Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

The Most Basic Freedom Is Freedom to Quit

Freedom to quit is essential to peaceful societies, happy marriages, and satisfying employment. It could also turn schools into places where children learn joyfully. Read More

Reminds me of a book I read

Did you ever read "Don't Sleep, There are Snakes?" by Daniel Everett? He details the culture of the Pirahã in South America, and there's a lot of parallels between the hunter/gather culture you mentioned (especially with child raising).. You'd probably find it an interesting read!

Where do you think all this

Where do you think all this came from?

Mass compulsory schooling is an unprecedented social experiment less than 120 years old. The entire history of human kind, human technology and human being was created by children who learn.

Human development is the object of the exercise. Education is but a tool by comparison.

Compulsory schooling reduces the child; invades and fragments the family; and forces the parent to betray the child to the institution.

Day prison, tyranny, betrayal of the child to the institution. There is no more pernicious or malignant force in American society than compulsory schooling and the predators within who prosper by feeding upon the enslavement of American children.

Dare we awake to the horror and shame that we wrought upon the American child?

How much smarter, creative and honorable would these children be if they were not betrayed to the incarcerations and reduction of compulsory schooling?

While I tend to be skeptical

While I tend to be skeptical of compulsory schooling, and perhaps even hold a little bit of the disdained perspective you clearly have towards the notion, I am utterly unclear as to what your reply is trying to say beyond the few snippets of bitter resentment.

Are there no pros to compulsory schooling? Day prison… really? What exactly are we going to expect young people to be doing in this day and age if they aren't in school?

Where do I think all this came from? I have no idea. But neither can I say that I have any idea where you think this came from.

Theory versus practice

It's hard to know if what you say about compulsory education in theory would work out in practice. I exercised my freedom to not apply myself in grade school, but now have regrets. Do all children possess the requisite perspective to make informed decisions on their own behalf? I for one would have dropped out of school early on to pursue a career as a professional athlete or musician - and I would have been no wiser or better off for doing it.

Children's moral reasoning

I agree -- even teenagers' brains are not yet fully developed, and they often make rash, emotional decisions that aren't in their best interest. Further, our compulsory school requirement provides a lot of benefits and protections to children who may have parents that would neglect their education, and it ensures at least one good meal a day.
Still, I think this piece presents some interesting ideas, and I think that the freedom to quit could be extended to schoolchildren, perhaps by allowing them more leeway in their choice of classes or assignments.

Compulsory education "ensures

Compulsory education "ensures at least one good meal a day."

You haven't visited a public school cafeteria recently. Bureaucracy ensures that only low quality USDA scraps will be feed to the inmates--I mean students.

School Meals for inmates?

Anonymous wrote:
Compulsory education "ensures at least one good meal a day."

You haven't visited a public school cafeteria recently. Bureaucracy ensures that only low quality USDA scraps will be feed to the inmates--I mean students.

It just so happens that the largest supplier of school meals is also the largest supplier of prison meals. The prison meals have higher nutritional value than the school meals because ironically, prisoners have the right to a better meal than a student.

The freedom to quit school

The freedom to quit school should be simple for kids. They should be able to continue their education easily at home or at another school, or at a local college, if their school isn't giving what they need.

The rigidity of public school system provides little benefit to the dynamic nature of kids and how they learn, and moves too slowly to stop abuse and bullying.

I'm all for compulsory education, mastery of the basics for all. Compelling kids to master subjects is NOT the same thing as compelling them to attend school.

And what are parents supposed

And what are parents supposed to do? Work different hours, move homes, hire a driver because Johnny had a bad day at school. Family is a unit and to work it can't be democratic because children are not grown up enough to make those decisions. That is not a bad thing, they think it is but when they grow up and feel the weight of providing meals and rent and bills for yourself and perhaps others you realize how nice it was to have someone make those decisions.I am also grateful for what I learned at school, I wish I could have been mature enough to use the resources school provided me to a greater degree. I have kids that would choose to play video games all day if given the choice, not going to be a bright future.

I realize the complexity you

I realize the complexity you describe about how parents would be impacted is real, but part of the reason many young adults cannot make good decisions is because parents like you and teachers in school make so many of children's decisions as they grow up that they never learn the costs and benefits of choices. Those things cannot be taught well by simply explaining them to kids and hoping they catch on. They need to be actively involved in making real choices from an early age, with the complexity of the choices extended to them increasing with their age. When they make mistakes, they learn along the way. My 6-year old boy has chosen to spend much of his time playing video games as you describe. He has had no formal math or reading curriculum, but he tests in the upper range of his age group, without school! I would not be surprised at all if he becomes a skilled computer programmer.


