The Level of Education Required for Success Should be Dropping

Many people have grown accustomed to the idea that achieving success today requires more formal education than ever before and they expect this trend will continue. I think this should be the reverse. Success in today’s world should require increasingly less formal education, and the amount required should continue to decrease. First, let’s look at why many people think that more formal education is required now than ever.

The basic reasoning seems to start with the premise that the world is increasingly technological. In order to acquire the level of technological sophistication required for success, more formal education is required. Therefore, a lack of high school education is perceived as a hopeless situation. A high school diploma is required, but, by itself is next to worthless. According to this line of thinking, an undergraduate degree is the minimum level of education one needs for success, but graduate education is increasingly necessary. I think this is problematic for several reasons.

First, the process of education is perceived as being static and unchanging, and it should not be. Let’s measure education in terms of an “educational unit” that is held constant through time, the same way we might think about “constant dollars” when comparing prices across time. Let’s say that success in the year 1500 required x educational units. Success in the second decade of the twenty-first century requires (x)(y) educational units. If the rate at which we educate students has remained constant, the amount of time required in education will increase proportionally. But surely, the time necessary to receive one educational unit has decreased. The academic field of education is a robust one with active research programs in universities across the world. I would expect that at least part of that effort has been directed at maximizing educational efficiency, and then disseminating that information through the system. If the field of education has not made the process of education increasingly more efficient, then there is no reason it should get a pass. It is something we need to correct.

It is now cliché to say that the lecture format, with a teacher in front of a class with a chalkboard, is centuries old, but it is true. There is probably a limit to the rate at which students can be educated using that technique. That limit was probably acceptable in 1450 when there was only so much to learn. If that is the maximum rate at which students can be educated, and there is more to learn in the 21st century, then we should have to spend more time in a lecture hall to learn it all. But, as technology increases, so should the technology and techniques of education. When that happens, even if the quantity of material to be learned increases, the time required to learn it should remain the same or decrease, depending on how efficient we become in education. I don’t know if there is a measurement of the learning time required per constant unit of education, but I think it would be interesting if it existed.

There probably is a limit to the rate at which our brains can absorb information. Educational stimuli still have to pass through our five senses and then be encoded in biological brains. Theoretically, we should be able to dramatically increase the rate of learning if we can directly hook our brains up to digital interfaces and share information that way. But, absent that technology, we should still ask if we are educating people as efficiently as possible.

Second, it is not obvious to me that as society’s level of technological sophistication rises, that more education should be required to be successful in it. In fact, it seems to me that it should be exactly the reverse. As technology increases, tasks and activities that at one time would have required great education and specialized knowledge can be done by people with increasingly less. There is a lot of effort put into making technology accessible. As a simple example, social media networks are highly technological. Perhaps one could argue that some level of proficiency with them is necessary for success in today’s world. But, thankfully, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are extremely usable. They do not require a graduate education in computer science in order to use them. Yes, learning how to develop, deploy, and maintain these systems may require a very high degree of technological sophistication (though that is also dropping), but once they are created, they confer their advantages upon everyone regardless of their level of education. Many other technologies are just as accessible, and it is a characteristic of technology that it becomes more accessible as it develops and matures.

Finally, let’s just consider which of the following statement sounds more like the future. Imagine each was uttered at a hypothetical point in the past, perhaps decades ago:

  1. “Completing high school is enough to be successful today, but in the future, the world will be much more technological and so will require a lot more education.”
  2. “If you want to be successful today, you need to complete high school, but in the future, the world will be much more technological, so people will be able to achieve success with less education.”

The second statement sounds more like the future I would expect. Technology should allow everyone to accomplish everything they want with increasingly less formal education. Technology is a force that brings power to increasingly more people. There should be less need for a lengthy formal educational process if technology allows us to accomplish our goals faster, better, and less expensively.

These are just my initial brief thoughts on this subject. There are several things in this post that should be expanded upon if it were a longer work. For instance, what it means to be “successful” needs to be elaborated on. I also would want to distinguish the formal education discussed here from informal self-education. I think ongoing self-education is an essential part of success. But, overall, I think I have captured my general idea. What do you think?

Know people who would be interested? Please share. 🙂
  • John Casiello

    Great article, Heath. I think another point that dovetails with the things you’ve said here is that technology, specifically the Internet, makes certain forms of education much more accessible for almost anyone. Thanks to Google, YouTube, etc., there is a wealth of information on almost any topic, oftentimes available for free. It can’t quite replace certain aspects of formal education, and you still need certain foundational skills to access the information (i.e., literacy), but the opportunity for self-education that exists now is astounding.

    • I think you are right. Literacy is an interesting one though, because it is so foundational. But, building schools and teaching reading the traditional way is just not scalable. The X Prize Foundation has a new prize for Adult Literacy. It is basically for a device that will allow an illiterate adult to self-educate to a certain level of reading proficiency:

      There is also the “Global Learning” X Prize with the goals of “open source and scalable software that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic within 18 months.”

      Ultimately, I think something like that will provide that foundational education in a much less expensive and scalable way than today’s formal education system.

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