Unlike many neurotic college-dropouts who help themselves feel better by repeatedly listening to Pink Floyd, I haven’t felt like defending myself too much. I haven’t written anything much on unschooling. Even if I did, I know what many of you would think: “Sour grapes!” I do not wish to deny that there is some rationalization involved in me liking steve jobs who slept on the floor, returned coke bottles to buy food, and walked several miles once in a week to get one good meal at the Hare Krishna temple after dropping out of college.
My favorite businessmen were never Mittal’s and Tata’s of the world, but men like Mahesh Murthy who dropped out of college at 19, and ended up with a net worth of hundreds of millions of dollars after doing many odd jobs like being an announcer at Indian railway and selling vacuum cleaners door to door. Even though my teens were largely wasted, my favorite fictional character is not the one-dimensional ubermensch Howard Roark, but Gail Wynand who walked into the office of a fourth-rate newspaper at sixteen, and asked “Can you spell anthropomorphology?” to the editor who inquired “Can you spell cat?” I couldn’t get through most fiction works I have read, but when I read that Howard Roark was kicked out of architecture school for insubordination, I was in seventh heaven. I went on to read it eighteen times-but wait, I am still counting.
I have always hated schooling, though in early childhood, it was a truth I would dare not admit. I was expected to say that I loved it- that the “emperor has clothes”. When I was in school, the whole world looked like an air craft into which hordes of barbarians rushed in to press buttons at random, with the self-righteous conviction that they are entitled to act on their whims and fancies. Many feel that anything goes as long as they had a mushy rationalization, or an argument from authority! When I studied libertarianism, the essentials were not hard to see: What politicians and bureaucrats do to decent human beings is not much different from what adults often do to children. If we strip libertarianism down to a postcard, that is all there is to it. Once this retrospectively obvious fact is understood, the whole theory behind unschooling will fall into place.
I still remember the day I joined LKG. My mom came with me to school, and left me unarmed in a room of nearly fifty children, most of them crying and whining. I remember a child coming near the door of the classroom and peeping outside. Separation from their parents is a source of intense anxiety, helplessness and confusion for most post-toddlers. My class teacher was a very young Gujarati lady. I have always wondered why she enjoyed punishing the soft child that I was. I am not lying. She actually did it for no valid reason. I am grateful to God for the fact that her behavior was far from the norm. Others at least made up some ridiculous reasons to punish kids.
When I was walking back home from school the first day, a child started crying. Some older kids were amused and said in a singsong voice: “Shame, Shame, Puppy Shame!” It all reminds me of some torture chamber now. I once stumbled upon my class teacher when I went to the beach with my parents. She gave me some cashew nuts and asked me to say “Thank You”. I, of course, said “Thank You”, with a shy smile on my face. I bent my head and stood there staring at the sands of the beach. When I occasionally looked up, behind her, I could see the tides rising and falling while the evening sun set. At that moment, all I wanted was to escape from her and the beach. Even after two decades, I cannot get over my crush on her.
In school, I was always in a state of confused bewilderment. When I was in first standard,one day I started off from home without my school bag because I was told that the school will be having an Arts festival. When I entered the classroom, my class teacher asked with a sarcastic smile: “Oh, you’ve come over here to enjoy the breeze? Where is your bag?” I looked at her with my eyelashes up, with deep sadness in my eyes-and then I looked at my empty shoulders. Somewhere those tender shoulders have failed me. I felt alienated from my school-bag and for once I grasped the intimate relationship between sarcasm and alienation. Somewhere the premises do deeply interconnect.
I was upset the whole day. I had to sit idly when other children frantically took notes. But, did I simply sit there enjoying the breeze? Did I cry like a sissy? No. I didn’t. I wouldn’t even have even been able to bring myself to write about me if I had done so! I would have been mighty ashamed of myself today if I had done so! Instead, like a good boy, I listened to each and every word she uttered and committed them to my memory. It became a life and death issue for me. “In all the cosmos nothing mattered more than this”. While traveling back home in the auto rickshaw, I tried to repeat those words to myself, lest I forget them. When I reached back home, the first thing I did was to write it all down in my note book with my sharpened HB pencil. When I was finally done, I did have my lunch.
When the classes began the next day, with uncontrollable anger, she asked me to come to her desk with my notebook. I was painfully shy, and said nothing. She opened the notebook only to see everything that was taught the last day written in clear, cold letters. She hugged me tightly. When she gave my mother the progress report that year, below everything, in the personal remarks column, it was written: “Photographic memory”. I started having a crush on her too.
