Overall, I enjoyed this, both because I found the topic interesting and because it was well written. But I’m extremely dubious of the hopeful nature of it wrt learning during the pandemic. I honestly don’t know a single other student who felt they learned more during the pandemic than during a normal year. Now maybe that’s because of compounding factors like mental health taking a dumpster dive for students, but from everything I’ve read and everyone I’ve talked to, online learning was basically an unmitigated failure.

So my question is, does anyone have quantitative data suggesting that the online learning imposed by the pandemic was beneficial to some students?

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Isn’t this a big part of the Montessori Philosophy? Just letting children choose their learning within some reasonable limits ?

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I am a parent of two children, presently aged 9 and 11; as a result, I am preoccupied with things exactly like this. Overall, the conclusions of the book seem consistent with what I have observed of their learning. A nice, well written review.

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"It’s really easy to catch up when you need to (did you know you can just look up what the powerhouse of a cell is?)."

- sometimes I wonder what to do about this. Many of my students are just barely literate and numerate in 11th grade, and sometimes not even then. How are they supposed to look things up, or tell if what they're looking up is true, or apply it to their unique circumstances?

Does that mean school was just a complete waste of time, as they've learned nothing we wanted them to learn? Did they learn anything or just other things? Should we keep trying with these students or just let them drop out at whatever age it seems like education is pointless for them?

Certainly they are learning English a lot faster in school than in their community, where no one speaks English. I do hope we can have reforms, but Texas has decided students need to pass certain tests to graduate, so here we are.

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I know I'm unusual in this, but I wish I'd been institutionalized *more* as a child--assuming the right particular choice of institutional activity. I wish someone had locked me in a room and forced me to do math olympiad problems all day, the way certain other governments supposedly do it, instead of forcing me to do much easier work half the time and letting me do nothing whatsoever of value on the internet the other half. I would've been happier at the time and I would be better at my job today. I was beset with massive akrasia and incapable of aligning my actions with my personal goals and desires, and well aware of it; all I wanted, even in the moment, was someone to tie me to the mast. I don't understand why I'm alone in feeling this way, because I don't think I'm alone in having been terrible at choosing how to spend my time when I was young.

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Decent article. However, it seems like the book is focused primarily on younger kids, while the reviewer kind of lumps together their experience as a fifth grader with their experience as a homeschooled high-schooler. I think the system the reviewer describes -- students largely setting their own curricula in an environment designed to make that easy -- could work alright for 13+ or so. But frankly, claims like "It's really easy to catch up when you need to" are just absurd in the context of younger kids. I say this for two primary reasons:

1) Some things are literally easier to learn when your brain is a little sponge. The most obvious example is language. What else qualifies? I don't know, but neither does the author, and without some serious evidence I'm not about to endorse a world in which many kids are as capable of understanding arithmetic as I am of understanding Dutch.

2) Who's to say they'll catch up on knowledge when they need to? Take history, for example: it's easy enough to catch up on the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict; it's been going on for less than 100 years, after all. But scroll through Twitter and you'll find any number of people who've clearly formed strong views on the matter without knowing the first thing about history, or worse, knowing only what they've been told by partisans. I don't want adults who don't know or care that the US had a civil war. The stuff younger kids learn is really basic and fundamental -- so much so that we take it for granted.

All that's clear by now is that nobody really knows how to run a school. Unfortunately, that includes a lot of reformers.

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"At the end of the day, students were allowed to take home any unsold books. We were told that any we didn’t take would be destroyed, sent to a landfill. This was probably true (it viscerally horrifies me to this day), but if it was a lie it was a really clever tactic."

I want to talk about this, because it goes with a theme in Double Fold, which in turn matches a certain strain I've identified in myself and other 'smart' people. I am a person who loves books and owns approximately zero of them. This bothers me occasionally, which continually surprises me because I am profoundly unsentimental.

I have many more photographs of, say, paywalled NYT cooking articles on my phone than I do of family. I love my family dearly, more than just about anything, but I have no need to totemize them them with photos and memorabilia and so on. So it is with my intellectualism and books, for the most part. Still, my lack of family photos bothers me never, while my lack of books bothers me sometimes. I think this is just that people like me (graduate education, high paying job, knowledge work, etc.) are expected, in some ways above all else, to own and love and otherwise perform the sacred ideology of books.

But I don't, and can't, and won't, because they're not useful. They're heavy, bulky, hard to use, expensive, take up space, and have only one real advantage over digital (it's harder to flip back and forth with one than the other). They are, in a word, sentimental. I don't think it's healthy or reasonable to have such a reaction as the author to the potential destruction of some wood pulp. Obviously, this kind of reaction isn't all bad because it can and does have the second-order effects the author describes (broadening the mind, etc.)

This brings us to Double Fold. I wonder what percentage of readers here on ACX thought the problem with the policy being derided in Double Fold was with its nature versus its implementation. That the process of scanning and switching to microfiche/digital with concomitant destruction was begun way too early and with far too much hubris appears indisputable, and that many important works and a substantial portion of the historical record were potentially lost forever. But these are, fundamentally, implementation problems. Of course, an implementation problem can be so great that it calls the entire policy into question, as indeed is the case with Double Fold.

But let's say the process only began in, say, 2000, by which time technology sufficient to create high-quality, durable, searchable, digital copies of books was widespread. Would we still have a problem with destruction? I wouldn't (excepting of course books which are legitimate artifacts and/or works of art), but I'd strongly suspect that a lot of people, including Double Fold's target audience, would. I struggle to think of a rational reason for this, which strikes me as pure sentimentality and/or totemization.

This issue came up in the most trivial fashion possible during the early part of the pandemic, when there was a burst of thinkpieces on the subject of 'the shelf' that was behind you in Zoom calls, as though this were, should be, and could be your whole identity. And indeed, I think this kind of thinking, seen in the review of Double Fold, and the quoted text, that perpetuates this idea. As Freddie says, you aren't the shit you like. The shit you like is at best (or maybe worst) a crutch.

Let me explain a bit. I broke my ankle many years ago and it's never quite fully recovered. Not really a big deal, but occasionally it flares up and I consider wearing a brace. I've talked to my doctor a few times about it, and I'm always told to avoid braces and such because the ankle will come to depend on the brace. That's how I feel about book ideology for a huge swathe of people my age and class. Instead of having real identities (or so it seems to me) people have bullet point lists, which is all they have to extract meaning from. It seems to make them, at the very least, unhappy, and seems to predispose them to many other issues, such as toxic fandom (or its reverse; look at the JK Rowling controversy viz HP fandom) and mob culture on social media.

I have no advice on what to do instead. I don't have this problem, but I don't know what I do instead, or what I did differently back when that set me on a different course. But I am happy. In saying this, I'm not trying to flex. I'm trying emphasize that this is a pathology and it contributes to misery, which I would like there to be less of.

