Discover more from David Friedman’s Substack
A commenter asked for more on my child-rearing philosophy and experiences
One of the assumptions built into the conventional version of K-12 schooling is that out of all of human knowledge there is some subset that everyone needs to study, just the right size to occupy most of twelve years of school. That assumption is false. There is a very short list of skills — reading, writing or typing and arithmetic are the ones that occur to me — that almost everyone will find worth learning. Beyond that, the standard curriculum is for the most part an arbitrary list of what happens to be in fashion, the subjects everyone is required to pretend to learn.
Consider English composition, American history, algebra, geometry, and biology. What is taught in high school classes on each will prove very useful to some people, occasionally useful to more, and almost entirely useless to many. There are quite a lot of other things such as statistics and economics, cooking and sewing, that are equally likely to be useful but do not happen to be on the standard curriculum. Although practically every American high school graduate is supposed to have learned everything he has been taught many, probably a large majority, have not, as almost anyone who has taught college freshmen can testify.
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Consider my wife's experience teaching a geology lab for non-majors at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. A substantial minority of the students did not know that the volume of a rectangular solid, a hypothetical ore body, was the length times the height times the depth. Those students would have been from the top quarter or so of high school graduates in Virginia and practically all of them would have taken geometry.
A second assumption is that the way for children to learn things is to be told what they must learn today, assigned some reading, and set down to listen to a teacher. One result is that children spend most of their time being told things they have no interest in knowing. Another, given the diversity of interests and abilities, is that a third of the pupils in a classroom are bored because they already know what is being taught, a third are bored because they are completely lost, and only the middle third are, with luck, listening, understanding and learning. That helps explain why parents who homeschool routinely report that they can cover the same material taught in school in a third the time. A sufficiently good teacher can improve the numbers somewhat, but sufficiently good teachers are scarce.
One result is that many children grow up regarding education as unpleasant work to be avoided when possible. Another is that schools spend six years teaching things such as arithmetic that the average kid could learn in a year if he wanted to learn them. A third is that we end up with high school graduates many of whom, perhaps a majority, do not actually know many of the things they have spent all those years pretending to learn. As all students and most teachers know, the usual result of making someone study something of no interest to him is that he memorizes as much as he has to in order to pass the final exam and forgets it as rapidly as possible thereafter.
The flip side of that, routinely observed by parents, is that children can put enormous energy and attention into learning something that interests them — the rules of D&D, the details of a TV series, the batting averages of the top players of the past decade. Quite a long time ago we got our kids Gameboys with Pokemon cartridges. At about the same time I heard a lady on talk radio explaining that kids who got high tech toys played with them for half an hour or so and then put them on the shelf. My estimate is that Bill and Becca logged something like eighty hours a month, perhaps more, on those cartridges for many months thereafter, more work and more attention than I, at a similar age, put into all of my schoolwork combined, and continued to play the game at a reduced rate for years thereafter. The skill they were learning, how to find their way around the Pokemon world and accomplish goals therein, was in one sense useless, since the world was a fictional one. But being able to find one’s way around a new environment and accomplish things within it is a very useful skill.
Teaching the Wrong Lesson
In the standard model of schooling, someone else decides what is true and you believe him. Living by that approach is dangerous in the real world and not entirely safe even in school: Many of us remember examples of false information presented to us by teachers or textbooks as true.1 Better, when possible, to find information and judge it yourself.
Since there is never enough time to check everything your sources tell you, you need the ability to evaluate sources of information on internal evidence. Does this author sound as though he is making an honest attempt to describe the arguments for and against his views, the evidence and its limits, to present and respond to the best arguments against his positions, or is he trying to snow the reader? Research online, for curiosity or argument, is a way of practicing that skill; since the web is an unfiltered medium, anyone not brain dead soon realizes that the fact that someone on the web says something is at best weak evidence that it is true. The skill of judging sources of information is anti-taught by a model of education in which the student is presented with two authorities, the teacher and the textbook and, unless the teacher is an unusually good one, instructed to believe what they tell him.
The alternative to the conventional model that we chose for our children was unschooling, leaving children free to control their own time, learn whatever they find of interest, with adults providing suggestions — which they are free to ignore — and support. Put them in an environment that offers many alternative sources of information: web access, people to talk with, visits to the library. If at some future time they discover that something they need was left out of their education they can learn it then, as our children did with several subjects after deciding that they would help them to do well on the SAT exams needed to get into a good college. That is a more efficient strategy than trying to learn everything they might ever find useful, most of which they won't.