Freedom has to include the freedom to make poor choices. That is a crucial ingredient in learning. You make a choice, experience the consequences, and alter your path accordingly. Children, interestingly, are quite willing to consider the advice of their parents and other adults - **when they are comfortable in the knowledge that the final decision rests with them**. The experience of making choices and coping with the results (with support - no need for harshness) brings kids to adulthood with a strong base of confidence. All the people I know who were raised with a lot of autonomy are sensible, balanced, independent adults.

You say you would have been no wiser or better off had you quit school and became an athlete or musician, but I wonder if you would have been happier?

Whatever it is you are regretting is in the past. Stop looking back and look ahead. You may feel you don't know things you ought to have learned, or that you have poor habits of mind due to your lack of application. These are not immutable things. How would your life be better if any of that were different? Figure out a way to *start* making the changes.

I was a "model student" in school, and I can tell you a lot of what I learned I had to painfully unlearn in later life - lessons like "never try anything you might fail at", and "other people know what it best for you". Life is an accumulation of events to learn from; no matter what paths we choose, we will have some things to regret and move on from.

I would love for all schools

I would love for all schools to evolve into very well funded inspirational learning enters of sorts, flexible attendance, supportive of the parents/guardians&children whom choose to attend, can we REALLY afford for this not to happen going forward. It is so depressing to still see/hear/witness of stories involving children and negative school experiences, I am still recovering from my shit school experiences! I stuck it out, and left with qualifications coming out of my ears, but with no knowledge or true understanding of any topic as I was programmed to pass tests and learn in fear=learn nothing.

Great article but...

Please check it, I found 3 typos. Not of be a grammar nazi, but these days typos make articles look less legitimate. I really like this article though. I am in total agreement.

You might check your own

You might check your own grammar while your at it.


....and you too!

ha ha

Too funny! This little interchange reminds me of when Jesus told the guy he couldn't get the sliver out of his brother's eye because of the log in his own. I will not presume my english is perfecto, so please don't judge!

You three! An ellipsis has

You three! An ellipsis has only three dots.

Choices Along the Way

I, too, graduated with many more credits than required, lots of extracurricular and volunteer experiences, qualified to step into some jobs that may have otherwise required a associates degree.

Mostly, K-12 was a big waste of my time. Truthfully, I taught myself without much quality "teaching." Then, I was lucky; I had motivated, supportive, smart parents and friends. We taught each other.

We MUST stop wasting our children's time. We need to and must offer education choices. The choice to attend, the choice as to curriculum and the choice as to where we do these things. Certainly, the way we are "educating" our children now is not working--almost total failure.

Detention for teachers too?

I was once held for detention after school -- my crime was to assist another student to understand a math problem. Isn't that the teacher's job?

And I

And I was sent to detention...for 3 days, for being more than 5 minutes late to class. How does that teach anyone?

and i forgot to mention...

Detention instead of classroom time.

On the article...

I love this way of turning "quitter" upside down. Have you checked out Walk Out Walk On website? The title came from a movement in India involving high school students leaving school. They didn't like the bad connotations "drop out" had, so they used the term Walk Out...the Walk On comes from walking on to Life and the Future.

School was torture to me. I tried to go, but remember in about 8th grade, I just couldn't go anymore. I would walk to school, and as the school came into sight the lump in my throat grew and grew, it felt soooo much like prison to me. SOmetimes I would have a panic attack and run home in tear.

They would try to send a truancy officer to walk me to school, but I often just left school after it started. They threatened to put my mom in prison, but luckily I turned 16 in time and was aloud to drop out legally. I am sooo glad I did. I eventually received my MA, but without the coercion, and on my time.

And now, I am a single parent of a 6 year old. She attends an independent study charter school that offers optional on campus classes and meetings. As a single parent I was thinking I should send her to regular school, cause I am single, and society says single parents should be out working full-time, with their child in school and daycare...but I came to my senses when my daughter said no. I realized I have to honor that, even if she is six, she deserves the right to choose. And the truth is that I can't imagine a better life if I were working outside of the house 40 hours a week. I have three jobs I can do from home, as a freelancer. I worked a long time to be in this situation.

