Why do you guys hate school so much?
Loads of people I meet seem to really, really hate schools. Not in a ‘schools have a ton of problems that we should probably get to work on fixing’ sort of way, but more like a ‘sending kids to school is seriously morally wrong and it’s possible that it can’t ever be a good thing’ sort of way.
I went to a dinner party thing a few months ago and there was a range of opinions on school - from ‘adults on average should see school in a more negative light than they currently do’, all the way to ‘schools are extremely evil and we’ll come to look back on them as a moral disaster’ (the latter isn’t a verbatim quote, but was the rough sentiment).
Scott Alexander has spoken about schools as ‘child prisons’, writing:
School is child prison. It's forcing kids to spend their childhood - a happy time! a time of natural curiosity and exploration and wonder - sitting in un-air-conditioned blocky buildings, cramped into identical desks, listening to someone drone on about the difference between alliteration and assonance, desperate to even be able to fidget but knowing that if they do their teacher will yell at them, and maybe they'll get a detention that extends their sentence even longer without parole.
I don't like actual prisons, the ones for criminals, but I will say this for them - people keep them around because they honestly believe they prevent crime. If someone found proof-positive that prisons didn't prevent any crimes at all, but still suggested that we should keep sending people there, because it means we'd have "fewer middle-aged people on the streets" and "fewer adults forced to go home to empty apartments and houses", then MAYBE YOU WOULD START TO UNDERSTAND HOW I FEEL ABOUT SENDING PEOPLE TO SCHOOL FOR THE SAME REASON.
Scott gives a few examples of schools being a bit horrible - some schools assign three hours of homework meaning kids can’t do the stuff they want to do, and the evidence that homework is beneficial is pretty unconvincing. Children and teens do better if they wake up at around midday, but going to school means they have to wake up really early. Someone on Reddit said that one time his school district needed to save money, and so classrooms were kept very cold in the winter.
A guy from the dinner party I went to sent me this link afterwards to explain why it was that he thought schools were so awful. The article isn’t only about schools, but also about being a kid in general. Here are some of the points made in the piece:
Differing speeds of development lead to huge differences in size and strength, meaning bullying is often like getting picked on by a Shaq-like giant.
Lying to you is socially acceptable …the most common version of this lie is compressing complex topics into black-and-white directives. When I was in school it took the form of abstinence-only sex education and the “drugs are bad, m’kay?” DARE program.
The piece also asks how adults would feel if our lives were like the lives of kids at school:
In the hallway to your office, you see that a subordinate has displeased his boss; something about his uniform not being to spec. He’s violently shoved through the wall of a cubicle with a laugh while others hurry past, hoping to escape notice. The victim dusts himself off and scurries away, for that exchange counted as getting off relatively easy. Once, after transferring departments, you’d gotten beaten up by nearly the entire C-suite.
My view on this is basically that the obvious take that ‘schools are good, actually’ is probably the correct one, even though ‘bullying is bad and being a kid at school isn’t usually particularly fun’ is also probably true.
There are two reasons that I think these guys are wrong: the fake reason and the real reason. The fake reason, which I would give if I was in a formal debate, is that I don’t think the evidence that schools are so awful is particularly good. For example, I think if we actually take the claim that ‘schools are prisons for children’ seriously, it becomes pretty clear that being in a real prison is actually much worse than being in school.
I assume most people already agree with me here, but let’s just point in the direction of some evidence anyway:
Here’s a survey of male prisoners in the midwestern United States where 21% of inmates said that they had experienced at at least one episode of pressured or forced sexual contact since incarcerated in their state, 7% reported that they had been raped, and 4% reported that they had been raped in the last 26 to 30 months. I can’t find equivalent data for sexual assaults in schools in the United States, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it is almost certainly much lower - one small survey in the UK showed that 22% of kids said they’d been shown unwanted pornographic images at least once.
The number of assaults in prison is obviously extremely high, the rate of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults to be around 155 per 1000 prisoners per year (ONS source here).
I tried to find some evidence of the causal impact of incarceration on mental health, but I don’t particularly trust studies that just show that prisoners are much more likely to be mentally ill that claim to adjust for confounders. That being said, this study shows that a 1994 reform in Denmark that led to offenders being incarcerated at younger ages resulted in significantly higher rates of offenders who required psychiatric treatment. The implication here is that going to prison when young is extremely bad for your mental health.
And if I was doing the rest of the evidence for the fake reason that I think schools aren’t that bad, I could talk about the fact that kids in US schools report being happy at school most of the time, or go into anecdotes comparable to the ‘some kids were cold at school because the thermostat was turned too low’ but talking about being at work instead, or whatever else.
Looking at the data on life satisfaction (which I haven’t done extensively but have taken a glance at), it seems like there’s a U shaped curve (at least in the United States). Young people are generally pretty happy, they become less happy as their careers progress, then get happier again as they get older. While I guess this could technically be consistent with schools being completely terrible for mental health, it definitely seems kinda weird if schools are de facto prisons and adult life is liberating.