I am by no means indulging in malignant self-love. My point was that I learned something that day. “When there is a will, there is a way”, or “the virtue of tireless hard work, teeth-clenched determination, and merciless devotion”. These are lessons a child will never learn in a classroom. These are lessons which a typical teacher will never even begin to understand. It should come from within. I think these are traits which are almost impossible to manufacture. Either you have it in you-or you don’t.
Conscientiousness is something which the school cannot teach. School can only signal it, and then only imperfectly. When someone tells me that he forgot something important, I think that it is hardly deserving of sober attention. I see such people everywhere. When I was in my last job, I noticed that some of them came at noon, left in the afternoon and looked here and there when tired annoying others. H.L. Mencken was certainly right about the average Joe: “The world gets nothing from him save his brute labour, and even that he tries to evade.” Yet, instead of feeling bad about themselves, they felt policed and persecuted. If natalists can be caught thinking of mandatory sterilization, it is hard to blame others.
As Bob Wallace writes: “A neurotic, taking too much responsibility, feels too much guilt; a character disorder, not taking enough responsibility, doesn’t feel enough guilt. A joke about this is that dogs are neurotic because they always think it’s their fault; cats are character disorders because they always think it’s your fault.” Rana Dasgupta nails it so well: “In the Indian psyche, you dissociate yourself from the bad things you have done, and then they’re not yours anymore. This isn’t a guilt culture. That’s why you can never make any accusation stick to a businessman or a politician. They won’t even recognize the crimes you’re accusing them of. They’ll probably have you beaten up for insulting them.”
The whole city is infested with character disorders. Schooling if anything, reinforces such character disorders.
One day, our 1st standard class teacher left us all alone in the class room and went outside. A child made a mess near my desk by pouring a bottle of ink. When she came back, he pointed his finger at me and said cheerfully: “He did it!” In between, he leaned forward to whisper in my little ears with a chuckle: “I am so clever.”. I wondered how such evil can even exist on earth. How could he do this to me? The upside was of course that I had come to grips with the concept of backstabbing.
Luckily, it looked like she didn’t believe his words. He was told that when he points one finger at me, three fingers are pointed at himself. So, he ended up cleaning up the mess he himself has made. I rarely had to right the scales of justice as reality often took its course. I was happy that like many who later played on me, he fell into a ditch he himself dug. I sat there with a smug smile on my face.
School doesn’t value perseverance. If you do well, at most you will be called a good boy. When I topped my class when I was in 4th standard, my parents noticed that I didn’t smile when I took the progress card from my class teacher. They also noticed that the class teacher didn’t smile. My mother scolded me: “There is no need for you to be so smug about it. You should know that no one else opened their text books this year!” I believed it. It felt so good.
When I was 9, my father was transferred and I moved to another school. It was completely beyond me why the teachers who interviewed me demanded that I define indefinable terms like “parrot” and “peacock”. It was obvious that they didn’t belong to the profession, and should never be allowed to have anything to do with little children.
My class teacher in 6th standard hated me with some passion. She once told my mother: “I do not care whether he studies or not, but he should learn to be audible.” One day, I heard her reading a line from a short story aloud: “She was so proud that she even refused to talk to her neighbors”, with her fishy eyes fixed on me. I felt as if a lightning had suddenly struck me: “God, what is this old lady trying to tell me?” When she once threw me out of the class as my voice was not loud enough for her, I stood there listening to crows croak.
She once found my eight year old brother guilty of some mischief. His crime: He listed all the boys and girls in his class on a piece of paper and matched them up. She was fuming with anger: “What has this boy done?”. She warned in her trembling voice that he will be expelled from the school if he persists in such immoral behavior. One day, while rolling my eyes listening to her blabber, I noticed one thing: She had hearing aids. Everything suddenly fell into place. Her anger was all the more understandable to me when I recently heard a woman say: “Shanu, I am fifty and deaf. Please speak a bit louder.” I had more serenity by then.
Though I was almost over religion by then, every morning I caught myself praying for her early demise. My mom was disturbed by all this. She often said: “Your attitude is not for your good. It will never do anyone any good. You shouldn’t hold anger in your mind. Matha, Pitha, Guru, Deivam. ” Such rationalizations lacked even the slightest plausibility to me even then. When I grew up, I learned to philosophically reject the concepts of forgiveness and unearned respect. More than a decade later, I read in an Orkut forum that she was finally taken to the graveyard. I was filled with immense delight as my childhood dream has come true. Better late than never!
