Cybernetic Epiphanies: How Philip K. Salin changed my life

Education, Hayek Studies, Memoirs, Objectivism- Ayn Rand

[Although I don’t remember doing this, I might have submitted this piece to the UCLA alumni magazine.   I found it in my e-mails with this heading:

From: “Paul Stephens” <greateco@xxxxx>
To: <>
Subject: My UCLA Story
Date: Monday, May 17, 2004 12:26 PM]

Cybernetic Epiphanies

Phil Salin’s legacy

I hadn’t heard from my college room-mate (and fellow econ major at UCLA) for a long time. He had later enrolled in the Stanford MBA program after working for Bechtel for a short time, which was not to his liking, but it probably helped him get into Stanford. Just for the heck of it, I did a Google search on him. Sad to say, I discovered that he had died of stomach cancer in 1992, but not before making a considerable contribution to the realization of science fiction visions which were his passions from boyhood. He wrote a seminal paper, widely quoted, against patents (but not copyrights) in software (in other words, in favor of “open source” programming, and one of his friends and colleagues seems to have coined that term). You can read some of these articles on

[Note:  This website is itself a ripoff, created to sell his name in this domain to someone, but I think the texts – there are only a few – are accurate.  I also posted an article on Phil on Wikipedia, which got taken down and changed, but may have been put back, or it is in the archives.   I wasn’t in touch with Phil’s siblings in 2004, but I have reconnected with them c. 2015 via Facebook.  I had hoped that they would edit the Wikipedia post (since I didn’t have much of the statistics or other information about his life).  I’ve also suggested writing a collective memoir and biography with them, but that hasn’t happened yet.  Sierra (George), Patricia, and Doug Salin are all FB friends, and I’ll post this, or the link to it, there. – PHS 4-14-18]

Upon reading some of Phil’s later work, I experienced that rare satisfaction for a hermit-intellectual of having one’s own mindset expanded and elaborated to perfection by one’s (former) friends and colleagues. I was a couple of years older than Phil, and sort of adopted him as a big brother might when he was still just a college freshman. He was a gangly, nerdy science-fiction fan from the backwaters of San Rafael (“Marin County before Marin County was cool,” one might say).

Besides a strong mutual interest in the literature of science fiction and being Econ majors, we developed several further and important intellectual congruencies. One was that both of our fathers were involved in the General Semantics movement, so we were both raised with a heavy diet of Etc. (For those who never knew of this publication, “Etc., A Review of General Semantics”, practically every important ’60’s intellectual got his start, there, or had his or her work recognized by this august group. And who was the “main man?” Would you believe, S.I. Hayakawa, the late and unlamented sleepy Senator from California, and enemy of free speech while president of San Francisco State College — otherwise a hotbed of radical and Marxist thinking.)

Our other common loves or interests were classical music and Ayn Rand’s “vision” — which direct experience with the cult soon dulled or sublimated into better things. But we retained and expanded upon the libertarian ideas of people like Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper, and this became Phil’s life-work, both intellectually and entrepreneurially. I was the more serious student, and introduced those thinkers to him, although Phil’s grandfather was a famous Swiss (Basel) economic historian, Edgar Salin, and knew Hayek, Schumpeter, and other contemporaries from the German-speaking world as well. The elder Salin was also trained as a philosopher, and was apparently some sort of Platonist. I remember Phil telling me that his grandfather had gone to Karl Jaspers’ funeral (I was then a philosophy grad student). Later, I came to wonder if he had also known Heidigger and Hannah Arendt.

That was the way our academic discourse and development proceeded. We tried to share and learn everything that would be of interest to the other, while constantly advancing the frontiers of our shared awareness. What happened to our friendship, though, was the same as many other great male friendships: he married a woman whose lifelong ambition was to be a Partner at Price, Waterhouse (a goal I see from the UCLA Alumni book she achieved). They did not stay together long, but by that time, I was back in Montana working the logging camps, harvest crews, firewood sales, and other “hardscrabble” occupations, including 90 days in jail for possession of home-grown marijuana. (I was, after all, an economist advocating free trade and minimal government regulations and restrictions on personal freedoms).

That was also the time I began reading Hermann Hesse, eventually completing most of his novels in translation. I thought it must be like Phil’s hereditary culture — the bourgeois Austrian, Swiss and German cultural milieu of the present, past, or future. Neither of us was urbane or socially successful — we were nerds, in the current parlance, although Phil was a much happier and fun- loving person than I was in those days.

The biggest challenge I faced in converting Phil to a more practical version of “the truth” (after our liberation from Objectivism, we had great fun demolishing intellectual authoritarianism) was getting him out of a Platonic mindset, and into Popper and Hayek’s “critical” or “evolutionary” Rationalism. I don’t know if Phil ever read Hayek’s The Counter-Revolution of Science (he doesn’t refer to it in his notes to these articles), but that, to me, was perhaps the most interesting of all Hayek’s works. Phil did read The Sensory Order, though, and he’s the only person I ever discussed it with besides Hayek, himself. (I wrote a paper for one of Hayek’s classes at UCLA on that book). But all in all, his grasp of Hayek and Popper’s thinking finally became exemplary, and I could not improve either on his thinking or on his expression in these articles. I wonder if he ever met George Soros? They would have had a lot in common, Phil’s family background being merchant-banking as well as academics (he was related to Jacob Schiff of Kuhn, Loeb fame).

I once read one of their commissioned family histories which verified that they were brokers for both Allied and Central Powers war bonds in the global markets during World War I. This is a charge which was often levied against “Jewish bankers” by populists and anti-semites of all stripes — that “they financed both sides of every war.” Literally, it’s true. That was their business, and the source (or a consequence) of their political influence. They were also very patriotic for their native countries of Germany and Austria, and often persecuted — both in England and the United States for being “pro-German” — a very different reality than what pertained during World War II. Phil told me that his father, Lothar, spent the (2nd) War in Switzerland with a bomb of some sort under his bed.

For these and other reasons, Hayek should not be thought of as the conservative demon (or saint) he is claimed to be, respectively, by both progressives and conservatives in the English-speaking world. He fled Austria before the Nazis came to power (originally to study and teach at the London School of Economics, then part of the University of London), and sent his kids to live in America “for the duration” of World War II. To us, Hayek should be best-known as the author of The Road to Serfdom (which he was warning against, not advocating!). He also edited John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s correspondence — Hayek was a thorough Millian, as well as a great admirer of the Scottish Enlightenment and its leading figures of Hume and Smith. (Hayek would probably not have cared much for Boswell, though, and he occasionally railed against the “immoralism” of people like Russell and Keynes, meaning Russell’s heterosexual promiscuity, and Keynes’s gay liberation, I would imagine. I later learned that Wittgenstein and Hayek were cousins — their mothers were first-cousins, as I recall).

In any case, check out Phil’s quite serious essays entitled “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Kitchens” (apparently written while he was dying of stomach cancer) at

and “Freedom of Speech in Software”

The latter pretty much “puts paid” to the whole idea of “intellectual property” in science or nature. It should be entered as an Amicus brief in many cases of this kind. Yet, the “neo-liberals” have seen in his work a justification for every sort of “deregulation” and (corporate) “property rights” fallacy imaginable. I was amazed to find Phil as one of the very few thinkers referenced in the highly-influential “Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age” written by some of the legends in the field. Phil also started a company called American Information Exchange, or AMIX, which seems to have been a precursor of both E-Bay and Google, as well as the Open Source movement.


Cyberspace and the American Dream:

A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age

by Esther Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth, and Alvin Toffler

Future Insight

Release 1.2 n August 1994

The Progress & Freedom Foundation – Publications – E-Commerce

[here are the relevant paragraphs]

The late Phil Salin (in Release 1.0 11/25/91) offered this perspective:

“[B]y 2000, multiple cyberspaces will have emerged, diverse and increasingly rich. Contrary to naive views, these cyberspaces will not all be the same, and they will not all be open to the general public. The global network is a connected ‘platform’ for a collection of diverse communities, but only a loose, heterogeneous community itself. Just as access to homes, offices, churches and department stores is controlled by their owners or managers, most virtual locations will exist as distinct places of private property.”

“But unlike the private property of today,” Salin continued, “the potential variations on design and prevailing customs will explode, because many variations can be implemented cheaply in software. And the ‘externalities’ associated with variations can drop; what happens in one cyberspace can be kept from affecting other cyberspaces.”


My narrative, cont.

Phil and I both worked at the UCLA computer center as students (he got me the job, there) at the time which is generally seen as marking the beginnings of the Internet — the delivery of the BBN box from Cambridge, Mass. which constituted the first primitive server (actually, more like a router. There was nothing to “serve” in those days). I also later worked at UC Santa Barbara, which had the first scientific, academic nationwide network of linked computers out of a slightly improved (by California hippies) BBN box. (John von Neumann, as in “von Neumann architecture,” the basis for all digital computers, was the Neumann of Bolt, Baranek, and Neumann).

