My son attends a learning institution with no mandatory classes. Compared to students at traditional schools (I’ll refer to them as just schools from now on) he has a lot of freedom.

Sometimes I talk with parents who are skeptical about the wisdom of allowing this freedom. One objection I hear is that school ought to prepare a child for the real world, and in the real world you often have to do things you’d rather not. The implication is school should get kids used to this reality by systematically requiring them to do things they’d rather not, and schools without mandatory classes and assignments fail to meet this requirement.

I'm going to talk about a few of the reasons this objection isn't compelling.

The real world?

I think the language of the objection is interesting. If school is preparation for the real world, then a child's world, while they are in school, is in some sense not real. This might seem like a trivial detail, but I think it reflects a common attitude that is harmful.

I believe children are already real people, living real lives, in the real world, whether they're in school or elsewhere. Their experience (including their suffering) during this time is as real as that of an adult.

The idea that children are not yet living real lives fits a tendency to unwittingly diminish and dismiss the experience of children and to treat them as less than full persons.

A less problematic way of phrasing the objection is that school prepares kids for later life. More on that idea in a minute. For now let's note that the costs and benefits of schooling, immediate as well as long-term, count and come to bear on real life, in the real world.

Here's Teacher Tom reflecting on the life/school dichotomy.

If we really want to prepare children for life, wouldn't that be better accomplished by letting them live it? When children are allowed to play together, when the adults are there to guide and inspire, rather than direct and judge, then they are really living the life that exists beyond the artificial confines of school.

In later life there's only one place like school

School is different from later life in ways that are relevant to the question of whether it's a good preparation for it.

In later life people don’t generally solve problems and do otherwise unnecessary work to gain the approval of an authority figure. Usually the work people do in later life is motivated, one way or another, by personal interest and/or a desire to improve a situation for oneself or for others.

This artificial arrangement in schools, I claim, alienates students from their innate curiosity, and encourages the suppression of natural interests. Here's Peter Gray.

Schools thwart passions by:

Requiring everyone to do the same things at the same time. It’s not possible for all the children in a room to be passionately interested in the same thing at the same time.

Replacing intrinsic motivation with extrinsic motivators, such as grades and trophies. To pursue a passion you have to focus on what YOU want to do, not try to impress others or win honors.

Threatening students with failure or embarrassment, which generates fear. Fear freezes the mind into rigid ways of thinking and negates the possibility of passionate interest.

Teaching that there is one right answer to every question, or one right way to do what you are supposed to do. That’s a surefire way to nip any possible emerging interest in the bud.

Teaching children that learning is work and that play, at best, is just a break from learning. But anyone involved in a passionate interest knows that play and learning and work are one and the same.

In later life you usually opt in to social settings, and can usually opt out again. Even if you take a job you dislike, you have the ability to save up and quit, and search for something else. On the other hand, a young child doesn’t generally choose his school. And once enrolled he cannot leave without his parents cooperation. Unlike an adult, he's not free to exit a situation that's a bad fit for him.

Most adult lives don't include situations that are anything like being at school. Here's Peter Gray's provocative comparison.

The only difference I can think of is that to get into prison you have to commit a crime, but they put you in school just because of your age. In other respects school and prison are the same. In both places you are stripped of your freedom and dignity. You are told exactly what you must do, and you are punished for failing to comply. Actually, in school you must spend more time doing exactly what you are told to do than is true in adult prisons, so in that sense school is worse than prison.

Further still, the real world of today is very different form the real world of fifty years ago. The internet allows freedom of association to be exercised to a much greater degree than ever before. Meanwhile mainstream schooling has changed very little in the last fifty years. School was already very different from the real world, and it resembles is even less today than it did in previous eras.

Your real world or mine?

When a person worries that school is a necessary preparation for the real world they’re inevitably talking about ‘the world as I know it’.

In the real world as I know it, my school career has not been a helpful starting point. These following abilities have been crucial for my journey in adult life so far:

  • The ability to freely follow my interests
  • to be critical and express dissent,
  • to exercise freedom of association and exit situations that weren’t optimal for me.

I've been able to do these things exists in spite of my school career, which incentivised:

  • suppressing my interests
  • self-censoring my dissenting views
  • and resigning myself to spending every weekday with people I disliked.

First, do no harm

Even if school was similar to later life, it’s still not clear that it would be desirable as preparation for it.

If we believe a person will be systematically dehumanised, alienated from their work, and compelled to do things they don’t enjoy later in life (a disliked job), are we confident that we'd be helping this person by systematically dehumanising them, alienating them from their work, and compelling them to do things they don’t enjoy while they're a child? (traditional school).

The attitude of ‘this is just the way the world is, better get used to it’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Students habituated to asking permission and deferring to arbitrary authority will be less able, I claim, to change the world for the better.

Not walking the walk

Do people really believe that the hardships of school are good, character-forming preparation for real life? Often I’m not convinced that they do. Or at least there seem to be limits on how far this principle informs people's behaviour, and other considerations are more important.

I don't think parents making some version of the real world objection usually seek out the most authoritarian school in their locality, for instance, even though this one would be the best bet (the reasoning seems to go) for hardening their children up to weather the demands of bosses in uninspiring jobs later in life. Being hypocritical doesn't mean being wrong, but it seems that the real world objection isn't one that really motivates the people who make it.

Two environments

We want our children to be resilient, resourceful, inventive and able to delay gratification for long-term goals. These are the characteristics that will serve them well in the real world (and yes, that will include following directives from others when necessary). Which environment do you think is more likely to foster these traits?

  1. An environment which requires a high degree of conformity. Where permission is required from an authority figure even to carry out basic body functions (eating, drinking, using the bathroom). Where the teacher is the final arbiter of ‘the right answers’, and your goal is to gain their approval by providing them.
  2. An environment with a high degree of autonomy, where a child is responsible for figuring out what it is they want to do and doing it. Where they learn quickly because they've been allowed to follow a passion for the topic they're diving into. Where it’s up to the child to negotiate with others to realise their plans, with help from adults if they choose to seek it.

I'm convinced that if we want to prepare our children for the real world, we can do a lot better than sending them to school.

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