After all, God will not be mocked!
To me, school was a “Hobbesian jungle”. We were punished for horrid crimes like talking to each other, not bringing the text books, and failing to memorize poems. Many of them were hypersensitive. When a nine year old boy asked a newly married teacher whether she enjoyed her first night, she wept and ran out of the classroom. I am almost certain that he didn’t know what he was talking about. I think children should go to school instead of the neighborhood candy store only if they like being scolded, smacked and ordered around by these nasty women. If there are any good aspects of schooling, it could be enjoyed without going through the whole process. Irrespective of whether it is private or public, schooling is eight hours of jail sentence a day where one is forced to learn what he doesn’t like to learn, and socialize with all those unwanted types. Fourteen years is a hell of a long time. I am still not over it.
I do not think that I should degrade myself by even debating the issue of corporal punishment. What we hear are the arguments of some brutes who lack the nerve to stand up for what they believe in. If we push on, at the end the real truth comes out of their mouth, and we realize that all the twists, obfuscations, contradictions, non sequiturs, equivocations, complexities, tricks and intellectual acrobatics were intended to hide this plain naked truth, the shabby unspeakable secret, the secret shame of savages who have never risen out of the archaic practice of doing good to children through force. If they want to hit a child, they should have the grace to admit that.
If I could press a button on my desk which would get anyone who has ever raised his hand against a child in a horror chamber, and have them tortured till death, mercilessly and brutally, the only reason I would not press that button would be that I would be starving to death in a world where most of the mankind will be missing. Otherwise I would have pushed it without hesitating a bit, with the largest grin anyone has ever seen on my face.
When I was ten, my parents decided that I needed some “help” in learning Maths. I was sent to a private tuition centre which I loathed as my reason told me that I do not need nobody’s “help”. Every day, after school, I would walk back home, and my mom would take me forcefully to the tuition classes. One day, she had to stop my bus and take me out of it to lead me through the ‘right path’. After sulking for months, I left the place never to return. The day she gave up, I heard her telling a friend: “He thinks that it is beneath him to learn from others. He has an attitude problem!”
One day, when I was walking through the hallways of my school, a senior asked me how much I scored in my Maths paper. I said: “46/50”. He then asked me how much I scored before taking tuitions. I reflected for a while and said: “45/50”. His face lit up. He said: “So, that explains it. One mark is not worth all the trouble.” He was right. I was glad that I found some agreement in him, an agreement which is often hard to come by. My only regret was that I had a crush on a 13 year old girl who studied with me. I later saw her in a temple. She was praying with her eyes closed, wearing a long skirt which is not too unlike the one often seen in Malayalam movies. I looked at her folded palms and bare feet. She didn’t see me.
One of my fondest childhood memories is that of reading the travelogue of an Indian researcher in Spain. In his delightful manner, he tells us what happened when a teenaged blonde in the house he stayed was soon to be blessed with a cute baby. His landlord wanted the author to find out who shared the responsibility. I couldn’t extort any sense out of the landlord’s request. I had believed that babies were simply born. When I asked my mother what the author meant, she slapped my hand, snatched the book and said: “I have told you an indefinite number of times that this is not meant for children.” When I was in Junior High, I felt that I was beginning to understand. A classmate told me that the great Mahatma Gandhi and even our parents were guilty of this fundamental sin.
In Junior High, my classmates used words which fell harshly upon my delicate sensibilities. They were glad to be taught by teachers with well-developed bosoms. Our school was near a college. When I was 13, I used to walk through the corridors of the college with a friend who would often say with great sadness: “We stand no chance. But, I see nothing wrong in checking them out. Come, let us go!” He believed in flouting the norms of conventional morality, and held that Bill Clinton was a much persecuted man, unnecessarily so. On a rainy day, when we were waiting for our bus, an elderly man wanted to know which bus will take him home. This boy showed him the way in a cheerful manner uncharacteristic of him. The moment the man boarded the bus, he started laughing uncontrollably and said: “But, I do not feel bad at all.”
I was 13 when I flunked the Math paper big time. 3/50. When I got the progress card, I lacked the nerve to show it to my mom. I dropped it on my desk and went out to play, hoping against hope that she would see it. What followed was unspeakable! I shall not get into all that. As Bryan Caplan points out, twin and adoption researches suggest that there is much merit in the “sissy” point of view that children should be treated tenderly, and largely left alone: “If your children’s future success is largely beyond your control, riding them “for their own good” is not just wasteful, but cruel. The sentimental view that parents should simply cherish, encourage, and accept their children has science on its side.” As much as I didn’t know it then, when I wanted to be treated tenderly and left alone, I had science on my side. I had hard research on my side. But, I was not listened to.
