Compulsory Education

I’m trying to stake out my philosophical views on teaching. I’m going to be a math teacher a year from now, and I think that it’s often helpful, before you do something, to think a bit about why you’re doing it and how you intend to do it.

I’m going to take a two-pronged approach here. First I want to ask, what would teaching look like in an ideal world? What is the perfect vision of teaching that is going to be my guiding light, my unattainable fantasy? Then I want to ask, how can we eke out at least a tiny bit of overlap between the ideal, and what we can achieve in the world we’ve actually got?

I think the most fundamental dilemma about public education is the fact that the students don’t want to be there. This is really the first issue that we have to address if we want to think about the philosophy of public education.

What sucks about going to school? What sucks is that you have to get up too early in the morning to go to a place you don’t want to be in order to do things you don’t want to do, with a bunch of people you don’t necessarily like. And the fundamental thing creating the situation is that nobody made the decision to go to school; the decision was made for them.

OK, so how about this: how about we don’t force people to go to school? To a lot of people this is a very obvious point. I’ve had a lot of philosophical discussions about teaching lately, and what I hear again and again is that people shouldn’t be forced to learn.

Let’s put on our fantasy goggles for a moment. People shouldn’t be forced to learn? Correct. And by the way, there’s a bunch of other shit people are forced to do, that they probably shouldn’t.

How many people’s jobs are actually necessary? How much of the work we do has no compelling reason to be done? If I had to guess, we could maintain a reasonable standard of living, as a society, with everybody working on the order of two hours a day. I think the problem is the capitalist premise that if you want to eat tonight, you have to work eight hours today. That used to be a policy necessitated by the brute facts of reality. Now, thanks to technology, those constraints are gone. We can support a society with much less work.

So we have people working eight hours a day to make a living. A large proportion of that work is unnecessary. And we don’t have enough work to go around! There’s a job shortage! Isn’t the problem our capitalist system that’s set up so you need to work eight hours to make a living? Why not make it two? If things were exactly the same physically on Earth, but very different socially, we could have a society full of people not doing very much stuff they didn’t want to do.

So, in our ideal world, yes: people wouldn’t be required to learn, as a special case of people not being required to do much of anything. Maybe we could have a little compulsory education. Should people be forced to learn to read and write? I could buy that. But we sure wouldn’t need twelve mandatory years of six hours a day of school.

Why no compulsory education? Fundamentally it goes back to the ethical principle that people shouldn’t be forced to do things they don’t want to do. This idea, the idea that humans are free, is pretty much the F=ma of ethics in my opinion. Compulsory education is an abridgement of human freedom. Let the birds out of their cages, they need to fly today.

A more practical argument is this. When people are forced to learn, the quantity and quality of the resulting learning is generally low.

OK, so compulsory education is bad. Now, fantasy goggles off. Dropping compulsory education from our current system, and leaving everything else the same, wouldn’t really work.

I think it’s actually true that our education system “prepares” people for what happens to them after they get out of it. Pretty much everything that sucks about school is also something that sucks about work. People need to learn to show up every day at the right place and the right time, and do exactly what they are told all day long, no matter how stupid and meaningless it is, and not completely break down emotionally from this experience. I don’t think people would be prepared to do this at work, if they didn’t have practice at school. They wouldn’t know how to do it.

I think the education system also serves various other purposes in relation to the rest of the system. I think a big one is as a way of identifying good people to hire for jobs. Besides measuring intelligence, the education system measures the ability to show up on time every day and obediently do meaningless and difficult work, which is a big part of what qualifies people as good workers.

To change the education system, we would also have to change everything else. While no compulsory education is the ideal, I don’t think it would work in the world we’ve actually got.

Now another dose of reality: I personally can’t end compulsory education. We have it, and we will keep having it for the foreseeable future. So the question becomes, how can we do a good job of teaching within the system that we have?

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  1. “Why Are We Here?” « antitheology

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