Civilization is kept afloat by a massive, decentralized body of often unseen knowledge.

This dark mass is made up of innumerable pieces of know-how accumulated by people mostly stumbling around, observing each other and the way things work. It's what's lodged in the head of the East German handyman that knows whom to bribe (and how) to get West German spare parts. It's the idiosyncratic thought patterns and norms picked up by the students of Gerty and Carl Cori, who won the Nobel Prize in 1947, six of which went on to win the prize in turn. It's your two-year-old learning the local language.

Since this body of knowledge is hard to quantify, and often even hard to spot, we tend to not think about it as deeply as it deserves. Talking about learning, and how to improve it, we often limit our discussions to the legible subset of knowledge transmission channels – that is, schools and universities. But as important as those institutions are, the education system plays only a minor part in knowledge reproduction.

As Lester Thurow argued in Education and economic equality: “Most actual job skills are acquired informally through on-the-job training after a worker finds an entry job and a position on the associated promotional ladder.”

This informal process, whereby job skills get picked up at work, social skills in friend groups, and language at home, is where virtually all knowhow is passed on. Education is the visible white tip kept up by this submerged iceberg; it is a formal order kept afloat by an informal one. Education cannot function without decentralized pathways of knowledge transfer, yet it often ignores them, and competes with them for resources.

As James Scott has observed:

The more highly planned, regulated, and formal a social or economic order is, the more likely it is to be parasitic on informal processes that the formal scheme does not recognize and without which it could not continue to exist, informal processes that the formal order cannot alone create and maintain.

In this essay, I'm going to look at the body of the iceberg – the decentralized processes that create and spread knowledge. To distinguish it from the education system, I'm going to refer to it as the learning system. Can we leverage it to more efficiently spread useful knowledge?

Decentralized Knowledge Reproduction

Whatever knowledge is spreading through society without a top-down mandate, is spreading through the learning system.

Exactly where to draw the line between the education system and the learning system is a bit arbitrary. On one side we have people involuntarily placed in classrooms, on the other people are disappearing down rabbit holes on Wikipedia. But there are many shades in between. One way to demarcate the line is by making a distinction between learning situations that, in Ivan Illich's terminology, are convivial and those that are manipulative:

[Manipulative] institutions tend to be highly complex and costly production processes in which much of the elaboration and expense is concerned with convincing consumers that they cannot live without the product of the treatment offered by the institution. [Convivial] institutions tend to be networks which facilitate client-initiated communication or cooperation.

The education system is an attempt to manipulate the spread of knowledge through mandatory attendance. Attendance can be enforced by law, or, more subtly, by manipulating living conditions so that it becomes very difficult to live a decent life if one chooses to be an autodidact – that is, one who learns only through the learning system.

The learning system, on the other hand, is convivial. People go looking for it: they search for YouTube lectures, book clubs, mentors, and dynamic workplaces. It fills a need in them. It is self-directed.

The learning system is often highly efficient. Over the past five years, for example, millions of people, almost exclusively outside of the education system, have gained a conceptual understanding of how cryptographically secured tokens can unlock new software designs; and tens of thousands have acquired the skills required to implement these designs. This is not a trivial feat of knowledge spread.

Yet, uncontrolled, decentralized knowledge transfer will not necessarily lead to the spread of adaptive knowledge. There are many examples from history when important knowledge has been forgotten – as when the Polar Inuit of northwest Greenland lost the ability to make kayaks – or when maladaptive norms and practices have spread. We repeatedly see people who refused to learn things that could have saved their lives.

In 1841, a British parliamentary commission reported that they had found citizens who had never heard of a city called London. Meeting a group of working-class boys in the street, a commission member had asked if they knew who the Queen of England was.

“Yes, sir,” said the boys, “her name is Prince Albert.”

Literacy, which was common among the upper classes and spreading in the middle class, had not yet penetrated most of the working class.

This lack of knowledge can be viewed as a learning system failure (which can be thought of as analogous to a market failure, where a decentralized market does not allocate goods and services in a Pareto efficient way). And mass education can, in some regards, be seen as a reaction to these failures of the learning system.

The introduction of compulsory education, in Britain and elsewhere, was an attempt to correct for perceived inefficiencies in the learning system. Time that people had previously spent in the learning system was appropriated for education, where knowledge transmission could be centrally controlled. This gave curriculum designers a channel through which they could transmit knowledge deemed essential.

