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On Grades and Unschooling

During my long public school career, I didn’t think much about the structure of public school.  The reasons for this are not exactly flattering for me.  I viewed school as the “one thing” I was good at (though that was not actually true), and I used my focus on academics to avoid paying attention to many of my problems.  If I wanted to do one thing dramatically different with my academic career, that would have been skipping grades, but I didn’t pursue that with any sort of determination, since I was happy to take the path of least resistance.

It wasn’t until college that I began to think about the issue seriously.  I came at it initially from the subject of grades.  I was obsessed with grades during my primary school career (obsessed with getting grades that were just barely good enough to be called “perfect” by some carefully chosen definition (e.g. 90%, “an A”); I told you this wasn’t flattering for me), and that got worse and worse until high school.  When I entered college, I resolved to not look at my grades for any class.

The college I went to was new and we took pride in being “innovative”.  But Olin’s grading system was strikingly conventional.  Evidently, the issue of grading came up during the school’s design process.  A substantial discussion led to a rough consensus favoring a very minimal “Pass/Fail/Excellence” grading system.  But the result was a temporary compromise on letter grades without +/- gradations, followed by a wholesale adoption of the conventional grading system.

The thing is, in my view, the conventional grading system is glaringly flawed.  There’s ample psychological research showing that rewards produce a lasting decrease in intrinsic motivation, long-term recall of information, and lateral thinking, and that to the extent that “good grades” are perceived as desirable, they produce the same effect.  Grades are also only minimally useful as feedback.  They’re not very useful in comparing students from different classes, much less different institutions.  (Concerns about “grade inflation” get some of that, but talk about focusing on the mote and missing the beam!)  To some extent, grades measure how well students conform to the idiosyncratic preferences of individual professors.

In other words, pretty much anything that puts grades less in the spotlight is a win in terms of the nominal goals of academia.

(Another point that would be particularly worrying for Moldbug:  To the extent that people change their behavior for the sake of grades while not believing that “good grades” are inherently worthwhile, that could serve as the insufficient justification that would make any ideological content contained in the lessons far more persuasive than it would otherwise be.  Also worth keeping that effect in mind when people emphasize how useful grades are to graduate schools and employers.)

So grades are interesting for a few reasons:

  1. It’s an example of academia pursuing a policy that doesn’t fit well the the nominal goals of academia.
  2. It’s a policy that promotes things that are very much not the overt goal of academic idealists (rote memorization, obedience, tolerance of pointless tasks, ideological conformity).
  3. It’s an example of academia conforming to an (in my opinion) obviously broken status quo because no one wants to take the cost of defecting first.

And as it turns out, there’s a movement that would apply those three points to many (if not all) of the structural features of the entire “education system”.

The Unschooling movement is heavily influenced by the teacher and educational philosopher John Taylor Gatto.  A good introduction to his view is the essay Against Schooling, originally published in Harper’s Magazine in September 2003.  This one is hard to excerpt, read the whole thing.  But here’s my attempt at extracting the kernel of it:

Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what? Don’t hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale, because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification to rest. Even if they hadn’t, a considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was ever “graduated” from a secondary school. […]

In the 1934 edition of his once well-known book Public Education in the United States, Ellwood P. Cubberley detailed and praised the way the strategy of successive school enlargements had extended childhood by two to six years, and forced schooling was at that point still quite new. This same Cubberley - who was dean of Stanford’s School of Education, a textbook editor at Houghton Mifflin, and Conant’s friend and correspondent at Harvard - had written the following in the 1922 edition of his book Public School Administration:   “Our schools are … factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned …. And it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”

It’s perfectly obvious from our society today what those specifications were. Maturity has by now been banished from nearly every aspect of our lives. Easy divorce laws have removed the need to work at relationships; easy credit has removed the need for fiscal self-control; easy entertainment has removed the need to learn to entertain oneself; easy answers have removed the need to ask questions. We have become a nation of children, happy to surrender our judgments and our wills to political exhortations and commercial blandishments that would insult actual adults. We buy televisions, and then we buy the things we see on the television. We buy computers, and then we buy the things we see on the computer. We buy $150 sneakers whether we need them or not, and when they fall apart too soon we buy another pair. We drive SUVs and believe the lie that they constitute a kind of life insurance, even when we’re upside-down in them. And, worst of all, we don’t bat an eye when Ari Fleischer tells us to “be careful what you say,” even if we remember having been told somewhere back in school that America is the land of the free. We simply buy that one too. Our schooling, as intended, has seen to it.

One frequent observation of mine is this:

Idea #5: A naive compromise between ideologies can produce worse results than a coherent implementation of either’s favored policy.

But naive compromises are often politically expedient, so they happen anyways.

To put it more cynically, liberals (especially) love half-measures.  (I’m not immune to this, myself.)

Gatto essentially agrees with Moldbug about the purpose of the schools, but Gatto’s description of the present state of affairs misses something crucial when he overstates his case:

The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold:

1) To make good people. 2) To make good citizens. 3) To make each person his or her personal best. These goals are still trotted out today on a regular basis, and most of us accept them in one form or another as a decent definition of public education’s mission, however short schools actually fall in achieving them. But we are dead wrong. [emphasis mine]

But I’d say that view of the goals of the education system is in fact not totally wrong, which is what makes it pernicious.  Public schools do teach some about critical thinking, analyzing primary sources, the scientific method, distinguishing fact from opinion and so on.  To the extent that schooling is “education” (to some extent it is) and a diploma is (economically) valuable, schools convince people that education is valuable.  “Good people” believe that education is valuable.  Actually, I do believe that statement if taken at face value: Good people do (correctly) believe that education is valuable.  Convincing someone to agree with a true statement on a technicality, however, does not make them better people in any meaningful sense.

A strategy of “make education a good investment and people will realize it’s intrinsically valuable on its own” also starts having some serious problems when there’s a mismatch between the educational system and the economy.  I’ve read a lot of talk recently about a “higher education bubble” and of a mismatch between the education system and the “21st century economy”.  The former has some talk of unschoolers (it uses the term “edupunks”).  Unfortunately for unschoolers (and for reactionaries like Moldbug), the dominant force among education reformers seems to be the neoconservative/neoliberal/”free market” types (need a better name for that faction, and that probably deserves another post).  Their favored solution, charter schools, is the usual mix of privatized profits and socialized costs.  Charter schools may be more willing to be “innovative”, but I wouldn’t expect them to solve the problems above or defect from educational norms, no matter how counter-productive, when defecting first is costly.

(I wish I had a better way to wrap things up here.  I still need to read more Gatto and Holt and Illich and Llewellyn.  I want to know more about how compulsory education (in particular, as opposed to public education in general) took off—not just what interests that might work well for, but how it was argued and implemented politically.  I read and would recommend Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook to parents, adolescents, and those interested in unschooling.)