Education on My Homeworld

by lsusr7 min read14th Nov 202119 comments

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EducationWorld Optimization
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I appreciate Eliezer Yudkowsky going public with where he came from. It has given me the courage to speak about the planet I'm from.

Sometimes people ask me how I know so much about such a wide range of topics. It flatters my ego to say the answer is self-study, but while that is technically true, the concept of "self-study" is out-of-place on my homeworld. The closest word we have to the concept literally translates to "deliberate play".

We have several forms of compulsory education. We call those places "gulags", "prisons" and "brainwashing camps". There is no concept of benevolent compulsory education. It would be considered a contradiction of terms, like compassionate torture or scaring a child into laughing. We do have education, but child rearing operates very differently from here on Earth.

Let us begin with the start of one's life. There are fewer caesarean deliveries. There is more breastfeeding. Women have a constitutionally-protected right to carry infants into offices wherever it would not place an undue hardship on her employer. Technically this was granted under the Equal Rights Amendment, but the custom had already been established for so long the amendment was just a formality.

Childcare, the raising of young children, is more hands-off, with a strong emphasis on the outdoors. Injury rates of children are commensurately higher. Pets too. My own dog fell off a cliff when I was a teenager. (The dog turned out alright in the end, but we evaced him just in case.) I could operate a band saw before I could multiply two-digit numbers in my head. Fewer children survive to adulthood than on Earth (I almost died in a motorcycle accident before I went to college) but those who do are more self-reliant. In order to become a man, boys in my hometown were expected to travel across the country with one day's pay and a backpack full of supplies, working for money or scavenging food along the way. You are allowed a bicycle, a motorcycle or a Greyhound pass. I choose the Greyhound pass. The hardcore kids choose "none" and go moose hunting in the tundra.

Adults lie to children all the time. I don't mean that adults conceal taboo truths from children. I mean they just make stuff up for the fun of it. It's like having a new Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny every day except the deceptions get more sophisticated the older you get and there's no sharp line between truth and fiction. Children are expected to question absolutely everything. I was indoctrinated into three mutually-contradictory religions and nobody thought it was weird. I prefer[1] the way things work on Earth. It's less confusing.

Early education is similar to Earth's where teachers read stories to little kids. Recess is recess. Starting around the age of twelve, formal education is completely different. There is no standard set of skills everyone is supposed to learn because if everyone learns something then its economic value becomes zero. We don't have classrooms where a teacher lectures at a grid of teenagers sitting quietly at desks. For teenagers we have things which…there's no name for them on Earth. I'm going to call them "workshops".

There are several different kinds of workshops. We have them for gardening, farming, dance, metalworking, theatre. Different specialties all operate very differently from each other. I'll explain a few and hopefully you'll get the idea.

My computer programming workshop was a big industrial warehouse filled with broken computers and old computer manuals. None of this stuff was purchased new. When big software companies got rid of their old equipment it first goes to the workshop and only if the workshop doesn't want it does it go the electronic waste. The computer hardware was just a few years out-of-date but the textbooks were way out of date. It wasn't uncommon for me to read paper textbooks that were published before I was born.

The hardware we received was frequently broken. It took me a entire week to salvage the parts for my first computer. (I shudder when I recall how much lead and mercury dust I breathed.) But once I got it working the computer was mine. The computer workshop was hooked up directly to the wider Internet. My home language has no word for "child content restrictions".

I heard rumors that adult computer programmers sometimes volunteer at the programming workshops in the rich parts of town. That never happened where I grew up. My computer workshop was supervised by an unskilled corvée laborer who didn't teach us anything. Which is fine. He wasn't expected to teach us anything. Supervising aspiring computer programmers is considered menial labor. It's like watching paint dry. It's what you do if you can contribute absolutely nothing else of value to society.

That's because my homeworld treats computer programming as basically untrainable. We consider IQ to be like your height or your Big Five Personality Traits. The adult supervisor's job was to drive us to the hospital if we got hurt. Which never happened because this was a computer workshop. He was also supposed to kick out disruptive kids or kids who broke equipment for the fun of it but that never really happened either. Hyperactive kids preferred physical workshops over abstract ones.