Over the 2 years or so of daily conversations and shared reading, we covered virtually all this material (in his essays, above) as undergraduates, and it was, as I mentioned, myself who introduced him to the works of Hayek and Popper. Upon further reflection, though, it could have been his family’s intellectual connections that brought Hayek there at that time. I’d already read much of Hayek, and was anxious to take advantage of that opportunity. Many of the other great “Chicagoans” also visited there, and I heard all of them, although I didn’t necessarily take their classes. I loved Milton Friedman’s popular works like Capitalism and Freedom, but in a classroom situation, he seemed an angry, intolerant person — much like the Ayn Rand people, in that respect. They seem to have had some sort of secret, “smart partnership.” If one includes “the other Chicagoans,” the Leo Strauss school of Imperialist Fundamentalism (also labeled “Trotskyist”), the picture becomes much more complete.

Now, from the UCLA Economics website, I see that UCLA is more recently known for something called “Imperial Economics” — a slightly different but related concept which proclaims that the tools of economic analysis are equally applicable to esthetics, social relationships, and other aspects of everyday life — in short, the “kitchen” of Phil’s essay, above. QED

Curiously, I met another libertarian activist at about that time, and he audited the Hayek seminars just by walking in off the street and introducing himself. (I was never able to do that in Missoula, but in Bozeman, while employed as a teacher, I was. I also successfully “crashed” the philosophy department at Colorado, Boulder, after attending a public lecture by John Wisdom, Wittgenstein’s heir at Cambridge.) He was later known as Leif Smith, the creator of the Denver Open Network (of which I am a Founding Member, as well), one of the earliest examples of a cyber-based community network for all kinds of serendipitous purposes. Hayek’s ideas and elaboration of the theory of “spontaneous orders” deeply informed all our work and thinking. Phil and Leif also knew each other slightly, I thought, but upon inquiry, I found that Leif and Phil kept in touch and visited each other when Phil was in Redwood City. They are also mentioned in the same paragraph in one of the articles I found from the Google search.

I thought, what the heck? I’ll check my own name. I’d just as well have checked “John Smith”. There were millions of entries for Paul Stephens, and I couldn’t find anything about me. I guess I’ve become very good at keeping out of the spotlight, which may be a survival trait in this day and age.

Another famous person who preceded Phil and I at the UCLA Ayn Rand Society (and thus missed the Hayek bonanza), but was known by people we knew, is the life-extension guru Durk Pearson. I had a couple of long conversations with him, but I didn’t care much for his personality. An MIT graduate, he seems to have stayed very loyal to the Ayn Rand thinking, as did most of the other people I knew from that time. Charles Ullery, the bassoonist of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra since its beginning, was also part of our group, and I talked with him when they played in Great Falls a few years ago. He, too, still seemed loyal to the Ayn Rand movement. Another member I encountered years later was Louisa Poulin, through Mensa in the 1980’s. We exchanged a few letters.

I was the first to totally repudiate Ayn Rand’s capitalist mythology (due mainly to Hayek’s influence), which didn’t make me very popular in Libertarian circles, then or now. I basically confessed my newly-learned doctrinal heresies to the group at UCLA, and resigned my position as Chairman. Basically, a Hayekian criticism of “Objectivism” would be that it’s a species of “constructivist rationalism” and thus non-empirical and intellectually authoritarian, among other things, which it surely was (and is).

UCLA already had the Vienna Circle philosophers, some of whom came as refugees before World War II. And Logical Positivism was considered a precursor of General Semantics. These were logicians and “metamathematicians”, for which UCLA was, for a time, ranked first in the country for graduate study. Every student of logic studies “Church’s Theorem.” Alonzo Church’s office was right down the hall from the Campus Computing Network facilities where Phil and I worked, and I often passed him in the hallway. In general, my contemporary understanding of what was happening in “real time” was very fragmented and convoluted in my mind — even with benefit of hindsight and the subsequent Austrian conquest of the hearts and minds of Californians.

I’m going to write an intellectual memoir about this, and perhaps get it posted on Phil’s posthumous website. I might even offer it to The American Scholar, which should be interested in some other memoirs I have, as well. [Nothing further in those directions to 3-21-18]

On a lighter note, Phil was a great fan of The Lord of the Rings, and an original Trekkie. He knew many of the great science fiction writers and special effects people of the time, and greeted each new film or novel by his California friends like the insider he surely was. And like me, he was stuck on Heinlein, and actually did quite a bit of research in the Heinlein archives at UC Santa Cruz. I’m sorry he didn’t live to see either the New Zealand “Rings,” Heinlein/Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers,” or “Star Trek: First Contact”, with the “Next Generation” cast, featuring the development of the warp drive out of Minuteman missile parts in mid-21st century Montana! Perhaps I could have finally gotten him to visit Montana — a place he probably regarded with some fear and suspicion after knowing me and some of my family.

I have known only a few people on Phil’s level in my lifetime, and I always treasured the experience. When I left “the movement”, I gave him the set of Ayn Rand tapes we’d ordered from Columbia University, my Objectivist Newsletters and journals, and the first 8 or 9 volumes of The Journal of Law and Economics, which was sort of our Bible in those days. After reading over some of the 19 letters I still possess from Phil and his first wife, Barbara, I have to take responsibility for the unraveling of our friendship. I sent him books occasionally, and sort of used him as a focal point for my own growing resentments against the prevailing “MBA culture” which I thought (and still think) is irrevocably destroying the America we knew and loved.

But Phil was not in any sense a dogmatist, or intolerant of my views or revisions, which he knew were very similar to his own. Reading some of his letters from c.1972-75, I am amazed at how much he seemed to respect my advice and and guidance, and how much he valued our friendship — one which I was all too quick to abandon when the going got rough. The real issue for us was politics, and navigating the heavy seas of the late 60’s and 70’s while trying to validate and perfect our own world-views was probably the real “stressor”, here.

Phil was not an academic, yet he was always extremely “academic” in the sense of surrounding himself with a circle of highly creative and original thinkers. When he told me he’d been accepted for the MBA program at Stanford, I suggested he specialize in arts management. He was somewhat puzzled at that suggestion, but I’ve always encouraged people to follow their passions, not seek financial gain. As Joseph Campbell put it, “Follow your bliss.” If science fiction is an art-form, he followed that suggestion to the letter. He was also a comic book collector, and one of his proud accomplishments was finally having acquired the complete Donald Duck — proof, I’d like to think, of latent environmentalist tendencies. (Actually, he told me that his father, Lothar, played a major role in preserving the Pt. Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco.)

I wonder, now, if we would have agreed about the subsequent directions of science fiction films. We certainly would have had a lot to talk about. I think he would have liked Spielberg, but not Lucas — that is my own bias, anyway. But being from the Bay Area, he might have been a Lucasian after all. He had a great love of fantasy of all kinds, whereas I was always a “hard SF” fan, an empiricist, and a student of the philosophy of science, as well. Believe it or not, I’ve still never read The Lord of the Rings, which he had read in its entirety, as I recall, twelve times. He also loved Wagner — one of those strange contradictions which is not all that rare among Jewish people. The origin of the Salin name, he liked to tell me, was Solomon.

There’s something about an economist’s training which sets them apart from other thinkers. I’m not quite sure what it is, but I once described it as being “masters of secondary and tertiary consequences.” It’s like thinking several moves ahead in chess, and being able to make dynamic analyses with many different “colors” and “spins” simultaneously. It begins to sound like particle physics, after awhile. Except that it’s real things we see and deal with in our everyday lives and in our professional exercises. Phil had the “knack” and made a career out of what was, for me, merely an academic exercise, or “platform” for informed commentary of various kinds. And he was a great teacher, apparently — another “latent” capacity which I recognized and encouraged in him early-on. Teachers’ kids and grandkids really have an exceptional advantage over those who are merely “schooled” by “professionals” rather than their own families. But most of us consider every possible alternative before we finally settle on teaching, mentoring, and otherwise advancing intellectual culture. It is only when we learn that following in our parents’ footsteps is easier than breaking a new trail of our own, but the experience of “schooling,” which Hesse described so well in Beneath the Wheel, and Orwell echoed in “Such, such were the joys” still makes me wonder why we do this to ourselves and our children.

I didn’t read Ivan Illich’s “Deschooling Society” when it first came out, but those were my thoughts, exactly, and I welcomed the emerging “free school” and “community school” movements enthusiastically. I have tried teaching in various kinds of k-12 schools, and even the best of them proved unsatisfactory in meeting children’s needs. I’ve always felt that my public school experience was usually not good, and it got worse in junior high and high school. When I later taught high school, I had little consolation to offer the students except to try to stiff it out so they could get into college, where learning and intelligent discourse were valued and encouraged instead of being repressed and often punished. My undergraduate experience at UCLA was all that I could have hoped for. Infinite opportunities without control or externally-imposed structure.

But after a couple of terms of grad school, I knew the academic life wasn’t for me. My aspirations changed to being “a public intellectual,” and that is where I still am, although little-recognized or even able to make a living at it. I still prefer to do physical work to maintain my material needs. It comes from an indefinite number of generations of independent farming, craftsmanship, and organized labor. People who push papers are drones, not real workers. And the “professionalization of knowledge,” I’ve long believed, is responsible for almost every social ill and crisis. The people who really understand things rarely have a lot of academic training. Or if they do, it is because they were already following their “passions”, not because of holding an advanced degree.

