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Free High School for Life

Here in North America, in 2019, the political discourse is as usual strained between utopian and dystopian schools of thought. Not that most schools will wish to play the villain. The game is to point out how utopian plans have a hidden cost, so high that we should really call them dystopian. Everyone gets to be a hero that way.

Anyway, the Bernie Sanders school, sometimes labeled “socialist” (with good reason) is clamoring for “free college”, which to many ears echoes “minimum income” and “safety net”, which are in turn ripples from FDR days and the New Deal. As far as many historians are concerned, FDR’s attempts to jump start the economy, combined with wartime needs, resulted in a socialist surge that in subsequent decades had to be fought.

The prime paradox at the center of these debates is the vast military. To join this body, one must surrender civil rights, access to civilian courts and due process, democratic systems of governance. The military is hierarchical, not run as a democracy, and highly socialized, in terms of communal ownership of the fruits of production, the ships and planes and so on. No one wants the liability of privately owning tanks, a sure loss on the ledger books except on those few occasions when they’ve been just the ticket.

The military is a primary educator at all levels, from West Point to forward bases, and needs to be respected as such. The Ivy League is dwarfed by the Pentagon, in terms of numbers enrolled and annual budget.

When people talk about “free college”, they’re often imagining some civilian service, less risky than combat certainly, that nevertheless serves some public need, such as maybe hotel service, equipment rentals, access to training. The government would provide free (if scheduled) access to “maker spaces” along with training. Learn farming. Learn to raise goats. Learn how to ride and maintain horses, a tractor. That’s just for starters.

Colleges do provide these skills, especially the agricultural colleges. However, I’m thinking “high school level” should set a high enough bar to segue right into many roles. You don’t need college to serve in most roles, just a few of them. High school includes a “try before you buy” dimension, wherein you’re testing the waters. College is for the already committed.

What’s keeping us from enrolling adults in high school literacy courses (SQL, coding, internet) is a fixed bias in the culture, connecting “high school level” with “teenager” and “puberty”. We think of “coming of age” rituals and football. We think of people just starting out in their educational journeys.

However, then we say things like “the average newspaper article should be written for an 8th grader”. That sounds condescending because we’re suggesting our readers are immature, not that a Mafia boss or FBI investigator might need only a high school level reading ability to get on with their lives. Many decades past, that might have been true, but we’ve since been through a kind of inflation to where a “college degree” became a requisite, and usually a signal of needing to pay off debt while having few assets. Those owing on their college tuitions work for cheap, like soldiers. College isn’t free, it’s a doorway to indentured servitude.

So when I hear Bernie Sanders calling for “free college”, I mentally translate to “free high school” and remember how elite high schools already teach college level material, while community colleges often offer courses considered “remedial”. The line between “high school” and “college” is already blurred.

The mental trick, again, is to distinguish “mental level” or “subject level” from “physical age”. There’s enough high school level curriculum out there to last anyone many lifetimes. Just because you get a little of this and a little of that when in high school (the first time), doesn’t mean you’ve somehow exhausted what’s to be learned at that level. On the contrary, there’s practically no limit on the number of roles one might train for, where you don’t need five years and a PhD’s worth of preparation. You might need one or two years, with apprenticeship opportunities. You might actually learn on the job in some cases.

Once we’ve opened free public high school to people of all ages and generations, we’ll of course have to stop making our whole focus “pedagogy” (teaching children) and work more on “andragogy” ( teaching adults). I’ve been doing that with my Pythonic Andragogy research, Python being a computer language. How do we teach high school level Python, and related STEM and PATH topics, to adults from all walks of life?

The idea of a robust safety net is not new in any way, as I mentioned at the outset, citing the New Deal. One of the main rationales for it, is we don’t want people who hate their jobs, or aren’t very good at them, to feel trapped into keeping them. For all of our sakes, it pays to not be served, in any capacity, by people miserable in their roles.

What are the chances, given the constraints of the first few years, as a teenager, that you have picked exactly the right career path? I’d say chances are, you’ll want to revisit your choice of career, or role, many times over in a lifetime, as you fine tune. A safety net, meaning access to a not life-threatening lifestyle, while you retrain and retool, is a societal good we all share, and is currently oft provided by a military, but only awkwardly.

Extending high school will mean changing it. Adults will not consent to tyranny and will look for democratic processes around school governance. The ubiquity of voting machines, polling, vote counting, the whole infrastructure of democracy, might be one of the more salient features of public high schools of the future, perhaps taking up floor space in skyscrapers.

Adults are learning how to co-manage their shared facilities. The whole infrastructure of government will become more accessible through this increasingly attended-to public portal.

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