Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Value of Children

(This is just dashed off quickly, before I forget the train of thought. I welcome further thoughts that develop or refine the thesis.)

Some Americans complain that teachers are underpaid. The classic comparison is teachers and CEOs.

I think the reason they are "underpaid" is rooted in America's agricultural past, something we are still reaching back to as though it is a touchstone to the modern life we live today. I argue it's not. And by letting it go, we can find a different standard and therefore a different payscale for teachers.

There are a number of factors to consider. Number one is that education was always subservient to agriculture. Any time crops needed planting or harvesting, any time disaster struck, education was suspended until the "real" work was done. Education was always oriented toward agriculture. If you look at the famous "19th century exam" that floats around the internet, which purports to be a standard exam with standard questions any 16 year old should be able to answer, they all revolve around agricultural measures of weight and distance(hectares, pounds, etc) or involved transactions a farmer might be expected to make.

Which only makes sense. The vast majority of Americans would live and die on farms as farmers until early in the 20th century. America only had a handful of large cities and not many more large towns as well to handle the commerce of getting America's agricultural products to her markets, or the few international markets for goods like cotton, linen, wool, timber, etc. It wasn't until World War II that a majority of Americans lived off farms and instead serviced the factories that made post-war American an industrical giant.

Which shift is the core of my argument. In the days of farming, large families were necessary. Eight to twelve (or more) children were necessary. Firstly, because many children died young--in birth, in infancy, in childhood. Mostly through diseases, partly through accidents. Secondly, to handle the enormous workload of a farm. Not just the planting and harvesting, but the animal husbandry too. And the construction, then maintenance, of the buildings--the home and its additions, the barns, coops, fences, silos and racks, and more. And the unending workload of the household; the feeding, the canning and preserving and smoking, the animal preparation, the laundry, the dishwashing, the raising of the smaller children.

On this side of the Industrial Revolution and the women's rights movement, it's hard to picture the enormous amount of work a 19th century farm could be. And it was unending. In this environment, more children was better. In economic terms, the marginal costs of additional children was more than offset by the marginal utility of additional work hands.

Today, that's not at all the case. Passage through the Industrial Revolution into today's Computer/Information revolution has altered the equation, aided by suffrage, the women's rights movement and Civil Rights.

First and foremost, it no longer takes a small army of people to maintain a household. Two or three can do it; thanks to the women's movement, many women are trying it single-handed. With taxes for education, which is now mandatory through high school or age 16, children aren't net contributors to running the household. In fact, they are largely a net drain on household resources.

There's also the interesting phenomenon of Western liberal education and suffrage. As women have gained acceptance into the factories and offices of America, as they have gained an equal education to men, as their "place" in society is more and more the same as men, the size of families shrinks. This is true across Asia, Europe, North America, India, the Anglosphere; anywhere the Anglo-model of social organisation has taken hold. The size of the average family is shrinking. In many countries now, the birth rate is below the so-called "replacement rate" at which a society can be sustained. Russia, Japan, Italy and other counties are having children at a lower rate than people are dying. All these countries, and others, are shrinking in absolute terms.

(A brief digression to note something I won't dwell on: The dearth of births isn't a phenomenon entirely affecting the West, though. South America and Central American aren't seeing this trend to nearly the same degree. Spain and Portugal are seeing population crashes, but not the Hispanic-speaking nations of the Americas. This is also happening to some of the Moslem nations of the Asian Pacific. There is a theory that religion is a factor, which would also explain some demographic anomalies in the USA.)

With the move into an industrial society, our education model changed. Progressives who hoped to remake the moral nature of our country, and businessmen who were looking for a more efficient way of educating our youth, simulateously looked to Prussia as one answer. In the late 19th century and the early 20th, Prussia was industrialising at a furious pace. Their young workers came into the factories with wildly varying levels and breadth of education. The autocratic Prussians, with typical Germanic efficiency, standardised education across the nation so that everyone received the same education. It revulutionised Prussian factories.

American educators took note and tried to follow suit. But America was ill-suited to adopt the Prussian model. We were decentralised--education was the purview of Counties, thousands of them and mostly rural in the 19th century. And educators themselves were the product of hundreds of colleges, normal schools, state teachers colleges, churches and more. It ended up being the incomplete work of decades to standardise America's teachers.

And even though our schools are are nowadays built on the industrial model, the teachers themselves are still thought of in agricultural terms. The one-room classroom headed by a school-marm, who knows every child's name and his family's circumstances. That person hasn't existed except in isolated pockets of farm country in decades. We haven't found a new role-model for the teacher to match even the industrial/factory image, never mind the programmer/coder model of information-rich today.

We have fewer children today. They are investments of great value. Their intrinsic value is much higher than in years past. Each is "a precious individual pearl, unique". But our model of the teacher doesn't reflect that valuation, when it should.

And that is what will place the teacher of today in the position of most value--reframing the picture to include what we are as a society today and the new value of our fewer children.

Anyway, we are treating education (that is, the process of educating our young) as though our children are the products of an agricultural society--individually, not worth that much, in the aggregate worth quite a bit.

(This is an incomplete essay with only half-worked out ideas. I need to flesh out, work out, and connect a lot of these ideas.)