I’m glad UCLA was there for both of us. In spite of knowing and having visited many of the greatest universities and liberal arts colleges in the country, I have never regretted my choice of UCLA. It was as good or better than I deserved and could afford, and I was able to fully assimilate and integrate the experience into whatever kind of future life I might have had. But if I were 18, today, and contemplating higher education, I would not go to UCLA. First, I probably wouldn’t be admitted. I would be less than qualified for several different reasons. Even my raw test scores, which make me eligible for Mensa, would not admit me to UCLA, today. And my highschool GPA of 2.8 and no extra-curricular activities (legal ones, anyway) would make you laugh that I had bothered to apply! I’d be lucky to get into an East LA junior college. (My older half-brother, Jon Krug, who eventually got a Ph.D and became Dean of a Vo-Tech, actually started his career at Glendale Junior College in the Valley, but we both graduated from Great Falls High School, Montana.) The 3-tier system has worked well for California, and is widely-imitated, now.

The economic difference between the 1960’s and now is reflected in the distribution of income, and the level of “class consciousness.” Then, students could easily “work their way through college,” working summers and maybe 20 hours per week. This was when tuition cost $80 a quarter, and even that was only “incidental fees”, not tuition charges as such. UCLA professors were paid at the highest level (equivalent to the Ivy League, Stanford, and Chicago), but other wages were higher, too.

There are lots of reasons why we’re nearly all poorer, now. Whether it’s “peak oil,” de- industrialization,” lack of leadership and planning, bad economics, or whatever, we’ve got some tough years ahead of us to even get close to where we were in the 1960’s. Unlike most parts of the U.S., California has boomed ever since the end of World War II. Its present difficulties may best be seen as the result of pillaging and degrading the environment. Montana has much the same problems on a much smaller scale (economically and demographically, at least. We are the next largest state in area after California, and predominantly an agricultural and “resource” economy for urban centers, in spite of the best efforts of economists to declare and enforce our independence.)

Phil didn’t live to see either the bubble, or the crash. I think he would have a lot to say about the current state of things. Unfortunately, that cannot happen until our biomedical technics have improved to the point that there is, say, a 90% chance that he can be revived and restored to health. Will his mental capacities remain? Can we experiment on Walt Disney and some other people, first, to make sure the process will be successful?

Believing in the physical resurrection is a little different from the spiritual one. Indeed, one wonders, what does the Catholic Church think about cryogenic stasis and restoration after a cure is found for one’s terminal disease? Phil Salin’s legacy will be a long one, and of much interest to scholars for generations yet to come. It must be strange to hear this from someone who has never been able to keep a decent job, or get more than 5% of the vote as a City or County Commissioner in his own home town.

Paul Howard Stephens

Econ, 1969



Alternative High Schools Proposal (1995-96)



The following was written when I was working as a substitute in the Great Falls, MT public schools as well as completing the requirements for a State Teaching Certificate.  My “activism” and criticisms of the existing system were not conducive for my finding a job, so I took one with a private academy in Bozeman which was based on many “progressive” or “alternative” ideas, without much understanding of how to implement them.

February 1, 1995 (revised 6-96)

Alternative High Schools Proposal
by Paul Stephens

It seems to me that the perfect solution to your overcrowding problem is to open two or more alternative Class A- or B-size high schools, each with its own emphasis and flavor. It would be nice to have Class C-size schools as well, but apparently they are anathema to those who would have to pay for them, and even to many who attended them, and now feel that they were very much short-changed in their high school educational experience. Subsequent performance at the state universities easily refutes this, but among students who don’t go on to college, it is often the case that large schools provide more courses and better job training opportunities. But academic quality is almost inversely proportional to size, and direcly proportional to student-faculty ratios, which are necessarily best in Class C schools.

The smaller, alternative high schools could be arts-oriented, gifted ed, vocational ed, follow a Native American or multicultural curriculum, and meet the needs of gifted underachievers who are often afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder, come from dysfunctional families, or otherwise are considered to have “special needs” which should be addressed.

The Russell Elementary School on the far west side is available, as is the Lowell Elementary building on the northeast side. Other facilities could be purchased or built as needed. We should also re-convert West Elementary to a Middle School or High School, as needed. Since I believe that we need to involve administrators more in everyday teaching, we should staff them independently with half-time principals and counselors who also teach half-time. Site-based management by administrators who teach and are selected by their peers is an idea whose time has come, with concomitant reductions in central administration. There are very few decisions which administrators really need to make, while routine paperwork is mostly done by office staff, who are paid a small fraction of an assistant superintendant’s salary. Administrators would be much better able to make good decisions if they shared the experience of everyday work with the other staff and students. Of course, building administrators do this now, yet they are often overridden or forced to conform to policies with which they may not agree or identify.

Curriculum is especially important in this regard, and it is essential that the classroom teachers have a large degree of autonomy and choice among methods and materials, so that they may select those which best reflect their own classroom methods and interests, and the experience of the best teachers. We should also offer many more academic electives at the high school level than we do, today. We must maintain the diversity and flexibility to pursue and support the interests of the students who are most interested in learning. To do this, we must considerably enhance the opportunities for teachers to determine their own curriculum, both individually and collectively. It should be possible to arrive at some consensus about what theories or concepts we would like to adopt or learn from in order to improve the quality and efficiency of our educational processes, and thus maximize the utility or value of the services provided. Assertive Discipline, the Jane Shaffer Method (essay writing) and other pre-packaged educational products and methods (purchased and implemented by this District at great cost in dollars and in lost opportunities for alternatives foregone) have not caught on, and may be considered largely unsuccessful in their outcomes.

Let’s make a list of some of the better free, universal, intelligent, and intuitive theories and methods, ranging from Montessori and Steiner to William Glasser’s “Quality School” and some of the state of the art gifted ed programs, which typically encourage the development of autonomous learners, cultivate many kinds of intlligences, and usually support a 30% or more arts-oriented curriculum. The great fallacy, it seems to me, is that such schools need to be much more expensive than what we have, today. There are thousands of gifted teachers, practicing their vocation as a fine art, who would jump at the chance to teach at any school which addressed their intellectual and cultural needs equally or more than their financial ones (which, as in my own case, are really quite small). I truly believe that the clients (students and parents) are best able to identify and select quality educational products and providers, and until we empower them through some sort of market mechanism (the ability to select among competing providers by choosing which ones to patronize and support), we will never have anything close to an optimal allocation of resources in public education.

The imposition of the Jane Shaffer method was not necessarily the best solution to our problem of poor writers (we ranked right at the national average several years, ago, while we were “above average” in every other area of tested achievement). If administrators were more like peers of the regular teaching staff, they would be much more effective. If we need a curriculum coordinator, we should be sure that other, more basic needs are met, first. And the greatest problem, as I see it, is that many people working for the District make much less than is fair, proper, and expedient for all of us. If the public schools are going to be a poverty zone, few young people are going to be impressed by the quality of teachers and other school employees. And if the system is elitist and hierarchical, besides, many ethical people will resist and oppose it on those grounds. We need to support public schools at an adequate level, eliminate waste and pandering to special interests, and separate education funding from all the social welfare services which other agencies are supposed to provide, but which will never be adequately addressed or provided, and have bankrupted the schools in the attempt to provide them.

It has long been my view that Malmstrom Air Force Base constitutes an insupportable (and now, unconscionable) burden and threat to the taxpayers, local education resources, infrastructure, tourism, and preservation of the natural environment. For over 50 years, the well-being of our young people has been held hostage to the next “mission” at Malmstrom, and in the process, we have become a garrison town instread of the free city, known and respected throughout the world, which we had been, before. We are “Occupied Montana, and no other city in our state bears that burden. We have also been a first-strike nuclear target for the past 35 years, and quite unnecessarily so. But whatever one thinks about Malmstrom Air Force Base and its future in this community, it is presently on a short list of unnecessary bases which will most likely be closed. We lack the population and Congressional clout to defend it, and its land-based ICBM mission has been obsolete and a pure “pork barrel” since the 1970’s. The Cold War is over, and unless the military-industrial complex manages to create another set of “enemies” or threats from somewhere (and they are doing their best to do so) we will benefit greatly from the transition to a nuclear-free, de-militarized environment. I think that civic leaders will be surprised at how quickly we recover, and join the economic boom that is taking place in other parts of Montana. Perhaps we will at last see the nuclear weapons as having been a means of keeping Montana poor and dependent instead of “supporting our economy,” as the foolish Chamber of Commerce types have long maintained.

Overcrowding in the schools has again become a problem, and whenever it is, I hope the solution will be seen in small, flexible, and diverse educational facilities rather than in giant, overcrowded, “basic education” schools like we have, today. Many students (perhaps the majority, once they experience the alternatives) would prefer a smaller school, and one which more accurately reflects their personal and community educational needs and interests. Offer more electives and specialized courses, not less, and encourage everyone to study foreign languages, the arts, and humanities rather than rigidly adhering to a curriculum which best serves the needs of business and technology.

It appears we are spending far more now on computers than on library books and periodicals, yet I have seen no indication that all of this technology is improving students’ interest in learning, mastery of any kind of subject matter, or development of creative thinking skills. High school libraries have been significantly “weeded” or dumbed down, but most of the books (at least at CMR) are now found in the classrooms where they are most likely to be used, rather than removed from the premises entirely. Skyline does not even have a school library, although I understand that they will soon have one. Computers, AOL, and even Internet should be available for students to use and play with, but I see no reason to keep upgrading (at tremendous cost) technology which is obsolete within a very few years, and which threatens to take over nearly every part of the curriculum and budget, as though computers were some sort of magical oracle which has precedence over every other educational experience. The lack of a budget line item for digital technology indicates to me that something is wrong, here. There may be a great deal of support for spending less on computers and more on teachers, books, and other equipment and supplies.

