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.

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  1. Pingback: School is Bullshit: One Level Deeper, with the Unschoolers | It is a website

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