Our choice of that strategy was based largely on my and my wife’s experience. I went to a first-rate private school, the same school to which Obama later sent his children, my wife to a good suburban public school. Both of us had a few good teachers and classes but what we most remember is being bored most of the time. I learned more about the English language reading Kipling's poetry for fun and going through a book or two a day, largely Agatha Christie and her competitors, during summer vacation, than I did in English class. I learned more about political philosophy arguing with my best friend than I did in social science. We thought we could do better for our children.
I sometimes describe the process as throwing books at them and seeing which ones stick.
A little while after moving to California we heard about a local school new that year, based on the Sudbury model of in school unschooling, and brought our daughter over to visit. She decided she wanted to go to it so we enrolled her. A few years later we added her brother, eventually, when problems developed at the school, shifted to home unschooling.
Unschooling at a Sudbury school includes classes if students ask for them. When our daughter was about ten there was a math class, with students of varying ages and ability, lasting somewhat over a year. It started assuming the students knew nothing beyond addition, ended in the early stages of algebra. That is pretty much all of the formal instruction either of them had until, much later, they took a few college classes at the university where I taught.2 We nagged them into memorizing the multiplication tables, which are useful to know but boring to learn; that was the closest thing to compulsory learning in their education. Our daughter, as an adult, thinks even that was a mistake.
How did they get educated? They both read a lot; although many of the books they read were children's books, pretty early they were also reading books intended for adults. When our daughter was about nine we were traveling and ran out of books for her to read so she read the Elizabeth Peters books, historical novels about the early years of Egyptian archaeology that her mother had brought along for her own reading.
Betty remembered having read and learned from How To Lie With Statistics, a book about how not to be fooled by statistical arguments, so we got a copy and both kids liked it. Our son played D&D and other games with dice rolling, so was interested in learning how to calculate probabilities. It turned out that the same author and illustrator had produced How to Take a Chance, a book on simple probability theory; we got it and he read it multiple times. The result was an eleven or twelve-year-old who could calculate the probability of rolling 6 or under with three six-sided dice.
For some years his hobby was creating games. At a World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles he had an interesting and productive conversation with Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson games concerning a game Bill had invented. He did not succeed in his ambition to get a board game commercially published by age sixteen, is now trying to get published as a fiction author. He has not yet done so but I have, and he is a better novelist than I am.
Both kids spent a lot of time online. We discovered that Bill had taught himself to type when the family was playing a networked game on the home network — Diablo or Diablo II — and misspelled words started appearing on our screen. He needed to type because he played games online and wanted to be able to communicate. Later he wanted to learn how to spell so that he would not look stupid to the people he was communicating with. His sister spent a good deal of time with World of Warcraft, some of it writing up battle reports and other essays to be posted on suitable web sites.
I am fond of poetry and know quite a lot of it. When our daughter was very little I used it to put her to sleep. Some time thereafter we were driving somewhere at night and heard a small voice from the back seat: "Larth Porthena of Cluthium, by the nine gods he thwore" — the opening line of "Horatius at the Bridge" in a two year old’s lisp. She now knows quite a lot more poetry. When I put my son to bed — my wife and I took turns — we generally talked for a while, then he asked for poems or stories.
I read and recommended to my daughter Duff Cooper's excellent biography of Talleyrand.3 She noticed the references to Talleyrand's memoirs and decided that they would be interesting. I found her an English translation. A decade later she is happy to tell me Talleyrand's theories about how the Sun King's mistake set France up for the revolution.
The largest part of our children’s education, after reading, was conversation. We talked at meals. We talked when putting one or the other of them to bed. My daughter and I went for long walks at night and spent them discussing the novel I was writing or the characters she roleplayed on World of Warcraft.
When she was about eleven she decided that she was seriously interested in music and would like to play the harp. She took lessons, practiced because she wanted to, not because we made her. In later years she participated regularly in two choirs, one at her mother's church, one specializing in early music. Two of her online friends were a French-Canadian couple; she decided that since they had learned her language, she should learn one, chose not French but Italian, which she had been exposed to in early music and liked. The college I taught at had a young scholars program that let high school students enroll in college courses during the summer, presumably intended to recruit bright high school students. She took a quarter of Italian and then, since she wasn’t going to school, two more during the school year. She worked harder in that course, with no pressure from us, than I ever worked at a course in high school, college, or graduate school, ended up, when she finally went to college, majoring in Italian literature.
I am fond of evolutionary biology, so recommended The Selfish Gene to my daughter. She liked it, found the approach intriguing and read other books on the subject. She audited several of the classes I taught at the law school, following them at the level of the better students.
Our children ended what would have been their high school years not knowing several of the things on the standard curriculum — as do many of those subject to it. But my son learned more history and geography from books and computer games than he would have learned in high school history classes, while avoiding the fatal lesson that learning is boring work to be avoided whenever possible. Both had some catching up to do in math before they were ready for college but both, as kids, regarded solving two equations with two unknowns and integer solutions as an entertaining puzzle.