Or phrased another way: mandatory education was an intervention in the decentralized learning system.

How did the intervention affect the underlying system?

Interventions in Complex Systems

Interventions in complex systems have unforeseen consequences. Apply pesticide to stop budworm from killing off your spruce, and you will also kill off the budworm’s natural enemies, making future pest outbreaks more severe. Impose rent control to keep housing affordable and construction will slow, making it harder for people to move to cities with higher economic productivity – raising unemployment and economic inequality while lowering innovation and the rate of childbirth.

The problem with these types of interventions is that they limit the underlying system’s ability to self-organize. By shifting control from the system to a central authority tasked with managing it, the intervention reduces the system’s ability to adjust itself to changes in its environment. It is no longer in the system’s power to freely adapt.

The capacity to change in reaction to new circumstances is crucial for adaptability. Limiting a system’s ability to self-organize and adapt, induces costs that often are hard to see and connect to the intervention that stymied that ability. Rural deaths of despair seem unconnected from urban rent control. Pesticide seems like an unlikely cause of pest outbreaks.

To avoid these types of problems, you need another approach. You need interventions that leverage the system's capacity to self-organize, rather than work against it. An intervention, if aimed at unblocking the system, can strengthen the ability of the system to shoulder its own burdens.

In forestry, this means cultivating ecosystems that in themselves are resilient enough to keep the budworm population from overwhelming the spruce.

In economics, it means some flavor of Keynesianism: instead of a Soviet-style command economy, you correct for market failures by leveraging the market’s own strengths. You break up monopolies and use free-market competition to hem in the market’s tendency to create winner-take-all effects. You use price-mechanisms, such as carbon rights, to force the market to internalize its externalities, that is: you incentivize the system to self-organize and overcome its limitations.

If we apply this insight to knowledge reproduction, what would it mean? The learning system is a self-organizing entity. It can change its structure to adapt to new circumstances: creating formal apprenticeships during the Renaissance, conjuring universities, building online communities. But when we have tried to promote learning during the modern era, we have often done so at the expense of this adaptability, and many of the structures developed by the learning system, such as apprenticeships, have withered.

Can we instead design interventions that strengthen the learning system, so that it can better overcome its own failures? I am not sure, but it strikes me as a promising question. I will sketch a few possibilities.

Enabling the Learning System

It must not start with the question, ‘What should someone learn?’ but with the question, ‘What kinds of things and people might learners want to be in contact with in order to learn?’ – Ivan Illich

If we want to enable the learning system and allow it to shoulder some of the burdens we’ve placed on education, we must first ask ourselves why the natural correction mechanisms are failing. Why can’t the learning system reproduce the knowledge needed to sustain civilization? It used to be our sole means of knowledge transmission; now it no longer seems sufficient. What is holding it back?

Two things come to mind, changes that might have rendered the learning system insufficient in the modern world. Firstly, the character of knowledge has changed. Whereas knowledge in premodern societies was easy to observe and immediately rewarding – like hunting or mending clothes – knowledge in the modern world is abstract, and the gratification of learning is delayed. This is the common criticism of self-directed learning. What is fun and intrinsically motivating is not necessarily what is useful; the incentives are off. So you misallocate your time.

Secondly, modernity has been a centrifuge. Rapid progress has separated everything – most importantly, home and work, children and adults – creating increasing specialization. Elderly in homes, working-age adults in offices, children sorted in age-graded classes. This segregation makes it hard for knowledge to pass from one group of people to another; children cannot, as in premodern societies, simply learn by working alongside adults; they can not get the widened perspective you get by living with the elderly.

How can these obstacles to learning be overcome?

1. Weak incentives. The first problem is a problem of incentives. Children, not having access to contexts where knowledge work is produced, for example, might not understand the value of developing deep literacy. Especially if they grow up in households where they don’t observe their parents reading, they might choose to learn less valuable skills, such as farming mushrooms in Minecraft, which could render them less employable in the modern job market.

I’m not sure this problem is as big as people would make it out to be. But assume it is. How can we incentivize the unmotivated to pursue things that are not intrinsically motivating?

The most straightforward way to incentivize is to simply reward the behavior that you want to promote. Rather than mandating literacy, give everyone that can pass a high school literacy test 20k dollars or so. Kids who are capable of teaching themselves can just collect the check, and the rest can ask their parents for lessons, or sign agreements with teachers, splitting the proceeds, and so finance their education and collect the reward. This is basically the learn and earn model popular in web3: if people aren’t intrinsically motivated to pay attention to what you value, you just pay them for their attention.

