Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Universal Basic Income and Its Potential in the World of Education

Today's adventure begins with a foray into the world of economics, with short stops along the way into politics and humanitarianism. We'll get back to education before the end, I promise, so bear with me, even if you can't see where I'm going with all of this. It will make sense in the end.

Five Thirty Eight, a data-driven news blog, recently posted an article on Universal Basic Income, an idea than every citizen be given a no-strings-attached living stipend. It's a philosophy that I've heard in passing before and agreed with, despite my lack of knowledge on the subject. The article is a little lengthy, but well worth the read. For the purposes of THIS article, I'm going to assume you've read the Five Thirty Eight one, so go ahead. I'll be here when you get back.

Interesting stuff, right? To learn more, check out the thorough Wikipedia articleBasic Income Earth Network's website, including their YouTube video playlist, and Techdirt's podcast episode with Albert Wegman.

The proposal has been touted as something that everyone can get behind, from socialists to libertarians, Martin Luther King Jr. to Milton Friedman. It supposes that once everyone has their basic needs met, they can participate more fully in society, and that if they aren't struggling to survive, they can focus on more important things. That is, if one isn't forced to work a meaningless job because "it pays the bills," they can, instead, focus on making their lives better, a la, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

I can hear the collective gasp in response as I type this. There are a number of reasons why today's American society, if not the entire world, would balk at the suggestion. The one that I've heard most frequently when I've brought it up in the past (and one I'll discuss to day, as the others have well articulated responses in the links listed above) goes, "If no one had to work, they wouldn't. They would just sit at home, and nothing would get done! Productivity would go out the window!" I'm here to posit that that just isn't true. 

As Rutger Bregman puts it in his TEDx Talk, "If I asked each one of you in this room, 'Would you stop working? And I'll give you, you know, about 1,000 euros a month,' about 99% of you would say, 'Of course not. I've got dreams. I've got ambitions. I'm not going to sit on the couch, no.'"

Andrew Flowers of Five Thirty Eight backs this theory up, as well. He writes, of the Negative Tax Income pilots in the US, 
"Unsurprisingly, work effort did decline. Some NIT recipients cut back their hours, but the declines were modest: no more than 5 to 7 percent among primary earners, and a bit more for secondary earners.
But participants quitting altogether didn’t happen ... 'Some of the experimenters said that they were unable to find even a single instance of labor-market withdrawal,' wrote Widerquist in his 2005 paper summarizing the studies."
And I concur. Perhaps it comes from my belief in humanity. Yes, perhaps some individuals, Bregman's 1% of the audience, might choose to stay at home and relax unproductively with their stipend, but I choose to believe that the majority of humanity would do something with their lives, even if they didn't "have to." I believe that the natural curiosity and instincts inside each of us would push us to pursue our passions. I know I would still be working in education, regardless of pay, and my husband has said that he would still be in software development. Humans want to do things and feel productive. They want to feel like they're making a difference.

(I might also remind the reader that we don't know the stories of those individuals that would choose not to work. Maybe they've been working harder than the rest of us and actually "deserve" the respite. Maybe they're suffering from an unseen mental illness and would use that time as healing. Their lives are not ours to judge.)

Flowers conveys an idea of venture capitalist and author Albert Wegner's, "[He] wants less time spent on tasks that could be automated and more time spent on issues he thinks are insufficiently addressed: fighting climate change, exploring space, preventing the next global pandemic." Or, you know, bringing about the cessation of war. These are the real issues of our age, the serious problems that need to be settled, the ones we currently don't have time or funding for. I believe that humanity can solve these issues, and moreover, that we want to, we have a drive to. I believe that, given the opportunity, there would be an insurgence of people rushing to solve the world's most pressing issues. Right now, without the agency to do so, we've just become apathetic.

One concern of mine is that, as we have seen in the past, further half-hearted studies will ruin the name of Universal Basic Income. The most likely, in my opinion, is that a short-term study will determine that this proposal doesn't work--that the majority of people don't pursue their dreams, that they do buy alcohol and junk food and "waste" their time at home on the couch. The short-term studies will "prove" what everyone has been thinking all along.

Only a serious, long-term study will demonstrate the true strengths of humanity, their resilience and curiosity and passion, because here's another belief of mine: Humanity has a certain structure at this time. We have a schedule and a time table and someone telling us menacingly, "Do this or else." Without those things, we WILL take some time to explore our new-found freedoms. We WILL excitedly go to the store to pick up some "free" junk food and go home to relax on the couch and watch some shows. So if that's all the time the study allows for, yes, that's what it will find. However, if the studies give us more time and patiently sit back to watch what happens, after a while we will sit up and say, "I'm bored. I don't want to watch TV anymore. I want to do something fun!" And THAT'S when the good part will begin. THAT'S when we'll start to explore what we can REALLY do with ourselves.

We just have to be given the chance. And, as Flowers demonstrated in his article, there aren't any sufficient studies to yet prove one way or the other.

Alright, still with me? Now it's time to turn this train around and head back to the world of education. This is where it gets difficult for me because I'm about to discuss an issue that I am entirely too attached to. I feel vulnerable letting people see it because I don't want anyone to hurt it. But my opinion is a fortress, and I know that letting it out will either strengthen it or knock it down, and what do I want with a fortress that's too weak to withstand a little criticism, anyway? Thus, I welcome the criticism because I want the best ideas for my students. If this is not one, so be it. If it is, let's strengthen it and make it the best that it can be.

While I was exploring the world of Montessori, the philosophy that stood out stronger than the rest was, "Follow the child." Perhaps we might all have different takes on what precisely this means, but to me, it means, "The child is best suited to learn whatever he is most curious about," and, "The natural curiosity of a child is his key to education." Dictating what a child must learn and when will only serve to frustrate him, make him rebellious, and turn him against the idea of learning all together.

And I've taken this idea almost to an extreme, it seems to some people I know. When I explain this to others, the most common response I hear is, "But children will never learn if we don't make them."

Aha. Sound familiar? Thus, I return to my previous point: Yes, they will. 99% of the children in the room, if given enough time and started at the right age, have the natural curiosity and instinct to pursue their passions and make something with their time. And that means learning along the way, REAL learning. Not memorizing multiplication tables or the order of the presidents, because that information can be "automated," or in this instance, easily referenced. What learning would they do instead? I'm guessing the same learning that adults would be doing: "fighting climate change, exploring space, preventing the next global pandemic." Or, you know, bringing about the cessation of war.

But again, we can't expect this to happen in one or two years, especially, as I'm learning currently and will discuss in a later post, not starting with high schoolers. If I were to tell my high school students, "You don't have to go to school. Go learn anything you want on your own," the majority of them would excitedly go to the store, buy some junk food, and then go home to sit on the couch and watch TV. Only after they've had their fill of that would they say, "I'm bored. Eh, okay, let's see what else there is to do." But I'm assuming that many of them would be too far down the wrong path and struggle to get back to the right one. I think that's because they've been shoved into the current model so long, it's the only thing they know. 

But if we started with four- and five-year-olds, it would be a different story. If we asked them, "What do you want to learn about?" each would be bursting with their own answer. If we begin with the excitement of the young child, allow them to pursue their passion, patiently sitting back to watch what happens, I believe he will retain that passion throughout his life and eventually turn it into the solutions to humanity's real issues.