When the communist Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in April 1975, they declared it “Year Zero.” The French Revolution had a similar turn of phrase: Year One, after the abolition of the monarchy and the execution of King Louis XVI.
These revolutions had something else in common: erasing history. The Khmer Rouge targeted, like many other communist regimes before them, intellectuals and artists. The French changed their “pagan” calendar and threw the Catholic Church out of the country.
Today, we see similar thought patterns in extremist Islam. The Taliban, upon taking control of Afghanistan, blew up fantastically preserved Buddhist statues (pictured). In Timbuktu, Islamic extremists burned 1200-year-old books contained in their ancient library. ISIS brags, in propaganda videos, about destroying “idols” in Palmyra.
These movements are from all over the political spectrum, but the pattern recurs: begin fresh, erase history, and idolize a mythological past. You could apply this same rubric to the fascist movements of the 1930s.
The lesson of history is clear (and ironic): there is no erasing history. The French Revolution descended into chaos, was coopted by Napoleon, and did not result in a functioning democracy for a long time. Cambodia is still recovering. Fascism is a horrifying relic. The communist revolutions have all been spectacular failures.
So why is this Year Zero thinking so common?
You hear it on both sides of the political spectrum today. “Erase the system and start over.” “Smash _______________.” “We need a complete shift in ___________________.” The slogans are stirring and sexy. Unfortunately, change is hard.
The most successful revolutions restore and consolidate the best ideas from the past: look at the American Revolution and the way it drew from the ideas of the enlightenment and Ancient Rome.
How can we make incremental change sexy? Perhaps, at the very least, we can expose Year Zero thinking for what it is: a childish fantasy.
In his skeptical tome “Antifragile,” Nassim Taleb discusses the term “iatrogenics.” It is a well-known term in the health care industry used to describe unintended effects that are caused by “the healer.” He wants policymakers, particularly economists, to adopt the wisdom of iatrogenic analysis.
Many of the statistical tools used in education policy evaluations seem lifted from medical research (“treatment effect”) so why not import iatrogenics?
While it is true that evaluations of education policies include cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness analyses, there are differences. Iatrogenics focuses on the output side of the equation, finding outcomes that would (or more importantly, could) blunt benefits. Also, much of it is focused on implementation.
To be clear: iatrogenics, in medicine, discusses drug interactions, misdiagnoses, medical error, adverse side effects, and nosocomial (hospital-induced) infections.
Policy literature includes countless discussions of the “law of unintended consequences.” Iatrogenics will improve that conversation. Here are two suggestions:
More and more policy descriptions include “theories of action” which are relentlessly upbeat, describing (in detail) how a series of outcomes cause each other. I would like evaluators to add potential “policy interactions” and “side effects.”
Warning: providing financial incentives to students increases the motivation to cheat and game the system. Do not combine this program with programs that have less vigilance on student assessments or with assessments that are overly subjective.
Reporting these on the front page of an evaluation will allow the people on the ground to better implement these policies, just as side effect warnings help people take drugs at the right time.
Imagine if drug makers lobbied to stop reporting side effects?
Also, reporting side effects and possible policy interactions will help us promote “non-cognitive” traits. Recent research on these "softer" qualities have focused on traits such as “conscientiousness,” which are easy to measure. However, there are many extremely important non-cognitive traits that are difficult to measure. Here is how iatrogenics could help:
Think about honesty. It would be impossible to test people for honesty, but identifying incentives for dishonest behavior would be simple.
Consider risk-taking. Would offering financial incentives encourage students to take very hard classes? Obviously not.
Or enthusiasm. Would offering money to students make them passionate about the subject itself? Perhaps, but it seems like it would change the style of motivation to something less internal.
Psychologist Martin Seligman, the founder of “positive psychology,” considers honesty, risk-taking, and enthusiasm to be the fundamental elements of courage. Courage is a worthy goal for education; indeed, in the words of the immortal stoic philosopher Seneca, “If you are not teaching courage, you are not teaching.”
The difficulty in measuring courage should not divert our attention from it. Iatrogenics could help remove that impediment.
A common narrative in diversity discussions, on both sides of the aisle, is “hate used to be overt, but now it is more subtle.” Left-leaning people then write about institutional racism; right-leaning people go on to discuss the effects of culture and family. The problem is that the premise is wrong: the internet has given birth to a renaissance in overt racism.
A quick search on the internet reveals several good sources on these hate sites: the Southern Poverty Law Center, in particular, has done a yeoman’s labor in documenting and mapping these various hate groups.
An issue is that labeling these groups “hate groups” makes them catnip to the rebellious teenage mind. These lists are a good resource to help adults avoid reading biased information; however, to adolescents, they are honeypots of tantalizing political incorrectness.
Spend an hour, if you can stomach it, reading a hate site. Probably the most influential “white nationalist” site is called “Stormfront,” which is about as old as the internet. Absorb some of the argot; note which news stories are discussed. Then, go to YouTube and read the comments under any political video. The notion that these sites exist in some “dark corner” of the internet will immediately be dispelled.
History teachers have cowered behind that “dark corner” argument for too long. A generation of students has gone into an online world unarmed against these hate groups, who actively recruit youth. Young people today can participate in these hate forums entirely anonymously, leading double lives.
A craven argument is that “hate speech,” and therefore these websites, should be censored. Aside from completely violating the First Amendment, the natural anonymity and fluidity of the internet would make enforcing this proposal impossible. And anyway, any attempt at censorship would make these groups even more attractive.
Hate sites should be covered in history classes. Students should read and analyze these websites with the guidance of a teacher. Our “pay no attention to the pink elephant” attitude is a complete dereliction of our duty to produce informed, engaged citizens.
Here are a few fantastic ideas for lessons:
These lessons will vividly reinforce philosophical habits that are often neglected in high school: rational thinking, skepticism, and engaging with a wide array of ideas and voices. They will channel your adolescents’ rebellious attitudes into productive thinking skills (rebel to ruler). Isn’t that preferable to constructing a totalitarian censorship system?
A student recently wrote an essay in class and left the computer lab. She returned the next day, logged in, and could not find her essay. She asked me to help. “Where did you save it?”
“What was the file name?”
She was only passingly familiar with the idea of “saving a document,” and the idea of being able to save it in different “locations” was completely alien to her. She was not underprivileged at all. In fact, she was fairly typical.
We assume that each generation will be more skilled with computers. People bandy about the term, “digital native.” I know a few teachers that are coming to the realization that I have: kids today, in high school and middle school, are actually quite clueless about computers.
They can use cellphones and social media adeptly, but these are limited. Using basic word processing programs is a dying art. They may be able to open a document, but creating tables and manipulating the text is beyond their abilities. Some students have submitted essays written in the notepad programs on their smartphones.
Their attempts at cheating are hilarious. Students have cut web content and pasted it, colors and sans-serif font and all, into a word document.
Even scarier is the acceptance, without reservation, of the first results of a Google search. “The internet said so.” Many students do not even read beyond the short summary under the search result. Hand them a textbook, and many students have no idea how to use the index. I’m not kidding.
People between the ages of 30 and 45 form, I assert, the “Digital Greatest Generation.” We are old enough to understand the analog world and young enough for computer use to feel natural.
All this talk of teaching coding in schools is great, but most students today need much more basic skills. Here are a few suggestions:
The title of this blog post is not meant to trivialize the accomplishments of the WWII generation, but there is a parallel: they lived through the transition to a globalized world. We have not made the personal sacrifices they did, but we lived through the transition to an online world. It is our responsibility to prevent the younger generations from getting lost in it.
I'm an entrepreneur and I teach math, history, economics, and fitness. I'm looking for arguments.