Other workshops, like woodworking workshops, will kick you out if you waste material or operate machinery dangerously. But that's it. There's no concept of detention. The maximum punishment a workshop can impose is exile. A child who act recklessly is not allowed to use dangerous or expensive equipment.

Computer programming is unusually autodidactic. Most other workshops have a hierarchy of older kids who train younger kids how to do things. This is considered normal. Adults are assumed not to know how to use the newest technology and to have better things to do than to teach kids. Adults' job is the job of the state: to monopolize the use of force, to preserve civility and to prevent theft.

One of the most popular workshops is the community gardens because you get to keep whatever you grow. Of all the things about my homeworld I miss the most it's the tomatoes. Last year I grew a few tomatoes in my Earth garden. I gave a tiny piece of a perfectly ordinary tomato to my friend. She asked me if it was really a tomato. It tasted so good she thought I had given her a different species of plant. It broke my heart.

Besides the gardens, the animal shelter is very popular too, especially among girls. It's weird to see adults on Earth walking dogs. On my homeworld, dog walking is primarily the responsibility of children. It happens during what are (on Earth) regular school hours. The sidewalks of Earth feel empty to me without the packs of children shepherding packs of dogs. I wonder where they get their exercise instead.

Mature teenagers are allowed to wander around offices, laboratories, factories and other places of employment on the condition that they do what they're told. (Usually small, annoying tasks.) Unlike the workshops, this is considered a privilege, not a right. Kids must be quiet. They must obey safety procedures without having to be told. They cannot speak unless spoken to. Working at hospitals is considered vocational training. Teenagers usually receive a small stipend for hospital work, for which they are expected to work hard.

Other workshops include propaganda, marketing, social engineering and bomb-making. Nobody thinks this is weird. To the contrary, industrial sabotage workshops are considered a core pillar of national defense. They ensure no foreign power would ever want to invade. American football and first person shooters are less popular than on Earth. Kids play in airsoft MilSim workshops instead.

Foreign language workshops are more age-segregated than the other workshops. They always have the newest technology. In particular, the foreign language workshops have the newest virtual reality. Bidirectional communication terminals are hardwired from workshops in one country to workshops in other countries. Kids just hang out and attempt to communicate with kids their ages in other countries. The friends they make last a lifetime and form the basis of many business partnerships. The foreign language workshops frequently spawn their own pidgin languages. Foreign language workshops are considered a strategic component of nations' supply chain infrastructure.

There are no dedicated history, math and literature workshops. They are all just subsumed into public libraries, where frequent tournaments are held. Math tournaments are just like Earth's. Literature tournaments are writing competitions. One's knowledge of history is tested in debate tournaments and mock governments.

I like how safe Earth is. (Especially the parts I live in.) The society I come from is far more dangerous than the one I live in now. I like how easy everything is too. Stuff just works. I like that the trains run on time. But I'll never get used to it.


  1. Though I like Earth's methods better, I have not broken my native habit of disguising satire as serious discourse. Sometimes readers don't even realize it's satire. I like to see how long I can string them along for. ↩︎

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There is no standard set of skills everyone is supposed to learn because if everyone learns something then its economic value becomes zero.

This seems wrong. Skills like literacy, numeracy, prosociality and ability to manage your own boredom bring a lot of economic value, even (especially) if everyone has them. And looking at our world, most people don't acquire these skills freely and automatically, they have to be forced somewhat.

In The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, Bryan Caplan uses Earth data to make the case that compulsory education does not significantly increase literacy. I'm skeptical that prosociability and the ability to manage your own boredom are taught at school in a way that would not be learned otherwise. Managing your own boredom requires freedom, which is the opposite of compulsion. Sociability requires permission to speak, which is forbidden by default in classroom-style schooling. Algebra and calculus seem the most IQ loaded of anything taught in school.

