The Absurd Assumption Behind Schooling

A bright young woman sent a thoughtful email after reading my blog post about how my son learned to read when we stopped trying to teach him.  She largely agreed with the approach but voiced some concern of not pushing kids to learn things of value to them.  I responded:

“Once upon a time I would have been terrified at an approach like we ended up taking with my son (and all three of my kids now that we unschool them), but I’ve come to believe that fear was rooted entirely in a set of assumptions I was taught, and not in any way based on my experience of actual human behavior or logic.

The false assumption is that humans will always do what is bad for them, not what’s good for them.  It’s the idea that humans are irrational and don’t know how to seek their own self-interest.  Thomas Hobbes is probably the greatest perpetrator of this idea (at least in reference to entire societies) which gives way to the myth of authority – the belief that, absent some violent strong man to set the rules and enforce them, people will loot and murder each other and destroy their own community, etc.

This idea is so utterly false and contrary to every shred of logic and evidence it’s a wonder it ever took hold like it did.  Its greatest advantage is that it is a) handy for crude versions of “original sin” in some religions and b) handy for power-hungry despots and moral busybodies.  It of course never attempts to answer the question of how humans too dumb to make decisions in their own interest can somehow be trusted to make decisions in the interest of the community at large.

I’ve come to believe this idea is nonsense.  Humans have every incentive to do what is good for them (based on their own definition of good) and will do a lot of hard work to make it happen.  Learning is a key part of this.  There is no need to teach anyone some skill or fact they don’t want to learn.  They will learn what they need when they need to.  In a literate society where the social and economic rewards of literacy are very high, people will learn to read.  When and how they want, but they will.  The Sudbury Valley school is an unschooling type facility that makes kids do nothing but what they want.  They’ve had kids learn to read at 4 and 14.  They all go on to live normal lives. (The 14-year-old won a prize for writing and became a professional writer, if I recall).

Humans don’t need authority dictating what they should value.  They need the freedom to discover through trial and error what they value and what benefits them.

I highly recommend – if you are as serious as you seem to be about grappling with these ideas – a few books.

“Free to Learn” by Dr. Peter Gray

Anything by Daniel Greenberg at the Sudbury Valley School

The point is not that humans are “naturally good” or some such nonsense.  It’s that they are naturally self-interested, and self-interest is sufficient motivation for them to learn what they need to live full lives.  Certainly better than what some dogooder thinks they “ought” to learn!”

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