Why Not Have Mandatory Adult Education?
Pondering compulsory adult education highlights some of the problems with compulsory education for children and adolescents.
It’s very rare to see an educated person publicly disparage education. Across the political spectrum, almost everyone thinks that education is the key to improving our economy and society. Democrats believe the solution is funding, while Republicans think we need school choice. Nobody really says that education is largely a waste—except for iconoclasts like Bryan Caplan, author of The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money (Caplan, 2018).
While most people believe education is essential, I can’t recall hearing anyone call for compulsory education for anyone other than children and young adults. This is odd because plenty of adults are unfamiliar with basic scientific facts and lack basic numeracy. Perhaps even more importantly, most are unfamiliar with the information necessary to be an informed voter. American citizens are largely ignorant, irrational, and misinformed nationalists (Brennan, 2016, ch. 2).
Ironically, the failures of education are sometimes used to argue for more education. When general education classes designed to improve writing skills are found ineffective, some argue this shows that we need more of the same (Brennan and Magness, 2009, ch. 7). For some reason, adult incompetency is taken as an indication that we need to improve schooling, but not as an indication that we should send adults back to school. Almost everyone would reject this sort of radical proposal.
Adults are given the liberty to make their own decisions to a much larger degree than minors (Epstein, 2010); children are regarded as a class of people who can sometimes be forced to do things against their will. You can make your kids play baseball, attend piano practice, go to school, and go to church. No one is legally permitted to compel the vast majority of adults to do any of these. Why do we treat children differently? Many will argue that children lack the cognitive ability or competency to make long-term decisions, so their parents have to force them to do things.
I find this argument unpersuasive. As I noted in my article “Adolescent Liberation,” if it really were about competency or cognitive ability, then people would advocate for permitting highly competent and intelligent young people to have equal rights with adults. Furthermore, if education was so clearly in one’s self-interest, then presumably, we should be making at least some adults return to school, yet we don’t. No one even thinks we should force a 35-year-old who has forgotten his high school algebra and civics 101 to return to school.
The first few objections that come to mind are that sending people back to school would be very disruptive to their lives and economically harmful. But I think that this is an example of status quo bias. We don’t regard sending young people to school because it’s not a disruption since they aren’t doing anything else. But the reason they aren’t doing anything else is that they’re forced to attend school. There are also opportunity costs to keeping children and adolescents in school in addition to the thousands spent on the schooling itself.
When we want to take a drastic measure and deprive people of their liberty, we should have an excellent reason. For example, if someone is a danger to themselves, many find it okay to force them into psychiatric care. We don’t have to have as high a standard for children, but it seems like we currently have almost no standard. Teachers regularly force their students to engage in almost entirely useless behavior like finger painting, playing the recorder, and writing poetry. If you’re going to make your kid do something, you should think it’s in their interest. The more they resent being made to do the action, the more it should be in their interest.
Frequently, the more a student dislikes school, the less it’s in their best interest to be attending school. My radical view is that very little education is particularly useful for improving critical thinking skills or giving useful information to students. We have reason to doubt that educational interventions are effective at permanently boosting IQ (Protzko, 2015; Caplan, 2018, ch. 2). We also have reason to doubt that students are learning skills that transfer to other domains (Haskell 2001; Caplan, 2018, ch. 2). And even if students acquire useful information, they will not retain it into adulthood unless it is relevant to their day-to-day lives (Caplan, 2018, ch. 2).
While not everything children learn is useless, a great deal of time spent making children sit in a classroom is wasting their time. We should see this as a serious ethical violation. We wouldn’t find it acceptable to coerce adults into learning useless information, and we should at least have some threshold for usefulness that has to be passed before coercing children. Some activities clearly do not pass the threshold, and they should be stopped. Although few will agree with my radical view, I believe that a lot of children should be allowed to either just play or begin working from an early age if they would like.
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