I don't doubt that it's useful to have the whole population learn reading and arithmetic, but this seems to me like it's the kind of thing that can be taught in a few months. (Or a single month to a smart child.) If kids don't learn reading automatically then that would imply that they wouldn't text each other in the absence of school which, to me, is reducto ad absurdum.

In The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, Bryan Caplan uses Earth data to make the case that compulsory education does not significantly increase literacy.

Compulsory education increases literacy, see the Likbez in the USSR.

Managing your own boredom requires freedom, which is the opposite of compulsion.

One can make the opposite assertion, that it's fastest learned through discipline, and point to Chinese or South Korean schools.

I don’t doubt that it’s useful to have the whole population learn reading and arithmetic, but this seems to me like it’s the kind of thing that can be taught in a few months.

From my couple years experience teaching average (non-selected) kids, expecting that something can be taught to them quickly is a recipe for disappointment.

If kids don’t learn reading automatically then that would imply that they wouldn’t text each other in the absence of school which, to me, is reductio ad absurdum.

Texting isn't enough for literacy, lots of kids can text but cannot read and understand a book, ask any teacher.

In The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, Bryan Caplan uses Earth data to make the case that compulsory education does not significantly increase literacy.

My reading is that he claims compulsory education had little effect in Britain and the US, where literacy was already widespread.

When Britain first made education compulsory for 5-to-10-year-olds in 1880, over 95% of 15- year-olds were already literate. [1]

There's an interesting footnote where he references a paper on economic returns of compulsory education, which cites many sources (p14) finding little to no economic return from schooling reform (though limited to Europe).

How does tort liability work on your homeworld?

There is no legal obligation to prevent other people from hurting themselves. If someone uses your stuff without permission then it's basically impossible for them to sue you for negligence. Consequently, many workshop-like trespassing is done with a wink and a nod rather than explicit permission.

Interesting, how have the forces promoting greater regulations, liability, etc., been kept quiescent on your homeworld?

It sounds like your homeworld is populated by aspiring rationalists of the type you might find on LW. Or to put it another way, I think you are proposing a system based on typical-minding. You'd learn useful things in school without acting disruptively, you'd take bomb-making courses without using them to bomb the Jew who lives down the block, you'd find autodidactic computer programming very useful. You probably don't like American football all that much, or at least, you haven't played it. So your homeworld is an entire society like that.

It's also vulnerable to the "beware fictional evidence" problem. Do you have a reason to believe that any substantial number of kids would make online friends through foreign language instruction, that are good enough for business partnerships? In the fictional evidence category, I'd also ask how foreign countries in your homeworld differ from ours. Becoming a business partner online with someone living in an authoritarian government may just export the authoritarian government's influence on businesses. And what about countries full of scam artists who may not reciprocate and try to scam the "business partner"?

I played American football for two years. It was a lot of fun.

I had a online friend I made through foreign language learning provide a source of KN95 masks at the height of the COVID-19 shortage. He lives under an authoritarian government. Long-term relationships are one way how you avoid scams over there.

"I did this and it was great" is pretty much a subset of typical minding. Your own experiences are always going to include a combination of things that actually work in general, things that occasionally work if you get lucky, and things that work for people like you but don't generalize.

I played American football for two years. It was a lot of fun.

Okay, then change it to "you like American football less than the people who that statement was addressing like it".

I'll be the one to say (at risk of misreading the place this comes from), that there are a lot of super weird things here that read as conspicuously unaware of the way other people live their lives.

Odd things like the equal rights amendment allowing women the right to bring children to work, boys having some odd macho test when they grow up [1], or things like girls working animal shelters seem to be a likely description of what is exactly around you in life.

Together with things mentioned by other commenters (like a hardline stance on education in every area that people typically argue about), make this feel less fun than Dath Ilan. To me, this feels more like your map to the metaphorical 'good old days' [2] where (literally) men were men and kids had the privilege to die or get lead poisoning. [EDIT: It took a few tries before I got it, but @nafal points out that this is an unfair wording, not just a witty one like it was theoretically intended to be]

It feels off base for LessWrong somehow, but I am open to being told that I am actually the one off base.


