Monthly Archives: February 2015

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.

I’m worried about the squirrels of Central Park

[I wrote this on facebook several years ago, right after I moved to New York. I still think about this sometimes]

I’m worried about the squirrels of Central Park. I’m not worried about their physical safety. They seem both numerous and prosperous. Central Park is eight hundred acres, and there are thousands of the little buggers running around gathering plentiful supplies of food for the winter. I saw one this morning, and she seemed to be doing fine.

No, I’m worried about them philosophically.

squirrel photo

squirrel picture from http://www.flickr.com/photos/kevenlaw/1575325110/

Sure, it’s a large and presumably diverse squirrel population. It’s not like there’s five of them on a desert island and they’re all forced to marry their squirrel half-sisters just to perpetuate the species.

But do they think they are the only squirrels in the universe?

The park is an island of squirrel paradise (food, trees, few predators) in the middle of a vast sea of concrete. The surrounding human-constructed environment is so big in comparison to their homeland as to be, by squirrel standards, limitless.

I doubt that any one of them has ever met a squirrel who wasn’t born there. If they did meet a bedraggled stranger who claimed to come from some other park, what would they think? They wouldn’t be able to believe him; it would go against all common squirrel sense. Their universe is all Central Park surrounded by a wasteland that they must regard with the same consternation as ancient Europeans once felt for the Encircling Ocean.

Now, you might say, there are other trees in New York City. From Central Park, a squirrel might see a line of scrawny trees stretching off into the distance along some street. True. But what does this mean to them?

Filled with a sudden restless yearning, a young squirrel must sit on a tree limb for a few moments on a sunny afternoon and gaze at that tree archipelago, wondering.

Did any inspired squirrel explorer ever venture forth, leading a small party of pilgrims to follow the trees in search of new lands? If one did, was she ever heard from again?

If some intrepid squirrel philosopher were to propose the existence not only of other parks (full of other squirrels), but of unimaginably vast parks called forests, filled with wonders and dangers and millions of squirrels wholly unknown, would the Central Park squirrels hail him as a visionary? Would they lock him in a squirrel madhouse and give him squirrel sedatives? Or would they fearfully condemn him to burn at the tiny squirrel stake?

Movies With No Romance In Them: Pacific Rim

I love a good romantic movie. Ask me about how many times I’ve watched Pride and Prejudice, if you want to listen to me talk for like 7 uninterrupted minutes. But sometimes it feels like the film industry forgets that there are other forms of meaningful human experience OTHER THAN ROMANCE. So I get excited about non-romantic films sometimes.

You could argue this one with me and say that the two main characters of Pacific Rim, Raleigh Beckett and Mako Mori, are in fact in a romantic relationship. But you would be wrong, very very wrong.

Raleigh and Mako have a romantic friendship, which is a very different and very awesome thing that we need more of in movies. (Although I do think the film sets up a strong possibility of future romance between the characters.) In the triumphant ending scene of the movie, when Mako and Raleigh share a moment of relief and joy, they embrace and lean their foreheads against each other.  This is the moment where I started mentally chanting don’t kiss, don’t kiss, don’t kiss.

Pacific Rim Ending Scene

And they don’t!! Although they’re one of the strongest relationships in the movie, and have been explicitly shown to be, well, soul mates (“drift compatible” is a wonderful term), they do not kiss. No making out occurs whatsoever.

The only romantic references I can recall in the movie are: a) two of the side characters being married to each other (the Russians) which is a very minor point and b) one character referencing his dead wife. Other than those two small, non-intrusive instances, romance plays no role in the movie. This is made all the more awesome by the fact that it’s a movie all about the strength and importance of human relationships. The most important relationships in this relationship movie are:

  • Romantic friendship (Raleigh and Mak0)
  • Sibling relationship (Raleigh and Yancey)
  • Father and adopted daughter (Mako and Stacker Pentecost)
  • Father and son (Herc and Chuck)
  • A disputatious friendship (The two scientists that the fandom is obsessed with for some reason but I don’t even care enough about to look up their names. Newt??)

In conclusion, if you want a movie all about the awesome permutations, other than romance, of human relationships, that also has giant robots punching giant monsters in the face, I have good news for you my friend.