Turning Advantage into Opportunity

A while back I wrote a blog, all excited about how online education could really improve all sorts of things about education in general.

Since many kids learn online skills by themselves, pretty fast, and do this at their own pace, and create virtual communities so well, there is a lot to this. Schools could learn a lot from how we use the internet. Kids are constantly waiting for each other to finish in classrooms. They are told to sit quietly while their neighbors try to understand something. Get out a book, draw, check your work, or twiddle your thumbs. It goes sort of like that during some lectures and demonstrations as well. Sharing with others only happens when the teacher allows it.

Since that blog, I’ve read at least two stories about online education companies taking advantage of people, making runaway profits without necessarily actually educating their customers. Only a small percentage of students graduate from Phoenix University. Some other companies – Agora and K12, Inc., as referred to by Gail Collins in the NYT, for example – seem to be profiting from primary and secondary graders. Questions arise about spending too much time online, accountability for students, teachers, and corporations setting all this up.

Now I am all for capitalism. And it is fantastic that some private industry has seen the light and moves faster than teachers’ unions, school boards and departments of education in education innovation and reform. But we are talking about something important here, education. And it’s an example for other governing issues.

Then David Brooks, also in the NYT says, “a simple moral formula: effort should lead to reward as often as possible. People who work hard and play by the rules should have a fair shot at prosperity. Money should go to people on the basis of merit and enterprise. Self-control should be rewarded while laziness and self-indulgence should not. Community institutions should nurture responsibility and fairness. This ethos is not an immutable genetic property, which can blithely be taken for granted. It’s a precious social construct, which can be undermined and degraded. Right now, this ethos is being undermined from all directions.”

I say, the unethical undermining is coming from two directions in general: corporations and governments. Corporations that prey on unknowing and foolish people who may or may not have control over the purchasing decisions they make, and misuse the product, or receive a bad product. Or the corporation does not reward work fairly to those they employ. Or lobbyists, lawyers and money movers manipulate markets and create unfair advantages.

The problem with government undermining is when, with good intentions, it gives money without accountability. Sometimes it bails out corporations that make bad decisions, tacitly encouraging the bad ideas. The other problem with government undermining is when people take advantage of welfare and assistance, encouraging either sloth or unfair advantage.

Brooks says, “The result is a crisis of legitimacy. The game is rigged. Social trust shrivels. Effort is no longer worth it. The prosperity machine winds down.” The only trouble with Brooks’ column is, he only refers to the problems governments make, though he said, “…undermined from all directions.” And Gail Collins only refers to the problems corporations make. The Occupiers are not all bums. They are upset not only at corporations, but also at bailouts.

The purpose of education is not to provide any one or group with an advantage. Education is an opportunity giver. It is the BEST way to lift people from being disadvantaged. Rich kids as well as poor kids deserve a great education, and that is why we assign this role to government, which is supposed to be blind. Commerce in general is supposed to be full of opportunities. Getting started in the world should be about access to dreams. People are equal, and deserve equal opportunity, but not equality of rewards. And getting in trouble should be about justice, which involves punishment sometimes, accountability and ethics all of the time.

So here is the purpose of regulation: to anticipate problems in capitalism and to ensure justice. It seems that a portion of capitalists see their opportunity in a fast buck before the government finds them, and the same happens with people receiving benefits. The root solution lies in character development. “You cannot federalize virtue,” said G. H.W. Bush, and he was right. However, we do need programs that promote and reward it. I think that is the track to make it “worth it” again.

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About Jim

I've been leading outdoor environmental education in the YMCA since the 1970s. I love teaching nature, history, current events, being a dad, fixing stuff, groups, and general thinking.
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