Do People Want To Learn?

I’ve written before about how the public school system doesn’t teach the right things. But there’s a bigger problem underlying the whole rotten mess of concrete and bureaucracy that is the modern public school system. There’s one single assumption that underlies the whole thing, and that one assumption is untrue.

That false assumption? “People don’t naturally want to learn.”

If you believe people don’t naturally want to learn, then what about babies and toddlers? Nobody formally teaches little kids to sit and crawl and walk and talk, but everybody knows that all little children learn these things. It’s really obvious that little children are wired to learn and to learn voraciously. Just look at any two-year-old who annoys the grownups by asking so many questions.

So if the concept of “people don’t want to learn” doesn’t happen until later, when exactly does it happen? If you look at kids, it seems to happen right around school age. Children who a year ago would be annoying with their extreme curiosity mellow out, then proceed to sink further into “I hate learning”.

Still, the same exact children who don’t want to learn in school continue to learn voraciously about things that interest them. It may be things adults don’t approve of, like cartoon characters, or video game stats, or how to bypass the screen time lockouts on their phones. But this is still learning, and it’s still curiosity. It’s learning in absence of being forced to learn, which is why it continues to be fun. So evidently, people can and do learn things that they’re motivated to learn and interested in learning, at all ages.

“But people don’t learn the things they need to learn!” you may exclaim. Let me ask you, what exactly is it that we teach in school that people need to learn? And how do we know that they’re not going to learn those things naturally, outside of school?

What do people need to learn? Reading. Writing. Basic arithmetic. How to exist as an adult. But everyone learns these things of necessity; you can’t function in the world without them. You don’t need school to teach that. And after they have the minimum knowledge they need to function in the world, individuals follow their specific interests to logical conclusions.

Still, what about all those other things that we teach in schools? Spanish, differential equations, mitochondria, whatever? What about how to get into college?

Interestingly, there is a strong and growing subculture of people who raise their kids with no enforced education. And the research shows that these kids can get into college and have successful careers at rates equal to or even greater than that of the publicly or privately schooled population. (Sources: Smithsonian, KQED)

So if just letting kids do what they want is so great, why do we all think instinctively that it shouldn’t work?

John Holt wrote this in his book How Children Learn. “All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words—Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple—or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves—and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted. […] What we have to do is break this long downward cycle of fear and distrust, and trust children as we ourselves were not trusted.”

We don’t think unschooling should work even though it does because the societal wisdom about children, which we all have somewhere in our brains, is wrong. We were taught not to trust how children naturally learn. But we were taught by the very system that profits off not allowing children to learn naturally; we were taught propaganda.

If you don’t need to force people to learn, then, is there no place for teachers, classes, students?

No. There is still a place for that. Just look at all the non-mandatory classes that people take over their lives. People take classes in music and art and tech and science and history and every other thing. Classes can be a very effective way to learn… if the people in them want to learn.

When I was getting started as an artist, I experimented with a number of media through taking classes. When I signed up for them, they were explicitly “for adults”. Not because they had any risqué content, just because they didn’t have anybody to be the schoolteacher, the authority figure. They were meant for adults because they trusted adults. They didn’t trust children.

With some combination of my mom’s persuasive skills and my dashing charm (just kidding, I was like twelve; it was 100% my mom’s persuasive skills) I got into these classes “for adults”. One of them was a wildlife drawing class.

It was a ton of fun and a great experience. I’d been out of school for a while at that point, so I didn’t think it was strange that the teacher just walked around giving advice and making critiques, telling us to help ourselves to complimentary cookies and soda while we drew. I made a few friends in that class, most of whom were many times my age.

A few years later, I took a ceramics class. This one was explicitly “for teenagers”; I think the age range was 15-18 or 13-18 or something like that. The kind of thing that’s meant as an extracurricular for high schoolers.

It was a weird experience. Besides the complete lack of age diversity, there were a ton of really weird rules and expectations. No more than one person was allowed to leave the studio at one time to use the bathroom. I wasn’t particularly annoyed since it didn’t inconvenience me, I was just baffled. It was so unnecessary.

Not only was the class setup weird, but the teacher was also weird. They (I don’t remember their gender) were really distant and not friendly at all, and they seemed to expect this kind of deference. You know those pompous customers you get working retail, where they just expect you to hand them the universe on a silver platter? This teacher acted a bit like that.

I talked to my mom about it on the ride home, and she informed me that it wasn’t that the class or the teacher was weird. It was because it was a class for teenagers.

With classes for adults, you can be sure that 100% of the people there are there because they want to be. Nobody forces an adult to take an art class. If the student has learned what they wanted to learn, the objective of the class has been achieved. But with classes for teenagers, it’s a completely different story. The teacher can’t be sure that the student wants to be there, or wants to learn. Further, they don’t have to answer to the student; the real master for a teacher of teens is those teens’ parents.  The teacher tries their best to make the class interesting and fun, but they have to control what the kids do so that the parents are pleased, and generally act like a schoolteacher, which severely limits their ability to do that.

