Education and Bike Riding

If the goal of education is to prepare young people for living, then an ideal program would look very different from most of what is now called education.

Earlier this week I wrote about the need for children to have a free space within which to grow in tastes, talents, will and ideas before they feel the full weight of a world that will try to mold them. This free space is there that they may grow strong and ready to handle the world, not to keep them from it for life. If education is meant to play a similar role – a partially simulated reality to prepare students for the “real world” – it seems a highly successful education would have two features we almost never see:

1 – It would be incredibly short

2 – It would be very hard to tell when it ended

If the goal is to prepare for life – i.e. to make education unnecessary – the faster the simulation can transition into the real, the better. And if living well is the aim, it would seem odd to spend a lot of time learning how in a simulated world and then abruptly be sent out into the real world without dabbling in it with increasing frequency until it began to replace education.

Imagine if we taught kids how to ride a bike the way we try to teach them how to have a career. We’d start by showing them pictures of a bike when they’re young. We’d teach them to say the word bike, then spell it, then write it neatly. We’d have them draw a picture of a bike. We’d have them measure the perimeter of a picture of a bike. We’d have them write stories about people riding bikes. We’d ask them to share what kind of bike they want when they grow up.

When they reached their teens, every once in a while someone would show them a real bike and describe what riding it is like. They wouldn’t be allowed to touch it, and certainly not to own or ride one. In fact, anyone who let them would be subject to serious legal trouble. Then, after seventeen or eighteen years of this (never more or less), we’d have a big ceremony congratulating them and ourselves at their successful completion of bike riding prep.

They’d be allowed to ride now, but it would be looked down upon. Instead, they’d be encouraged to hone their skills and really learn to ride by paying tens of thousands of dollars to spend the next four years getting drunk and hearing specialized bike-related knowledge. They’d hear the history of bikes, mostly from professors who hate bikes. They’d hear about the ecosystem where the rubber trees grow that go into bike tires, except any connection between that ecosystem and the actual building and riding of bikes would be deemed in poor taste. They’d learn a great many other things and come away with a certificate declaring their level of bike preparedness.

We’d celebrate and buy them something (but not a bike). Then they’d go out and try to obtain a bike in a highly competitive market. If they were able to purchase one, they’d have to learn, for the first time after two decades of studying but never trying, to ride.

If at any point in this decades-long process a child decided they’d learned all they needed, quit, and picked up a bike to start riding, it would be deemed a miserable failure. Even though the stated goal is to get them riding, it’s not their ability to ride that determines the success of the system, only the number of students who complete it. Figuring out how to ride and riding before the appointed time is a sign of trouble and rebellion, and would be discouraged at all costs.

This is obviously a stupid way to teach bike-riding, yet it’s how we train kids for life.

Imagine kids blending learning with working from the time they were ready and willing to work. Imagine kids moving from reading to doing the same way they go from training wheels to two wheels – quickly, and often without a lot of fanfare or even a clear-cut transition. Imagine allowing some skinned knees, some wobbly attempts, some bumping into the neighbors mailbox while trying to figure out how to navigate the world. Think of the sheer joy and freedom kids experience when they can fly through the neighborhood on two wheels, and imagine how much greater when they can create value, exchange, cooperate, buy and sell on their own ability and will.

Instead we force kids into a simulated world for decades, then celebrate their completion of our programs, regardless of whether they’ve actually gained what they need to succeed. Then we let them wander the world for the first time, trying to learn in months what we prohibited them from trying for years.

Why do the social norms about education persist when they are so blunt and detrimental to so many kids?