And if she ever starts full-time school, I will always give her the option to quit. And if homeschooling became illegal in the US, I would move somewhere that it wasn't.

I love you for saying this.

I love you for saying this.

on the article...

"And if homeschooling became illegal in the US, I would move somewhere that it wasn't."

The best places for the freedom of not having to go to school or 'homeschooling' would be: Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Iran, Iraq, as well as many African countries, especially for girls.

Necessary vs Unnecessary suffering

Largely, I agree with this. However, there is something to be said for sticking things out that are uncomfortable. Wisdom lies in knowing when to quit and when to persevere and thus build character that would not and could not be built any other way. But, that story of that suicide really breaks my heart. School often does feel like a jail and being a kid these days is tough. There are a lot of obstacles.

As Morrie Schwartz said, “All this emphasis on youth - I don’t buy it. Listen, I know what a misery being young can be, so don’t tell me it’s so great. All these kids who came to me with their struggles, their strife, their feelings of inadequacy, their sense that life was miserable, so bad they wanted to kill themselves... and in addition to all the miseries, the young are not wise. They have very little understanding about life. Who wants to live everyday when you don’t know what’s going on?”

I also remember hearing a quote awhile ago that said something to the effect of, "No wise person ever wanted to be young again." That is worth examining. 1) Wisdom comes through unavoidable suffering (as no one willing suffers) and 2) youth is not enviable (as Morrie Schwartz pointed out already).

So, for me at least, the question still remains: when should we quit and when should we persevere in the faith that we will become better people for having "stuck with it"?

But still, quitting should be more of an option. If doubt isn't possible, neither is faith. If choosing not to go to school and learn there isn't possible, then neither is truly attending and learning possible.

The idea of sticking around

The idea of sticking around to build character only makes sense if what you're sticking around for is worthwhile to you in other ways, if you can see the end in sight and have a goal in mind that you really care about achieving. Otherwise, you're probably just sticking around because of the dread of being stigmatised as 'a quitter'. It doesn't build character to force yourself into pointless situations where your quality of life suffers needlessly, but it does build character to be empowered to make your own choices and take responsibility for them.

I've heard people make the separate but similar argument that kids should be compelled to go to school because learning things that are boring and unnecessary is character-building for them and shows them that life isn't going to be all sunshine and apple picking. However, I'm sure that kids can learn that in other ways. It makes much more sense to help them reach for what they truly want than to passively accept the unwanted. And I wonder if any of the adults who say it would take their own advice. "I won't accept that promotion to manager - it's character-building to have to take instructions from others even when I have better ideas than them". "I'd apply for a job I really enjoy but it's so much more character-building to work at something I hate". I think school ought to just stick to helping kids reach for their passions and their talents, and let their character-building look after itself.

When to quit

For excellent guidance on knowing when to quit and when to forge on through difficulties, see Seth Godin's book The Dip. His central premise is that the most successful people are the biggest quitters - they have enough self-belief to quit an unproductive course of action quickly.

As to suffering, the Universe provides enough of it to give us plenty of opportunity to learn our wisdom, without us seeking it out. The wisdom I have learned over the years is that every moment is precious, and only I can decide, case by case, whether the rewards of sticking it out through difficulties is worth it. Am I staying true to my values day by day? The journey, the learning itself, often matters. And there is no perfect option - we course-correct as we go.

Conference Follow-Up

Dr. Gray, I am glad that you expand here upon your concept of "freedom to quit," as you did at Saturday's conference and in your book. It is such an important freedom that we regularly deny to children in the form of compulsory schooling. Thank you for your thoughtful insights and for moving the conversation forward on ending the systematic incarceration of our children.

-Kerry @ City Kids Homeschooling

Where does the concept of a

Where does the concept of a 'free society' intersect with the notion of 'freedom to quit' with respect to the reality of compulsory payment by citizens extracted by 'government' which is used for for corporate profits, killing, the development and use of weapons of mass destruction, surveillance of its own citizens, and acts of terror (droning American citizens off the planet, cluster bombing innocent civilians, preemptive invasion and occupation of sovereign nations, and torture?)

Are we free if forced to pay for this and not allowed to 'quit?'

No wonder our children are forced into the indoctrination system that we call 'education.' Otherwise, they might realize that they are but slaves in 'the land of the free.'

If you're talking about the U.S.A.,

and I think you are, you can quit any time. Just join another country and renounce your U.S. citizenship.

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Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).


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