  1. While not wrong by any means I care about, I will invoke the concept that there are simple explanations for what this manhood ritual would be inspired by, and that these rituals historically suck for a lot of people. ↩︎

  2. In idiom only, I'm not trying to imply you claim that this world existed in the past. ↩︎

I think you're misreading the place this is coming from. To me the suggestions (both the workshops, and "macho tests") feel more inspired by the dutch dropping tradition (NYT,  sorry).

Also, I think you might be "rounding off" the essay into an argument for some "metaphorical good old days" which I don't think it's doing. Namely, to me at least, "good old days" implies a "this never was real so wishing for it is dumb" that clearly isn't the case with some of the things being suggested (see the above link talking about how children in the Netherlands tend to be freer and expected to take on more risk). 

Finally, "had the privilege to die or get lead poisoning" is a pretty obvious straw man. 

I think I did a pretty good job of noting that "good old days" is an idiom expressing that I think "taking on more risk" is a misleading steelman when applied to much of this. The following paragraph isn't about being more self-reliant and well adjusted, it's about looking cool and tough, which seems to me like it is probably totally separate.

In order to become a man, boys in my hometown were expected to travel across the country with one day’s pay and a backpack full of supplies, working for money or scavenging food along the way. You are allowed a bicycle, a motorcycle or a Greyhound pass. I choose the Greyhound pass. The hardcore kids choose “none” and go moose hunting in the tundra.

I don't think the latter is a straw man, but I could be misunderstanding the thrust of something here I suppose:

Childcare, the raising of young children, is more hands-off, with a strong emphasis on the outdoors. Injury rates of children are commensurately higher. Pets too. My own dog fell off a cliff when I was a teenager. (The dog turned out alright in the end, but we evaced him just in case.) I could operate a band saw before I could multiply two-digit numbers in my head. Fewer children survive to adulthood than on Earth (I almost died in a motorcycle accident before I went to college) but those who do are more self-reliant.

The hardware we received was frequently broken. It took me a entire week to salvage the parts for my first computer. (I shudder when I recall how much lead and mercury dust I breathed.)

I'll admit I imagined another occurrence of the concept of chemical poisoning somewhere in here, so the lead note was outright wrong, but the former is pretty spot-on as I read it.

I guess I was assuming (based on my model of lsusr) that the intent of that paragraph was to talk about taking on more risk and responsibility. But, reading it back I think you're right about how that passage is a lot more "macho" and a lot less "useful self reliance skills" which I'll agree is odd.   

On the second point, I feel like your statement is a straw man due to the fact that, sure, part of what's going on in the second passage is that kids get the "privilege to die", but, the way you say that seems to ignore all of the (well established in my mind) benefits other than just death that kids raised in this manner would get. 

Hey, put the second paragraph that way and I see what you mean. I'm going to edit a little note into the original comment to point this out.

This is great! I've had a recurring daydream (mostly during boring classes, ha) about how I would want my kids to be educated if I ever get to be a father. It's pretty much identical to the system you describe on your homeworld.

In the same vein, I made a post on Hacker News a few days ago in order to gather information on the prospects I would face if I dropped out of college. I'm probably not going to (yet), but I'm still reminded of the corrosive effects of compulsory education on a daily basis.

I read your Hacker News post. What don't you like about the curriculum? If the answer is "it's too easy" or "I hate Java" then you should take seriously the idea of dropping out (or if you're a freshman then consider changing your major to something harder like math or physics). If the classes aren't hard enough then the biggest thing you (personally) will lose if you drop out of college is an easy entry ticket into the big tech firms like Amazon, Facebook, etcetera. Try to arrange for a company to hire you early, before you graduate. If you succeed then you can drop out with basically no risk. If you fail to secure an early job then you will have spent a bit of time learning useful things about how the world works.

What do you want to be doing in 1 year after graduation? 2 years? 5 years? 10?