Chapter Nine: Language And Other Cultural Markers

III. Parenting And Education

It is one of the most often lamented features of the last 100 years that 'the family has broken down'. This breakdown – which is measurable and universal in more economically advanced countries – is blamed for a variety of society's ills, alongside the rise of the nation state. It might be fairer to say, alongside the rise of dirigiste, socialist, nanny-type nation states, which have indeed tended to weaken family responsibilities as part of a general hollowing-out of individual social and moral responsibility.

The Bolsheviks tried to replace suspect family acculturation with a state equivalent. That failed dismally. Lack of adequate family acculturation is widely and no doubt correctly blamed for anti-social and criminal behaviour among the young.

Economic factors will continue to drive families apart for the foreseeable future, and as much as the Internet will tend to reinforce groupishness among people, and is clearly reigniting interest in the kin-group, it's not clear that it can help early socialization in a kin-group setting, at least not until advances in bio-electronic technology allow the participation of individuals in a shared cognitive space.

There is a good side to the atomization of families, though. Young people thrown on their own resources by separation from their families (often at first by going to university, increasingly in a foreign country) are more open to cultural challenge and innovation than if they had remained at home. Here the Internet clearly does have a part to play; indeed it may be the crowbar that is needed to unblock the rusty conservatism of the educational process in general.

It would not be right to say that school primary and secondary education (firmly in the grip of nation states, after all) has played a major role in the cultural expansion we have witnessed in the last 50 years. Curriculae are woefully archaic, and teachers unions are a highly conservative force in cultural terms.

Education – or the lack of it – may be one of the greatest failures of the nation state. It has to be expected that monopolies (and education, until very recently, has been exactly that in most nation states) will fail to deliver the goods that are required, and governments are the least likely type of organization to understand the problem, being monopolies themselves.

Choice in education is what the customer (the parent) wants, and seldom gets. This is not going to change quickly, although there are some hopeful signs, such as the International Schools Movement, which was described in Chapter Two. Countries will cling to their (often nationalistic) teaching models for as long as possible, and there is not much help to be expected from international organizations. Human rights unfortunately don't yet extend to the child: when teachers or parents are ignorant or bigoted they still seemingly have a divine right to limit and distort childrens' psyches.

Still, it will happen eventually, in a top-down kind of way, beginning with tertiary and adult education, where customer-led change is already well under way, and moving down the age groups. The Internet, of course, will play a major role in this process. Already it forms a means of delivery of alternative cultural content into schools. Teachers can be lazy like the rest of us, and will readily accept well-packaged educational content for direct delivery to their classes, once the desk-top computer is a standard feature of classrooms. That day has already arrived in richer countries.

Schools badly need to change. It is just about unbelievable that in most countries children of mixed abilities and even ages still sit in rows in ugly, uncomfortable classrooms listening to bored or boring teachers, subject to racial or sexual harassment and bullying. It is no wonder that the kids spend most of their time texting each other.

As in so many other spheres, it will surely be the Internet that breaks the mould. Once there is competition between providers of, say, basic mathematical courses on the Internet, the school may become just an enabling institution. In fact, it is hard to see why schools would need to exist at all in their current, wildly expensive and ineffectual form. Groups of parents could take over supervision in private user groups or could hire teachers to supervise ad hoc groups of matched children in a wide variety of educational environments (all those useless libraries, for instance).

A teacher combines a number of functions, most of which can be provided more efficiently and more cheaply by the Internet – including the setting of tasks, the explaining of concepts, the setting of examinations, the marking of them and of course-work, the comparison of achievement against one's peers and against absolute standards. The remaining roles of the teacher – to supervize, to discipline, to amuse and to motivate – can be provided in a variety of formats, robotic teachers included. Robots with human cognitive attributes are clearly going to exist within a very few years.

Some of these possibilities could be explored now, but they are obscured by the existence of private schooling in rich countries, and the hidebound nature of the state educational systems and their practitioners and their unions. If the boundaries were abolished, new variants would spring up. Already, even at state schools, after lessons, parents spend the rest of the day carting their children around between ballet classes, extra maths etc.

While deconstruction of the existing educational process (a recent invention, anyway, since education was provided very effectively without the State's help until the 19th century) is almost certainly a good thing, there would always be merit in having some communal classes in order to develop groupish skills, but they could be exactly that – socialization classes.

It is a reasonable assumption that international norms will develop for the educational process, both in terms of curriculae and methodology. The beginnings of this process can be seen in the International Schools Movement, and it will be pushed along by the Internet, together with the dissolution of language barriers, which will accelerate with the advent of effective machine translation, beginning in the 2020s.