Imprisonment can be considered effective if people voluntarily submit to it. This is rare, but our schooling system is a close candidate. Much of what school forces you to do is intrinsically painful. Children have better uses for their time. Yet, they spend even up to two decades or more in school. Then, they do not have much of an option. In many parts of the world, schooling is free and compulsory.
The convicts in the penitentiary almost never ask for an extension of their prison sentence. But, the brightest students often want to extend their term in school. When they graduate, they look back at their school days through rose-colored glasses. In a sane world, young men would be hesitant to admit that they have wasted much of their time in useless pursuits. But, the workplace rewards people who have jumped through more academic hoops.
Schooling is sheer insanity. But, even people who know this do not consider people who attend school insane because it is part of a long-term strategy. On the whole, the strategy works wonderfully well.
But, no one genuinely likes school. Little children do not like being smacked, scolded or ordered around by adult women. No child likes it. But, at least in my side of the world, schooling is about that. When I finished school, I was happy that I escaped them. It is not an exaggeration when I say that my school was more like an internment camp. Max Borders puts it well in his Freeman article, “Collectivized Children”:
“I remember it well: “Line up.” “Remain in your seats.” “Raise your hand.” “Open your books…” “Head down on your desks.” “The bell is about to ring.” “Today we’re covering…” “You’re tardy.” “Tests up to the front.” “You passed.” “You failed.” “CAT” “ACT” “SAT” “State standards” “No talking.” “Pass up your work.” “First period, second period, third period, lunch.” “No, you can’t go to the bathroom.” “You were so obedient today; here’s a sticker.” It often seems more like an internment camp than a community.”
But, perhaps it is true that the trouble is worth it. It is plausible that school builds skills and values that last a lifetime. But, the facts of reality lie flatly against this assumption. School teaches few job specific skills. You will run into trouble if you take the values taught in school too seriously. Schooling is largely socially wasteful signaling. If anything, school is more trouble than it is worth.Yet, schooling is enormously popular.
People generally like the idea of being governed, but, they do not like being governed. No one likes paying taxes. No one likes bureaucratic violation of their rights. But, people do not mind their children being dragged into school.
When parents enroll their children in school, it is with much enthusiasm. If you do not send your child to school, people will think of it as an affront to his dignity. The whole society will look down upon you, even if your child wants you to leave him alone. Employers are likely to throw his resume into the trash bin because he comes across as a lazy weirdo who had skipped school.
The reason is simple. If almost everyone believes that schooling is valuable, the best and the brightest will excel in it. It is bad enough if smart, informed children are not unusually likely to break free from the pattern. But, it is worse if they are penalized when they do.
This is all fine if it is indeed true that schooling teaches important values, virtues and skills. Extraordinary gains require extraordinary sacrifices. But, what if it is not?