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This is a brand new way of thinking about education for me. I intend to read this book. Good for Holt, good for empiric observation. Fascinating.

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I think this is mostly right, but there are some serious benefits from having a peer group studying the same things you are, being able to discuss and bounce ideas off your peers and friends, and learning skills is best with direct instruction rather than directions to the library.

The larger problems with this come from the general incentives involved in all this. School Is Not About Education and all that jazz. Schools provide child warehousing, accreditation, and socioeconomic segregation. Whether these are good or not, it'd take pretty some pretty interventionist policy on childrearing to actually break the system.

I'm also vaguely concerned with internet attention economy Baby Youtube Hell-type issues but I'm not at all sure how confident in that being a problem I should be. And online learning hasn't seemed to be great, in terms of either enjoyment or education, but I suspect (or possibly just hope) that's because it's replicated all the problems of mainstream mass education with none of the benefits.

Overall great review, of a book with a great vision. I wish I could be less cynical about it.

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Links are all broken. OP seems to have used the wrong sort of quotes, turned the result into absolute links, and then copied the result to here. (E.g., what should be https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuisenaire_rods has instead becoem https://spec.commonmark.org/dingus/%E2%80%9Dhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuisenaire_rods%E2%80%9D ; this mistake occurs for every link I have checked.) Please fix this.

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Very enjoyable review in which I shared many of the opinions and feelings as the author.

Much like the author, I feel that changing the institution is fairly impossible, even during the pandemic. The societal view that more education is always good is a feeling that's so ubiquitous that most anti-schooling opinions are immediately dismissed (even if the same people will admit that much of what is taught in school is a waste of time).

Most adults stop caring about school once they graduate and have the "I did it, so you have to do it too" attitude, which is very difficult to change.

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I was also hopeful at the beginning of the pandemic that it would force substantial innovation in schooling and that schooling would improve as a result. I don't think that has happened. The inertia in schooling institutions is as strong as ever, even though these institutions of standardization and control make even less sense online.

Why are you optimistic that this is a good time for institutional innovation? Have you seen any evidence of this innovation since the pandemic started?

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The reviewer gets at an obvious but overwhelming truth, (the kind that we like to avoid confronting so as to avoid despair) as have many others who've thought about education and pedagogy. The discussion around Scott's experience of school as a prison brought up some of the same observations. Kids are different. Sometimes very different. Different capacities, interests, cognitions, intuitions, emotional ranges and regulations, personalities, etc. What works for one kid, can be torture for another. Something experienced as trauma for kid A can be exactly what kid B needs to thrive.

Obviously, when you stick all this diversity into a single institution and try to standardize everything, the kids whose pegs more or less fit the hole of standardization will be ok, the ones who don't fit will be forced to fit despite their suffering, or abandoned to fate.

If this is indeed one of the fundamental problems with institutional schooling and a source of its' lackluster results, then by definition there can be no "standard" solution - only something that tailors an optimal pedagogy to each child based on their individual map of attributes and evolves with them as they mature.

It's worth noting that this is how kids from wealthy households are educated. For every weakness, deficiency, or "abnormality", a specialist is brought in, a tutor is hired, an unconventional intervention made - resources are reallocated as needed.

I'm not sure if this premise is actually true, but if it is, how could such an approach scale to a societal level?

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I mean, I feel this doesn't go into the cynical answer: "school teaches kids the only vital life skill in today's society - to half-assedly do something they don't care about eight hours a day." I'm not convinced this is actually false, and it kind of scares me.

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I don’t think kids are taken nearly seriously enough. I don’t know what to do about it, but I really sympathize with powerless and ignored kids.

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The internet is a wonderful educational resource if you can tell the difference between legitimate stuff and crackpots. But even many adults can't tell the difference; what chance do children have?

The ideal, I suppose, would be supervised internet time, but there aren't enough teachers to look over every kid's shoulder at once.

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I've been nerd-sniped by one of those excerpts. Granite is not made of calcium carbonate; it's quartz and a few other minerals (which also aren't calcium carbonate). And further, you do see limestone dissolving in the rain; that's how you get limestone caves (and hard water). As it turns out calcium carbonate is very weakly soluble in pure water but much more soluble in weak acid (including water with dissolved CO2).

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As usual, I take a contrary view on the topic of school: I think that, for average people such as myself, guided education is the only way to go. I am simply not smart enough to learn complex subjects in-depth on my own; nor am I smart enough to discover entire new areas of learning by simply reading random books. I understand that many children *are* that smart, but I don't think that abandoning 99.5% of the population in favor of the 0.5% of the geniuses is a worthwhile tradeoff.

In high school, I was exposed to math, biology, physics, chemistry, literature, and foreign languages. I hated all of that stuff (except maybe for physics), since it took time away from what I really wanted to do: program computers. At the time, I thought I was being pretty clever about weaseling out of all those "pointless" subjects. Now, my lack of background knowledge in many of these areas haunts me every day. I was able to remedy some of this lack through self-study, but I really wish that I could go back in time, slap my young self upside the head, and tell him, "Hey ! Idiot ! You're skipping out on entire disciplines of human knowledge ! Shouldn't you at least try them out first ? Oh and BTW you'll be working in bioinformatics for most of your life, so learn statistics already".

By the time I got to college to major in CS, I thought I was pretty hot shit. I could program better than most people I knew, and I had actual, paid, full-time work experience as a programmer under my belt. It took just one class to make me realize that I knew *nothing*. All the awesome programs that I had written had obvious structural flaws. All the cool tricks I'd figured out had names dating back to practically antiquity. All the problems I thought to be unsolvable were very easily solved. More importantly, there was a whole dimension of theory to CS which, if properly understood, would make the actual programming almost trivial.

Could I have figured out all that stuff on my own, if only I were a little bit smarter ? Sure, but I wasn't, and I didn't. Someone had to teach me. Would it have been better if that someone was a personal tutor, whose educational program was tailored to my unique aptitudes ? Yes, probably, but my parents weren't millionaires, so school was the next best thing.

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I have an 11 year old son and my experience with him and my own education makes me agree with a lot of things in this review. However, I am also skeptical about some key points and it is hard for me to embrace the "home schooling for the win" at the moment.

1) Schools in China, Korea and Russia are super strict with a lot of homework and little improvisation. This obviously has a lot of downsides, but it is hard to argue that those schools produce a lot of talented students. Yes, it might ruin theirs mental health in the process, but the "result" will be achieved.

I have recently seen "Over the limit" (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8184202/) a sports documentary about young professional gymnasts. The amount of verbal and mental abuse they have to suffer is surreal. BUT this methods, barbaric as they are, have produced a lot of champions. Now, I am not saying this is the only way to raise a champion, but it is a viable option.

