TEDxUCLA 2011: Minding, Mining, Mending, Mapping

Mapping and mending the American mind


About Harry

Dr. Harold Hellenbrand was appointed Interim President of California State University, Northridge effective January 1, 2012. Appointed by the Chancellor of The California State University (CSU), Dr. Hellenbrand will serve in the interim role until the next president of Cal State Northridge is selected and begins his or her appointment. He is expected to return to the provost and vice president role when the interim appointment concludes.


You know, for some reason, that last scene reminded me of my family at my bar mitzvah.

It’s a real pleasure to be here today. I’ve been trying to think of what some of the speakers have in common, and what I could tell so far is I don’t wear a tie either to work, that would be one thing. The second thing is I was a bicycle messenger in Manhattan for a couple of summers. I was thinking of coming on stage by riding a bicycle buck naked and then playing a violin, but I thought that probably wouldn’t be a great idea.

I’m going to try to be serious for a while because my actual career is to be, I always aspire to be a Borscht Belt comedian, but that never worked out. So instead I ended up as a provost. I worked at Cal State Northridge. And what I want to talk about is imagining a new way of thinking about education. And I’m going to begin, though, by talking about where I think we are today and then mapping out some alternatives along the way.

Where I think we are out today is the following: I think that we are deeply struggling for a number of reasons.

If you take a look at what the Obama administration projects, or what the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects, and you take a look at what the Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation talk about, you’ll find all of these groups are avidly saying that America needs to increase its bachelor degrees and its Ph.D. degrees by 60 percent to 100 percent over the next 20 years.

And the problem is we are failing in that area. In fact, we are making backwards progress on that. So the question is, why do we lack the wherewithal to make that sort of progress, and what is going on?

And I think the typical answers to that don’t really apply and don’t really answer, answer the question well. It’s not that we have too much technology or we have too little technology. It’s not that we have too many unions or too few unions. It’s not that we have too much discovery learning or too little discovery learning. It’s not even that pay, it’s not even that pay is too low and the esteem for teachers is too low. It’s something broader than that. And I think you’ll get an indication of what I’m thinking of when I give you some thoughts right now.

About two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote that it is each generation’s responsibility not to pass on debt, but to educate the next generation. Thirty years ago, John Rawls wrote about our responsibility to accumulate just savings for the young so that we could educate them well. The economist James E. Tobin wrote extensively on our responsibility to accumulate endowments so that he could fund the education of people who come after us. Even that little nebbish, Milton Friedman, the neocon, wrote extensively about our responsibility to educate the next generation and provide funding for that to occur.

But there’s something in American culture of the last 30 or 35 years that’s worked the opposite way on that front, and here are some stats that I always found interesting, although a little depressing, and we have to figure our way through this stuff.

First of all, Americans on average, American families on average spend more money on eating out than we do on educating our children. More money on eating out than we do on educating our children. You spend more money on entertaining ourselves than we do on educating our children. It’s hard to make any progress when that’s the situation.

And we’ve reoriented our spending in ways that I think we have to really think hard about. And I’m not saying this because I want to push elderly people off the cliff like myself, but I want us to think about these issues.

Since 1960 — and I know this is hard to believe — but since 1960, the proportion of the state, federal, and local budgets that we spend on defense has decreased by 50 percent. That’s right. Now, the rural amount is still disgusting, but the proportion has gone down. But over that time, the amount of money and the percent of money that is spent on social programs, pensions, health care, welfare has tripled. It’s up to 48 percent.

So our money has gone not into the intergenerational transfer that’s required for teaching and learning, but it’s gone into the intergenerational transfer of funds from one part of a generation to the next for self-perpetuating care.

Now, I’m not a neocon, I’m not attacking social programs, but I am raising these issues because I want us to think about their implication and what they mean. Let me give you a couple of examples, because these things pervade our culture and affect education and the way we think of our lives.

We spend in the United States one-third of our health care budgets on the 20 percent of the population that’s over 65, and one-sixth of our health care budget, on the over 40 percent of the population that’s under 18. I can give you an indication about our orientation in some ways.

Now that’s accumulated and done good things. Over the past 40 or 50 years we’ve reduced tremendously the percentage of elderly folk who are in poverty, that is down now from the 30s to about 8 percent. But we’ve had a net negligible impact on the percentage of young people who are in poverty, and that percentage is over 20 percent, leading the free world in that category. That’s a pretty amazing percentage for a country like the United States.