I’ve just begun reading The Education of Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of Presidents, and after a lifetime of reflection, he observed that all he had needed to learn through high school was French, German, Spanish, and mathematics. Had he mastered those, he claimed he could have learned anything else he needed to know on his own. The Great Books curriculum, combined with science and math, an Asian and a European language, and whatever “hands-on” art and technology classes students want to learn would provide an equivalent education for our time. Today’s high school students are rarely challenged or engaged, but nearly always either bored or overworked with tasks they don’t enjoy or value. Smaller, community-based schools would be of the greatest help in gaining and keeping their interest. Teach students to think, learn, and solve their own problems and the whole society will benefit immeasurably. I have offered to teach philosophy and economics courses (my own academic background) in both existing high schools for several years now, and the (unintentionally) ironic response I have gotten is that you cannot afford them! Obviously, you cannot afford not to teach economics and philosophy, judging from the ignorance of these subjects in the larger community.

High school students, their parents, and teachers should be included in the process of planning for changes in their education. Administrators should invite them to Board meetings and work sessions so that they may offer their views and feelings about the education you are providing for them. Foreign exchange students and our own students who have studied abroad should be most carefully questioned and consulted about their perceptions of our schools, and what we need to do to match the educational standards of other developed, prosperous countries. Right now, we’re dead last among all the developed countries in our educational outcomes, even though we spend more money per student than any country but Switzerland. Less than half of our budgets now go to teachers’ salaries, and that, along with lack of community responsiveness and involvement (lack of diversity and choice), probably best explains our high costs and poor results.

For the past several years, I’ve been advocating gifted education and more elective options in the humanities and social sciences for high school students. Part of my reasoning has been that our high schools are much too large and authoritarian in tone to provide relevant, meaningful, participatory educational experiences for all students. Schools like Cut Bank, Geyser, and Miles City offer philosophy and/or economics courses, while we do not. Electives like Ancient History, Russian History, Latin American History, Peace Studies, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian languages, and the History of War, all of which have been taught here, are no longer being offered — again because of budget considerations which you seem powerless to deal with or overcome. Since nearly all school funding now comes from the State, you need to consider Helena your primary focus for political action. Some of you seem much more concerned about humoring wealthy taxpayers and the anti-intellectual elements in our community than with improving education. Nuclear weapons haven’t improved our economy or our schools. Instead, they have bankrupted us, scared away investors or those who want to live in a nuclear-free Montana, and made us utterly dependent on outside funding we cannot control.

The demand for high-end, multi-cultural, and arts-oriented courses and programs far exceeds the supply, and it is only through the adoption of a philosophy which rewards and encourages excellence that public education can be saved. Students rise to the level of expectation. The most challenging and creative classes are the most interesting and useful to the students. Young people want to learn more than anything else they do, and I’m afraid our present system doesn’t do nearly enough to encourage them and build upon their strengths and interests. Attracting better teachers and empowering them to modify and adapt the curriculum, while selecting or being selected by the students whom they can best serve, will do more to improve the quality of education than anything else we can do.

Proposal for High School Seminars in Philosophy and Economics (January, 1993)



Proposal for High School Seminars in Philosophy and Economics
(January, 1993)


Philosophy is the highest form of knowledge and learning, for it deals with the foundations and theory of knowledge, itself, which is called epistemology. It also deals with the nature of reality (ontology), and provides the rationale and methodological foundations for the sciences, mathematics, art, law, ethics, politics, the social sciences, international relations, and the evolution of culture — in short, every area of conscious human endeavor.
In recent years, educators have begun developing curriculum units in philosophy for even the youngest students in elementary school, and philosophical tools, ideas, and methods are integrated into many areas taught in the K-12 structure. Symbolic logic, for example, was once completely absent from the high school curriculum, but now it is integrated into mathematics for many students in the 10th grade or earlier.
In social studies classes, we frequently find philosophical issues discussed in the context of public issues debates, such as civil liberties, the death penalty, abortion, the drug problem, the spread of AIDS, etc. Education itself provides a wide expanse of issues involving freedom of conscience and expression, equality of educational opportunity, student rights and responsibilities, and the ends and means of the education process.

I was disappointed to find that there is no certification in Montana for teaching philosophy, either on the high school level or K-12. However, I was assured by the certification officials that philosophy could still be taught or offered as a course. Since I have the equivalent of a major in Philosophy, and actually began graduate studies in that field, I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of such programs, and hope to assist in developing one for the Great Falls Public Schools. The addition of a high school philosophy seminar would seem to be an excellent choice for gifted, college-bound students, and has already been done in Cut Bank and other smaller Montana systems My other area of certified expertise is economics (along with a broadfield social sciences endorsement), and I have prepared a provisional curriculum for a one-semester high school economics course as well. Superintendent Larry Williams recently addressed a workshop I attended which promoted the teaching of economics on all levels of the K-12 system.


In this age of uncertainty, peril, and declining material and social expectations, it seems obvious that the best thing we can do for students is to help them develop their personal interests and passions, teach them critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and give them the experience of having successfully pursued and investigated whatever knowledge is interesting and useful to them. We can help many of them become self-directed, autonomous learners, confident in their ability to master the most difficult areas of knowledge, understanding, and practice.

What follows are outlines for a one-semester Philosophy seminar and a one-semester course in Economics. I have listed topics rather than learning outcomes, because I expect a variety of learning outcomes based on the individual student’s interests and chosen readings and projects. Students will be evaluated on the basis of effort and progress, and not compared indiscriminately with others whose interests and work may be very different. I question the dominant public education philosophy that students should earn grades based on their competitive performance relative to other (different, brighter, less bright, more or less interested) students. It is like an Olympics where everyone is required to participate, and the best are profusely rewarded while the slowest are stigmatized and penalized for the rest of their lives. Education is a natural process in which all young people are likely to succeed if only we can present them with interesting subject matter relevant to their own lives and futures, and not discourage or inhibit them by evaluating their work and interests negatively.

These courses will be characterized by busy, convivial, hard-working classroom environments. There will be groups or teams as well as individuals working independently. At times we will read original texts aloud in class and discuss them line by line. The format of the course will be to focus on particular issues or topics, with students selecting and reading articles, chapters, or passages, and preparing short papers based on their reading for class presentation and discussion. The teacher will lecture or introduce selected readings, and then question students using an inquiry model and the teaching and practice of thinking skills. Students will have ample opportunity to develop and perfect their writing abilities, and to become precise, careful readers and thinkers able to store, recall, and utilize the information and analysis contained in their reading.



The acquisition of some of the basic tools of philosophical analysis is the primary desired learning outcome. Students will be able to explain what philosophy is and what philosophers do. Particular facts about the content and history of philosophy will be retained according to the interests and capacities of the individual student. The purpose of the course is to show each student that ideas are important, that we can learn from great thinkers of any age or culture, and that learning, knowledge, and wisdom are ends in themselves and a source of great personal satisfaction as well as a means to material and social success.

Week 1 Introduction
A. What is Philosophy? Etym. “Love of Wisdom.” Philosophers vs. Sophists. Philosopher role-models — Socrates, Aristotle, Kung Fu (Confucius), Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Erasmus, Hume, Kant, Mill, Wittgenstein, Russell, Arendt, Langer.

B. Branches of philosophy
1. Traditional — metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, cosmology, natural philosophy.
2. Modern — including, but not limited to, philosophy of science, philosophy of education, political philosophy, social philosophy, esthetics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and metamathematics.

Weeks 2 and 3 History of Philosophy — Ancient Greece
A. Socrates. Read Plato’s Apology, the death of Socrates.
B. Plato. Read one or more Dialogues, perhaps the Symposium.
C. Aristotle, tutor of Alexander the Great. Read excerpts from various works. Aristotle’s role in subsequent philosophy.

Weeks 4 and 5 Epistemology
A. What is knowledge, where do we get it, how do we use it?
B. Logic, syllogisms, basics of logical notation.

Weeks 6 and 7 Ethics
A. What is “the good?” Kinds of ethical theories.
B. The Golden Rule. Kant’s Categorical Imperative.
C. Reason, feelings, and behavior.

Weeks 8 and 9 Political and Legal Philosophy
A. Origins of government and law.
B. Sovereignty, utilitarianism, and the state.
C. Freedom, democracy, and authority.

End of quarter tests, projects, evaluations.

Weeks 10 and 11 Esthetics
A. What is art? Origins, purposes, needs served.
B. The science of artistic meaning and response — visual arts, poetry, music, dance, drama, film, popular culture.
C. Art criticism, commentary, and the teaching of culture.

Weeks 12 and 13 Issues in Philosophy
A. The mind-body problem. The ghost in the machine.
B. Idealism vs. Materialism in Plato, Kant, Wittgenstein.
C. Universals. Cosmology. Space and time. Philosophy of science. Paradigms.

Week 14 Artificial Intelligence
A. The cybernetic revolution. How have computers changed the ways we think and live?
B. Computer/brain analogies. Are computers really “thinking?”