After Junior High, I never really went to classes. I enrolled in an Engineering college which I almost never attended. After bunking classes and flunking courses for long, I dropped out. When I started working, I didn’t have a degree, though I acquired one which demanded zero effort. It didn’t hurt me to the point that I will go back and change the decisions I have made along the way.
I often hear many argue that they value what they learned in school, and the friends they have made there. And of course, some teachers were nice. (Yes, nice. I would very much love to see all of them boarded on a flight in which the pilot is just a nice, likeable guy. It would be quite a scene.) To cut it short, their arguments amount to this: “You are such a big loser to have missed out on all the fun we had in school.” I can only paraphrase Rambo, “What you call home, I call hell.”
It should be obvious that what they like is not school as such, but the whole package which comes with schooling. A school is typically better than simply sitting at home and watching “Tom and Jerry”. If someone is stupid enough to believe that school teaches you something which you cannot learn otherwise, it is always the person whose rational faculties are not fully developed.
Whenever I ask people whether they use much of what was taught in school or college, they invariably answer: “No”. Do they remember much of what they learned in school? The answer is again, “No”. Yet, they are all convinced that without schooling, they would have been selling ladies’ socks in the Green park market. My roommate is an Assistant manager in a Dry-cleaning company. I am not sure, but, it is safe to assume that his knowledge of the dry-cleaning business is as deep as my knowledge in fluid mechanics. Someone who studied Computer Science and Marketing and finally end up barking “Citibank” will in all likelihood believe that college made him what he is. When asked to explain themselves, they will hem and haw, “I think I studied logic, reasoning and analysis at IIT. There is a lot of number-crunching and problem solving. I didn’t like it much, but at least I finished engineering. (Unlike you, loser!)” The fact that logic, reasoning and analysis can be learned elsewhere studying what really matters is some ultra-sophisticated reasoning which has never occurred to them.
Centuries of research in educational psychology and “Transfer of Learning” literature suggests that the argument that you are “learning to learn” in college is rather spurious. There is a short term effect learning has on IQ, but it fades out soon. All things considered, no one become a better banker by studying computer science in college. One can be much better off learning Banking itself. Students forget much of the Computer Science they have learned in college, if they have learned anything at all. More importantly, much of the Computer Science you learn in college is useless for any job in any case. The situation is much worse in Math, liberal arts and physical sciences for almost all students. Who seriously believes that differential calculus or business cycle theory will help a typical student who is at his best good enough for subaltern jobs?
So why are employers credentialists? Bryan Caplan answers:
“Suppose you’re interviewing a smart guy, without a college degree, and he offers you a money-back guarantee. You might think “What a great deal” and accept. But then again, you might start thinking “What a weirdo. What’s wrong with him?” And this, I propose, is the stumbling block to lots of worthwhile innovations. A person with an unconventional idea may have a point, but is also unlikely to be “normal.” He may not fit it with other people. He may have problems with authority. He may be deviant in more ways than one!
Confession: I’m one of the weirdos. I flout all kinds of social conventions. I wear shorts and flip-flops in the winter. I carry a funny cushion around wherever I go. (Don’t ask!) I laugh at inappropriate times. So outside of the best weird economics department in the world, who wants to hire me? If you hear me out, I think I’ve got some good arguments for wearing shorts and flip-flops in the winter. But even if I convinced you, you would probably hesitate to hire me, especially for a “real-world” job. My failure to conform in dress significantly raises the probability that I will fail to conform in more substantive ways. And even if you decide I can wear shorts while everyone else wears suits, what if a client sees me? He may start to think the whole firm is weird.”
I am also one of those weirdos. When I came looking for a job in this Magazine, I didn’t take my resume as I couldn’t see how it would help me. I haven’t bothered to write a proper resume. I got my previous jobs and assignments without such hassles. In any case, how does it even matter? The editor looked at me and said that I should be much more sensible in my communication. I later heard that she told another editor: “He was so weird”. When I went for the interview, he asked sarcastically: “Have you taken your resume and all?”, and then said that he doesn’t need it. If I have it, I can keep it with me. I do not blame them at all, as Economics explains this phenomenon so well. She later said that she interviewed many stupid people the last day and had no reason to believe that I would be any different. Now, this is what economists call “statistical discrimination”.
