I sincerely hope you are all doing well — that you are flourishing in the wake of this pandemic.
I have received feedback from last week’s letter, and I worry I may not have explained myself adequately. I may not have been as clear as I could have been.
I want to explain my view, plainly.
The case I want to make is simply this:
The way we raise and educate children is coercive and means children are spending most of their time not doing as they please — and this is necessarily bad
It is absolutely not necessary to learning (and it may even be detrimental)
Taking Children Seriously is simply the philosophy that it is both possible and desirable to raise a child without coercion. That is it.
Deciding what another person does
A man approached Sadhguru and asked sincerely for advice on how to make the best decisions for his kids.
“Why are you making all the decisions for them?”
We make most of their decisions for them. We make them go to school where they spend most of their week learning a curriculum picked out for them, and leave them compulsory homework and assignments to fill in the time in between. Many of us even feel compelled to ensure they participate in extra-curricular activities or even additional classes on the weekend. We waste an extraordinary amount of their time. To grow up as a child in this modern world is to be spending most of your time, trapped in activity that someone else believes is best.
“Does anyone really find it satisfactory to espouse lofty principles such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from involuntary servitude, the right to due process and so forth, while simultaneously justifying locking children up in a classroom all day doing things they hate and then giving them ‘detentions’ for speaking disrespectfully to a teacher when he forcibly prevents them from leaving the room?”
David Deutsch, TCS and Fallibilism
I remember once watching the excellent animated sitcom Daria. After another year of unsatisfactory year at high school, Daria believes she finally has the chance to relax. Her mother wouldn’t let this happen though, finding out that her daughter had no plans to use the time productively she forced her to volunteer at a summer camp. The very thought of Daria living to her whims drove her to anger. Is allowing children to do as they please so scary?
“Daria, I’m serious. I’m not going to let you sit around the house all summer.”
“Fine, I’ll LIE around the house all summer.”
We cannot see the future. When we prepare for this future, we cannot know that our efforts will be fruitful. The steps we take to prepare are simply guesses. We make guesses as to what the future will be like, and we guess as to how we must prepare for it.
What I am trying to say is; we don’t really know what the world of the future is like, nor do we know how best to prepare for it.
We are forcing millions of children throughout the world, to sit in classrooms learning what is essentially our guess as to what they will need. How can we feel justified in doing this?
Compulsory = Do this, or else
For any activity to be compulsory, coercion must be at work.
If the person does not want to engage in the activity — then what?
I remember once watching a YouTube video where the magician Pen Jillette was making the case for libertarianism. He found it appalling that we had we build public libraries with taxpayers’ money. As a lover of books and a beneficiary of public libraries, I found this quite disagreeable.
I can see where he is coming from now.
His reasoning is as follows. We have no choice but to pay taxes. It is compulsory.
Think about what this means.
What happens if you are enthusiastic and persistent enough in not paying your taxes?
Sooner or later someone will show up (perhaps with a gun) and punish you for it. If you continue to fail to comply, you may even find yourself physically handled and locked away somewhere.
Are there any desirable outcomes for as a society worth this implicit threat of violence? I’m not sure.
Is building a library one of them?
“I will gladly help you build a library. I will not use a gun to get someone else to join us.”
Penn Jillette, Mistrust of Government is a Beautiful Thing
The price we pay
I only bring this up to remind you what liberty is, and what coercion is. To compel an individual to act in a certain way, is to be willing to inflict harm on them if they refuse.
Compulsory anything means bad things will happen if you do not comply.
The way we raise and educate children, with compulsory schooling — along with many other things — is filled to the brim with coercion. This is necessarily a bad thing.
We force children by the hundreds of millions to engage in activities they did not choose. We waste most of their time. Rather than being able to pursue their own interests, we force them to engage in what we believe is best.
Can you see the problem here?
There is undoubtedly a significant degree of suffering we are inflicting here. Is it worth it?