Weeks 15-17 Philosophical Discourse in Social Philosophy
A. Arguments, conjectures, hypotheses, refutations.
B. Verbal and written exercises. Preparing arguments and defending them as a learning process, not a contest.
C. Social justice.
1. What do we mean by a just society?
2. How can we create and maintain a just society?
D. Equality, merit, ethnic and religious identity, conflict resolution, the great humanistic tradition.
E. How philosophy can change the ways we think and live.

Week 18 Review and Overview
Final exams and projects due.

Philosophy Resources

Although a comprehensive textbook could be used, it may be preferable for the instructor to write out and duplicate lectures on each topic, along with excerpts from important essays or books in that area. I am prepared to teach the course without any additional investment by the school district in textbooks, but I will be interested to see what philosophy materials are available and presently in use in the best private or magnet schools.

The following is an outline of the content for an 18 week course in Economics for high school students who have no prior knowledge of the field. It will be assumed that students will already have a knowledge of algebra, including elementary functions and graphing procedures. They should also be good readers and have taken either World History or American History so that the basic facts of economic history will be familiar to them. This course will emphasize the history of economic thought and the application of economics to public policy issues, leading to a measure of economic literacy. Economics is a popular college major, and for many students, this course may provide the introduction to the field which they otherwise would not have had.

Week 1 Introduction

A. What is Economics? The allocation of scarce resources to their highest-valued uses.
B. The concept of marginal utility. What do we mean by “utility?” What are the advantages of marginal analysis?

Week 2 Methodology
A. Human action — economics studies what people do, not what they think or say.
B. Rational choice, decisions. We assume rationality in order to simplify the model. The decision-making process.
C. Demonstrated preferences. Indifference curves. We attempt to explain behavior in terms of maximizing utility. Opportunity cost as a measure of value.

Week 3 Supply and Demand

A. Supply and demand curves. Graphic analysis with examples, exercises, research project (vary prices and plot changes along demand curves).
B. Shortages and surpluses. The “market-clearing price.” Why wage and price controls don’t accomplish intended purposes.

Weeks 4-8 History of Economic Thought
A. Use Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers or equivalent plus some short excerpts from classics — Wealth of Nations, Proudhon, Marx, Veblen, Keynes, Hayek, Friedman, Thurow.
B. Bring out the differences among alternative economic systems and their rationales — capitalism, socialism, communism, the libertarian right and left, extended families, feudalism, fascism, anarchism, etc.

Week 9 Review and quarter tests


Weeks 10-17 Economics of Public Policy
A. Introduction. The uses of economic analysis in public decision-making.
B. Allocating scarce resources among competing uses in order to maximize utility. The difficulties in determining social utility. Are interpersonal comparisons of utility possible?

Week 11 Property Rights
A. Kinds of property rights.
B. The economic rationale for property rights.
C. Ownership, control, and the rights of other interested parties (workers, clients, taxpayers, consumers, neighborhood effects, etc.).

Week 12 Government and the Economy
A. The rationale for government regulation. Problems and objections.
B. Alternative models of the role of government in the economy.
C. The rule-making process in a democracy.
D. What kinds of rules are practical and enforceable? General rules vs. particular interest regulations. TQM in rule-making and enforcment.
E. Rights, rules, and the influence of special interest groups.

Week 13 Economics and the Environment
A. Introduction: the economics of environmental issues.
B. Public vs. private ownership of environmental resources.
C. The tragedy of the commons. Property and conservation.
D. Pollution and depletion. Who will pay the costs?
E. Population, habitat, and food supply.

Week 14 Labor and Welfare Economics
A. The economics of wage determination.
B. Incomes policy — the distribution of income.
C. Welfare economics — Pareto Optimality.

Week 15 Foreign Trade and the Global Economy
A. The balance of trade.
B. Industrial policy and competitiveness.

Week 16 Taxation
A. Principles of taxation: fairness and efficiency.
B. Taxation as an instrument of politics and economics.

Week 17 Public Finance
A. Government expenditures. Fiscal vs. monetary policies.
B. Structuring incentives to maximize social utility.
C. Bureaucracy, public employee unions, and productivity.

Week 18 Review — Final papers and examinations.
Economics Bibliography — Materials Used, Resources

In addition to an elementary economics text suitable for high school use such as E.L. Schwartz’s Our American Economy, the following materials may be introduced. Individual students or teams may wish to pursue a particular work or issue in greater detail.


Heilbroner, Robert H., The Worldly Philosophers.

Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friederich, The Communist Manifesto.

Keynes, John M., The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

Harrington, Michael, Socialism: Past and Future.

Hayek, Friederich, The Road to Serfdom, The Constitution of Liberty.

Lovins, Amory, Soft Energy Paths.

Galbraith, John K., The Affluent Society.

Friedman, Milton, Capitalism and Freedom, Free to Choose.

Schumacher, E.F., Small is Beautiful.

Thurow, Lester, The Zero-Sum Society, The Zero-Sum Solution, Head to Head.


The Economist Newspaper, Ltd. (weekly, published since 1843 in England.) Originally the house-organ of the free trade movement, it was established to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” Weekly newsmagazine of record for the global economy.

Gifted Underachievers – Self-selection process


High School Gifted and Talented Program Development

[I went back to school in my mid-40’s in order to become a “Gifted Ed” teacher – specifically, to help those who were not happy with high school for various reasons.  I joined Montana AGATE (Association for Gifted and Talented Education) and volunteered to help start a program at CMR High School in Great Falls, where I hoped to be hired to work in it.    After submitting the following piece, the Committee was disbanded… – PHS]

TYPES OF GIFTEDNESS PROGRAM SHOULD ADDRESS (after George Betts, University of Northern Colorado, Greely)

I. Successful.
Gets into programs. Helpful, pleasant, but not creative or autonomous. Takes less risks growing up.

II. Creative and autonomous.
“Troublemaker”. Not successful in school, but more likely to be successful in life.

III. Anxious conformer.
#1 need is to belong. Underground. Hidden giftedness, especially in girls. See Barbara Kerr, Smart Girls, Gifted Women. Most attention in high school goes to intellect­ually-gifted male athletes.

IV.  Resentful, angry, bitter.
Ready to drop out of school because needs aren’t being met. Also sui­cides — dropping out of life. At-risk, signif­icantly out of synch, needs counseling/ther­apy.

V.  Gifted Special Ed.
Emotionally-disturbed and learning-disabled are often gifted. GC’s with learning disabilities: twice excep­tional.

VI. Independent, self-directed learners.
Like skiing through the moguls. Modifies the system to meet personal educational needs. Some are developed through GC programs. Double or triple majors in college.
Learners rather than students.

We can create an environment they need and can thrive in.

Self-esteem is critical. Without it, they will not succeed.
The above information was taken from my notes from an AGATE Convention several years ago where George Betts was a keynote speaker. Many gifted education experts believe that gifted programs should be available by choice to all who want them, and should be considered prototypes of education for every­one, rather than some elitist form of special (and very expensive) education. Grouping by ability and interests (at least part of the time) is a key to successful learning for any level of ability, as is a curriculum which reflects the prior knowledge and interests of the indi­vidual student.

Thus, I consider these questions to be part of a process for self-selection for gifted programs or more difficult, specialized courses. The “special ed” model of gifted education, although correct and appropriate in many respects, is difficult to defend politically. Every student, in effect, would require an IEP and a student-teacher ratio of maybe 5 to one or better, and that is clearly not feasible, although we can do much better than we are doing now through more self-directed or volunteer-coordinated mentoring experiences and other hands-on learning exercises. I think we need to go back to the model of “alter­native education” rather than “special education,” if only because it’s cheaper, simpler, and easier to justify. Everyone knows we are not all the same, and most sensible people believe that diversity should be cherished and preserved rather than ruthlessly stamped out by standardized, authoritarian systems.

The special qualities of the highly-intelligent, creatively gifted, or otherwise unusual learners and achievers cry out for attention and special recog­nition, yet our society and many of our sub-cultures stigmatize, ridicule, and abuse those who are capable of achieving the most. We must reunite these children with their families and com­munities, and validate their differ­ences and tradi­tions which make their particular gifts and talents possible.

The questions which follow were composed during drama classes comprising an especially spirited, divergent, and often “trouble-making” group of high school students in a school and community with relatively strong traditions of per­formed arts and academic achievement.

1. I often get into trouble because of things I think or say.

2. I dislike authority, and often feel restricted by it.

3. I would rather do something my own way than do exactly what I’m told.

4. I get good grades because I work hard, not because I’m “gifted” or “spe­cial.”

5. I feel older than my years in terms of knowledge and experience.

6. Because of drinking, fighting, or other family problems, I prefer to stay away from home as much as possible.
7. I enjoy watching or listening to news, documentaries, or serious music ­and drama.

8. I listen to public radio and watch educational television rather than commercial entertainment programs.

9. I read a lot and patronize the library and bookstores.

10. I write poetry and/or do art work for my own satisfaction.

11. I prefer to learn from sources outside of school.

12. I would rather work at a job I like than go to school.

13. I think that school as it now exists is a waste of my time and the tax­payer’s money.

14. I want to go to college because I will be able to choose my own classes and teachers, and meet people who share my interests.

