Category Archives: The Future

War! What WAS it Good For?


I just finished reading War! What is It Good For?  by Ian Morris.

It is well worth reading.

Morris’ thesis is this:

  1. Government is the primary source of the reduction of violence in societies.
  2. Wars caused societies to merge, thereby increasing the scope, scale, and efficacy of government.
  3. It would have been great if societies had figured out a way to merge without war, but this, unfortunately, has rarely happened.
  4. So, like it or not, war has been the driver of government innovation.
  5. Therefore, wars have been the primary cause of our long-term decline of violence.

Or more fully:

  1. There was a lot of violence in the Stone Age.
  2. Back then, “wars” were just a bunch of back and forth raids that resulted in a lot of violence and not much productivity.
  3. However, then farming came along, which added territorial capture to what had previously been a plundering game.
  4. Once you capture territory, you have to figure out how to govern it in order to extract its resources.
  5. This requires you to figure out how to govern.
  6. When people govern better, violence goes down.
  7. So while wars cause a spike a violence, their long-term impact results in a net reduction of violence.
  8. However, with the advent of nuclear weapons, wars will likely soon become “unproductive” – in the sense that they might destroy humanity rather than lead to better governance. WWI and WWII gave us a taste of where modern war might be heading.
  9. Generally, massive war breaks out when a superpower declines.
  10. The USA will likely decline by 2040-2050. And global warming might also really start causing country collapses by then.
  11. This might cause humanity to destroy itself in a world war.
  12. The best way to avoid this is either to create world government or to turn into robots.
  13. The odds of turning into robots are higher than creating an effective world government during a time of superpower decline.
  14. Or perhaps we’ll muddle through another superpower decline even without a world government or turning into robots. We have survived this long, after all.

Depending on your viewpoints, you might find this historical analysis to be crazy. Or you might find these future predictions to be crazy.

Read the book and judge for yourself.

Personally, I find this historical analysis fairly convincing. As much as I wish it would have been otherwise, war has been the primary vehicle for scaling government, and government has been a boon for humanity.

But I’m surely not an expert so I could be very wrong.

As for the future, who really knows.

But I think we should heed Morris’ cautionary tale.

This Time Might Not Be Different.

The next time a superpower falls, history could well repeat itself, and we could be thrust into global warfare.

All of which surely puts education reform into perspective.

The sound and the furry of over testing will be nothing compared to the sound and the fury of humanity ending.

One last thought: given the above, would it be better or worse for USA to announce that it would never use nuclear weapons?

If you believe that the answer to our problems is maintaining USA dominance until we reach the singularity or create a world government, then you probably want the USA to maintain a credible threat of nuclear war.

If you believe that the USA will decline before we have a world government or reach the singularity, then you might actually view the USA never going to war as the only a way to avoid destroying humanity; as such, you might prefer USA to renounce warfare and simply be peacefully conquered by the world’s next superpower.

What Will Matter 50 Years From Now?

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Matt Barnum, who has been doing a good job over at The Seventy Four, just wrote a thoughtful piece on Arne Duncan’s legacy.

Matt argues that Duncan should have stuck to pushing for test based teacher evals for only those teachers covered by preexisitng annual tests. I’m sympathetic to Matt’s argument, but I also haven’t spent much time thinking about this specific issue.

What I do sometimes think about this: what policies will matter 50 years from now?

This is not to say that we should only focus on policies that will have 50 year staying power, but, in expending political capital, reform longevity should be a part of the calculation.

I am skeptical that government mandated teacher evaluations will still be a major issue in 50 years. My guess is that a combination of deregulation (charters not being a part of state evaluation systems) and technological advancement (less reliance on annual tests for measuring teacher performance) will render the issue mostly moot.

If I had created Race to the Top, I probably would have focused on the following:

1. Governance: incentivizing alternative forms of governance (RSDs, alternative authorizers, etc.).

2. School Operators: increasing supply of high-quality charters, contract, and vouchers schools.

3. Teacher pipelines: creating new pipelines and reforming existing institutions.

4. Standards and Assessments: incentivizing the raising of standards and the adoption of rigorous assessments.

I think the aforementioned initiatives would all have increased the probability of increasing student achievement. I also think these initiatives would have had some staying power.