On top of that, we have a very difficult time investing in things that will bring us return down the line. They’re driven to invest in things that will bring us return immediately. And I mentioned things and not people because we are driven to invest in things and not people.

In the United States in any given year, we do send twice as many people to college as we buy houses. But that still strikes me as bizarre. Are we white mice? Do we each need a new house each year? How do we get so many housing purchases made? And more than that, at any given year over the last 25 years, we spend three times the amount of money on housing, on new house purchasing, rather, as we do on sending kids to college.

Three times as much money on new house purchases as we do on sending kids to college, going to flip houses and make an immediate profit. The amount of money that it would take to invest in students for the profit that might return 25 years down the line is something that we cannot imagine.

So if we take a look at school reform and redo all these various things, I think it’ll have no impact until, as the previous speaker said, we exercise our imaginations and reconceive the world we’re in.

W.E. Deming was a great systems thinker who helped bring Japan back after World War II. If he were alive today, he would tell us that all our school reform and the accountability movement will amount to nothing because he could optimize tests, could optimize teachers’ pay, could optimize this or that, but if the cultural system as a whole is not geared towards educating and preparing and taking care of the next generation then the whole thing is rotten because all that you’re doing is optimizing a part in a system that is dysfunctional. And that means for our system, the people who we would want to go into education would be attracted to capital accumulation and doing things outside of that field, which is a tragedy in many respects.

Now, why is this important and why do we think about this stuff? Because there’s a contradiction in the way we’re living right now. And we often think about these contradictions in ecological terms. But I’m going to talk about the educational and social terms for a little bit. We live in a world in the United States where we idolize the GDP, and we maximize the, you try to shorten the profit cycle as much as possible, make as much money in that profit cycle as much as possible, so it should have as many cycles as possible across an extended lifetime. That’s great, it brings in wealth for individuals and for families. The only problem is it’s unsustainable without innovation.

And unless we find a way of automating innovation, it’s my understanding that innovation takes people to innovate. And if you don’t have people who are educated to innovate, you ain’t gonna get that innovation. Those profit cycles are going to shut down. They’re in a sense eating our seed corn. Until we find a way to intervene in those cycles, make investments in things that don’t bring immediate returns like education, we’re going to be in deep trouble in a short period of time.

Now, you can see a magnificent example of that just when we step outside the door and we looked around Los Angeles itself. If I had a map that I could show you of Los Angeles and I broke it down into educational level, income level, imprisonment rates, and all those sorts of things, you’d find the city is largely bifurcated between those communities that have healthy educational systems, food incomes for families, and little crime-ridden instances in their families versus those that are the exact opposite. That’s not only a social tragedy, but it represents a good degree of lost income, lost capacity for innovation.

And we typically think of these matters in geographical terms. We take a look at poverty and education, we spread them out on a GIS map, we see what the disparities are. I’m suggesting that those disparities have something to do with our relationship with one generation to the next. We really have to think that through and get better about our thoughts about this stuff.

Now, why does all this stuff matter? If you look at American history and you think about it, you get the answers to that. You get a sense of where the problems are and what needs to be done. Every historian I know who looks at American history says that America’s success in the 20th century was largely built upon the success of the common school movement in the 19th century, the spread of high schools in the late 19th century, and the pervasion of college experience in the United States after World War I and especially after World War II. Because we created an educated workforce that is literate, adept at new technology, and can jump out ahead of the world on many things.

In some instances, families, states, communities deferred the now that a “me” enjoys for the later benefit that a “we” could collectively experience. But increasingly since the 1970s, we’ve gone in the opposite direction. We’ve replaced “we” with “I” and later with now. That indulgence of “me” for now has hurt our capacity to invest and to innovate.

The late Tony Judt, the wonderful writer and scholar from New York and from Britain before that, saw this as a legacy, a poor legacy of the 1960s, of the “me” culture that came out of that generation.

Complicating matters has been a simmering resentment against government programs in the United States for decades, really for a hundred years, for a couple hundred years. Thomas Paine, of course, wrote that “that government is best which governs least,” and perhaps we’ve taken that too literally.

In the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s, we benefited in the United States from a different culture and a different spirit, a different culture and different spirit, and incredibly so. The Brown v. Topeka decision, the establishment of the master plan in California opened up opportunity for many people, brought many people into higher education and through high schools across the state and across the nation. And indeed, we find that there is a marvelous growth in the high school graduation rate and the college graduation rate during those years. But those rates have flattened out since the late 1970s and early 1980s so that the college graduation, college completion rate has not exceeded 27 to 29% over that period of time, and the high school graduation rate has flattened out at 85 to 87%. Those rates, in other words, have not changed mainly for 30 years. One of the only countries in the industrialized world that has had such a flat rate and its tabled like that, and that’s something to think about.