(Implemented on its own, with no further support, self-directed learning and bounties would of course lead to abysmal outcomes for certain groups: I will return to that. )

But for all the limitations of this simple model, it has the upside that it does not disrupt the learning system. Instead of replacing it, which is costly and conflict-ridden, incentives leverage the learning system. It creates a reward function and lets the system self-organize to solve the problem. Different people have different needs and capabilities, and if incentivized correctly the learning system can adapt to serve all these diverse needs, through a rich ecosystem of different learning opportunities. People will search around for the tools and mentors that work for them. Some will enjoy 3blue1brown; others will join study circles or go at it alone.

2. The separated society. Age segregation is a network problem – the nodes in the networks are not connected in a way that allows for efficient knowledge transfer. Children (nodes with limited knowledge) have been denied access to experienced nodes, and reduced to studying them from afar, mediated through books and lectures. And a lot of knowledge cannot pass through these types of low bandwidth connections – reality is too complex and nonlinear to pass through a linear string of words – leaving kids deprived.

For learning to happen spontaneously and effectively you need access. Christopher Alexander – writing in 1977 – asserted that the purpose of future educational institutions “must be to facilitate access for the learner: to allow him to look into the windows of the control room or the parliament, if he cannot get in the door. Moreover, such new institutions should be channels to which the learner would have access without credentials or pedigree, public spaces in which peers and elders outside his immediate horizon now become available...”

The problem with this kind of access is that there is a fundamental conflict at play: the conflict between granting novices access to experts and allowing experts to do productive work. Too many novices at a workplace and their demands for instruction overwhelm the attention of experts, slowing production to a crawl. This doesn’t mean we have to exclude novices as completely as we do today. Especially gifted children could enter productive environments much earlier than current legal codes permit, and gain from it. But you cannot just naively give novices access.

What we can do, however, is build better infrastructure. By leveraging communication technologies, we can grant more people access to valuable networks without overwhelming experts. We can build new types of architecture which allow experts and novices to coexist at scale. I have made a first stab at how that could work in a previous essay: Apprenticeship Online.

An interesting example of what it might look like is a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO). These blockchain-enabled organizations are generally permissionless and have an ethos of working in public: anyone can jump into a Discord, participate in the dialogue, and look for ways to contribute. This week, in early November, as I’m writing this, I was lucky enough to see Liminal Warmth tweet about a new DAO – one that would try to buy a copy of the American constitution. For a person like me, who has a relatively limited understanding of DAOs, and memeing, it was instructive to hang out in the channels where communication strategies were developed, and various legal issues got sorted out. I can’t imagine I would have learned as much from a university course about DAOs, if such a thing even exists. In 72 hours, the group had gone from about a hundred users on Discord to a money swarm of +$47M. They also, ironically, managed to create so much attention around the auction that the price rose beyond them: they came in second place.

If we decentralize the responsibility to learn away from schools, we might need to create incentives to drive the spread of useful knowledge, and we definitely need to invest in infrastructure that makes it easier for novices to access the environments we want them to master. Otherwise, we will see unpalatable learning system failures, where large groups are unable to obtain the knowledge they need to lead dignified lives.

We probably also need general economic support for the young. The young and the unskilled tend to be financially vulnerable and will therefore underspend on their learning compared to the societal optimum. Knowledge has positive externalities; it should therefore, at least partially, be financed by the collective. This is the basic idea behind state-sponsored education, and remains true even if the resources are decentralized into the learning system.

People who come from homes without good access to skilled role models, and those that have learning deficits, will need extra support. Decentralizing the responsibility to learn would otherwise risk hurting these groups. Decentralization leads to increased variance. We want to have a high-pass filter, that allows us to keep the upside of that variance – the gifted children that can grow faster when left to their own devices, the kids with obsessive passions that can specialize early – while limiting the downside.

Regrowth from the Edges In

To sum up:

  1. There exists something we can call the decentralized learning system.
  2. Education is an intervention to correct for its (perceived or real) failures.
  3. Heavy-handed interventions tend to undermine underlying systems, so they should be used as a last resort.
  4. There might be some way to instead unleash the learning system, similar to how economics has unleashed the market.
  5. That might be cool.