2) My son (and i was just like him around that age) gives up easily. He is decent in math, thinks pretty quickly and can grasp most of the concepts. But if he can't solve a problem in 15 seconds he gives up. If you tell him his answer is wrong and "you have to think a little bit more on this one" he'll just pretend to be thinking, but will give up. It takes good 5 minutes of "I can't do it" to get back to solving the problem. And then he can solve it in a minute of actual hard thinking. But he would never ever do it himself.

Humans are lazy, myself included. We don't like to be wrong or to work. Especially as kids. And it's not just math. Same thing in sports. It is often unpleasant and hard to take that first step, to learn a new concept. My son likes rock climbing now, but it took him a few weeks to like it. I've pushed him a bit at first and now he is happily on a climbing team and enjoys it. Without that push there would be no sport in his life.

3) "You can just google anything now". It is true. You can google any fact there is. However, there is too much information on the internet. Want to google proof that earth is flat? There are plenty of links. Vaccines will turn you into a lizard? Thousands of links. All kinds of conspiracy theories are out there.

You need basic education, as well developed logical thinking to be able to tell the difference between real information and conspiracy theories. And most people can't do that. Especially kids.

Let's say you know absolutely nothing about history. And you google something about "Romans in Britain" and you click on a link and it says: "Rome was in control of Britain in 1500 AD and blah blah this happened". If you don't know anything about history, then you won't notice that anything is wrong. If you do know a little bit about history, then you'll probably understand this is wrong.

Without basic block of information and without connections between them you won't be able to tell if it is some lunatic spewing his conspiracy theories or if it is a real thing. The basic blocks, that you learn in school, will help you detect bullshit even if the topic is far from your expertise. You need some kind of structure with basic facts in place. Without it googling will do more harm than good.

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I think the elephant in the room in debates about education is that some kids are smart, other kids less so, and what would work for one group does not work for the other. Without clearly separating those cases I don't think much of anything useful can be said.

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Tests and classroom questions are artificial and resemble almost nothing in real life except for other artificial constructs. Interviews resemble classroom questions... but they're equally artificial environments. This means the entire thing is broken from top to bottom because we judge successful programs by testing.

Real life, productive work is almost always project based. Plumbers have the project of fixing a pipe. Accountants have the project of preparing a budget. CEOs have the project of expanding a new division (and probably several others besides). People care about what you accomplish, not whether you personally memorized the tools necessary to accomplish it. When I told my first boss I kept a cheat sheet of things I needed to know he took it away... so he could copy it and give it to the next person recruited into the team.

I'm not all that confident about letting kids just choose what they want to do. Giving them a mixture of control and choice within that control is probably best. (You have to do math but you can choose the math you find most interesting type stuff.) But I think school should be rearranged around projects. Those projects can be guided and can require showing work. But project based learning both more closely resembles real life and, in my experience, drives a lot more engagement.

Then again, I'm pretty firmly of the school that school is at best somewhat about education. Education is the legitimizing action of school but it's not realistically what gets treated as a priority.

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(1) "I asked him to name some common materials made of calcium carbonate. He named limestone, granite, and marble. I asked, "Do you often see these things dissolving in the rain?"

Yes. The hell you think the whole thing about weathering is? https://www.internetgeography.net/topics/how-does-weathering-affect-limestone/

(2) "Holt gives an anecdote of a fifth grader caught sneakily reading a science book when he was supposed to be learning about “Romans in Britain.” By forcing him to put the book away, the teacher traded an hour of high quality science education for an hour of low-quality history education, during which the child is less engaged and will remember less."

(a) How do you know the science book was any good? If it was a cheap, pop science for kids book it could have been full of trashy outdated misinformation. You can't say 'trading an hour of high-quality science education for an hour of low-quality history education', unless you're smuggling in the assumption 'STEM subjects objectively superior and good, Humanities useless waste of time that could go to STEM'

(b) Listen, I *was* that kid with the book under the desk (uh, it was Roman History in my case, funnily enough) and I later learned that my teachers turned a benign blind eye because they figured I was doing okay enough in class, and that I wouldn't be reading rubbish. But I am fully on-board with the teacher yanking the book away and *forcing* the kid to sit up and pay attention because this is History class not Science class, since I've just read yet another dumb take on social media due to historical illiteracy, and I don't want 'but history is boring!' kid to be propagating said dumb takes in another fifteen years time when they leave school and then uncritically swallow any old nonsense because some rando online blorped it out

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All through K-12 and college I hated English class and kinda sucked at it. Then when I was 29 and contemplating going back to college for a career change out of tech, I took the SAT again and got a perfect score on the verbal. I blame this apparent incongruity on the mismatch between my interests and what English teachers forced me to read and write about. I couldn't care less about psychoanalyzing fiction characters and authors. Plus there might only be 100 words worth saying on the literal subject of the writing prompt, and one would have to digress pretty far to fill up the required N pages. This mandatory bullshitting to fill up the page offended my sense of honesty. And it wasn't just my school. When I saw the example essays for the writing section of the SAT, they were all drivel, but the longer the drivel the higher the score. Quantity is more legible than quality, so the system optimizes quantity.

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I love John Holt and it’s great to see him still being read. As a parent and a teacher I’ve learned huge amounts from him. Particularly as a teacher now, he alerted me to just how much kids use a wide and inventive range of techniques to get around the learning requirements. For me, the best part of teaching is offering the students lots of different approaches but making sure that whatever kind of learning they use, they still end up knowing the stuff...

The point about fear does seem to be right, though. Ultimately some form of coercion has to be applied. That’s the other aspect of good teaching: minimizing the negatives.

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Bryan Caplan wrote about his experiences with unschooled kids, kids allowed to learn however they fancied with the adult answering questions they had. He found them about as knowledgeable about most things as other kids except that they tended to be weak in math. He proposed letting kids learn however they wanted except requiring a certain amount of mandatory math education.


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Socialization is what schools are for more than learning. LEarning rules and how to break them. Finding friends and learning about trust and distrust of those. Seeing how social structure is truly an imagined space with arbitrary rules might be the most important one. Those with the imagination to believe they can change the world might have first realized the world is a giant game of playing “house” in which some adults get to make the rules while the cool ones skate ever so carefully on the edge of those rules and do what they want. ;)

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> we could get along just fine if 5% of us knew the powerhouse thing, and the other 95% had skipped bio class that year

I'm not sure I agree with this assessment. That would've been true in the society that trusts experts but that is a very different world from the one we live in. Look at the vaccine hesitancy or the prevalence of "alternative medicine" - even among people who were forced to learn at least part of biology and how our body system works it is too high, even though they have all the necessary knowledge to evaluate the situation. Without that knowledge the rate of them I expect to be almost the same "95% who skipped the bio class"

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I am so glad I read this piece. I am off to improve Louisiana as a result of what I learned here. Cheers! And thank you deeply to the writer.

