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Weekly Column

Amish Paradise: There is no one correct response to the generational change that's coming thanks to Moore's Law.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (123)
By Robert X. Cringely

Last week's column on education clearly struck a vein. Whenever reader comments go over 200 I know I've hit upon something that probably deserves a book, that is assuming people actually read books. Well of course they do, as the Harry Potter series proves over and over. But Harry Potter isn't just a book, it is an immersive virtual reality that kids relate to as an even better video game, if a low tech one. And that leads us to this week's follow-on to last week's teaser: so what do we DO about our kids, our schools, and a seemingly inexorable generation change that still isn't clearly good OR bad, just different?

I grew up in the time warp that was Wayne County, Ohio, in the 1950s. Back then at least the majority of the population of Wayne County was Amish, which is to say they didn't go to public school (or school at all after age 14), didn't drive cars or use electricity except to keep the dairy milk cool, didn't vote, bought as little as possible, sold as much as possible, and barely paid taxes. Wayne County was NOT the middle of nowhere, however, since Rubbermaid was headquartered there as was the Wooster Brush Company (world's largest maker of paint brushes), and Smucker's jams and jellies were just across the Holmes County line where there, too, the Amish were the silent majority.

Very little has changed since I was a kid. As my friend Henry from down the road in Mansfield, Ohio, points out, the Amish have been on this same "new" educational path forever. Their ability to produce nearly 100 percent productive citizens (and very nice furniture) for about fifty bucks per student per year is especially galling to those government schools that spend $16K and turn out a lot of slackers.

Most people would see the Amish as an anomaly, but I don't. I see the Amish as a particularly successful minority that picks and chooses how it will participate in modern life. We see a lot of this, especially internationally. Yes, the Amish have no army, but then neither do, in practical terms, many countries including some of our old enemies. The Amish do not suffer from avoiding public schools OR McDonalds. They live the life they have chosen to create.

Let's consider for a moment what many readers will find to be a politically incorrect position: because of cheap computers and the Internet, the ability to solve problems ad hoc has become more efficient than teaching kids about problems and issues that will never face them. As a result, the United States has let itself become less competitive by putting so much money into a product (a kid) making both its cost and its ability globally uncompetitive. So, instead of putting more effort into making globally competitive products, we put more effort into blaming those who are smarter at using technology that was mostly invented here.

If the idea is to give everyone a nice comfortable pension, if the same money invested each year in a typical kid's education was instead invested in an IRA, it would give that kid a very comfortable living upon reaching age 65.

Well this is a terrible position to take, don't you think? It treats our children like capital goods and denies them any ability to excel, dooming them to mediocrity.


My Mom (Mrs. Cringely to you) once said, "I may not have been the best mother, but at least I got all my kids through school."

"No you didn't," I replied (this is a true story, by the way). "We would have made it through school with or without you." And we would have.

Not wanting to put too much of a Libertarian spin on it, because I am certainly not a Libertarian, this is a fact that is missed by so many people. There will always be achievers, whether they go to public schools, private schools, home schools, magnet schools, charter schools, or no schools at all. While it is fine for society to create opportunities for advancement, what's more important is removing BARRIERS to advancement. And for the most part that's not what we are about.

What we tend to be about as a society is building power structures and most of those power structures, including schools and governments, are decidedly reactive. This is not all bad. After all, the poster child for educational and government proactivity in the 20th century may have been the Taliban in Afghanistan.

There will always be governments willing to take our money and then deciding to spend some of it in ways we wouldn't approve. That's probably an inevitable social cost of avoiding anarchy. But the idea that government has a lot of power to MAKE our kids become one way or another is only true to a very limited extent.

Our society will continue to create great artists, writers, scientists and engineers because people will be internally driven to greatness in all those fields. How many Picassos do you need in a society? How many Frank Lloyd Wrights? How many Einsteins? How many Bechtolscheims, Knuths, and Brins?

When high tech executives claim that we don't have enough visas for importing programmers from Asia, they are looking for talent by the ton, not by the neuron, yet neurons are what really matter in these things. So they are wrong, too.