I have no idea if they would have been politically feasible to push from the federal level in 2009.

Lastly, for whatever it’s worth, I have a lot of respect for Arne Duncan. Being a cabinet secretary for eight years takes a lot of grit and passion.

Threading Together a Few Tweets to Predict the Future of Education

The future is unknowable, of course. But it’s worth understanding the data fundamentals of any situation if one wants to make things better.

So here’s some fundamentals that all came across my twitter over a course of a few hours:

Tweet on the Cost of Education Vs. Other Services and Goods 

Tweet on the Difference Between Schooling and Learning

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Tweet on Private Schools in India 

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Tweet on the Cost of Learning

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What to Make of It?

Well, first of all, this exercise was premised on only using data from a few tweets that crossed my feed over a few hours. So take it for what it’s worth

But, I was struck by the narrative that these tweets presented:

  • Publicly subsidized education is skyrocketing in price in the United States.
  • Actual years of schooling is often not a good indicator of learning.
  • In India private schools deliver the same outcomes as public schools but for a third of the price.
  • The internet (~$40 a month) provides unlimited content for basically free.

This story is one of the system collapsing on itself. High cost providers can’t compete forever with lower priced or free alternatives that provide the same quality of service.

Of course, missing from my tweet stream was this:

  • A tweet on status quo bias.
  • A tweet on regulatory capture.
  • A tweet on status / signaling.
  • A tweet on the conscientious needed to undertake self-directed learning.

What does the future hold?

Time will tell.

The only that is for sure: twitter continues to deliver more information to me than any content platform I’ve ever encountered. All of the above data from a few hours on twitter!

The Second Decoupling is Near?


The Second Decoupling will occur when school and learning are in many ways divorced.

I’m really not sure when the Second Decoupling will occur, but one of its key features will be the new role and function of the teacher, especially human teachers who work in school buildings.

Michael Godsey, a teacher, penned an interesting piece in the Atlantic on the evolving role of his profession.

I think some of Michael’s predictions will be born out, while others probably will not.

From the article:

I describe what I think the public-school classroom will look like in 20 years, with a large, fantastic computer screen at the front, streaming one of the nation’s most engaging, informative lessons available on a particular topic. The “virtual class” will be introduced, guided, and curated by one of the country’s best teachers (a.k.a. a “super-teacher”), and it will include professionally produced footage of current events, relevant excerpts from powerful TedTalks, interactive games students can play against other students nationwide, and a formal assessment that the computer will immediately score and record.

Personally, I think we’re more likely to see one-to-one (personalized playlists) more than the streamed super teacher lecture, but who knows.

From the article:

…there will be a local teacher-facilitator (called a “tech”) to make sure that the equipment works and the students behave. Since the “tech” won’t require the extensive education and training of today’s teachers, the teacher’s union will fall apart, and that “tech” will earn about $15 an hour to facilitate a class of what could include over 50 students. This new progressive system will be justified and supported by the American public for several reasons: Each lesson will be among the most interesting and efficient lessons in the world; millions of dollars will be saved in reduced teacher salaries; the “techs” can specialize in classroom management; performance data will be standardized and immediately produced (and therefore “individualized”); and the country will finally achieve equity in its public school system. “So if you want to be a teacher,” I tell the college student, “you better be a super-teacher.”

I don’t think college students will need to become super teachers. My guess is that they will need to learn to co-instruct with technology. This will probably require skills in data analysis, coaching, leadership, and perhaps psychology. I could imagine therapy being a key function of the schools of the future.

From the article:

I’ve started recognizing a common thread to the latest trends in teaching. Flipped learning, blending learning, student-centered learning, project-based learning, and even self-organized learning—they all marginalize the teacher’s expertise. Or, to put it more euphemistically, they all transform the teacher into a more facilitative role.

I’d be a little more specific here: they marginalize the teacher’s content and delivery expertise. As I note above, other skills will become more valuable.