It might be the case that Scott doesn’t literally mean that schools are as bad as prisons, and what he actually means is that we’re keeping kids locked up somewhere bad without a good reason. As far as I can tell, Scott’s view is that kids should be reading books and learning about the things that interest them, choosing whether to read about the impact of the Cold War, or to do mathematics puzzles, or whatever it is they want to do.
But I think the problem here gets at the real reason I don’t think schools are that bad, which I alluded to earlier. The real reason I don’t think schools are that bad is that I didn’t really dislike school that much, and my life now doesn’t seem amazingly better than my life when I was a schoolkid. Whereas for Scott (and the people I spoke to at the dinner party), I suspect the opposite is true: he really hated school and he loves his life now.
I can believe that if Scott had been in a situation where he could choose exactly what he wanted to do, he would’ve thrived. He’s extremely intelligent and curious, and has the work ethic to run a psychiatry practice while having one of the most popular blogs on the internet.
So the counterfactual world where Scott isn’t forced to learn the quadratic formula and instead do whatever he wants is probably a better world. But I’m sceptical that most kids would be way happier in the counterfactual world where they can do whatever they want to - most kids don’t basically behave like adults. And funnily enough, I think a lot of the reasons people give that schools are so bad (‘kids beat up other kids all the time’) serve as evidence that we shouldn’t just let kids do whatever they want to.
For Scott, school sucked and he could’ve had a much better time doing what he wanted, and then after he left school, his life became awesome. The guys I met at that dinner party were, I assume, very bright kids and probably could’ve been doing more useful stuff if left to their own devices too. But most people go from being mildly bored at school to working some shitty job. I suspect the general rule is that if your life improved dramatically when you left school, the more likely you are to think that schools are morally wrong.
But maybe we should be thinking about the edge cases here? Sure, school isn’t that bad for 90% of people, but 10% of people get the shit kicked out of them and don’t make any friends and have a generally terrible time. But this is also true outside of school - I suspect that more people have objectively terrible lives as they become adults than they do as schoolchildren. It just so happens that the circles I run in include a disproportionately high number of people who had a shitty time at school and also, I suspect, a disproportionately low number of people who have terrible lives as adults.
So, I’m a sceptic of the ‘school is a moral disaster that we’ll look back on with shame’ position. Or at least, I think it seems weird to hold the view that schools are a moral disaster without thinking that most employment is a moral disaster. And, as I’ve explained before, a sceptical of the ‘you don’t learn anything at school’ position.
I tried to look into the literature on the causal effect of education on mental health but it’s a bit tricky because there’s a load of stuff that could be at play here. Showing that more education → better mental health in adulthood (like this paper tries to) is probably telling us about the consequences of being at school rather than whether being at school is good for your mental health in itself.
There are also studies (like this one) that find the opposite result - increased compulsory schooling leads to worse mental health in adulthood (even though it improves educational attainment). Overall, I haven’t looked into this stuff enough and it seems like there’s loads going on that it’s tricky to isolate effects - e.g. it could be that less intelligent kids do better if they leave school a year earlier and start working instead or something, but not if they leave school really young, and it may not apply to brighter kids, etc. Not sure!
“Or at least, I think it seems weird to hold the view that schools are a moral disaster without thinking that most employment is a moral disaster.”
The difference here I think is that, although people have to work to earn a living, they can choose what form that work takes. Sure, your choices will be limited by your skills, etc. But you get some choice. Even at the lowest level, there’s a huge difference between being a gardner, waiter, telemarketer, construction worker, retails salesperson, etc. They can tradeoff the inherent unpleasantness of certain jobs against the pay, see what works for them based on their individual circumstances.
If we made everyone be a construction worker or whatever regardless of individual wishes or skills it would be a moral disaster comparable to compulsory education. But the evil of education is how little choice kids have about how they spend a huge portion of their waking hours.
Most of these "schools are awful" takes are predicated on having well meaning parents who are able to do things like purchase books with good information. This is probably because most people writing substacks come from a family history of education. If you're a smart person who grew up getting a good education, you could probably do a better job teaching your children the knowledge and life schools that they need than a bad public school would.
But it's hard to do home schooling correctly! Most parents in the world don't have the skills or resources to effectively raise their kids without some help from specialists. And many parents are awful caregivers for a variety of reasons. Saying that "schools are a prison" is ridiculous because for many people schools are the ESCAPE from the prison of a bad family. No one gets to choose their parents, but in a good school you can have a lot more say over what you do than at home with controlling parents.
I went to slightly above average public schools and was bullied pretty heavily at one, but overall they were very positive and essential to my successful development. My parents were smart and cared about education, but school gave me the stability I needed to deal with divorce and a chaotic home life. Schools also taught me the social skills and variety of experiences I would never have gotten at home. I wouldn't give up my mediocre public education for anything.