Looking at the problem of knowledge reproduction from a systems perspective allows us to find new solutions. The possibilities sketched here (granting access, incentivizing, and giving economic support) are only the most naively obvious, probably not the global optima. The design space is vast.

Here, for example, is another potential design sketched by Christopher Alexander:

Instead of the lock-step of compulsory schooling in a fixed place, work in piecemeal ways to decentralize the process of learning and enrich it through contact with many places and people all over the city: workshops, teachers at home or walking through the city, professionals willing to take on the young as helpers, older children teaching younger children, museums, youth groups traveling, scholarly seminars, industrial workshops, old people, and so on. Conceive of all these situations as forming the backbone of the learning process; survey all these situations, describe them, and publish them as the city's "curriculum"; then let students, children, their families and neighborhoods weave together for themselves the situations that comprise their "school" paying as they go with standard vouchers, raised by community tax. Build new educational facilities in a way which extends and enriches this network.

Exploring the full range of possibilities can probably most effectively be done outside of existing institutions, from the bottom up. It will need to be a messy, organic process.

Initiatives such as Sudbury Schools, learning experiments in web3, homeschooling families exploring ways of integrating learning back into life, Agile Learning Centers, new types of apprenticeships models in the open source community – these, and many other, experiments can gradually help us regrow the learning system from the edges in towards the center.

Piece by piece, we can learn how to compensate for the shortcomings of decentralized and self-directed learning without relying too heavily on centralized control. This will allow for a richer, more dynamic ecosystem of learning services.


This essay has benefitted from several rounds of feedback, primarily by Gunnar Zarncke and Justis Mills. Don't blame the outcome on them, though. It was a lot worse when they started.

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12 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:59 AM

Many people are dissatisfied with current educational system. But different people are dissatisfied for different reasons, and their visions how to fix the system are not necessarily compatible. There may be no solution that would make all of them happy. Seems to me that we could divide the attempts to fix education roughly like this:

A) The best version of the current system. That means, there is still school, the attendance is mandatory, etc. But there is no bullying; all teachers are competent and motivated; it is a pleasant experience for all kids. Kids are allowed to choose advanced classes; many classes are optional. Textbooks are much better than they are now; they are more logically organized, the explanations are easy to follow, there are nice pictures and interesting examples. Shortly, it is a steelman of the system we have now.

B) The state defines the curriculum, and it is more or less what we have now. But there is absolute freedom in how to achieve that knowledge. Some kids go to school. Other kids are homeschooled. Plus there are all kinds of spontaneously organized schools. The only condition is that kids take state-approved exams approximately once in a year; if they pass, they are allowed to continue doing whatever they were doing; if they fail repeatedly, there are some consequences (maybe in that case only, the school becomes mandatory). Alternatively, the state provides certificates for kids who pass the exams; and you get enough clear feedback whether your kid's current trajectory is likely to lead to the certificate. In addition to being a signal to employers, you need to get e.g. the high-school certificate in order to receive financial support from the state for your university study.

C) Let the market decide what is true or false. If I make a school that only teaches three subjects: "Why Holocaust is a hoax", "Why COVID-19 is a hoax", and "Software development in Haskell", and it is widely known that most of my students get well-paying Haskell jobs, the government has no business interfering with my business. Also, if my school consists of letting kids play computer games all day long, and the parents are happy paying for this (essentially for babysitting), again it is no one else's business.

(There is probably also something between B and C.)

I suppose most of us would agree that B is an improvement over A. There are still some reasonable objections, for example that schools provide socialization for kids. Imagine kids growing up in abusive and/or fanatically religious families, whose parents use homeschooling as a way to isolate their kids from the rest of the world. The current school systems provides to every child a contact with the mainstream society.

But it seems to me that the difference betwen B and C is often ignored, as we focus on fighting the current system; and that difference seems worth examining. It is possible that the market would actually correct some of the problems with C. For example, there would be market demand for chemistry instead of alchemy. Probably also for medicine instead of homeopathy, although I am less sure of this. My greatest worries would be about subjects not directly relevant for one's job; the selection pressure on their correctness would be minimal. (A possible counter-argument could be that perhaps such things should not be taught at all?)

