“Why not teach something more practical?”

One of the reasons it is worth paying $1 million for a 100-year-old sagging fixer-upper starter home in Cambridge is that you run into interesting people.  At a sandwich shop yesterday I encountered a friend who is a professor of Architecture.  His companion asked what I was teaching this semester.  “Intro circuit theory for sophomore electrical engineering majors,” was my response, “Inductors, resistors, capacitors, transistors, op-amps, feedback, impedance method.”

He was taken aback.  “Why not teach something more practical?”  Like what?  How to build a TV?  “No, I meant something more advanced and specialized, like a graduate seminar.”

I thought about it for awhile and said “Undergrads are fun to be around.  They’re always in a good mood.  For the average person, the likelihood that they’ll be in a bad mood is directly proportional to their age.”  I asked the architecture prof to concur:  “Aren’t your students in a better mood than the average working architect?”  He concurred and said that in fact he has noticed that when he teaches undergrads they are happier than the grad students that he usually teaches.

At first glance you’d expect college students to be unhappy.  They’re adolescents.  They don’t know what they want or what makes them happy.  But on second thought maybe undergrads do have a lot of reasons to be happy.  They don’t have any aches or pains because their bodies are so young.  They don’t have to worry about money because their parents send it to them.  They don’t have to call the plumber or electrician because the university maintains their dorm.  They don’t have to take their car in for service because they don’t have a car.  The last two points free them to read interesting books, watch movies, play video games, indulge in sex and drugs, etc.

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Our hometown makes the NY Times!

Cambridge, MA has made it into this NYT article.  The public school system here has been in the news from time to time in recent years.  In the mid-1990s it was the most expensive school system in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and it provided a fairly good education to the smart hard-working kids via an honors program and a fairly bad education to everyone else.  In the late 1990s the honors program was eliminated in the interests of fairness.  The rich parents responded by sending their kids to private schools; non-rich parents who cared about education moved to suburbs.  Here we are in 2003 and the city apparently is spending $17,000 per year for each remaining student (still the most expensive in Massachusetts) to achieve some of the lowest test scores of any district in the state.

The $17,000 number combined with the poor results invites some brainstorming.  The world’s best-performing secondary schools tend to be in Asia.  Korean students do especially well on international tests.  This U.S. military guide says that Korean private schools range in price from $2,000 to $13,700 per year.  So the taxpayers of Cambridge could afford to charter Boeing 747s to fly kids to and from Korea every month, enroll them at the most expensive boarding schools in that nation, and still end up spending less than we’re spending now.

Suppose that we want to keep our kids close to home, though.  For $17,000 they are getting a 1/25th share of a disaffected civil servant’s time (the teacher) plus some fraction of the time of the school administration.  If we spent a bit of money on personal video conferencing setups for each kid, we could spend the rest hiring PhDs in low-wage English-speaking countries to teaching our city’s children one-on-one.  Actually the way the U.S. economy has been going we might be able to find home-grown humanities PhDs to do the tutoring face-to-face for $17k/year (that’s about what they are getting now at Starbucks).

Friday Update

Just when you think you had an original idea… this more recent NYT article covers the “send a kid to a boarding school in a foreign country” idea.

Separately, it occurred to me that most people have kids in groups.  If you had four kids, for example, the City of Cambridge would be spending $68,000 per year to educate them in a factory school.  If you could get your hands on the $68,000, though, you could bring in Harvard grad students and PhDs to tutor your children at home.  It is ironic that factory schools were started on the premise that, though they could never be as effective as the private tutoring that rich children enjoyed, at least they would be cheap and universal.  Car factories certainly have lived up to their initial promise.  A car from Hyundai is much cheaper than a hand-built car from a workshop.  But the factory schools have actually become more expensive than the process that produced Thomas Jefferson, Bertrand Russell, and a lot of the successful people we’ve heard about.  [The youngest professor at MIT, Erik Demaine, was home-schooled.]

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