15. I discuss books, movies, and current events with my friends.

16. If school were different, I’d learn more, here.

17. I have only a small number of friends, but they share many of my cultural interests.

18. My parents don’t care what I do as long as I pass and stay out of trouble.

19. I know I’m smarter than most people, so I don’t have to prove anything.

20. I would like to take harder or more advanced courses, but I haven’t been allowed to sign up for them.

21. It seems to me that school encourages athletics and social success more than academics.

22. I think I should have skipped one or more grades in elemen­tary or middle school.

23. I am worried that American high school students are far behind European or Japanese students of the same age.

24. Many teachers seem glad to talk with me about my work, my reading, or my other academic interests.

25. I feel comfortable asking teachers for alternative assign­ments or projects which are more challenging or interesting to me.

26. Most teachers seem to have no interest in me or my educa­tional needs and interests.

27. I would like to be a teacher if schools were different.

28. I am worried that our quality of life (the environment, job opportunities, crime rates, disease, etc.) will be much worse in 20-30 years.

29. I like to read science fiction, fantasy, and other futur­istic or “idea” literature.

30. I am often depressed by things that happen in school.

31. Schools are supposed to meet the educational needs of students, but it seems to me that they exist primarily to provide secure, well-paying jobs for teachers and administrators, or to provide order and discipline.

32. School would be much more useful to me if I could choose among different educational methods and philosophies.

33. I feel that many teachers don’t understand me, and discrim­inate against me because I’m different.

Although some of these questions may strike professional teachers as excessively negative or critical of the education system, I can assure you that such views are widely held among students, and those who hold them most strongly are precisely the kinds of students we are failing to reach, or whose needs have not been served. We need to identify these students and answer their complaints and objections to what is happening to them. The “Type I” gifted students listed above are the only ones traditional gifted ed programs have identified and served, but they would be the natural elite and high achievers in any case. Others may be even more gifted, but often have been dis­couraged and reinforced in negative, self-destructive patterns through family dysfunction, low socio-economic status, learning dis­abilities such as ADD or ADHD, etc. It is certain­ly no secret that our schools often fail to perform miracles in turning these children around, and helping them to adjust and succeed.

Public education reform, Part I


Expanding High-End Course Offerings (1993-94)


I come from a family of teachers, and even though I never intended to teach in the public schools, from an early age I learned each subject as though I might one day teach it.  In the 1980’s, I joined Mensa, since my standardized test scores placed me in the upper 2%.  I didn’t know what to expect, but the main activity for me was advocating for gifted children and gifted education – whatever that means.   I learned that I had been “a gifted underachiever” and that was the group or “population” I wanted to serve as a teacher, so I began taking education courses and eventually earned a 5-12 Teaching Credential in broadfield social sciences.

As I worked as a substitute in my home-town public school system, I gained a lot more insight into what is wrong with our school system.  I had read Paul Goodman and other severe critics of large, bureaucratic school systems under state control – especially Ivan Illich who I have already written about in an earlier WordPress post.

One of the “products” of this experience, which I presented to the local school administrators, was the following essay on how to improve high schools, and opportunities for “giften underachievers” as well as the rest of those who suffer under our present system.   More than 20 years later, the problems and shorcomings are still the same, and almost no one is talking about “solutions” like Illich’s or my own as presented here (which obviously owe a lot to Illich’s work).

Expanding High-End Course Offerings (1993-94)
Advantages and Possibilities

by Paul Stephens

I. Introduction

Most of the recent criticism directed at the American system of public education has emphasized the fact that we are far behind the rest of the industrialized world in educating our children for an increasingly threatening and problematical future. It is estimated that American high school graduates are 2-4 years behind their Japanese, German, Swiss, French, Canadian, or Scandinavian counterparts. When we have exchange students from these countries, we often find that they are not only academically advanced far beyond their age-counterparts here, but that their artistic, cultural, and even athletic skills are far beyond those of our students. They typically know at least two languag­es besides their own, and they are able to communicate high-level thinking effectively in a foreign language.

According to respectable academic studies, most textbooks used in typical American public schools have declined approx­imately two grade levels since the 1960’s. This means that a sixth grader today may be using the same level of mater­ials which a fourth grader used 30 years ago. Many of us, as parents or teachers, know that this is true – even in Great Falls. At the same time, math and science programs in systems like ours have advanced the standard over the same period. Most math and science students in Great Falls now actually learn more material (more diffi­cult and more advanced) in less time than we did 30 years ago. Arts and humanities programs have also been improved, although selective­ly. There are probably more opportunities now for gifted students, but the identification process is flawed, and those excluded from special programs may be worse-off than they would have been under a basic, untracked system.

There are, of course, whole fields which barely existed then, from Computer Applica­tions to Environmental Science; from AIDS Education to Street Law. These are all to the good, and meaning­ful and useful for more students than presently have access to them. The same could be said of foreign language study. What we have is good, and we need much more of it than what is presently being offered. Somehow, we must convince students, their parents, and the general public that improving the quality of education is the best investment we can possibly make for the future.

Unfortunately, there is a widespread attitude clearly expressed in the 1993-95 Great Falls school levy votes which holds that our students are already getting far more in the form of educational resources than they need or deserve. No matter how much money we have spent on public education, results have not improved. Schools are perceived to be permissive, undisciplined, and top-heavy with administrators who do little or nothing to improve educational services. In fact, they are likely to hinder it by over-regulation and discouragement of gifted teachers who want to take greater responsibility for their work and students’ outcomes. Like other government programs and services, public schools are failing or have already failed to ac­complish their stated purposes, and with governments being bankrupted by rapidly-inflated medical costs and other entitlements, more spending on education is impossible, even if voters wanted it.

II. What is the problem?

There are also many well-educated, intelligent parents and teachers who are dissat­isfied with the situation as it now exists, and would like to see some serious restruc­turing and reform in the education system and its direc­tion. Centralized, bureaucratic, hierarch­ical, “top-down” adminis­tration is now widely believed to have failed, wherever it was tried. Special interest legislation, defective personnel policies, and bureaucr­atic inertia have severely prejudiced and diminished the successful outcomes planned for in our systems.

As an economist and public interest activist, I have learned that monopo­lies don’t work because they restrict entry (and thus the quantity, quality, and variety of educational services being offered) while simultaneously raising costs to the clients or customers (students, parents, and taxpayers). The same is true of old-style bureaucr­atic, centra­lly-planned socialism where government becomes the monopoly provider of services. Instead of working for the general interest and greater good, the bureaucra­cies tend to serve their own interests or the interests of the party in power, the voters, and powerful special interest groups, including teacher’s and other unions, contractors, and suppli­ers. The public schools, unfortunate­ly, are effective monopolies in Montana, and set up according to the principles of a socialist bureaucracy. Until we come to terms with this problem, no other major reforms are likely to be undertaken or accomplished.

It has been argued that the very results our educators envy in other countries are largely due to very centralized, uniform, and seemingly authori­tarian public education systems in Japan and Europe. If this is true, it is also the case that these are systems very different in philosophy and methodolo­gy from our own. Educa­tional values have the highest priority. Students may clean their own classrooms and serve their own food. Often, they wear uniforms which has the benefit of eliminating the dress and status competition. These systems are based on and accentuate a service ethic and public spiritedness, however rigid and con­formist they might otherwise seem to be.

Principals are often selected from the best teachers on rotating, part-time assignments. Administrative personnel, non-teaching “supervisors” or “consul­tants,” and other non-productive employees are kept to a minimum. Good teachers rarely make good administrators, and even if they do, they are worth far more in a teaching capacity. Instead of paying admin­istrators more, teachers might well emulate doctors or lawyers, where the administrator is the lesser-paid servant of the professional staff, and not the other way around. Workplace democracy is an idea whose time came long ago in education, but politics and adversarial labor/management systems have effectively prevented it from happening.

It is the quality and ability of the classroom teachers (and the freedom and incentives to do their best — what is called “empowerment”) that makes the difference. There are plenty of good teachers looking for work, or a better position where they are empowered and can take pride in the results. The problem is to re-design the system so that they are free to teach and don’t quit in disgust at the bureau­cratic nightmare and politics that surrounds them. Parents must be encouraged to take a much more active role in their children’s educa­tion, and social problems must be dealt with real­istically, instead of being blamed on the education system (or providing an excuse for its every failure.)

III. The process of reform. What would it mean to us?

The intended purposes of public education in other developed count­ries include a recognition of the global economy, the global com­munity, and an appreciation of advanced science, technology and every other kind of complex knowledge and culture. One often gets the feeling in American public schools that their purpose is to exclude many kinds of knowledge and thinking, or to keep students ignorant of complex, difficult subject-matter instead of prepar­ing them to master it.

In other societies, teachers are better-educated, better-paid, and more respected than they are, here. Schools are carefully designed to optimize the potential and opportunities for every student. They emphasize a work ethic and communicate a serious­ness of purpose which is usually lacking in American schools. And they teach, not preach, democratic values of self-help, in­dividual respon­sibility, team cooperation, and a con­sciousness of an unpredic­table and potentially disastrous future shaped by a tragic, conflict-ridden past.

They are educating for the world we live in, rather than some static, backward-looking, superstitious public constituency. Perhaps the insoluble contradic­tion of American public education is the fact that the quality of a particular system depends entirely on the good will and support of whatever vocal and politically organized public is in charge of it. If public at­titudes are headed in a direction different from the educational process, educators will not get the support and recognition they need. This inevitably leads to a “lowest common denom­inator” approach to education, and may be seen locally in the recent attempt to establish a legal definition for the “basic edu­cation” which our Montana Constitu­tion calls for.