Another worry is that a system too strongly guided by market would be too short-sighted. Like, flexibility is often more expensive than narrow specialization, so the market would demand narrow specialists because they are cheaper... and when the technology changes, well, the market would now demand narrow specialists in the new technology, and the old narrow specialists would get fired. In other words, the problem is that sometimes the feedback on long-term usefulness of your education takes years.

I guess I'm between b and c.

But as you point out, there are several problems with this. That's the tricky thing about education: it's supposed to do everything, so any change will always make it worse on some axis. Which makes it very easy for someone who defends the status quo to always kill the discussion (not you).

I don't know what to do with the fact that society is fractured, and that many people live in destructive subcultures, and that democracy functions better when there is some mutual understanding between subcultures. But I feel this is a problem that has very little to do with knowledge reproduction, and we would do well in separating the two problems. Maybe something school-like, that is, some institution that forces people to rub shoulders, is good for society, though it is not good for learning. If we aim to solve that problem separately, I think we can design a better solution than if we bundle it with education. For one thing, it is not a problem that is limited to children, so a solution to the socialization problem would need to span all age groups.

And on flexibility and specialization: isn't everything domain-specific? Since we very rarely see people apply knowledge outside of the domain it was acquired, is it really valuable to train generalists? Or is that more what you become if you hop domain a bunch of times? But I do recognize the problem that the feedback on usefulness can be too slow for certain skills, so there needs to be systems and incentives in place that help the spread of those. 

it's supposed to do everything, so any change will always make it worse on some axis.

100% this.

It seems like a possible solution could be to decouple some of those functions. For example, there is in my opinion no good reason why the institution that provides education should be the same as the institution that provides certificates. Even if both institutions are government-organized, if you separate them, you fix the problem with grade inflation (teachers give students better grades, to avoid conflicts with parents).

But the political advantage of "everything under the same hood" is that you do not need to talk these things explicitly; you can just pretend that they are inseparable parts of "education". If you instead made a separate institution for teaching, separate institution for certification... and a separate institution for socialization (assuming that such thing is even possible), there would probably be a lot of opposition against the "socialization institution", because the mainstream families would see it (correctly) as a waste of time, and the abusive minorities would see it (correctly) as a tool used against their values. And the government would no longer have the "but education! you really need it to get a job" excuse.

Since we very rarely see people apply knowledge outside of the domain it was acquired, is it really valuable to train generalists?

I think it is good when people can reason outside their profession. Like, consider this COVID-19 situation: how better it would be if people understood how viruses and vaccines work... and how much worse it would be if most people (anyone who is not a doctor or a biologist by profession) believed that even the very concepts of "virus" and "vaccine" are hoaxes.

It's like there are two reasons why knowledge is good: the knowledge that is good for you, and the knowledge that is good for your neighbors. If you get sick, it is not just your problem, it has an impact on others. (Even outside of pandemics, you generally want people to wash their hands, not go to work sick, etc.) In democracy, you are supposed to vote on all kinds of topics; it is good if your model of the world in general is not completely stupid, otherwise you will vote for stupid politicians who propose stupid ideas.

But of course there is a question of how much general education is actually useful. In my opinion, I would skip culture (it is mostly used as a status symbol anyway), and probably focus on practical topics instead. For example, I believe it could improve health of general population a lot if people knew how to cook healthy meals. -- But of course, everyone has their own opinion, and mine would probably be too low-status.

In 1841, a British parliamentary commission reported that they had found citizens who had never heard of a city called London. Meeting a group of working-class boys in the street, a commission member had asked if they knew who the Queen of England was.

“Yes, sir,” said the boys, “her name is Prince Albert.”

Of course I can't tell for sure, but I get the feeling that this is the sort of thing, that to the extent it's true, those boys were screwing with the researchers.

Heavy-handed interventions tend to undermine underlying systems, so they should be used as a last resort.

This reminds me of something I heard once about Effective Altruism.

Imagine you go provide rice to a town in Africa with starving children. It seems like an obviously good thing to do. But what happens to the local rice farmers? Well, they struggle to compete with your free rice. They stop being rice farmers and do something else. Some of them are unemployed. Now your funds dry up and you stop providing rice to the town. At this point they're worse than they were before you showed up.

I wonder how much of these visions is based on typical mind fallacy. If your kids are curious, and you are surrounded by smart people, your kids will learn. You may worry about some blind spots, and try to fix that, but there are ways to do that... in worst case, you could literally use textbooks from school.

