How To Do Life

Fresh ideas about career and personal issues

What if School Didn't Exist? A Thought Experiment

Without school, might we learn more and enjoy learning more?

They probably were the least-known Americans, unknown to anyone. Mary’s parents were dead. She was a true hermit, living completely off-the grid on solar energy. No mail service, no phone service, nothing, living in a straw bale house in the most remote part of New Mexico. She had twins by artificial insemination, with sperm provided by a student at New Mexico State. She never revealed her identity.

Mary and her nine-year-old twins, Luke and Grace, were sitting outside by the fire. Mary liked it, even during the rain. Even during the thunder and lightning. No matter how much the twins complained, Mary made them sit there.

This night, as she often did, she was trying to scare them about how terrible school is, which is why she home-schools them. “The work is very hard and if you don’t get it, the teacher whips you with a strap, gives you a pill that makes you pay attention, and maybe even gives you electric shocks. The teacher also...” Suddenly, a lightning bolt struck, instantly killing Mary.

Grace and Luke remained near motionless for days. Finally, Grace said, "I need to find someone to take care of me, and I want to go to school." Luke remained silent as Grace walked north.

For hours, he stared at where Grace had walked off, finally rose, and buried his mom in the light, sandy New Mexico soil, crying.

He stared for hours at the grave. Finally, from under his shirt, he removed an iPad. That was the one concession Mary had made to modernity. She realized that with a world full of great educational websites plus Google, an iPad would much enhance their home schooling. Fortunate for him, a decade ago, Mary had one friend, and she worked at Apple and gave Mary a free iPad including permanent free access to the Internet.

Fortunately, they had planted their crop, so Luke would have plenty of food, especially with all the canned food that they had stored, but he didn’t remember everything he needed to do to make the crop successful. So he googled, for example, “feeding corn,” which reminded him that until the silks show, each square yard needs one ounce of fertilizer, once a week, watered in well.

For hours each day, he would use his iPad to learn what he needed to do to survive. And for fun and learning, he would play games on the educational websites his mom had picked out for him. For example:

He went to learn-to-read websites, where, for example, stories at his level were read aloud as the words being spoken were highlighted on the screen.

He went to funbrain.com, where he played math games. For example, in one, he was a bee pollinating flowers with the correct answer to math problems that were exactly on his level.

On PBSKids.com, he improved his reasoning skills by diagnosing how to fix a train.

He would also Google all manner of things. He’d see a butterfly and Google “butterfly.” He’d notice that the stars made a dipper, so he googled “star dipper.” He googled “mosquito bite” and found that aloe, which grew nearby, would relieve the itch.

Whenever he wanted, he took a break and wandered, sometimes by the creek, sometimes in the chaparral, sometimes in the woods, sometimes around the lake, sometimes up the mountain, at least part-way up.

He googled “homemade flute” and found that he could make one out of the bamboo that grew nearby. By ear, he gradually learned to play the lullabies his mother would sing to him, giving him comfort when he felt lonely.

A few weeks later, he received his first email. It was from Grace. “The good news is that a police officer found me wandering around and they found me a good foster home. The bad news is I hate school. Boring, too easy or too hard, and I have to sit in my seat all day. And why do I have to learn about Sacajawea or graphing a curve? I’m thinking of escaping and coming back to you. How are you?”

He responded, “I feel guilty that I am happier with mom not here. I am free. I am learning. I am having fun. Come back. I miss you. Don’t tell the social worker where I am. Please.”

Time passed. Five years later, Luke decided he wanted to go to school. He was lonely and besides, felt that if everyone went to school, he must be missing something important. He emailed Grace and asked her to ask her now adoptive parents if they would pick him up. They did and immediately fostered him. Not surprisingly, he hated school and escaped, with Grace promising she would never reveal where they used to live.

When Luke returned to his original home, he took free online courses on topics that interested him that had the highest user ratings, and had the course credit aggregated at Western Governors University, which gave him a full scholarship because of his unusual circumstances. After graduating, he wrote to Google saying that he wanted to help create GoogleEd. They wrote back to say they were already working on it but invited him to visit. He did and they hired him as a guinea pig.

The upshot

Of course, you could poke holes in this fiction. For example, many kids lack the self-motivation to learn sufficiently without the structure of school. This article’s purpose is merely to question the assumption that education requires schooling. Compare Luke and Grace. Who do you think learned more of value? Who do you believe will make a bigger difference in the world? Who do you think is happier?

Of course, getting educated is critical but schooling may be a poor approach to getting it.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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