Back to To the Message Forum Commentary Friends and Family Future History Biography Books

Future History

The Next Ages of Man

1 - Arrived, but haven't noticed
2 - Too Right
3 - The children's renaissance
4 - The future shape of business
5 - Old men don't regret

The Children's Renaissance

DURING the past hour, 12,000 children have been born around the world. During the past year, over 100m have been. Every one of them says Philadelphia’s much-hated Glen Doman, author and entrepreneur of “The Better Baby’ ‘has at birth a potential intelligence greater than Leonardo da Vinci ever used.

It is aggravatingly possible that he is right, and almost certain that the world is going to have armies of parents, probably led by East Asians, thronging through the databases of competitively telecommunicating and other new types of schools, desperate to find out.

The battle between free traders and protectionists is about to be joined in education, and it will have unimaginable results, increasing some resentful teachers’ productivity several tens of times over, thereby starting to breed a scary new renaissance type of child. Some of these renaissance children could be very horrid, presenting you with 15-year-old managing directors in a few decades’ time. Many look like being Asian, but that’s nice.

The area hungry for learning

The glummest fact about those 12,000 children born in the past hour is that around 60% have come into households where income per head is lower than the $350 a year which the European Economic Community pays in annual subsidy for each cow. The most cheering fact is that a majority of these poor newly borns are in Indian or Chinese or other East-Asian families. Parents in them are turning crazy-keen about education, and this is bearing extraordinary fruit.

In exams for 1 6-year-olds in London schools, children from Indian families are now more than twice as likely to pass in five or more subjects as are native white children, even when the Indian children started by speaking a different language at home. Throughout the American education system, Asian youngsters are doing far better than native white or black schoolchildren, especially the Vietnamese who 15 years ago were dehumanised by being called Gooks.

In Japan, East Asians have the example of the most efficient school system in the world. That has been shown in at least eight different inquiries in the measurable subjects of mathematics and science, dating from 1967 to 1983, but getting much the same results. The chart is drawn from those results, as summarised by Professor Richard Lynn*. The bottom left of the chart shows that 6-year-old Japanese surpass &year-old Americans in maths by 0.74 of a standard deviation. This means that about three-quarters of Japanese 6-year-olds are more mathematical than the average American 6-year-old, which is not a huge gap.

But, as the children pass through school, the Japanese lead grows bigger and bigger, soaring to 5.8 standard deviations at age 18. This means that the average Japanese 18-year-old does better in maths than even a fraction of the top 1% of 18-year-old Americans. It is appalling that the West does not learn the lesson for its societies. The test for social cohesion is not the achievement of the top 1%, but whether the great average mass is turning civilised scholarly or Anfield football hooligan. In Britain’s Liverpool 84% of children leave school at the first opportunity at age 16, while 94% of Japanese 1 6-year-olds stay on voluntarily, even though all education in Japan after age 16 requires some fee-paying from the parents.

Quietly, through fees, to the top

The first advantage of Japanese children over western children is that Japanese parents do not shout at them. America’s leading child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, pondered in his latest book why during a prolonged stay in Japan he “never saw a child being scolded, nor crying, nor fighting with another child”. He found the key in what happened when children ran around noisily in supermarkets. American and European mothers shouted “stop that”, while Japanese mothers said quietly “how do you think it makes the storekeeper feel when you run around in his store?”

“Thus from a very early age”, says Mr Betteiheim, “a Japanese child is encouraged to consider the feelings of others, and is asked to base his decisions and actions on his own deliberations. If he stops running noisily, he reasons, he will do important people like the storekeeper and his mother a very great favour. He thereby acquires a reasoning habit that has instant advantages when he first comes to handle academic material.” By contrast, an American or European child is expected from an early age to do what he is told, and is shouted into an adversarial position. He continues in an adversarial position ever after. That is why many of you are resenting this article.

Although compulsory education does not start in Japan until age six, around 85% of pre-school-age Japanese (much more than in Britain) attend kindergartens. Nominally three-quarters of kindergartens in Japan are private and commercial, but that figure is slightly a cheat. In private Japanese kindergartens about a third of costs are covered by state subsidies or endowments. But the first crucial point is that subsidies in Japan go only to schools which parents choose to send their children to. If there is inadequate voluntary attendance at any school, state or private, it won’t survive. In order to survive, most kindergartens see that their graduating sixyear-olds are able to read fluently and do sums.

In the next two age ranges—primary schools (age 6 to 11) and junior high schools (11 to 14)— around 97% of Japanese children enter state schools which mix classes together rather more democratically than those in America or Britain. The curriculum laid down by the Ministry of Education wisely makes litter-lout children unpopular by virtually banning the employment of school cleaners. The teachers and children together clean the schools at the end of the teaching day.

The 3% of Japanese at private schools at age 6-14 is actually smaller than the 6% in Britain or the 12% in America, but by age 11 to 14 half of Tokyo children also attend a commercial juku. These are totally unsubsidised out-of-school-hours crammers, geared to getting the pupil through the entrance exam to the senior high school at which the pupil’s parents aim.

Consumers’ choice

At age 15 any Japanese can leave school. Under 6% do so, although thereafter all parents have to pay fees. In the 70% of senior high schools that are state schools the fees are usually under $500 a year; but in the 30% which are private (50% in the big cities) the fees can be six times as much. The Japanese experience is that a subsidy of around 50% of successful (ie, well-attended) private schools’ costs will persuade about 40-50% of urban parents to choose private education.