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I think that most rationalists, including Scott, and the author of this report, undervalue social interactions that happen orthogonally to school.

Those that are home schooled are often kept within a small family unit for their entire childhood. They often are able to participate in extra-curriculars with a small group of other, like-minded homeschool families. This might be once a month over a weekend, or maybe even up to 3 times a week for an hour or so. SOME homeschoolers have a "shared classroom" situation, where one parent will teach 5-7 students a subject, and it will rotate between houses, however this is uncommon, and those situations are often very similar to public education in tone and style. Extra curriculars are usually chosen by parents, not students, and are not optional.

Compare those social interactions with an in-person education. About 4 hours a day, between recess, group projects, free time, the time between classes, lunch time, plus an additional 2 hours of self-selecting extra-curriculars 1-5 days a week. Even during quiet lectures and videos, there's the passing of notes and chatting behind your teachers back.

Sure, students learn SO MUCH MORE in a home school setting. But who will have a greater impact on humanity, someone that knew calculus when they were 11, or someone that learns calculus when they are 20, but are able to build and support other humans, resolve conflicts, and has a strong friend group? Or, another way of putting it, who would you rather hire for a non-mathematical job?

My dream schooling setup is a group of pods. Students enter their pods, where they can self-select teachers and subjects from a large catalog. The teachers are competing with each other for 1: information retention, and 2: total views/ratings. So like youtube but with a subject-retention track. This would allow the best teachers to be seen by tons of students. After being released from their pods, the students would congregate by the subject they just viewed, and collaborate on group projects. Students can coordinated with each other what subjects they heard was good, and take classes at the same time to stay with friends.

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Okay, I'm going to finish off by quoting chunks of Chesterton, from his "Autobiography", about his time at school:


...As for Greek accents, I triumphantly succeeded, through a long series of school-terms, in avoiding learning them at all; and I never had a higher moment of gratification than when I afterwards discovered that the Greeks never learnt them either. I felt, with a radiant pride, that I was as ignorant as Plato and Thucydides. At least they were unknown to the Greeks who wrote the prose and poetry that was thought worth studying; and were invented by grammarians, I believe, at the time of the Renaissance. But it is a simple psychological fact; that the sight of a Greek capital still fills me with happiness, the sight of a small letter with indifference tinged with dislike, and the accents with righteous indignation reaching the point of profanity. And I believe that the explanation is that I learnt the large Greek letters, as I learnt the large English letters, at home. I was told about them merely for fun while I was still a child; while the others I learnt during the period of what is commonly called education; that is, the period during which I was being instructed by somebody I did not know, about something I did not want to know.

But I say this merely to show that I was a much wiser and widerminded person at the age of six than at the age of sixteen. I do not base any educational theories upon it, heaven forbid. This work cannot, on some points, avoid being theoretical; but it need not add insult to injury by being educational. I certainly shall not, in the graceful modern manner, turn round and abuse my schoolmasters because I did not choose to learn what they were quite ready to teach. It may be that in the improved schools of today, the child is so taught that he crows aloud with delight at the sight of a Greek accent. But I fear it is much more probable that the new schools have got rid of the Greek accent by getting rid of the Greek. And upon that point, as it happens, I am largely on the side of my schoolmasters against myself. I am very glad that my persistent efforts not to learn Latin were to a certain extent frustrated; and that I was not entirely successful even in escaping the contamination of the language of Aristotle and Demosthenes. At least I know enough Greek to be able to see the joke, when somebody says (as somebody did the other day) that the study of that language is not suited to an age of democracy. I do not know what language he thought democracy came from; and it must be admitted that the word seems now to be a part of the language called journalese. But my only point for the moment is personal or psychological; my own private testimony to the curious fact that, for some reason or other, a boy often does pass, from an early stage when he wants to know nearly everything, to a later stage when he wants to know next to nothing. A very practical and experienced traveller, with nothing of the mystic about him, once remarked to me suddenly: "There must be something rottenly wrong with education itself. So many people have wonderful children and all the grown-up people are such duds." And I know what he meant; though I am in doubt whether my present duddishness is due to education, or to some deeper and more mysterious cause.

...It was he who invented that severe and stately form of Free Verse which has since been known by his own second name as "the Clerihew" (his name is Edward Clerihew Bentley) or "Biography for Beginners"; which dates from our days at school, when he sat listening to a chemical exposition, with his rather bored air and blank sheet of blotting paper before him. On this he wrote, inspired by the limpid spirit of song, the unadorned lines,

Sir Humphrey Davy

Detested gravy.

He incurred the odium

Of discovering sodium.

...I have forgotten whether Mr. Mackenzie mentioned what always struck me as the most disturbing eccentricity of that eccentric; the open derision with which he spoke of his own profession and position, of those who shared it with him and even of those who were set over him in its exercise. He would explain the difference between satire and the bitterness of the risus sardonicus by the helpful parable, "If I were walking along the street and fell down in the mud, I should laugh a sardonic laugh. But if I were to see the High Master of this school fall down in the mud, I should laugh a sarcastic laugh." I chiefly mention his name here for another reason; because he once vented his scorn for what he called "the trade of an usher" in the form of a rhetorical question addressed to a boy: "Why are boys sent to school, Robinson?" Robinson, with downcast eyes and an air of offensive virtue, replied faintly, "To learn, sir." "No, boy, no," said the old gentleman wagging his head. "It was because one day at breakfast Mr. Robinson said to Mrs. Robinson, 'My dear, we must do something about that boy. He's a nuisance to me and he's a nuisance to you and he's a perfect plague to the servants.'" Then, with an indescribable extreme of grinding and grating contempt: "'So we'll Pay Some Man. . . .'"

...The idea that I had come to school to work was too grotesque to cloud my mind for an instant. It was also in too obvious a contrast with the facts and the result. ...To one very distinguished individual, my own personal debt is infinite; I mean, the historian of the Indian Mutiny and of the campaigns of Caesar--Mr. T. Rice Holmes. He managed, heaven knows how, to penetrate through my deep and desperately consolidated desire to appear stupid; and discover the horrible secret that I was, after all, endowed with the gift of reason above the brutes. He would suddenly ask me questions a thousand miles away from the subject at hand, and surprise me into admitting that I had heard of the Song of Roland, or even read a play or two of Shakespeare. Nobody who knows anything of the English schoolboy at that date will imagine that there was at the moment any pleasure in such prominence or distinction. We were all hag-ridden with a horror of showing off, which was perhaps the only coherent moral principal we possessed. There was one boy, I remember, who was so insanely sensitive on this point of honour, that he could hardly bear to hear one of his friends answer an ordinary question right. He felt that his comrade really ought to have invented some mistake, in the general interest of comradeship. When my information about the French epic was torn from me, in spite of my efforts, he actually put his head in his desk and dropped the lid on it, groaning in a generous and impersonal shame and faintly and hoarsely exclaiming, "Oh, shut it. ... Oh, shut up!" He was an extreme exponent of the principle; but it was a principle which I fully shared. I can remember running to school in sheer excitement repeating militant lines of "Marmion" with passionate emphasis and exultation; and then going into class and repeating the same lines in the lifeless manner of a hurdy-gurdy, hoping that there was nothing whatever in my intonation to indicate that I distinguished between the sense of one word and another.