If there is an outcome of value to be gained here, it has to be enough to offset all of this suffering — this also has to be the only way to achieve it.
Even if there were a benefit, there is a cost. That cost is the freedom of the children of the world. They are stripped of their ability to live as they please, to follow their own interests and to do as they like.
At the very least, I hope I have convinced you, dear reader, that there is a downside to the way we do things. The way we operate at present is filled with coercion, and that this is necessarily a bad thing. That, if we can achieve whatever it is that education promises, without any of it — we absolutely must — and our world will be better for it.
The Pot of Gold at the end of Coercion’s Rainbow
We are depriving children of the ability to do as they please en masse, locking them away in classrooms forcing them to learn content that more often than not, fails to inspire them. By stripping them of freedom and the happiness that comes with it, we are obviously harming them. We persist nonetheless because we believe it is necessary and justified.
That there is a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.
Given the amount of freedom we strip and the amount of suffering we inflict, we must believe there is something of profound value we are imparting on the next generation. For it all, to be worth it, this must be true.
But if this were true, we should see a significant difference in the outcomes of individuals who were brought up in a coercive schooling environment, and those who were not.
There is almost a natural scientific experiment here; we can change a single variable — education — and see what else it affects.
Getting Empirical: The Fruits of Unschooling
The way we raise and educate children is filled with coercion and time-wasting. A child will spend much of their time and energy following a script we have written for them. We impose this fate upon them, believing it is necessary — that it leads to a greater good.
If this were the case, we should expect the children brought up in this way to be doing much better than those who were not.
Happily we happen to have a sample of individuals raised without coercion: Enter Unschooling
The Unschooling philosophy is similar to TCS, and there have been many individuals brought up this way.
Almost all respondents wrote about the freedom and independence afforded to them by Unschooling, and how it gave them the time to discover and pursue their own interests. Many of them also wrote that it helped them become highly self-motivated and self-directed individuals.
The majority of respondents were employed, and most were financially self-sufficient.
Two interesting generalisations: A relatively high percentage (48%) were involved in the creative arts, a very high rate (53%) were entrepreneurs.
77% of respondents were engaged in careers that directly grew from their childhood interests and aspirations. This is a significant departure from those who were in conventional schooling.
75% didn’t reported no disadvantage at all, and of those remaining among the most common was dealing with other’s criticisms of Unschooling.
There are clear limitations to this study, namely; the small sample size and self-selection bias (the average individual that volunteers for a survey may be different to the average individual). I hope to see more studies in the results in non-coercive parenting and education in the future.
My point stands the members of the sample were competent, capable people making their way in the world — and they were almost unanimously happy with both their childhood and present lives in a way we do not find with the typical person.
If this information is representative and is to be taken seriously, it goes to follow that the benefits we perceive in traditional parenting and education — and the coercion that comes with it — is illusory. Children flourish in spite of it, not because of it.
Much like we once believed that hitting children was necessary for their development — that if we spare the rod, we spoil the child — perhaps we are also mistaken about the need to force them into ways of living that do not bring them joy.
Getting Rational: The Theory of TCS
When we look at observation and experiment; we are getting empirical.
When we are looking at reason and theory; we are getting rational.
The theory here is straightforward; we learn from conjecture and criticism.
We conjecture theories on how the world works, and we criticise them against reason and evidence.
We come up with ideas as to how things are, and we test them against reality.
This process of conjecture, or coming up with ideas, or guessing is essential to learning.
To be clear, this means that creativity is essential to the growth of knowledge.
Even before entering kindergarten, most children will have achieved a feat that most adults consider considerably challenging; they will have attained fluency in a language.
This happens almost effortless — as if through osmosis.
This journey from speaking their first word, to being immersed in conversation, reliably unfolds in the lives of our children. All of this, without a shred of compulsion.