So, from my perspective, the best education would be to have something like Khan Academy, covering all topics from all subjects at elementary and high school. Studied at your own pace, feel free to ignore the things you don't like. Each topic would include a list of recommended books and other resources. (There would be a separate website with contacts to teachers willing to explain any topic in person.)

Now what about kids who are not curious? What about kids whose parents are conspiracy theorists and homeopaths? If you give them economical support, they will probably spend it on courses on magical thinking.

Maybe the state should not provide education, but should provide certification. (Like, you can study homeopathy as much as you like, but to get a state certificate on chemistry, you need to make exams from the actual chemistry.) Optionally, the certificate could also come with a financial reward.

This is something I think about a lot too.

There are definitely people who are not curious. And there are even more people that lack access to support structures that allow them to fulfill their potential. (Sometimes, to keep myself grounded I go into a subreddit for dissatisfied grown homeschoolers; it is a never-ending flow of reminders of how horribly a certain class of parents can handle the responsibility of raising their kids.)

But I also think that one should beware of the inverse of the typical mind fallacy. By which I mean, that it is easy to subscribe solutions to other people that one would never accept for oneself, and that it might be good to think about if they do not experience the same thing as you would. In this context: there is a sizeable subpopulation that can not handle self-directed learning. Yet, though school is probably an improvement for them, is it actually the best solution? I would assume that the population that would fail at self-directed learning has a fairly large overlap with the population that fails in school, and that experiences the highest level of conflict with the system. So a solution that constrains their freedom, which someone with a curious mind dislikes, they dislike too. 

I think this group needs self-determination too. Though they might not be able to make as many decisions on their own as high-achievers – they might need help with determining where to allocate their time, where to find resources, how to apply for grants, whatever – they still benefit from being included in the decision-making. If nothing else, it makes them feel respected, which I think is crucial if a person is to learn effectively.

So: I think we can get better outcomes by decentralizing more responsibility to the learner. But: I want the state to do regular check-ins to see that kids are doing ok. And if they are not progressing on a normal curve - say, they haven't learned to read by 11 or so - they get extra support, more resources, but also more people that help them make decisions. But even at this juncture, they do not lose their autonomy, they are still respected as an equal part of the decision-making process. Though, I can imagine a sloping field, where you gradually lose autonomy the worse your progress is. 

The technical details of how to do check-ins in a way that allows you to catch kids that fare ill, while not limiting the freedom of those that can handle it, are a bit tricky. But it's doable.

The subreddit for dissatisfied grown homeschoolers, you meant HomeschoolRecovery, right?

As I am reading it now, I will make some notes here. (Different paragraphs are from different comments; this is not one long text.)

Being home schooled isn't a big deal if you are in a 2-parent household that can afford to have one of the parents employed full time as your private teacher (in addition to being able to afford taking you all over the place to supplement learning, socialize, etc). Single parent households or households where both parents are forced to work because of the economics might not have this luxury.

My mom just kind of wrote off evolution as silly whenever she talked about it- "They believe monkeys turned into people, isn't that silly?"- instead of actually explaining it.

my mom put me into a kind of "private homeschool" when i was 12 which was basically a bunch of kids hanging out all day, doing nothing, while the parents paid for what they called "private school with a homeschool environment" i did zero work, learned nothing and hated every minute of it.

Remember that awkward part of your life when you experienced your first crush? And you kind of made an idiot out of yourself because you weren't sure how to act around them? That's okay. You were a teenager. Everyone has awkward moments during their teens. Okay, now imagine going through that same experience, but when you're twenty-one and supposedly old enough to know better.

I wasn't homeschooled but my roommate my junior year of college was. Her parents didn't believe in sex education and had sheltered her greatly up until this point (she had just transferred from a community college where she lived at home). She somehow made it to age 22 without having ANY idea of what sex was and I ended up having to give her the birds and the bees talk her second week in the dorms.

the only things I knew about sex were the absolute basics from a Christian biology textbook. It went into great detail about what happens on a cellular level (the molecular processes of making sperm, eggs, etc) but virtually nothing about the act itself. I didn't know what an erection was until I was 20. 

I was socially isolated and extremely far behind on my education (didn't learn how to multiply and divide until 7th grade). This was all due to my mom being a control freak and general manipulator.