...One day I was frozen with astonishment to find my name in an announcement on the notice-board, saying that I was to be accorded the privileges of the highest form, though I did not belong to it. It produced in me a desire to be accorded the privileges and protection of the coal-cellar and never to come out again. At the same time I learned that a special branch of the highest form had actually been created for my two principal friends, in order that they might study for History Scholarships at the Universities. All this seemed like the very universe breaking up and turning topsy-turvy; and indeed all sorts of things happened about this time that seemed to be quite outside the laws of nature. I got a prize, for instance; what was called the Milton Prize for what was called a prize poem; I imagine it was about as bad as all other prize poems, but I am happy to say that I cannot recall a single syllable of it. I do, however recall the subject, not without a faint thrill of irony; for the subject was St. Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit who preached to the Chinese. I recall these things, so contrary to the previous course of my school life, because I am not sorry to be an exception to the modern tendency to reproach the old Victorian schoolmaster with stupidity and neglect and to represent the rising generation as a shining band of Shelleys inspired by light and liberty to rise. The truth is that in this case it was I who exhibited the stupidity; though I really think it was largely an affected stupidity. And certainly it was I who rejoiced in the neglect, and who asked for nothing better than to be neglected. It was, if anything, the authorities who dragged me, in my own despite, out of the comfortable and protected atmosphere of obscurity and failure. Personally, I was perfectly happy at the bottom of the class.

...But all this time very queer things were groping and wrestling inside my own undeveloped mind; and I have said nothing of them in this chapter; for it was the sustained and successful effort of most of my school life to keep them to myself. I said farewell to my friends when they went up to Oxford and Cambridge; while I, who was at that time almost wholly taken up with the idea of drawing pictures, went to an Art School and brought my boyhood to an end."

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At the opposite end of traditional school is the Sudbury Valley School (sudval.org), a 50-year-old student-governed community where the students can do whatever they want all day, within the bounds of the student-created written law.

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I was an exemplary student by any standard, coming out #1 of my year out of a few thousand high school students and never particularly suffering from school, but holy crap did I learn more _useful_ stuff from table-top RPGs, wargames, and fiddling around with dad's early IBM PCs.

English language? Geography? Statistics? History? Computers? Estimation of risk? Economics? That's all from hobbies, and while I still _remember_ that stuff, I couldn't solve a matrix if my life depended on it these days.

(Also, this review is my winner so far.)

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This was a great review, although it did make me think "what is the most interesting or useful fact about mitochondria if it isn't that they are the cell's powerhouse?". After a few minutes thought, I decided maybe most interesting was their plausible origin as symbiotic prokaryotic cells, and the most useful was that they were passed down only through the maternal line and have their own DNA, allowing us to do funky sequencing to see when our ancestors might have left Africa.

I was lucky enough to go to what in the US would be a Gifted program school (a state-funded grammar school, in the UK), and thrived in a heavily competitive, test-oriented environment. None the less, I think it very likely that if we'd had Khan Academy and Wikipedia instead, I'd have still actually learned a lot more.

And the last paragraph really hit home - it reminded me that good reviews aren't just plot summaries. The whole system of child education in many countries is captured by those heavily invested in the status quo, so how might we break free? Is anybody trying to, even? Are there startups or large public investments being made to replicate something like Neal Stephenson's Primer from "The Diamond Age" - full closed-loop automated learning systems, guided by feedback from the students, to maximise learning in a broad domain?

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> What would happen if we let kids choose how to allocate more of their time, and gave them the support and resources we could? What if the free daycare provided by state schools wasn’t as coupled to regimented instruction, but still included books, computers, and adults who would help explain things if asked?

This section reminds me of Ivan Illich's learning webs and other learning strategies.

Also worth considering how many resources are currently locked off to children which were not in previous times. If you read accounts by people like Suzanne Simard or Wendell Berry who grew up among loggers or teamsters (in the old fashioned, driving animals sense) they were taught their professions from a very young age, very aggressively, and without much heed to the dangers.

Urbanisation (and a concomitant set of complex phenomena) have made these practices too "dangerous", and so children nowadays are often insulated from learning in certain places (like garages, factories, workshops). As Holt puts it: "We separated children from adults and learning from the rest of life."

Whether that's a good or a bad thing is subject to some debate, but the classroom definitely deprives children of certain types of knowledge - to me, classrooms seem to privilege knowledge-that versus knowledge-how (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/knowledge-how/).

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In physical education we would sometimes go running around the track. 1000m, 2000m etc. I absolutely hated it because I had no endurance. My classmates were also usually much better at it (because many of them were playing soccer in a club), which made it worse.

And what kind of baffles me now is that it never even occurred to me that I could just go running on my own out of class. Knowing what I know now, even a tiny bit would have improved my endurance a lot. I might even have started to enjoy it like I do now.

But it never crossed my mind. I had never even considered that I could improve on my own out of school and make these classes much less miserable for me. Not entirely sure why that happened, but I find it sad.

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"[...]while the benefits of schooling are ambiguous, some of the costs are not."

This is really cogent and concise, perhaps the most powerful single sentence in the post. I'm going to make sure to repeat it any time I end up in a discussion about school.

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Thank you for this review. I haven't actually read the book, but I'm familiar with the concept and with John Holt. We "unschool" our son (I waited for the word to come up in the review, but perhaps he hadn't coined that word or even concept yet when he wrote this particular book) and I continually feel this pressure from the culture around me, the message of which is--I'm afraid this is true, and I'm not saying anyone has said this, it's a vibe in the air--that he's not miserable enough! We limit cartoons to twenty minutes morning and evening, he plays no video games yet at 7, and we give him a "lesson" at some point each morning and each afternoon, usually on a topic of his choice. We've used Khan Academy and other things. I've done some chemistry with him (he found a picture of an atom on a bookmark the other day, counted the electrons, and identified it as carbon on his periodic table), we're working on a timeline of European & American history, he had a period of being obsessed with astronomy, he's a voracious reader, he's currently making good progress in learning to read French (which I've taught him through speaking it a little each day since he was a toddler--and through not allowing him to find out cartoons in English existed till he was almost six!) His dad, who does his math, recently told me he's got the multiplication table memorized now and is working on longer multiplication and division. It's weird--writing this list is starting to make me sound like the opposite kind of parent, the one who signs their kid up for every Gifted thing they can, but here's the corrective: this happens in about two hours a day. An hour in the morning, an hour in the afternoon. The rest of his time he spends playing elaborate imaginative games with his friends, making elaborate Lego creations, and inventing elaborate new ways to race marbles. And though we're desultorily continuing our lesson times over the summer, if his friends are unexpectedly available during lesson time, lesson is generally canceled. Even during the school year, more often than not.