Anyways, there is much to consider about the Second Decoupling.

And that’s enough conjecture from me.

Back to work on the First Decoupling.

The Times – Are They A Changin’?


I sometimes wonder if we are witnessing a changing of the guard in education reform. I’m not sure. But I had a good talk last night with a great reformer and here is what we were mulling over.

If the times are a changin’, my guess it’s happening in these areas.


The 1990-2010 generation of reform did not prioritize serving all children. Rather, they prioritized proof points. They rightfully wanted to prove what is possible. A great teacher could prove what is possible with 20 children. A great school could prove what is possible with 500 children. A great network could prove what is possible with 2,000 children.

But no one was really thinking about what it would take to serve 50,000 children, or a 150,000 children, or 500,00 children.

The fact is, when you serve every child in a city, you must serve students: (1) with severe special needs (2) who transfer midyear (3) who are expelled from other schools (4) whose parents don’t actively seek out the best school (5) and so on.

If the times are a changin’, the new times will require reformers to serve all students.


Many 1990-2010 reform organizations used political connections to attain priveledge: budget line items were passed, facilities were secured, and political cover was granted. Reformers rightfully wanted to gain quick entry into stagnating systems. These organizations did not intend to be scalable entities with diverse and large scale support; rather, they played an elite status game perfectly. Good ideas, ivy league degrees, and social networks carried they day; movement building did not.

If the times are a changin’, the new times will require reformers to build large constituents bases that can lead to sustained political support.


The 1990-2010 reform organizations doubled down on strict discipline, data analysis, and alogrithm based learning. This provided real, meaning full gains in student learning. However, this school model had real limitations in terms of developing higher order thinking and individual autonomy.

If the times are a changin’, the new times will require reformers to push the boundaries of how to provide a safe and structured environment while also requiring students to do heavy intellectual lifting through expanded instructional techniques; including: rigorous discussion, complex writing, mathematical concept mastery, technology utilization, experiential learning, and leadership.


The 1990-2010 generation of reform aimed to make school districts better. Reformers reasonably thought that an infusion of innovation and leadership could transform school districts. This led many organizations to invest in district improvement rather than outside of the system entrepreneurship. To date, these reformers have been proven wrong: their goals have not been met. At the same time, non-profit led schools, while suffering from real issues in quality variance, have still been the primary leaders of innovation and performance across the country.

If the times are a changin’, the new times will require reformers to push government to relinquish school operation to educator led non-profits, while at the same time ensuring that the government becomes an excellent regulator of performance and equity.

In Sum 

In discussions, conferences, convenings, blog posts, op-eds, and email chains – I sometimes see the 1990-2010 generation of education reformers struggling with many of the above issues.

Or to put it another way: they are struggling to determine whether they can actually be the new public system of schooling in America.

While this struggle is playing out, a new generation of reform has formed and this generation believes it can be the next evolution of public schooling in America.

This generation believes it can serve every student; it understands that it will need to be build a broad base of support in order to do so; it knows that it will have to invent new models of schooling to   prepare students for higher education and career; and it believes that educator led non-profits, rather than government, will deliver these educational opportunities.

Are the time a changin’?

It’s hard to know when you’re in the thick of it.

But I hope so.

And I hope that the brilliant reform organizations of 1990-2010 evolve to become the brilliant reform organizations of 2011-2030.

Some likely will, while others won’t.

Death is Optional: An Interview to Ponder


Death is optional [Kahneman interviews Harari]

A lot of quotable pieces; excerpts below, but do read the whole thing. HT Kling.

Needless to say, I will buy the book.


Your chapter on science is one of my favorites and so is the title of that chapter, “The Discovery of Ignorance”. It presents the idea that science began when people discovered that there was ignorance, and that they could do something about it, that this was really the beginning of science. I love that phrase.


I often tell my students at the University that my aim is that after three years, you basically know less than when you first got here. When you first got here, you thought you knew what the world is like and what is war and what is a state, and so forth. After three years, my hope is that you will understand that you actually know far, far less, and you come out with a much broader view of the present and of the future.