In America and Britain, the proportion eventually fleeing awful state schools should go higher, but public educationists disguise this by the Minneapolis-Sendai dodge. In a 1982 poll in America’s Minneapolis 91% of parents said their children’s schools were doing a good job, while only 39% of parents in the Japanese city of Sendai said theirs were. Maths tests then showed the worst school in Sendai with a higher score than the best in Minneapolis. So public educationists—when threatened with competition—now always commission opinion polls because they know 90% of parents will politely say they are doing fine.

Each Japanese senior high school fights keenly to climb up the pecking order in its district, or to fit a particular clientele. The headmasters of the schools that rose fastest in that year’s university-entrance results inevitably appear on local television. Entrepreneurs of private schools note which districts have done badly, and calculate they can get higher enrolments by concentrating their efforts there. The top school recently, as described by Lynn and Rohlen op cit, was a private school in Kobe which had on average an enormous 55 pupils per class, but a long list of applicants.

Western educationists say lazily that this competitive sort of system may be nice for the top 1% of the most brainy or perhaps most stinking rich, but is demeaning to those less able or less stinking. In Japan, this has proved the exact reverse of the truth. The teaching of the brainiest 1% and (different group) richest 1% is sometimes less good in Japan than Britain. That is one reason why Japan has fewer Nobel prizewinners, and no rich boys’ Winchester or Eton. At each level and place, the assessor of the market can see where the present schools pattern is failing the customers; and moves in there.

The Americans are at last seeking to competitivise via consumers’ choice, especially in the poorest areas. Pupils in East Harlem used to come 32nd in New York city’s 32 school districts in every test. Then the district gave parents an open choice between a wide variety of newly restructured schools, including sometimes several mini-schools in the same building. East Harlem’s pupils quickly rose to rank 16th in New York city in reading. Says one headmistress: “The last time my teachers referred to the contract was a long time ago. There’s a camaraderie because this place doesn’t have to exist. We can go out of business tomorrow. If it didn’t meet needs, it would fold.” One such American magnet school, founded 12 years ago, last year had over 25,000 applications for 800 places.

Main problem for many western countries: their disadvantaged form their tribes of children under the worst conditions. Solution: go to competition between fee-charging schools through some sort of a voucher system, but with the highest-rate vouchers given to the most disadvantaged.

A strain to come

The usual canard about the Japanese system is that it drives over-stressed children to suicide. Because Japan’s old religion glorified suicide instead of calling it sin, Japan’s suicide rates have hitherto been above the West’s at all ages; but among the young they are now down to West Germany’s and Scandinavia’s. If deaths through drug addiction are called suicides, the Japanese rate is lower. But both East and West need to recognise a factor that soon could lead to a much greater strain on young children. It arises from one of the two main upcoming advances in educational technology.

The earliest of these advances will bring individualised mass production to education. Students will telecommute into databases, and the computer will probe their individual learning patterns from the answers they give. It will work out the next question to ask, or the next video the student should be told to summon up. Here are some forecasts. The top database schools will be fee-charging, and attract several millions of pupils. The fees will be low, and with lots of scholarships, because the marginal cost of adding the millionth pupil will be iow. There will be a mass clientele in Asia, as for juku in Tokyo.

The other big accompanying advance will be that much more will be discovered about human learning patterns. There will then be culture shock at the way nations have underused the knowledge about these they already have.

Einsteins in the nursery

Between birth and age three a child is capable of learning more, fact for fact, than he will learn during the rest of his life. By age three the average child has learned all sorts of strange concepts: words, figures and in sensible households morality. Starting from wordless and conceptless scratch, the average three-year-old can speak his native language. If she or he lives in a household that habitually speaks two languages, she or he becomes bilingual, without exhibiting any signs of greater strain or neurosis, indeed usually the reverse. In no three years of adult life has any Einstein made as big a leap into new territories of knowledge as does the normal nought-to-three-year-old. The capacity to learn quickly continues until about age six.

In most rich countries, the system arranged to meet this opportunity is that children are instructed by parents of very varying degrees of interest up to age six, and are then conscripted into generally noncompetitive schools just as the largest part of the capacity to learn disappears.

There is the recent change that in some rich countries a majority of children aged over 31/2 go to various sorts of nursery schools, although with the advantage that the state has not yet thrown enough money and conventional teacher-training at them to envelop all in the usual public-sector awfulness. So in the United States hothouse infant schools and even pre-natal schools have sprung up, exhibiting extreme private-sector awfulness instead.

At a pre-natal university in California, pregnant women and their husbands coo to pregnant tummies (“hello, baby, this is daddy, I love you very much. This movement is stroke, this is pat”). Almost immediately after birth, lights are flashed on and off into the eyes of these “renaissance babies”, with maths cards teaching instant instinctual arithmetic and interestingly differentiated word cards put between those lights and their eyes. There follows a regime of words, games, puzzles, numbers, patterns, fearsome mom-and-me gymnastics, and deliberate attempts to inculcate qualities like shape recognition, art appreciation, a sense of humour. When one renaissance 18-month-old was asked why he was doing so unusual a thing as crying, he replied

“I don’t have the words to tell you yet”.

The reaction of the indignant orthodox educational establishment is that of Kipling’s anti-heroine:

Year by year, in pious patience,
Vengeful Mrs Boffin sits,
Waiting for the Sleary babies
To develop Sleary’s fits

But the infuriating report from at least some of the hothouse schools is that renaissance children aged two are reading, composing music and poetry, well advanced in maths and learning foreign languages like computer and Japanese, capable by a desperately early age of running a mile.

One of the shouted revulsions from the critics is to say that many of the people selling these courses have no professional qualifications whatever. That is true, and the sensible conclusion is that even more remarkable results will probably be achieved once professionals become competitors in this field. As some awkward implications sink in or are resisted, the West will also have to be competitivising its firms.

Part 4 - The future shape of business