And I hear a legion of shadowy people (or, if I dare open my mouth in, say, a comment section of a parenting advice column, real internet commenters) saying "He plays most of the day?? You are failing so hard!" The list of his achievements doesn't really mollify them; imagine what a kid like that could achieve if you actually made him work!

Honestly, though, I don't think my son is a genius. I think he's fairly smart, like me & my husband. I'm an occasional reader of this blog, whose eyes glaze over when I hit a post that's full of charts and tables. I read for the book reviews, the fun stuff, the moments when Scott gets personal or hilarious or both. (LOVED the Arabian Nights review.) This is my first comment, mostly because the intellectual company intimidates me. I'm not in STEM, I write fiction and farm. My husband can do a thing or two with Linux but he's not a genius either. My brother is a genius, so I have some sense of how geniuses act (I'm awfully sorry but I wouldn't want to have to raise one, particularly), and I haven't seen it in my son. So honestly, I think the shadowy legion is wrong. I think he's working approximately to his real capacity. I think in a space like this his achievements aren't all that noteworthy... but maybe the ease with which he's made them is.

There was absolutely no need to ruin his life for this stuff. None at all.

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I have always been interested in many topics more or less related to classical school subjects. The way Holt describes student's performance matches me. In school, for example, I had to learn French for a couple of years. Even when I peaked in French, I couldn't read or speak basic French (got good grades anyway). On the other hand, I was fascinated in all sorts of sciences and was way ahead as a teenager (I'll never forget the day I understood how the constant speed of light leads to all sorts of strange phenomena). Overall, this sounds all great to me. I enjoyed reading it.

However, after reading, there remain two bits of thinking. The first bit seems obvious (and it's touched upon in the article and some comments). To be successful in the world, you need to have a model of how the world works. This includes all subjects taught in school and more. Probably the composition of typical school subjects is outdated and some should be exchanged. For example, I think understanding how computers work and how to program is more important than understanding an old theater play (I am not talking about language understanding in general). Teaching about law, taxes and insurance could certainly be more prominent too, as these topics are a growing part of reality. Let's go back to the idea of building a model of the world. There was the topic of "mitochondria as the powerhouse of the cell". Even if this way of thinking is true in part it still fills white areas of the map. Maybe one student becomes interested in bodybuilding. They can build on this knowledge by learning more about how certain cells work. Without even the idea that your body consists of cells they could spend years trying to gain muscle without any success just because they ignore basic principles. I like to stress here that a biology class and bodybuilding don't seem to have too much connection for a student.

Let me give another personal example: recently, I wanted to understand why planes fly. I wanted to understand aerodynamics (in a non-mathematical way). There are videos on YouTube that communicate it wrongly (air moving faster above the wing than below...). However, I could easily distinguish the wrong explanation from a valid one (a wing creates lift by accelerating air downward). Why could I distinguish and understand so easily? Because this information fits previous understanding (air consists of particles with mass, Newton's laws, and what not).

This brings me to the second bit of thinking, which is connected to the first one. In short: forming a model of the world takes time. I could understand basic aerodynamics easily because I learned something in the past. I could teach that to a student. They would easily learn to answer in a test that air is accelerated downward and thus creates lift. But do they really understand when there is barely anything to connect this to? Will they remember this in five years? I know that I'll never forget this principle because it fits into an existing model. Maybe the student will forget what they learned in the aerodynamics class. Then, school seems like a waste of time. However, the next time they learn something about Newton's second law they could be more likely to understand it because there is already some idea of accelerating a mass (the reverse order of teaching seems more plausible). To me, it seems that an imprecise and broad overview is in favor of early specialization (by self-teaching what I randomly like). Creating this broad model is hard because teachers need to place points of knowledge and try to connect them.

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The Snake Kid example is reminiscent of David Deutsch’s answer when asked how a child could possibly become a scientist if she didn’t learn maths as a kid:


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I think with a few important differences/caveats, teenagers (15+ ) are women are basically in the early 19th century are basically in the same boat.

Sociological factors of weird schooling are set up as biological truths. For example, if adults were sleep deprived, forced into high school and stripped of most of their agency, I would expect similer behavior.

Basically the whole legal concept of minor starts off well grounded in reality, but by 17 years old and 364 days at the latest, its become absurd and unjust.

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I'm glad I could help push this review to finalist, it resonates with my personal experiences and definitely pushed my thoughts in an anarchist direction, which doesn't happen often.

I recall hearing somewhere about archaeological evidence of ancient autonomous children societies that lived alongside the adult societies, and which made their own rules, cooperated, and even stood up to the adults together. I can imagine that would do a lot for learning, since one of the big motivations of learning is the idea that what you learn can actually change something. Removing overprotective, domineering helicopter parents (I'm not resentful at all) would do a lot to increase that motivation.

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Working in education made me induct many of these concepts. As did gifted teachers and another old thinker named dabrowski whose excitability theory was and still is a pretty valuable way I’d argue to think about intelligences. Led me to many of these holt conclusions. I’m trying to work on these concerns in academia and I can’t help but find that the let them learn vs fundamentals isn’t a dichotomy with appropriate organization. The problem is that so little has been placed in recognizing and relaying accreditation across that spectrum. We can design for “fitness” but as much as we attempt to incentive competencies, the institutional difficulties (especially in tandem with marginalization and/or poverty) are going to leave people thrown out. This lack makes difficulties that stem into overspecialization and adult difficulties in access and exertions as well. Simultaneously the ability and resource to actually overcome, let alone prosper, is dependent on luck far more than incentive. Clearly people are incentivized, but their capacities to engage or perform are curtailed not by incentive, but by capacity. You can’t just study bc you want to as an adult, the desire does not fall into structure in my society. It’s outsourced, privatized, algorithmic, increasingly dissociated from community (usually one of THE most easily healthy incentives is student desire to be present in desired relationships and status after all, barring they are relatively healthy in and in recognition of their associations). Sadly, it’s been more upkeep of the capacities and less the engagement of the selves so observantly maintained. Also, these rigors confound things into schedules of learning when understanding is easily not linear across perspective for any wild variety of competing reasons. Yet capacity is policed and demanded

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Covid made it clear how much school is about childcare and not learning. There was much more gnashing of teeth about how schools being closed made life harder for parents than about how schools being closed prevented children from learning things.

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Alas, one of the most unfortunate things that can happen to a theory is to have it put into action. In this case, the hypothesis that taking kids out of school and letting the Internet work its magic has been tried all across the country over the past year, and the results are unequivocally awful.

