Category Archives: school is bs

School is Bullshit: A Very Exciting Table

When I saw this table from Bryan Caplan, I got really really excited. This is an excellent framing of the question of whether school is bullshit.

Economic Models of Education

There’s a lot more rows. Click through for the whole thing

Caplan is saying that we know that higher education correlates with earning more money, and he can think of three explanations: either schools actually teach you useful things, or universities just admit people who would have made more money anyway, or going to college signals to employers that you’re the kind of person who they should pay more money to. (Or some combination of these.)

This guy is apparently writing a book called The Case Against Education, which, needless to say, I will read with extreme interest.


School is Bullshit: One Level Deeper, with the Unschoolers

In an earlier post, I described how learning about the existence free democratic education rocked me back on my heels and forced me to confront the possibility that coercive education is unnecessary and unjustified.

If you can just let kids play all day and only go to class if they feel like it, and the kids still turn out fine, what are we doing all this “formal education” stuff for?

But it got worse about a year ago, when I started learning about the Unschoolers. I first heard about this from an episode of wife-swap, where one of the families was a sort of hippy-ish, stay-at-home-dad-having family with two little girls who were ‘unschooled’. The swapped-in mom was appalled, and lobbied hard to get the girls some standardized testing. When I first saw it, I was on the appalled mom side. You don’t do school AT ALL with your kids? You just let them do whatever they want and answer their questions and maybe take them to some museums or something? That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, that would never work!

(“That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard” has been a recurring theme with me as I delve into this stuff.)

Contrary to my expectations, it actually seems like it does pretty much work. I read Sandra Dodd’s The Big Book of Unchooling, and her website. Then I read some blogs of grown unschooled-kids. Although anecdote is the weakest form of data, it is still data. This data was enough to convince me that it’s at least possible to unschool your kid and still have them turn out well-adjusted, literate, educable, and intellectually curious.

One of the few studies (h/t SSC) conducted on unschool kids showed that while public school kids from the same income bracket and parental education level were above grade level, the unschooled kids were only at grade level.

Let me restate that. Without doing ANY SCHOOL AT ALL. EVER. you can still do only slightly worse than kids who’ve done YEARS of public school on school-based tests. Anecdotes from the unschooling community suggest that the kids who wanted to go to college caught up in a year or two and did at least as well in higher ed than their peers.

This is a very small amount of evidence, and it has numerous problems. (More on those later.) I’m not suggesting shuttering all the schools tomorrow. But it’s enough to convince me that the possibility exists that without any school whatsoever, kids can still have perfectly good academic and life outcomes. This possibility should strike terror into the hearts of the entire formal education establishment.

School is Bullshit: The Most Obvious Counterargument

Before I go any deeper into the arguments in favor of the School is Bullshit hypothesis, I want to start outlining the basic, gut-level arguments against it.

To start with, as soon as you say that schooling might not be needed for good life outcomes, you start to think, but isn’t one of the main tenants of international development that schooling is necessary for good life outcomes?

Indeed, one of the millennium development goals is universal primary education. But is this a means, or a goal? Does sending kids to school help improve life outcomes, or do we consider school attendance as one of the life outcomes we’re trying to improve?

When I tried to find evidence on this question, I came up unexpectedly short. It’s easy to prove that there is a high correlation in the developing world between a mother’s educational level and her children’s life outcomes. But this is not relevant to the question at hand. If education were a consumer good, we would expect wealthier people to attain more of it, and also to have better access to healthcare and other resources. This doesn’t prove that one causes the other.

I’m having trouble finding any good review of actual research on causation. The closest I can find is Givewell’s review of education charities. They are dubious. Though they don’t dismiss the idea, just say that there’s not enough evidence to substantiate it. So it may just be no one’s bothered to check.

I will keep looking and report back if I find anything more firm, but at the moment, I think we can at least say that we should be highly skeptical of education’s effects on life outcomes.

School is Bullshit: An Introduction

I want you all to take seriously the possibility that pretty much the whole world has been doing school fundamentally wrong for the past two hundred years. I take this possibility very seriously, and am going to be doing a lot of investigation into it (and talking about it on this blog). Let me explain what I mean.

I had a lot of formal education: public schools (in one of the best public school districts in the country) up through 9th grade, then three years of prep school. Private college (dropped out), community college, and an undergrad degree from a public university (go Huskies I guess). Now I’m working on a master’s degree in education. I seldom questioned the value of all this education. I have several teachers in my family, and I’ve always valued their work.

Up until a few years ago, I figured that U.S. schools needed some serious reforms and probably a lot more money, but it never occurred to me to question the basic principles.

Then I read about a place called Sudbury Valley School, and doing so had a major-earthquake-size effect on my mental landscape of the subject.

Sudbury practices what they call free democratic education. (Free as in free speech, not as in free beer.) That is, the school is run entirely on a democratic principles, with each member of the community, faculty, staff, and students, having one and exactly one vote. A five year old student has the same amount of political power as any of the teachers. The school has no curriculum, gives no grades, and has no graduation requirements. They sometimes have classes, when the students organize them, but attendance is not mandatory. In essence, their idea is let the kids do whatever they want, and they’ll learn the things they’re most passionate about.

When I first heard about this, my thought was “Oh my god, that’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard in my life. That would never work.”

Then it turns out that it does work.

Sudbury has been around for almost 50 years, and they’re not the only school to try this. They’ve been around long enough to see what happens to the kids, at least informally, and it turns out the kids have perfectly good life outcomes. About 80% go on to college, and those who don’t find jobs, or start their own businesses, or become artists, or do the other things that people who went to traditional schools do.

Do you see the problem yet?

If kids can spend 13 years running around and playing, and working on projects and practicing music and never once be coerced into anything and still have good life outcomes, this is an existential threat to traditional education. We don’t have to prove that these kids do better than traditionally schooled kids for this threat to be serious. If we can simply prove that 13 years of being forced to sit still in classes they don’t want to attend and taking away the freedom of their childhood isn’t necessary for kids to turn out okay, it’s hard to imagine any justification that could possibly induce me to support continuing this system.

I don’t know whether school is bullshit. In fact, I wanted to title this series “Is School Bullshit?” but this isn’t clickhole, so I didn’t. The statements above have a lot of assumptions, and a lot of areas yet unexplored. I’m going to be doing a lot of reading and thinking and talking on this subject to try and make things clearer.

But I hope you’ll understand why, even with hugely incomplete information, I feel so urgently about this. We spend hundreds billions of dollars on education in the US alone each year. I think it’s really possible that the entire fundamental structure of our educational system is wrong, and that hardly anyone has even bothered to check.