We have to go back to the 1970s and think what happened during that period of time. And I think there are a couple of things. One is the legacy of the ’60s that I mentioned. And secondly, the ’60s themselves were beset by inflation, that wage stagnation, cynicism over Watergate, depression on the American public’s part with our responses to a series of recessions. People became very disillusioned with the effectiveness of government programs.

And when wages hit us, wage stagnation hit us and inflation set in, people became disappointed with the rewards that education held out for them. Unless there’s the prospect of a good future, people will not necessarily complete school. And unless people have faith in government to intervene and do good work, they will not see education as a particularly good thing to go on.

Now the good news — and I’m going to tell the good news in a bad story kind of way — is America can change. If you go back to the late 1970s, you can see how it has changed. We now since the 1970s at least, have increased our prison population three times, or by 300%. We now have one of the largest prison populations in the world. That came through concerted change in policy, having to do with sentencing laws and drug laws. They’ve been so successful, so successful in a negative sense, that the representation of young black men in prison has increased at four times the representation of black men in college over the last 25 years. We’ve been so successful in a negative way in the past 25 to 30 years on this front that your chance — if you’re a young black man between 25 and 29 — of being in prison or having gone to college is equivalent to fourteen point five percent.

Now, since we know when you look at American demography, the growing cohorts of the population are going to be minority Hispanic in particular, but also African-American, some areas of the United States over the next 25 years, that does not bode well if the major initiative that we pursued in our policies was to lock the young up. We are a culture that idolizes young black youth and it’s in the media, but that incarcerates and criminalizes that black youth in reality on our streets. We really have to think through the implications of that in some way.

Now, there are many things that we can do to change this, but I really think it begins with a change in mindset, a change in imagining what’s important to change in thinking of the value and investing in the young across the United States. We are a country in which many people crusade for the rights of the unborn, but few of us crusade for the rights of the born to be educated. We’re a country that extols the virtues of accountability, but we think of accountability in terms of optimization on test scores, teacher productivity, this that and next sort of thing. They don’t think of accountability as the hands-on relationship between one generation and the next.

What is our accountability to the next generation? We need to pay back by paying forward the debt that we have to the generation that educated us. Now unless you have that intergenerational solidarity, nothing good will occur. And that bond has broken down and the United States and needs to be repaired.

We need to think through carefully how we allocate our resources. I’ll just give you two examples very quickly. One thing that we need to think through is, because we value individual freedom so much, you’re very unlikely to intervene in a paternalistic way to change people’s behavior pattern, such as eating or the way they drive cars or the way they behave publicly. They deal with things technologically and bureaucratically after the fact. So instead of rigorously stopping people from eating Frito Lay’s up front, we will bring the Frito-Lay-ridden body into the hospital and technologize it back to health at great expense 25 years down the line. That honors freedom, but it destroys our collective responsibility.

We need to think about what President Eisenhower said when he left the presidency. He warned us against the perniciousness of the military-industrial complex. I think we have to think seriously about the effect of the pharmacological-medical-technology complex in the United States these days. That industry and that complex has done wonderful things for extending life and beating back infliction and disease. But it also has commercialized elements and made profits off of ailments that are not terribly threatening to the human soul, and commercialize those things and introduce technology promiscuously across health care.

Until we really think through these implications of how we spend dollars, they’re of little effect on the way that we improve education itself. So what I’m saying is, when you think these matters through, you have to stop and think. It’s not just the test scores, it’s not just the teacher pay, but it’s how we prepare people to think about the future.

One last example: I know a few people who would dispute that one of the hardest tasks to do and one of the most important tasks to do in the United States these days is to teach young people, to teach especially young people up to Grade 4. Our teacher pay and preparation in the United States is an inverse relationship to the importance of the task. Look at the training and look at the pay that those people get. Are you attracting the right talent and preparing it to do the job that we all agree is the most important thing to do in the United States? We pay postdocs the equivalent to what we pay introductory teachers. Does that make a great deal of sense? Is that what we want the culture to do?

All this is about stewardship, and what we need to do is stare into the pool and look at ourselves and look at our future.

Unlike Narcissus, I would hope that we could see the future correctly and well, not dove into the pool after all an image in pursuit of consumption and even farther and further that we have so far. Thank you very much.