Student accomplishment measured by any reasonable metric has dropped like a stone[1]. Enrollment in parochial and private schools that promise *more* in-person classtime and *less* online education has soared. Anecdotally, in every family with school-age children I know, both parents and students have come to hate online education, and want nothing more than to go back to the actual classroom. There are indeed a precious few who feel liberated, and whose learning has accelerated, but they are a tiny minority.

Of course, one can make the usual socialist apologia -- "It just hasn't been done RIGHT" -- and that may well be true -- but then, I imagine if *classroom* education were "done right" we wouldn't have books written about how awful it is.

Classroom education by the type of people who go into education is, indeed, generally a regrettable experience, an ordeal. But *so far* nobody has been able to come up with anything to replace it that isn't techno-fanboi delusion ("the Internet! Youtube videos! MOOCs!") -- every one of which, when actually tried, have turned out to be deeply disappointing -- or that isn't wholly impractical for anyone other than the leisure class (home-schooling, high-resource academies). Like democracy, classroom education may be the worst possible system -- except for any other yet imagined.


[1] https://gpl.gsu.edu/publications/student-achievement-growth-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/ among many others.

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To state the obvious, different people learn differently and therefore no one system or on teaching style will ever suit everyone. I have been teaching for 21 years, and I am convinced that the real problem is not getting enough of a mention in this discussion: if we somehow remove the link between education and future income (UBI?), everything related to school and education would improve dramatically.

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Speaking of general education, I am delighted to announce that 41 years after I sat it, I would still get a decent result in my Leaving Cert according to this quiz (I only messed up which English paper was the one with drama/poems as distinct from the essay, oh the shame!) 😁


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I had a revelation as a high school sophomore that gave me a much better attitude about learning. My English teacher decided that our class should spend essentially an entire semester reading In Cold Blood (Capote) aloud in class. This melted my brain. I read the (very short) book in a day or two at home and decided (out of spite) to read the unabridged Les Miz next. So I spent my English class time reading that and whenever called upon to read aloud, looked up and asked "where are we?"

Whatever fear I had of the teacher, grades, etc., kind of went away after that. I still studied and succeeded, but I had taken control of my education and never gave it back.

The vision of self-directed learning, with the only parental/institutional controls limited to what apps are allowed on tablets seems like a fun experiment, but doesn't answer my longstanding question about differences among schools. Why are some schools so much more effective at turning out grade-level skills and college graduates than others, even controlling for student body composition? Why can't we have more of those effective schools and do something to fix or close the rest?

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"Society does not depend on universal lifelong literacy in cell biology; we could get along just fine if 5% of us knew the powerhouse thing, and the other 95% had skipped bio class that year."

I disagree with this, because the point of a common education is more than just the utility of the information transferred. It also creates a common culture that's able to talk to itself more easily. If only 5% of people know what mitochondria, then I can't make a casual analogy like "search is the mitochondria of Google" and expect anyone to get it. That may seem like a silly complaint, but it seems more significant when you read 19th century political writings and see them quoting Homer in Greek and trusting that it succinctly communicates a sophisticated concept. I really do think having the culture share a common set of concepts helps enable productive public dialogue.

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I think this is probably trying to solve the wrong problem, or at least a different problem to the one I care about -

"What approach to education will produce the optimal outcomes for motivated, able children of educated middle-class parents who are able to devote informed effort and if need be money to their children's education?"

rather than

"What approach to education, if taken by the state, will result in the best overall outcomes for the population as a whole?"

I think there are a lot of possible explanations for the success of e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michaela_Community_School, but my guess is that its approach to education - which is kind of diametrically opposite Holt's - is probably part of it. I think I'd have /hated/ attending it, and if I had the option of sending my children to a school with a different philosophy and an intake where that was working well (which is correlated with, but not the same as, a predominantly middle-class intake) I'd far rather take that, but I think that as a fall-back for areas with predominantly poor, deprived children it may well be a better option, especially if the state can't be persuaded to spend as much as I'd like per child (which seems unlikely in most of the US).

I think that the answer to the former is that lots of approaches will produce reasonable outcomes but getting the latter right is both hard and important.

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"you can just look up what the powerhouse of a cell is"

How do you do that if you don't even have a concept of the cell having a powerhouse? This is precisely the kind of thing that is hard to look up, since you need to know beforehand that there is something to look for.

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Thumbs up for John Holt! I enjoyed the review and it gives good overview of the main themes. I would recommend people skim through the book for themselves, as you are bound to find something that you find particularly insightful. Some stories which stood out to me:

* a boy who could keep track of bowling score in local bowling alley, but for whatever reason could not do basic arithmetic in school; even if the arithmetic was phrased in terms of a bowling scenario!

* a girl who cried when finding out how 'once' is pronounced. message of story was how most adults/teachers take many non-trivial and non-logical facts for granted, but talk about it and teach it to kids as if they are totally logical and obvious. This girls reaction is an immediate consequence of this, but long-term has potential effect of kids having expectation that things make sense drilled out of them

* various stories of kids struggling to learn very basic things, and various exercises and tasks that Holt tried to help them. i find it useful to see what i take for granted in terms of basic skills!

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This analysis is a good example of what I think of as the mainstream "online culture" criticism of public schools in America (and so it makes sense that the author cites Paul Graham as an avatar of that critique).

I was also a "gifted" student in mainstream, non-"gifted" public schools in Cambridge, MA, which probably provided more challenge at the top end than most public school systems (I took AP classes in high school, I got pulled out with a few other kids in 6th grade for somewhat advanced algebra, etc.).

What I will say is that the "force feeding" aspect wasn't often my problem; sure, I drew pictures during French class and got in trouble, which is stupid because I aced the tests whether I was drawing or not. The problem was teacher quality and enthusiasm. My French teacher didn't really want to be teaching 12 year-olds French. My science teacher didn't really love science or have passionate scientific opinions or hate people who do sloppy science. On the other hand, my 7th grade English teacher truly, absolutely had a passion for helping 12 year-olds find their voice as fiction authors, and wouldn't you know it, I blossomed as a fiction writer that year and enjoyed every minute of her class. My teacher in a mixed 2nd and 3rd grade class loved teaching long division and was thrilled to include me as a 2nd grader and to see me start to understand why the algorithm worked. You could have made me take any subject from Talmudic debate to ice fishing to snail categorization and if the teacher truly freaking loved doing it and teaching it, I would have loved every minute of it.

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The boat captain's licensing exam is a kind of educational coercion, but ultimately it's the ocean that grades harshly. And when the person in charge of a large commercial vessel fails, he is not the only one who dies. I think it's completely fair that people driving container ships need to know some things they'd maybe rather not. And probably required for the standard of living we expect that more people drive container ships than are born with a love for all the relevant facts.