I have good arguments to support almost everything I do. But even if others listen, it is highly improbable that they will even be able to see my point. As employers have limited time and resources, they rely on some “statistical discrimination”. A college dropout is less likely to be a worthy hire. The same goes for a weirdo. If someone is both (as in all likelihood he is), his resume goes into its rightful place: trash bin. So, normalcy and a college degree signals that you are someone smart enough to get the job done, but conformist enough to be a likeable co-worker and stay focused . In low-IQ, low-paying jobs, the person should be lazy and stupid enough to settle for it, focused enough to get it done, and at the same time willing to work for a pittance. A rare combination, indeed!
I have never had a liking to be taught-and I will be really surprised if someone genuinely likes it. I do not think this is the way children learn, or should learn. The best way to learn a subject, of course, is to pick up an entertaining book and read, branching out in all directions. Only a book can set forth a subject in a coherent, complete and systematic manner. An erudite teacher who can be of some help to students is all but a matter of mathematical probability. If a student badly needs a teacher, I think it is always the kind which cannot learn.
Bryan Caplan has an interesting question for people who believe that students are in college for learning.
“Why do students rejoice whenever a teacher cancels class? From a human capital standpoint, students’ attitude is baffling. They’ve paid good money to acquire additional skills. Employers will judge them by the skills their teachers impart. But when the students’ agent, their teacher, unilaterally decides to teach them less without the slightest prospect of a refund, the students cheer. How bizarre. Would a contractor jump for joy when his roofers tell him they’re taking short cuts on the shingles in order to go drinking?”
The hard truth is that however hard they deny, deep down everyone knows that college is all about that piece of paper they will have at the end.
As Bryan writes:
“The best education in the world is already free of charge. Just go to the best university in the world and start attending classes. Stay as long as you want, and study everything that interests you. No one will ever “card” you. The only problem is that, no matter how much you learn, there won’t be any record you were ever there.” So, why doesn’t anyone make use of it in the name of noble pursuit of knowledge?
One of my pet research projects is to see how brainwashing can work on people. Of all the nonsense masses believe in, nothing is more ridiculous than their unshakeable belief in schooling. To most Indians, there is only one path to success: Engineer-MBA-Anonymous. It sets the bar way too low, but like Manu Joseph, I will readily concede that the path of the average Joe at his best is far better than the path of the average Joe at his worst: Sociology-Salesman-Anonymous. There is only one path to national progress: More and more “investment” in public schools orchestrated by the Mommy state that practices tough love. Oh, like Soviet Russia’s “investment in people”?
To lovers of public schooling, the fact that “government spending” is not “investment” is completely besides the point. Compassion should wipe out the fundamentals of Economics. Economics is not exactly a science, but some bourgeoisie prejudice which should never take precedence over the feelings of the great reservoirs of wisdom: bleeding-heart intellectuals. And it is feelings alone that matter. The fact that most imbeciles cannot read, count or even write their own name in their mother tongue after years and years of public schooling is again besides the point.
You are a wicked market fundamentalist if you think that the government should get out of the “child rearing business”. After all, the “Market is not God”. It is often said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. But, if someone believes that the government that has never delivered will somehow start delivering tomorrow with his magic touch, it is perfectly scientific and rational. His pure intentions are never to be questioned. When someone rehashes long-refuted bromides, It is open-minded reasoning unguided by politics. Instead of being called “The humanitarian with the guillotine”, he will be called “The human face of capitalism” and the “The Conscience and the Mother Teresa of Economics”. Ayn Rand was not far off the mark when she wrote that the moral cannibal who snarls that freedom is not required to maintain civilization should be given “an arrowhead and bearskin, not a university chair of economics.”
Does classroom learning even help? In a classroom, injustice is done to all students as no teacher can take into account the diverse needs, capabilities, preferences and future trajectories of students. If formal education doesn’t deliver when it comes to building skills, we would be better off if it doesn’t exist, or is at least not subsidized by the all-knowing state.
I am by no means some naïve libertarian who sings: “The free market will improve every school and child geniuses will become the rule. Our learning will make every nation drool when the Libertarians come to town.” In all likelihood, the free market will improve schooling, but that is not the point. I have no doubt that schooling and coercion are against the spirit of learning. It is also clear to me that most low IQ-low character types will not do well irrespective of the schooling process they go through. Unlike most libertarians who believe that the markets will make education affordable, I think that free markets will make the present-mode formal education completely unfeasible for most students, as it rightly should.