Yes, it is important to go to MIT and, along with losing your pants in the Charles River, make social and professional connections that will help you later in life. But how do we measure the strength or efficacy of those connections? If it is in terms of monetary success, as we tend to measure things, then we'd be better off going to some big state school in the Midwest, because more top executives -- more top earners -- come from those schools than from MIT. If we measure success in terms of patents or awards or endowed professorships, there are schools that rate higher than MIT, too.

The fact is that going to MIT can be a life-changing experience and worth any price, but then so can be going to Champaign-Urbana or San Jose State. It's what you do with it.

In my book Accidental Empires I wrote about young Bob Metcalfe who, as an MIT undergraduate, was intimidated by a fraternity brother who could complete the entire New York Times crossword puzzle during breakfast without having to look up a word or linger over his coffee. He was master of his domain. Bob, who went on to invent Ethernet, found 3Com, and is now a rabid VC, was no slouch, either, but he was not the master of any domain, which actually came to be his strength. Because he wasn't the best and the brightest (while still being very bright), Bob had to learn how to work with people and ultimately had to create his own domain that he could master. Sometimes that's the way it is.

The key to last week's column and this one is generational change: it is happening and can't be avoided. The next generations will use technology even more than we do and they'll use it differently. This difference will form a feedback loop that will in turn alter the very structure of our society and its institutions. It may be no better to learn to write on a computer or by firelight on the back of a shovel as Abraham Lincoln was said to have done, but I'll stake what little reputation I still have on the fact that not many people in the future will be taking the shovel route.

As our wealth becomes less physical and more virtual, so will its disposition. Twenty years from now, when my more successful peers are getting old and starting to die, will they be putting their names on university libraries? Will there even BE university libraries then, I mean new ones? Google or Microsoft or Yahoo will have put all the books on disk and all the disks will be networked together and accessible from my house or yours. Then the library becomes, at best, a study hall. And since it is quieter to study at my house and the food is cheaper, too, maybe the library becomes just a place to hang out. This transition will not happen overnight, but it will happen, and then who will give millions to build new libraries? Nobody.

The fact is that we can't really predict with true accuracy what changes will happen in our society over the next 20-30 years, but we can make a good guess that technology will be involved with many of them. Yet there will always be a place for good old common sense.

A doctor in my town back in Ohio had built for himself a grand house, a real mansion, with a huge entrance hall and a sweeping staircase that floated down from the second floor to the first like some set from Gone With the Wind. The house was all built to the highest level of quality by the best craftsmen, only nobody in town (or even out of town) could build the sweeping banister for that grand staircase. It had to be laminated in a single piece of mahogany that somehow matched the curve of the staircase, a curve that had been drawn more by art than science. Nobody could build it.

So they called in the local Amish furniture maker. He came with his son and they spent a couple hours measuring with a ruler and a yardstick then went away and two weeks later returned with the completed banister on the back of their horse-drawn wagon. It slipped into place as if built on some CAD/CAM system, perfect in every way. How did they do it?

They took their measurements back to the farm and spent two days building in the barn a rough-hewn replica of the entire staircase, then laminated the rail in place. Of course it fit and without an algorithm in sight.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (123)

Gardeningartist described a Montessori school to a T. The students set goals for themselves, and set about meeting those goals. It is actually a very accelerated form of education. Fo9r example, most of the kids who do Montessori K-8 are doing calculus by the end of 8th grade! The biggest problem they face is boredom when they hit a traditional high school.

Michael | Apr 07, 2008 | 3:04PM

As usual, you've got me thinking. This time my thoughts are along the line of: Given the increasing likelihood that our relationship to energy and other resources will not remain what it's been, the possibility that access to digital technology may take the place of education is hardly a neutral fact of social evolution. It's one thing to acknowledge that we may have to learn survival techniques that technology has enabled us to forget, another to find ourselves as a society fundamentally dependent on networks, search engines, digital archives, etc. when the lights go out. Ray Kurzweil notwithstanding, technology serves us best as a tool, not an identity.

DC | Apr 08, 2008 | 2:05PM

Bob, Check out the Wikipedia entry for "Book of Predictions" by that Wallace-Wallechinski bunch. Written in 1981, it was filled with predictions of the famous and powerful, but went awry SO FAST that it stands as a remarkable study of how predictions and reality don't travel well together. You address by email will get you my copy if interested.

Eric M. Jones | Apr 08, 2008 | 9:51PM