This reminds me of a friend of a friend, he was brainwashed by his mother and actually thought he was a mathematical genius, and was told that he would be a great engineer by his mother. He also got to skip standardized testing required for homeschool kids at the end of the year, and apparently it was because his grandmother was a teacher and could sign off that he passed. That kid was 16 and was just covering long division

My mother isolated us and had an emotionally incestuous/codependent relationship with me. I knew really well how to act to the outside world of adults that we'd encounter at church, etc, but didn't have any friends my own age from 12 -22. My mother thought friends were unnecessary and ultimately a bad influence on children.

I fell behind in math. It's hard to learn something when nobody around you understands it.

homeschooling allows sexually abusive, neglectful, and/or violent parents to prevent their children from having any contact with mandated reporters, which prevents them from getting reported. Bruises don't get seen. Blank or concerning medical histories go unexamined. Weight loss and complaints of hunger go unnoticed.

My Mom is deeply religious and focused her teaching around the bible and areas she was interested in. For example, we did the "Egypt unit" 3-4 times. We studied rome and did latin because that was 'classical learning'. Guess what we didn't study? Music. PE. Anything my parents weren't already knowledgeable on or skilled in we didn't learn.

When I was 16 I passed a test to get into community college at 16. When I got there, I was blown away. My writing skills were terrible. My math skills were barely present. I remember crying in front of blackboards in science labs because I couldn't do algebra. The first time I took an in class test I had a panic attack because I had never taken tests like this before in my life.

I remember when reading books growing up (specifically classics like Steinback, Uncle Toms Cabin, To Kill a Mockingbird, Scarlet Letter etc) my mom would “proof” them and white out any language she deemed vulgar or maybe passages with sensuality.

I had been homeschooled all of my life, severely sheltered and neglected by my parents. To put into perspective my lack of education, I taught myself how to read and 8 months ago, someone asked me what 5×5 is and I thought 'Wait.... What does 'times' mean?' I am 17.

I spent 9-12th grade thinking I sucked at math and that I hated it, turns out despite my mother having a degree in accounting she wasn't actually good at teaching it. 

My parents were horrible at teaching math. They "tried" for years to teach me fractions and failed. But I actually did develop the "teach yourself" work ethic and tried to learn every day. I found some very friendly guy on youtube who taught me fractions and basic algebra. Then I switched over to Khan Academy once I finished all his math videos. Crazy how you can go from "He must have some mental disability" to getting A's in all your calculus and statistics classes.

one of the most painful things to me is looking back on all those lonely, empty years. what makes it worse, is as a child and adolescent it often isn't clear to you that the way you are being raised is the main barrier to you having friends and people around. I remember spending hours as a small child writing up "plans" to get people to like me and to have friends, totally oblivious to the fact that there simply wasn't the opportunity for it.

I absolutely hated christian science textbooks. I had an interest in biology and could never get a few paragraphs before "these facts can only mean ONE thing: that an almighty CREATOR designed the world in HIS image. Proverbs says..." there was no break. Even though I was a christian back then, I felt so aggravated by it after years of derailing my reading to shove bible verses down my throat. If I wanted to read the bible....I'd pick up the bible.

Something else I noticed about this mentality of "teacher and parent": my parents ensured they were the ONLY authority in my lives, even going as far as badmouthing individuals who are teachers or youth leaders of different kinds. Only THEY knew what was correct, only THEY could make decisions. It came to the point that I had authority issues and was exceedingly rude or angry to others in positions of power as a child. I had not known how to work in a group, be respectful, accept criticism, and follow directions. I even hit other kids in those precious few moments I was with others. As an adult I just cry when I receive criticisms now, so...progress? When your home becomes your school, you literally have no break from that environment. Home stops being comforting, or some place that you look forward to returning to for relief when you're away. The longer you stay in, the more it becomes a prison. I used to even call it stuff like that as a teenager..."oh, after the grocery store I will go back home to my cell".

"you're too naive and immature for X" can I make efforts to learn more about the world and mature? "No"

Our parents cared and did a lot for the first few months/years of homeschooling, but gradually got burned out and eventually switched to what they described as "unschooling".

For the balance, many homeschoolers have a completely different experience. On the other hand, many kids in the school system have experience like this:

The problem is that the administration literally does nothing to stop bullying. Kids bullied me all the time in middle school and high school, but the teachers just told me to ignore it. They claimed that kids only bullied me to see my reaction, and that if I stopped reacting to it, they would stop bullying me. Some people even said that the bullying was my own fault because I kept reacting to it. But no matter how many times I told them that it was impossible to ignore, they kept acting like I wasn't trying hard enough. I begged them to suspend the bullies, but they never did. The worst was the people who said that I would have to deal with bullying in the real world. But the bullying only ever happened in school, never in the real world.

