to Make Sure a Society doesn’t Advance too Fast“]

Modern societies, especially capitalistic ones, revolve around the concept of money, and more specifically, profit. People chase profit to secure resources (buyable with money) necessary to survive, enjoy luxury etc. This has many consequences, but one of the most obvious ones is that almost all available resources – time, attention and focus – are directed towards goals which are between a few hours and a few months away. That, in turn, has many consequences of its own and one of them is that such extreme focus on the immediate future hides and therefore facilitates a severely debilitating effect on a society because its consequences become obvious decades after the damage has already been done. It works something like this…

Teachers in primary and secondary education all have to get at least a bachelor’s degree in their respective subjects to be allowed to teach. They teach very different subjects: natural, technical and social sciences. However, they get paid exactly the same salary, regardless of the subject they teach. Their salaries depend on how long they’ve worked already, on the extracurricular activities they manage, on additional education (so a teacher with a PhD would get paid more than one with a BSc), but the area of expertise doesn’t matter.

At the same time, education doesn’t take place in  a vacuum: it happens in as society, in a job market, in a network of people who all want to achieve, secure resources for themselves and lead some semblance of whatever they think of as a comfortable life. Different nations choose different economic systems, but there is no economy where people are equally in demand regardless of their area of expertise. In a market-based economy, this means that salaries differ, so people with skills which are in higher demand get higher salaries.

Think about the effect this has on education. The expertise a society most needs are the highest paid ones. Next to an egalitarian educational system in which salaries do not depend on the subject being taught, this means that people teaching those kinds of skills will be the ones most pressured (or at least tempted) by high salaries to take a job unrelated to education. The result is negative selection of people who work in exactly the subjects a society most needs. The people who stick to teaching could be waiting for retirement, lack ambition, capability, have few alternatives (collapsed economies, provincial schools…) or simply love teaching enough to reject double or triple salaries somewhere else so they could keep teaching.

Now, I don’t claim to have any numbers, but I don’t think anybody does: it might be that a large majority of teachers is, in fact, quite capable and delivering high value, even in subjects where there is a substantial financial incentive to get a different job. However, the opposite can just as easily be true. If that is the case, it is one of the most effective ways I can think of of ensuring that generations of children are educated in a way which limits them to at best mediocre capabilities. This is a potential disaster in itself, but the damage is all the greater because it is exactly the most important expertise a society needs that its future experts will fail to excel at. Finally, there is also a secondary effect which aggravates the problem, and that is positive selection of the wrong kind of experts: if a country needs more mathematics engineers and has too many chemistry engineers, it is likely that it will have to fill mathematics teaching positions with whoever they can find, but on average, they will get much better chemistry teachers: teachers who will engage children, have more and more up to date knowledge to transfer…in effect directing more children to an area of expertise which is already overflowing with talented people who have no work and can’t contribute.

Judging by the fact that a degree in e.g. mathematics or computer engineering is typically a good basis for a well paid (middle class) job, it makes me wonder if the general discomfort, anxiety and aversion towards these (and probably some other) areas of expertise are a sign that we are feeling the effects of this exact type of mistake made decades ago. The matter obviously requires more thinking through: what it means for universities, interdependence between subjects being taught, fairness towards teachers, fairness vs. progress, rapid evolution of new kinds of jobs and expertise etc, but is it really sound policy to ignore the fact that a mathematics teacher can get a 2-3x better paid job than a teacher of geography?


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