And this opens the possibility of creating huge gaps between the rich and the poor, bigger than ever existed before in history. And many people say no, it will not happen, because we have the experience of the 20th century, that we had many medical advances, beginning with the rich or with the most advanced countries, and gradually they trickled down to everybody, and now everybody enjoys antibiotics or vaccinations or whatever, so this will happen again.

And as a historian, my main task is to say no, there were peculiar reasons why medicine in the 20th century was egalitarian, why the discoveries trickled down to everybody. These unique conditions may not repeat themselves in the 21st century, so you should broaden your thinking, and you should take into consideration the possibility that medicine in the 21st century will be elitist, and that you will see growing gaps because of that, biological gaps between rich and poor and between different countries. And you cannot just trust a process of trickling down to solve this problem.


But in the 21st century, there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value. This is true for the military, it’s done, it’s over. The age of the masses is over. We are no longer in the First World War, where you take millions of soldiers, give each one a rifle and have them run forward. And the same thing perhaps is happening in the economy. Maybe the biggest question of 21st century economics is what will be the need in the economy for most people in the year 2050.


Death is optional. And if you think about it from the viewpoint of the poor, it looks terrible, because throughout history, death was the great equalizer. The big consolation of the poor throughout history was that okay, these rich people, they have it good, but they’re going to die just like me. But think about the world, say, in 50 years, 100 years, where the poor people continue to die, but the rich people, in addition to all the other things they get, also get an exemption from death. That’s going to bring a lot of anger.


And when you look at it more and more, for most of the tasks that humans are needed for, what is required is just intelligence, and a very particular type of intelligence, because we are undergoing, for thousands of years, a process of specialization, which makes it easier to replace us. To build a robot that could function effectively as a hunter-gatherer is extremely complex. You need to know so many different things. But to build a self-driving car, or to build a “Watson-bot” that can diagnose disease better than my doctor, this is relatively easy.


My best guess at present is a combination of drugs and computer games as a solution for most … it’s already happening. Under different titles, different headings, you see more and more people spending more and more time, or solving their inner problems with drugs and computer games, both legal drugs and illegal drugs. But this is just a wild guess.


Once you have the revolution we are undergoing in the military in which the number of soldiers simply becomes irrelevant in comparison with factors like technology, you still need people, but you don’t need the millions of soldiers, each with a rifle. You need much smaller numbers of experts, who know how to produce and how to use the new technologies. Against such military powers, the masses, even if they somehow organize themselves, don’t stand much of a chance. We are not in Russia of 1917, or in 19th century Europe.


If you were, say, an evolutionary psychologist back in 1800, and you saw the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, you could have very confidently said all these changes in technology are well and good, but they won’t change the basic structure of human society. Human society is built from these small building blocks, the family and intimate community, because this is kind of an evolutionary given. Humans must have this. They cannot live in any other way.

And you look at the last 200 years, and you see them collapse after millions of years of evolution. Suddenly, within 200 years, the family and the intimate community break, they collapse. Most of the roles filled by the family and by the intimate community for thousands and tens of thousands of years, are transferred very quickly to new networks provided by the state and the market. You don’t need children, you can have a pension fund. You don’t need somebody to take care of you. You don’t need neighbors and sisters or brothers to take care of you when you’re sick. The state takes care of you. The state provides you with police, with education, with health, with everything.


We can also learn something from the Agricultural Revolution. Some experts think that agriculture was the biggest mistake in human history, in terms of what it did to the individual. It’s obvious that on the collective level, agriculture enhanced the power of humankind in an amazing way. Without agriculture, you could not have cities and kingdoms and empires and so forth, but if you look at it from the viewpoint of the individual, then for many individuals, life was probably much worse as peasants in ancient Egypt then as hunter gatherers 20,000, 30,000 years earlier. You had to work much harder. The body and mind of Homo Sapiens evolved for millions of years in adaptation to climbing trees and picking fruits and to running after gazelles and looking for mushrooms. And suddenly you start all day digging canals and carrying water buckets from the river and harvesting the corn, and grinding the corn, this is much more difficult for the body, and also much more boring to the mind.