There are hundreds more examples where that came from. So it seems important that children learn the meta-skill of learning what they don't particularly want to.

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Howard was almost certainly talking solely about white kids, and the fact is that any review that doesn't mention this (or fails to mention whether he discussed race) is failing to observe that the book is basically useless for American education policy.

Some of the commenters are mentioning class and ability, which is good, but let's be really clear: if you are reading and posting here, then American education did not fail you, and your problems are not what American education cares about.

Now, I agree that perhaps they should. I think we should be doing more to challenge our bright kids, although not in manners that Asian schools OR the bright bored people who wail about unhappy they were in K-12 (a group so overrepresented at this site it's a cliche).

But unless or until you can answer these questions:

1) How can American K-12 education challenge all children adequately without creating formal paths that show clear racial disparities?

2) What job training can our lowest ability kids (regardless of race) benefit from, and how can we ensure that other aspects of American policy (immigration) aren't selling them short?

3) How can we restrict college attendance to a certain tested ability level without creating formal paths that show clear racial disparities?

If your answer is "we can't", then you should formally acknowledge that US education is pretty amazingly great.

If your answer is "we should", well, go get the lawsuits going and get back to me.

In short, there's no fix, Howard was dated when he began, and certainly by 1982, and while the review is fine in a cocoon, any review that reefuses to acknowledge reality is just perpetuating the problems involved in discussing American education.

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The main function of school is *not* learning. Any learning is secondary. The main goal of school is socialization and regimentation.

Start the day at 8:25 with roll call, then the Pledge, then English starts at 8:35. English lasts for precisely 50 minutes until 9:25, then another 50 minutes is set aside for arithmetic. At 10:15, the first grade gets a break for recess. Bells mark each division of time.

In the higher grades, the socialization and regimentation are fine-tuned to the track that the student is placed on. Kids on the college prep track are given a bit more freedom, and their classwork is geared to more independent thinking and less rote performance of tasks than their peers on the "business/vocational" or "general/industrial" tracks.

A couple of my teachers more or less told me as much. John Taylor Gatto wrote entire books dismantling the subject. Like a lot of anarchist and adjacent writing, Gatto is brutally accurate when it comes to describing and decrying power and the way it works in the real world. The problem is that he doesn't offer much in the way of concrete solutions other than "tear down the schools and let kids educate their little selves".

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I forget where I first saw this, but I thought of it halfway through this review, even before getting to the line about mitochondria


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Brief review-of-the-review:

This one is my new front-runner in the book review contest! Interesting, important, unusually heartfelt, and clearly written. (So far the reader choices seem to be as good as, if not better than, the curated ones.) My main reservation is that both the reviewer and the author seem to have some substantial, not-precisely-rational precommitments and there's not much statistical evidence around to shore them up-- everything is anecdotal or common-sense reasoning. But overall I felt this to be necessary given the subject matter, maybe even more a feature than a bug. Also, the reviewer does a good job of being circumspect about noting possible biases and counterarguments. Very well done-- I'm glad I got to read it!

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I feel like time spent in a lecture ought to be limited to a few hours a day, perhaps increasing slightly for older ages. Think about it - at work, about how many hours of meetings can you handle in a day before your brain melts down? (for me, about 2.5). In college, about how many hours do you spend per day actually sitting at a desk and taking notes? (my experience was about 3 hours a day, maybe 4 at the high end).

These types of activities have value, but tend to take a lot out of us. As adults, we recognize that we realistically only have a few (maybe up to four?) hours a day of this sort of thing before the returns start diminishing rapidly. I think most kids are probably even less suited for this sort of self-controlled environment (though natural human variation assures that some people will thrive in almost any scenario you come up with).

I don't think we need to throw out the idea of directed learning entirely - we just need to pull the reins a bit. It seems to me that the most important parts of reading, writing, and arithmetic could be taught through occasional lectures and a reasonable number of directed activities. That can leave plenty of time for undirected socializing, individual projects, sports, creative pursuits, etc.

This would in some sense be a radical change, but not nearly as radical as unschooling, homeschooling, or other ways of abandoning "official" education systems entirely. And I think it would lead to happier, smarter kids.

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Please fix the links. They all are to commonmark.org and only the later part of the URL is the intended link.

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The 4-H children at New York State Fair (and all other fairs) compete in various arenas, e.g. plant identification, crafts, and public speaking. The homeschooled kids are maybe 5% of the population (because they're more likely to join 4-H in the first place) but win 25% of the ribbons. They have the free time to pursue their interests, which translate into winning competitions.

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The review summarizes well, though the many anecdotes in the book really drive the arguments home with a quick skim.

As far as I know, Democratic (Sudbury) education is the only organized alternative that addresses all of of the issues that Holt describes in a non-ideological way. Separate from the benefits that it confers to students precisely because of this, though, it treads water in a unique reputational swamp: mainstream parents and observers tend to conflate it with Waldorf, free schooling etc (i.e. "radical and weird"), while proponents of the better-established alternatives tend to skip the conflation and proceed straight to the labelling ("radical and irresponsible").

There's a related macro-issue that falls outside the scope of the book: school curricula having become primary drivers of cultural continuity/evolution, however aspirational or (in)coherent. Talk about a can of worms though :)

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> The idea of painless, non-threatening coercion is an illusion. Fear is the inseparable companion of coercion, and its inescapable consequence. If you think it your duty to make children do what you want, whether they will or not, then it follows inexorably that you must make them afraid of what will happen to them if they don't do what you want. You can do this in the old-fashioned way, openly and avowedly, with the threat of harsh words, infringement of liberty, or physical punishment. Or you can do it in the modern way, subtly, smoothly, quietly, by withholding the acceptance and approval which you and others have trained the children to depend on; or by making them feel that some retribution awaits them in the future, too vague to imagine but too implacable to escape. You can, as many skilled teachers do, learn to tap with a word, a gesture, a look, even a smile, the great reservoir of fear, shame, and guilt that today's children carry around inside them. Or you can simply let your own fears about what will happen to you if the children don't do what you want, reach out and infect them. Thus the children will feel more and more that life is full of dangers from which only the goodwill of adults like you can protect them, and that this goodwill is perishable and must be earned anew each day.

This quote is a big gut punch... and I have a hot take. If coercion requires fear, and we just actually need coercion, then it's better for everyone's soul if do it directly, barbarically, overtly. We don't have to do weird epicycles of politeness: I'm abusing you for the good of all, and you are being abused. Everyone knows the deal. You grow up, you also keep doing it. But never under the brainwashed delusion that it's not happening. It's dark, but there's something forthright and refreshing about it, no?

ps. I'm not sure how positive reinforcement interacts with the basic claim, but I find it plausible that you can have coercion without fear if you get the positive incentives right.

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This is actually quite powerful.

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