There is still a place for classes and teachers. These are valuable things. But the public school environment, where the students don’t want to learn and the teachers don’t want to teach and literally nobody wants to be there at all, that is not useful.

So where do we go from here? How does the establishment change?

I propose using the funds that are currently being funneled into the public school system and use it to fund optional classes, held at public libraries. After the “school subjects” are made optional, we can decide to make things mandatory which are important for everyone to know regardless of their interests; things which are necessary for functioning in modern society. Teaching basic technology, psychology, and economics would be a good start: after all, there’s an awful lot of people, tech, and money in the world right now. It also makes significant sense to teach people stuff like basic self-care and first aid, what laws there are, how to pay taxes, how to get insurance, etc etc. These mandatory things, then, can fill the psychological void left by the public school system (appeasing all the grownups who love telling kids what to do), as well as filling the physical void of the empty school buildings.

What do you think? If you’ve got ideas for how the system could be changed, or reasons why it shouldn’t be, stick them in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

Why College Should Not Be Free

At the moment, there is a debate over whether or not college should be made free for everyone. And at first glance, the obvious answer is yes. College is outrageously expensive, and making it free would allow everyone access without forcing anyone into debt.

But there’s a presumption backing this “obvious” answer, and the presumption is that college is necessary. It would be perfectly reasonable in a context where the thing involved (i.e., food, clean water, etc.) is a basic human need, but college is not. I covered some of the reasons in my essay, I Am a Four-Year College Opt-Out—high monetary cost, high opportunity cost, lack of applicability of the coursework to the real world, etc.—but in essence, college is not the only path to success, and for many people, it’s not even a very good one.

But even if college isn’t necessary, what harm would it do for college to be free for those who want to attend? After all, debt is crippling the nation’s youth, and wouldn’t it be nice if that went away? Of course only a stingy old fart who doesn’t think young people “deserve” an education would say free college is bad, right? Why am I writing this essay?

To answer these questions, let me skip back in time and tell you a story. It is 1920. The uppermost level of compulsory education isn’t 12th grade, it is 8th. High school as we know it now does not exist; in its place sits something that looks more like college: an elite, expensive program which only accepts the top 5% of applicants. Because high schools only accept the very best, those who graduate are almost guaranteed high-paying jobs.

This began to change in 1954. Some guys saw all the high school graduates getting great jobs and had a bright idea. If we make high school free, they thought, then everyone will be able to get a high school education, and thus, a great job! The problem was that the only reason high school graduates had gotten great jobs was because of the rarity of their education. And over the next fifty years, as high school was made free and subsequently mandatory, a high school education became completely useless. The only thing gained was four more years of compulsory schooling before children, now more properly young adults, could begin working.

This has already happened before! This whole argument and discussion, should we take this elite program and make it free, of course we should because it’ll give everyone good jobs, it’s happened before! It will be just as ineffective this time as it was last time, because nothing has changed. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is still a logical fallacy, and people are still making it. In the exact same way as before. Those who fail to learn from history are, as they say, doomed to repeat it.

Now let me present a possible vision of the future. It is 2056. College has been made free and mandatory, and the little value it still had has been completely erased. The only thing gained has been four more years of compulsory schooling before young adults, now more properly adults, can begin working. The societal definition of “child” goes from “under 18” to “under 24”. The average human lifespan doesn’t change, it simply becomes normal that humans spend the first full quarter of their lives in the artificial school environment, which is just as pointless as ever: the students care as little about learning as the teachers care about teaching, nobody gets paid enough, and everyone is miserable. One day, a 24-year-old kid reads an article which says people are trying to make graduate school free, and she thinks, “Huh. That seems like a good idea. Then, everyone could have a good education for free.”

In writing this, I don’t want to cast my ballot on this issue as “the system is fine the way it is”, because the system is not fine. But the way to fix it is not to commit the same logical fallacy that we already made less than a century ago. The problem is complicated, and a complicated problem cannot be fixed with a three-word solution. “Make college free” is not the answer.

I hope this essay can open a discussion on the real answer. It will have to contain a solution to the college debt crisis. It will have to take into account the fact that our current public school system was designed to churn out good factory workers, despite the fact that we now need entrepreneurs instead. Preferably, it should contain a solution to the public school system’s current problem of not teaching important skills (how to pay taxes, what laws exist and how to change them, etc), but I know better than to get my hopes up. I’ll settle for just finding a way to teach skills that are legitimately important for purposes of starting a career, such as the importance of both cheerfulness and good writing. But even if this essay can do none of that, I hope that it at least made you consider this debate in a different light.

See you tomorrow.

English Classes Don’t Teach Writing, or, Why I’m Proud of My 3 on the AP English

I love to write. This is pretty obvious to anyone who knows me at all: the first paid work I did for someone outside my family was writing articles for SEO, I met my high school English requirements before I started 9th grade, and still I continued to write and read profusely and extensively throughout high school and college.