This was not an effort to support education more, but to spend less money, and that only on education which was constitu­tionally mandated! In fact, it seems to have been motivated by a desire to eliminate state funding for gifted education, arts and humanities electives, and other high-end programs! How backward is a society which tries to find ways to avoid or prevent education instead of nurturing it? The fact is, Montana is no better off — and in some ways, even worse — than the rest of the country. People who move here from other places may think our schools in Great Falls are good. This means that they may be better than the American average, but not as good as those of other countries or other kinds of systems. Educators usually resist or deny such comparisons strenuously — especially if they are unfavorable.

It is the quality of students and their educational outcomes which seem to have declined the most, and this may indeed be more the fault of television, bad music, anti-intellectualism, and general social decay and breakdown than to the education process itself, although education bears the ultimate responsibility for all these changes. Even in the United States there are many high-quality, innovative public “magnet” or specialized schools in various parts of the country, as well as the traditional high-quality private schools and those associated with university schools of education. It is doubtful that our system compares very favor­ably with these, although our best students still enter top universities and seem to do well enough in competition with their peers. The problem is that very few of our students achieve to this level, whereas in Japan or Europe, an average student might do so.

The object of public education should always be to provide maximum opportu­nity and challenge for those who are most inter­ested in educational pursuits. This is what is no longer being done. We used to have good libraries and a large number of self-educated readers who had directed their own learning process in a particular direction, and in accordance with personal goals or interests. We used to have an open-admission, low-cost system of higher education in which almost anyone could study without scholarships or the need to weigh monetary returns in one’s decisions about courses or a major.

Instead, our higher education systems have been altered to meet the needs of high-income business and professional training. It is either vocational, unaffordable, or both. K-12 funding rewards “average” or below-average, “at-risk” stu­dents, or those who are already lost to most kinds of educa­tion or counseling. Our high schools have become welfare agencies or treatment and rehabilita­tion centers more than places to develop cultural, intel­lectual, and scientific awareness and skills. While dis­proportionately invest­ing our human capital in the needs and problems of the unfortunate and learning-disabled, those who can and want to achieve have been badly discouraged and hindered in their efforts to develop, equip, and support a higher quality of life for everyone.

Learning as a means of self-realization and personal satisfaction is practical­ly unheard of, unless one wishes to pay for non-credit “adult educa­tion” courses from the public schools, or through some alternative institution like the Y or a museum. Participation in scouting, 4-H, or other volun­tary, non-school paths to adult responsibility, competency, and citizenship has declined precipitously over the past 30 years.

Middle school students who test several grade levels above their age cohorts are typically discouraged or prevented from skipping even one grade. The prevailing middle-school philosophy seems to be that students should not be expected to advance cognitively while going through puberty, but should be allowed to devote several years to social and emotional growth and then somehow return to their studies later in high school, by which time they are usually done with books, school, and ideas.

Thus, for the intellectually motivated, it is imperative that altern­ative programs be in place and freely available to whatever extent there is a demand for them in order to keep up the momentum of cognitive development. Accelera­tion — skipping one or more grades — is a simple and overwhelm­ingly successful strategy, yet almost unknown in Great Falls. The only rationale I can find for preventing students from skipping grades is that this ultimately reduces the school population, since these students are out of the system a year or more earlier. Thus, the District loses that much revenue from the state or local levies. Do we really need a captive audience of bored non-learners in order to keep the public schools going?

In recent months I’ve proposed two new courses which I think should be offered to any students in our high schools wanting to take them. They are courses in Economics and Philosophy, and those who have seen the outlines have invariably responded favorably, but with the excuse that there isn’t money or space available to offer these courses. Meanwhile, there are literally scores of electives in business, sports, “outdoor living,” food preparation, and other subjects which are given for credit and cost just as much as academically challenging courses.

There is presently not even one gifted education teacher at the high school level, and a proposal to hire a full-time coordinator (effectively an adminis­trator, not a classroom teacher) has apparently been dropped. I have offered to work as a Gifted Education Tutor or resource person at half or less than what a regular teacher makes, and provide these courses and independent study programs experimentally. If the GFEA or other institutional factors would prevent that, I would work part-time or on an hourly basis, since I am a certified teacher. We must carefully weigh and prioritize the value of every elective course and program before we can tell the people of Great Falls that we need courses in “outdoor living” or “weight train­ing” more than philosophy, economics, or advanced foreign languages.

A third course I would like to teach is a Humanit­ies survey which was offered in the 1970’s as a 2-credit, 2-hour course at Great Falls High School, taught by Joe Wolfe. Undoub­tedly there are other courses which could also be offered to advanced students or those with specialized interests, such as the various AP courses and advanced language courses. Why not put all these together in an honors program which could be located in a separate building — a kind of “magnet school” for Great Falls? Several buildings are available, already used or mothballed by the District, and I’m sure there are many teachers who would welcome the chance to teach in such a school. We need more high school classrooms, and the current estimated cost is $9 million. This bond issue won’t even be offered to the voters this year, so the shortage of space will be here for several years to come. Opening a magnet school would solve many problems quickly and beneficially with little or no extra cost to the taxpayers.

Let’s do the best for the best students and teachers, rewarding success and achievement, and placing incentives for both teachers and students where they will do the most good. There is already a strong commitment from most of us to spend public education monies fairly, equitably, and effectively. I believe a magnet school could easily be established for the same average cost per student as we spend, today. It is the enter­tainment courses along with remedial and special ed programs which take a vastly dispropor­tionate share of educa­tional resour­ces.­ Thus, the education system — especially advanced course offerings, gifted education, and the very processes of innovation and reform — is deprived of resources which are desperately needed to bring our education standards up to those of other communities and nations. And while we’re at it, let’s offer a separate Native American curriculum developed by and for Native Americans, instead of expecting them to learn whatever it is that white people have imposed on them.

We need different programs and educational philosophies to properly address the needs of better learners or those with different learning objectives. Many gifted children are isolated and ignored, alienated by their giftedness and lack of contact with their peers. Under such conditions, they often become behavior problems and drop-outs, personally convinced by their own experience that school is boring and a waste of time; an experience which rarely, if ever, addresses their personal interests and concerns.

It is estimated that half or more gifted children never get the chance to realize even a fraction of their potentials under the present system. Gifted education specialists have long advocated ability grouping and special schools for those whose interests and capacities are broader, deeper, and occur at an earlier age. As a political issue, there is little support for extra or different programs for the best. It is assumed that they will do better than average in any case, and educators themselves have discouraged gifted education by characterizing it as elitist (more “prestigious” and much more expensive) rather than merely “different” or “more appropriate.” Hence, its lack of public support.

One would have thought that grown-up gifted children who became educational theorists would have solved the problem by now, and successfully brought into being the schools and educa­tional methods and philosophies which they once needed but didn’t have. In Montana, it’s almost never happened, and mean­while, the large number of children who were not encour­aged or given an appropriate education have no further interest in improving the system for others. Eventu­ally, it will change, either as a con­scious desire to reform the prevailing education philosophy and systems, or to provide viable alternatives to them.


Alternative Models Supporting Gifted Education

I. Single-payer (“Voucher”) Systems

There are many alternatives to the present system, but few public education supporters want to talk about them — least of all the education bureaucracy which presently exists. One is to change to a single-payer rather than a single-provider education system — what some call a “voucher system.”

As a middle-class entitle­ment, free, high-quality public education is already under attack as budgets shrink and costs expand above the rate of inflation. Many people no longer want to subsidize education for the children of the wealthy, or continue to throw money at those who can’t or won’t learn in the systems we have provided for them, and rightly so. Diversity and choice, price and quality competi­tion,­ and freedom to offer and provide much-improved and innova­tive educational services will ensure that future genera­tions will be much better educated than this one, with the same or significant­ly less support from the taxpayer. At-risk and low-income students can be given larger and more-restric­tive vouch­ers whenever equity, criminal justice, or opportunity issues are involved.

II. American Federation of Teachers Proposal

The other empowerment/diversification model which may yet catch on is that proposed by the American Federa­tion of Teachers (AFT). It provides for indepen­dent teacher-organized schools, each of which is publicly supported according to the number of students it attracts and successfully educates. Decentraliza­tion of this kind would work very well, for it is the monopoly aspect as well as centralized, hierarchical, bureaucratic control (and the resulting politici­zation) which have destroyed the tradition­al system of local community or neighborhood schools, once the finest public education system in the world.

Under the AFT proposal, we would still have public schools, not private or sectarian ones, and they could use existing buildings and support services. They would require (and attract) a different kind of teacher than we have, today — ones who would work as profes­sionals, in self-administered coopera­tives or partnerships, with wages, benefits, and facilities costs deter­mined independent­ly, according to their own particular philo­sophies of education, management styles, and student needs and preferences. They would offer a variety of curricula and instructional methods, and would be evaluated and rewarded according to results, not tenure, seniority, or number of degrees and credits earned from some “approved program” offered by an underfunded yet unaffordable state college or university.

III. Freedom of Entry and Certification

Although the AFT would probably oppose this corollary, it would be logical to allow a number of different alterna­tive methods of teacher training and certification to prolife­rate, any of which is likely to be better than the status quo. The larger teacher’s union — the National Education Association (NEA, of which the GFEA and MEA are affiliates) — is the major force behind “higher standards” for teacher training, since it reduces the supply of teachers available, and thus tends to raise teacher’s salaries. However, the NEA is strongly opposed to actually measuring or testing a teacher’s competence, since that might impact their present membership adversely.