This is what I believe is going on:
- Children are hearing language in use all the time
- They are intuitively making guesses as to how it works, and what all the different words mean
- They are testing these guesses by putting them into practice in speaking and comprehension
When a child utters a sentence and is corrected or not understood, the opportunity for learning dawns naturally. When a sentence, they hear does not make sense in light of what they know; likewise, learning is bound to follow.
Growing our knowledge is nothing more than forming ideas about how things are and criticising them against other ideas and experience.
But to be creative — to make guesses as to how things are — we need to be unafraid of being wrong. Children are much better than this than adults.
What these things have in common is that kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original -- if you’re not prepared to be wrong. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this. We stigmatise mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.
Learning happens through guessing, making mistakes and correcting them. The way we raise and educate children involves stigmatising mistakes, we have effectively sealed away their natural curiosity and restricted their flow of discovery. To be afraid to make mistakes, is to be afraid to learn. Rather than an understanding of how the world is; we teach what to say and not to say to keep adults happy.
As a default, we teach children that their ideas are wrong, and that ours are right. We even override their ideas on how they ought to spend their time with our own. We do not let them think for themselves and act freely by these thoughts.
Curiosity is the seed of knowledge — why do we feel that suppressing it is essential for it?
Nature, Nurture and Parenting
“To be a wife is not to engage in ‘wifing’, to be a friend is not to ‘friend’, even on Facebook, and we don’t ‘child’ our mothers and fathers.”
Alison Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter
The phrase “to parent” has strange connotations — why is it a verb? In her book; The Gardener and the Carpenter, respected child psychologist Alison Gopnik has compared this to many of the other relationships we engage in.
” ‘Parent’ is not actually a verb, not a form of work, and it isn’t and shouldn’t be directed toward the goal of sculpting a child into a particular kind of adult”
There is a lot that parents do toward the end of moulding their child to their ideal. It seems to me that almost always this involves coercion at every step of the way. To be clear, making a person do anything against their will is coercion. This coercion that I am talking about is commonplace.
All of these efforts — all of this coercion — is in vain.
The wonderful Steven Pinker — a psychologist and linguist — made this very case in his 2002 bestseller The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.
He argues that we are born with a nature, and that we are not blank slates to be written on how our parents see fit. This is not presented as a controversial opinion but established knowledge, we know that children are not shaped primarily by their parents’ behaviour.
Steven reminds of this by invoking the three laws of behavioural genetics:
- All human behavioural traits are heritable
- The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes
- A substantial portion of variation between us is not accounted for by genes or families
I have written about this before, but Steven attributes ~50% of variation to our genes, ~0% from family influences (including parenting), and ~50% to other influences.
“A simple way of remembering what we are trying to explain is this: identical twins are 50 per cent similar whether they grow up together or apart.”
Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate
The studies that determine this are called twin studies, and they have been done extensively. Twins that grow up in entirely different circumstances, even in different parts of the world tend to turn out to be eerily similar. Meanwhile, all of us with siblings can attest to how differently we can turn out even when growing up under the same roof. When looking at the deeper behavioural traits, what makes a person unique, we find that twins growing up apart have just as much in common as those growing up together.
If we take this seriously, we must conclude that the efforts of the parent do not mould the child. Therefore, much of the coercion and time-wasting parents put children through is ultimately to no avail and unnecessary. They might as well have simply enjoyed their company.
“Realistic parents would be less anxious parents. They could enjoy their time with their children rather than constantly trying to stimulate them, socialise them, and improve their characters. They could read stories to their children for the pleasure of it, not because it’s good for their neurons.”
Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate
In closing, I want to summarise:
The way we bring up children is rife with coercion, we continually deny them from being able to live as they please - and it matters
It doesn’t have to be this way; children flourish in spite of this, not because of it
Woah, this has been almost three thousand words. I hope you have enjoyed reading it. I am going to run this through Grammarly and send it out soon. I am getting sleepy.
Oh hey, it just past three thousand.
Thank you for reading to the end of yet another of these letters. It is because of you that I continue to write.