Writing for me has taken many forms. For long periods of time, I kept a daily journal. I wrote posts on many different blogs over time. I wrote long essays in the comments sections of YouTube videos, arguing with strangers. I’ve written everything from letters to politicians to novels.

I just write by virtue of existing. If I’ve got thoughts, they either come out of my mouth into the air or they come out of my fingers onto a keyboard. For the dramatic most part, I took no formal writing classes. I just read interesting stuff and I wrote what I thought, and I analyzed my writing in light of what I’d read to find ways to make it better.

And it was with that background that I signed up for the AP English Language and Composition. I was excited! I got to be in a class with tons of great writers, who loved to write just like I did! The syllabus included weekly the writing of a 2-3 page essay and the reading of 1-3 novellas! Honestly, it looked like a dream come true. If all writing classes are this awesome, why hadn’t I taken one sooner?

This enthusiasm continued throughout the first few weeks. At the time, I was also taking two other classes through the same online program, so I only took about two days to do the work. One day to read, and a second to write. I got good grades, and I was happy. My only minor quip was the fact that on our class homepage, my teacher posted the best essays for any given assignment. My essays were never on there.

I was a little bit bummed, but I figured, there had to be somebody better than me. And yet, when I downloaded their essays to try and learn from them, I noticed something very strange. Their essays all seemed to be clones of each other. They all followed basically the same formula, and it wasn’t even that interesting a formula. Besides their names printed at the top, there was no way for me to tell who’d written which essay. When I read books, I felt like the author was speaking to me in their own unique voice, conveying information that was important enough to them to have written a book about it. When I read my classmates’ essays, I just saw words.

I’d like to say I was completely disillusioned to the falseness of accomplishment in academic writing, and I went on to join such great writers as Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut in saying so. I wasn’t, and I didn’t. I was just confused.

The realization that getting good grades in an English class and being a good writer were totally different things didn’t come for me until many months later. In the meantime, I’d already begun to question what everyone in my life had been telling me for years: that I was a good writer. Over the course of the class, I didn’t just never get on the “best essays” list. I also got steadily worse grades. My literary analyses got bad marks. I occasionally got Bs on assignments. (Shut up, it was devastating at the time.)

As I do, I responded to all of this by buckling down and working harder. My two easy days for English class became three hard ones as I tried (and failed) to understand why my writing wasn’t good enough. My mental state was shot. I didn’t know what to think about myself. At the same time that my English class was telling me I was average at best, others continued to tell me that my writing was great. I started correcting them, because of course your English teacher knows more about good writing than your prospective audience. Who cares if it’s interesting, it got a B, so there must be something wrong with it.

But the class ended, and a few months passed. I kept writing, because that’s what I do, and I showed it to various people. Just like they’d been saying the whole time, they said it was great. And outside the environment of the class, I started to consider the concept that maybe the class wasn’t as important as I’d thought. After all, in real life, if you can captivate your audience with interesting work, what else is there? I got my final score on the AP test (think of it as a comprehensive final, and the only grade that matters; it’s scored on a bell curve from 1 at the lowest to 5 at the highest), and I got a 3. I wasn’t too surprised, but I also wasn’t too hurt.

At the time, I figured that I was just awful at rhetorical analysis, and that was the reason my score was low. It was a good reason for some time. But I’ve since realized that there’s a deeper problem going on here, and that is that good academic writing is not good writing.

Good academic writing feels impersonal, mostly because it’s wordy. Not in the sense that academics have a broader vocabulary, though most of them do; their sentences are just way too long for the thoughts they convey. Academic writing goes “During the upcoming period, this project will be continued”. Normal writing goes “This week I’ll continue my project”. The academic version has 1.5x the word count for the same thought, it’s in the passive voice, and it’s boring overall.

The purpose of all those words, so far as I can tell, is twofold. For one, it completely snuffs out the author’s individual voice and replaces it with the simple meaning of the words. And for another, it makes the writing super formal, because it overuses a construction that English-speakers use to make something more polite. For example: A rude apology is “Sorry.” A polite apology is “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t trying to hurt your feelings.” More words = more effort = more polite.

Plain old good writing, on the other hand, conveys a lot more about both the author and the subject. When an author lets themself write sentences like “I was excited!”, “Meh, it wasn’t a big deal”, “I was just confused”, and “Can you believe that?!”, it makes it way more obvious what the author is feeling. It makes it obvious that the essay didn’t just apparate into existence, somebody had to write it.

The main problem with using AP English as a gauge of my writing wasn’t that it isn’t a good gauge; it’s fine. It’s just a gauge of the wrong thing. AP English is designed to prepare students for academic writing (because the classes are designed by academics, so their subject matter is disproportionately biased towards things that would be useful for academics; but that’s a topic for another day). If you just want to be a good writer, you don’t take AP English. If you want to be a good writer, you do what I’d unknowingly been doing all along: read good writing, write what you care about, and fix your writing based on what you’ve read. So, since I do want to be a good writer, I suppose that’s what I’ll keep doing. See you again tomorrow!