As a summary, I'd say the main problem is that (at least as described in homeschooling in USA) there is very little accountability; the parents can do literally anything and there is no consequence. Many homeschooling parents intentionally cut off their children from the "decentralized knowledge system" that you described in the article.

Yes, that's the one! That's the downside of the increased variance caused by decentralization. And the upside is someone like JS Mill sitting next to his father translating Greek at four.

There need to be subtle controls to sort the one from the other – and maybe that's a bit of a pipe dream since these controls would need to be done by human beings. In the same way as the steel man version of education is a pipe dream because it needs to be implemented by human beings.

The accountability is tricky: too little and you end up with the quotes above; too much and you end up forcing everyone to follow the same plan, whether at home or in learning centers or schools, leaving no room for innovation and individual needs. Parts of the US have tended toward the first error, Europe has tended toward the second. I have less insight into other parts of the globe.

And the upside is someone like JS Mill sitting next to his father translating Greek at four.

Technically, this is perfectly legal even in countries without homeschooling. The actual suffering only starts at six. :D

The accountability is tricky: too little and you end up with the quotes above; too much and you end up forcing everyone to follow the same plan

My first idea was to give kids exams at the end of each year, and allow homeschooling to those who overall results are not worse than the average results of kids who attend school. Because, intuitively, they don't do worse than the school system on average. At the same time, the kids would get feedback on their abilities. It would be flexible -- the better the school system, the more difficult to avoid it, but that's kinda okay then; and the worse the school system, the easier to avoid it. It would also allow smart kids to follow their own plan, because doing worse in a subject or two is allowed as long as you excel in the remaining ones.

This does not account for the type of abuse that is unrelated to educational outcomes. Also, social skills.

It also does not account for innate differences in intelligence, or learning disabilities. Kids who are retarded or dyslexic would have to attend school. Kids with high intelligence, mostly neglected by their parents but still with some access to online education, could pass the tests... low below their personal potential, but still barely above the population average.

How about a compromise? A month or two of mandatory school at the beginning of every year, then allow homeschooling for the rest of the year. Exams at the end of the year. Though I suspect this might actually make everyone unhappy.

Alternatively, some kind of mandatory "socialization that is not school" for homeschoolers, one or two months every year. Maybe mixed up with the exams somehow. Like, kids would be together, with some teachers, just talking about what they learned at home previously, then write some exams. (Logistical problem, what about those teachers who only have a job one or two months every year? Maybe we could use summer holidays for this? But homeschoolers also want some summer vacation.)

I think that is too heavy-handed.

For example: looking at kids that teach themselves to read, my impression is that the timing of literacy follows a normal distribution with the median at about 8 years. There are several upsides to learning reading on your own. And kids that learn at 10 or so do not seem to become weaker readers. So check-ins would have to be sensitive that kids develop at different speeds. Implementing reading tests at 6 or 7 would lead the majority to have to learn reading through coercion, which I think we should limit. I'd rather see a test at 10 or so, to catch kids that are on the later part of the bell curve.

If you do frequent and comprehensive tests, then you turn homes into schools, instead of allowing them to be a part of the learning system. I think tests need to be limited to the most crucial skills, likely just arithmetic and reading. Adding more tests limits the time kids can spend diversifying into their unique interests, and seeing after their individual needs.

Edit: I think portfolios are enough to determine if a kid is developing. If the portfolio doesn't help the evaluator judge how the kid is doing, one can do diagnostic tests. And admission to University should to a large degree be reserved for students that perform well on a standardized aptitude test; that tends to be fairer to disadvantaged groups.

And socialization is usually not a problem, but one needs ways of catching the kids that do end up. I'm not sure how to make that fine-grained enough. Mandatory two-month socialization seems a bit too coarse, though of course better than what we see in countries that allow no freedom from schooling. And I have no better solution for how to catch the kids from homeschooling recovery right of the bat.

But I think the most important thing is for kids to have someone outside the family that spends time with them and get a feeling for their growth and situation. That can probably catch a lot of problems, without being logistically hard or overly controlling.