In fact, the “higher standards” they advocate are nothing more than requiring more college courses, a college major (preferably a master’s degree) in the field(s) being taught, and subservience to the higher education bureau­cracy in all matters of policy for K-12 systems. The idea that anyone might learn something outside of a college course or specific college major program is quite alien to their thinking. Certification for interdisciplinary, holistic, or other innovative educational philosophies or methods — especially life or work experience — is not available. Non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian settings and philosophies are likewise excluded from most systems. Little spontaneity or deviation in content or style is permitted of teachers. Those whose training and background in a subject is passionate and self-directed have virtually no chance of getting certified and being allowed to teach. And in no case has profes­sional competency testing replaced seniority and college credits as the basis for certification and promotion. There are all sorts of useful assessments which could be used, but adversarial union/bureaucracy politics and state laws have prohibited them.

In every case, teaching and learning are considered to be high-pressure duties or “hard labor” to be “compen­sated” by rigidly-enforced payment schedules as a matter of “profes­sionalism,” independent of need or productivity. If teachers aren’t expected to enjoy and derive personal satis­faction from their work, how can we expect students to do so, or value education as an end in itself, without getting paid for it? We might make the present system work better by actually paying students a per diem to attend and complete their work, but that is not an option. A better alternative is to make education seem worthwhile for its own sake, independent of any extrinsic reward.

As things stand now, it is the colleges and universities which control the teacher education and certification process, and it is directed to serve the interests of the higher education estab­lishment rather than the K-12 schools which will actually employ the teachers. Let each school determine what kind of education and background it would like its teachers to have and compete freely in salaries, empowerment, and personal satisfac­tion, and we will soon discover that most good teachers or would-be teachers are no longer being excluded or discouraged from teaching, but are being properly trained and hired. Now, it is more often those who are unsuited (or too insecure) for any other intellectual or profes­sional work who become tenured teachers, rather than those who are most inter­ested and successful in the learning/teaching process. Risk-taking is a value not often found among today’s tenured teachers, although in theory it should be.

Students and their parents should choose the schools and teachers they prefer, and cooperate with them in providing for their educational needs and interests. Thus, the clients would be empowered to the extent of being able to choose whatever is most useful and beneficial to themselves and their families. And the “customers” — the ones who pay the bills and ultimately control the system (voting citizens and taxpayers) — might finally begin to feel that they are getting more than their money’s worth, and feel good about support­ing education.

Free competition and choice seems to be the one essential reform which must be undertaken if we are to save public educa­tion — or any other public institu­tion in a free society. Surely the perpetual budget deficits and downward economic trends, soaring crime rates, declining health statistics, and dumbing-down of cur­riculum and expecta­tions will eventually force us to make extremely difficult choices about how we spend our education dollars. The economics and philosophy we have failed to teach and learn today may cost us not only billions of dollars later on, but our very survival as a nation or civili­zation. As those of us who already live in straighte­ned cir­cumstan­ces know, we cannot afford to waste any money or other resources on less than successful programs or institutions.

Those teachers and administrators who deny that there is anything wrong with the present system should be willing to let it compete openly and freely with alternative methodologies and institutions. We show little confidence in our own view of things if we refuse to permit any competition or reforms. Those of us who are philosophically in favor of public education should know that public schools can only be improved or stren­gth­ened­ by empower­ing personnel and clients through divers­ification and choice. Most of all, education needs to be de-politi­cized, which means ending state control of the education process, teacher training, and certification.

The same freedoms of belief, speech, association, and thought which apply to the press and religion must also be applied to publicly-supported educa­tion. All the concomitant benefits to the economy, society, environ­ment, public health, and the larger cultural life of the country will soon follow, once we are free to think, teach, work togeth­er, and provide for our individual and collec­tive needs. Practi­cally speaking, freedom of education and educational oppor­tunity provide the basis for all other freedoms and oppor­tuniti­es.

Schooling for all the wrong reasons

Education, Uncategorized

Schooling for all the wrong reasons….

Writing a comprehensive “Critique of Public Education” has turned out to be my life’s work. Not by choice, mind you. I wanted to be a nuclear physicist or astronomer, as well as paleontologist in my early years. But the “public schools” made sure I’d never get there.

I did an undergraduate “thesis” at UCLA on the economics of public education – i.e., what sort of funding and political status should it have? My experience came from a town which was deeply divided between traditional Catholics and other ethnic minorities/faiths who wanted to maintain their own schools, and a public system which was excellent, but intent on destroying all competition. Originally, it was also intent on making sure that “liberal secular values” were maintained, along with “mainstream Christianity” which would be presented as only one of many valid belief systems or cultures..

I began to run afoul of this “progressive” system early-on. I wasn’t athletically-inclined or even very well-socialized, having spent my first 6 years almost entirely in the company of adults on a ranch, 8 miles from the nearest store or school, and none of whom were particularly sane or contented with their present status.

High school seemed like a bad joke. Although I had always tested very high – among the highest in my class, and I was often the most “intelligent” person in a particular classroom, including the teacher. Looking in my 10th grade Roundup (yearbook), I found a comment by an English teacher, who said I was the best student in her class! Did I even get an A from her? I’ll have to look it up.

By 8th grade, I had learned not to argue with the teachers, or with the “pets” in the class, and to basically say nothing. A few teachers recognized my superior learning and understanding and tried to make it work for that class, but that didn’t happen very often. It was not until I was a junior in high school that I finally formed a “peer group” of similar intelligence and status, but they were all “over-achievers” and active in many school activities, although usually not sports beyond one they thought they might need for a scholarship.

In any case, they were in the honors and AP classes, while I was not, because my “aptitude tests” had no effect in the social pecking order of the high school, which tracked the high achievers and socially connected (e.g., children of teachers, doctors, lawyers, political & business leaders) while trying to exclude dissidents and “trouble-makers” – especially those who might be gay, minorities, etc.


Why I never read Ivan Illich’s De-Schooling Society until after 2000…

Whatever happened to Ivan Illich? The last most of us heard was that he finally succumbed to a facial tumor about the size of a grapefruit which he refused to have treated because of his fear of the medical profession, as a consequence of “Medical Nemesis”, probably the greatest single indictment of “modern medicine” out there. Others have since told me that he was simply letting nature take its course, and he was happy to die of a natural process rather than from chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

I doubt that Fr. Illich “feared” the medical profession as such. He simply didn’t support the high-tech, drug-and-scalpel style of medicine, along with millions of other Americans, Europeans, and other highly-educated and scientific people.

His views on education are parallel in all respects. What the public schools provide is anything but “education.” It is the prevention of education; the creation of a class society of “workers”, “managers”, and “professionals” along with an “investor class” which ultimately owns and controls everything – especially the mechanisms of the state, whether local, regional, or national governments. And this “State” exists by force and confiscation, most of which ultimately goes to protect the wealth and power of those presently in control, and to expand the control of the State over any part of society which isn’t presently monitored and controlled by its police powers.

Any idea of a “welfare state” is likely to be a fiction, and vastly unpopular in any case. It is only by constantly offering more “services” and “protection” that the ruling two-party system can maintain its position and support. In other words, we are all “bribed and coerced” to support the status-quo.

Although I heard of Illich when I was first exploring the anarchist tradition c. 1970, I was then a free-market libertarian and anti-religious, so Illich’s work didn’t much interest me. My father, who was then working for the Department of Indian Affairs in Canada, was immediately receptive, and subscribed to the CIDOC publications (explained below), and we discussed Illich a few times in the early 70’s. He was also extensively published in the New York Review of Books, which I would later subscribe to for a couple of decades, and still read on-line, but where I first read Illich extensively was in Stewart Brand’s Co-Evolution Quarterly. That was my Bible (the Whole Earth Catalog and associated projects) in those days (the 1970’s).

I didn’t actually own a copy of De-schooling Society until after 2000. For one thing, I never saw one in a book-store. It seems to have been censored from the outset, since it completely undermines the whole basis for one of the largest “industries” – public schools and universities – in the modern world. The same is true of Medical Nemesis, and how it has been totally ignored or suppressed in all the discussions of “health care reform.”

— Paul Stephens
Here is the introduction to “De-schooling Society” and a link to read the rest of it or download it for future reference. It is probably the greatest statement of education reform of the 20th century, if not any century. Paolo Freire worked closely with Illich for many years, and many of his insights are included…

by Ivan Illich

Ivan Illich was born in Vienna in 1926. He studied theology and philosophy at the Gregorian University in Rome and obtained a Ph.D. in history at the University of Salzburg. He came to the United States in 1951, where he served as assistant pastor in an Irish-Puerto Rican parish in New York City. From 1956 to 1960 he was assigned as vice-rector to the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, where he organized an intensive training center for American priests in Latin American culture. Illich was a co-founder of the widely known and controversial Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and since 1964 he has directed research seminars on “Institutional Alternatives in a Technological Society,” with special focus on Latin America. Ivan Illich’s writings have appeared in The New York Review, The Saturday Review, Esprit, Kuvsbuch, Siempre, America, Commonweal, Epreuves, and Tern PS Modernes.