One problem for home schooling parents is how to get their children into college. Our daughter did not have a list of high school courses taken, recommendations from high school teachers or grades, aside from a few college courses, so needed another way of convincing colleges of her ability. She spent some time studying for the SAT exams but much less than she would have put in on those subjects in a conventional school, did extremely well on the verbal, tolerably on the math; her combined score was well within the range for the students at the very selective liberal arts colleges she applied to. She supplemented that with a list of books she had read — four hundred of them. The admissions officer at St. Olaf, which offered her admission and money — she went to Oberlin instead, which was probably a mistake — told us that that was what blew them away.
Many schools required two of the SAT II achievement tests, especially significant for a home-schooled student. It turned out that "literature" was not, as I had feared, a test of what you have read but of how well you can read; while the books she had read were not selected to fit a high school reading list, she reads very well. For a second subject she chose American history, read all of Paul Johnson's A History of the American People — well written and opinionated, so not boring — plus part of a book of primary source material. She spent some time in the week before the exam using Wikipedia to compile a mental time line of Presidents and what happened during their terms. The results of both exams were satisfactory.
She entered college knowing much more about economics, evolutionary biology, music, renaissance dance, and how to write than most of her fellow students, less than some about physics, biology, world history except where it intersected historical novels she had read or subjects that interested her. She knew much more than most of them about how to educate herself. And why. When a session of a college class she liked got cancelled she was shocked to discover that the other students were happy.
Making Life Harder for Home Schooled Students
One part of my children’s approach to getting into college is no longer an option; in January of 2021 the College Board announced that it would no longer be giving SAT subject exams. Home schooled students do not have high school grades or teachers' recommendations so unless they have some extraordinary accomplishment to show, publishing a novel or winning a national chess championship, they largely depend on objective tests to convince schools to accept them.
The replacement suggested by the College Board is the AP exam. In order for home schooled students to take it they have to find local schools willing to let them do so. In some states, such as Texas, public schools are required to permit home schooled students to take the tests, in others they are not required to and sometimes don’t.
Even if a student can arrange to take the exam there is still a problem. Scores on an AP exam range from one to five, on an SAT exam from two hundred to eight hundred. One percent of students got an 800 on the Literature SAT, 9.3% a 5 on the English language and literature AP. 3% got an 800 on the American History SAT, 13% a 5 on the United States History AP.4 An 800 on either subject exam is much stronger evidence of a student's knowledge than a 5 on the corresponding AP exam.
According to a report from 2018, selective schools at the time expected scores in the upper half of the 700’s. For the Literature SAT, 750 was 91st percentile, for American History, 83rd percentile. Getting a 5 on either AP exam was evidence that you were within the range of what such schools expected but might be near its bottom, hence only weak evidence that the school should accept you. That might not matter for an applicant who had other ways of proving his ability but home schooled students mostly don't; to persuade a school to accept them, the evidence they can present has to be very strong. The switch from the SAT subject exams to the AP exams makes that impossible. However able a student is, the highest score he can get is a five.
The situation is getting worse. In recent years, many schools have stopped requiring SAT or ACT exam scores from students. As of 2021 about three quarters of U.S. undergraduate institutions no longer required exam scores and some, including all schools in the University of California system, were test blind, unwilling to consider test scores. My guess is that the motive for the change was to make discriminatory admission policies less obvious, make it harder for critics to show that a school was discriminating in favor of blacks and against Asians, that being something which UC schools are in theory forbidden to do. But it also makes it substantially harder for home schooled students to demonstrate their qualifications.
My standard example from my own experience at a very good private school is a piece of simple physics. The textbook for Driver’s Education claimed that a head-on collision between two cars, each going fifty miles an hour, was equivalent for each to running into a brick wall at a hundred miles an hour. I concluded that that could not be true and produced a proof — that a sheet hung precisely between the two cars would act like a perfectly immobile wall, since, by symmetry, neither of the identical cars could pass it.
The Driver’s Ed teacher, to his credit, replied that he did not know if it was true, only that the book said it was, so we agreed to take it to the physics teacher — who insisted that the book was right. He offered no rebuttal to my proof, merely the argument that since he was the teacher he was right. I have always regretted that I did not happen to encounter him after I got a PhD in physics so that I could tell him that by his own criterion, argument by authority, he was now wrong.
Most of the schools they were applying to did not know how to evaluate home schooled students and so wanted grades from somewhere for the admissions process.
Which I had read due to encountering Talleyrand not in a history class but a Kipling short story.
All figures are from information available in late 2021.