As of 1978, there were roughly twelve “skyscrapers” in Shanghai, the New York City of China. As of 2006, there 6,780. To visit Shanghai in modern times (I was last there in 2019) is to speculate that 6,780 is a rather dated number.
So what’s changed? Did the schools in China vastly improve such that economic growth surged? Hopefully the impressive fatuity of the previous question answers the question. What changed in China wasn’t the schools, rather it was freedom. When people are broadly free to produce, productivity soars. Trite as it may sound to some, freedom built Shanghai into a gleaming metropolis.
The desire of so many to correlate more and “better” education with economic progress is for the well-meaning to reverse causation. It’s the equivalent of suggesting that white teeth cause toothpaste. In reality, good and great schools are a consequence of economic growth.
Which should be a statement of the obvious. Taking nothing away from school and university, logic dictates that neither can prepare us to prosper in the real world of commerce. The latter isn’t a knock on education, as much as it’s a comment about why economies grow: they do based on feverish investment in opposite thinkers eager to erase the commercial present in favor of a much better commercial tomorrow.
Translated for readers, Jeff Bezos didn’t major in the “e-commerce” at Princeton, rather he invented e-commerce. Uber founder Travis Kalanick similarly didn’t major in “ride sharing” at UCLA. Progress is born of free people rewriting how we do things, which means progress can’t be taught.
It’s something to keep in mind as post-lockdown test score results continue to reveal their bad selves. The scores are down, and even newspapers that aggressively supported the coronavirus lockdowns like the Washington Post and New York Times are reporting this bit of news. The problem is that they’re missing the point.
No doubt a lack of schooling as teachers hid from the virus did have an impact on book learning, but it’s hard to make a case that the lower scores will have any long-term meaning of the career variety. Really, how could they? Economic progress is defined not by what we learn, but what we can unlearn. And as automation of work in concert with automation of thought picks up speed, readers can rest assured that what’s taught in school will become exponentially less relevant to work, not more. Bank on the previous truth.
Which is why a focus on post-lockdown test scores is a distraction. Where we’re going will increasingly not require knowledge gained in schools that on their very best days are teaching yesterday’s news.
None of this means schools will disappear. The bet here is that schools and universities will become even more prosperous. Figure that rich people thrill in giving money to colleges and universities, and wealth will multiply as activity and thought is multiplied by machines.
Which brings us back to the true tragedy: the lockdowns themselves. Freedom is its own greatest virtue, and it should never be taken away or given away so blithely. And as the lockdowns should remind us, progress is to varying degrees suffocated when people aren't free. For visual evidence of this truth, Google photos of the Shanghai of old relative to the one you see attached to this write-up.