To explore better possibilities for nurturing new minds, and to care about the problem in the first place, it helps to remember what's wrong with what we do to new minds. John Taylor Gatto speaks about this from experience and insight: Seven Lessons Taught in School, 1991
(If you're going to read the following, at least read the seven lessons (part I) of that essay.)
Here's another list of harms caused by schooling.
1. You aren't a mind, and don't bother trying to behave like one.
Children naturally attend to things until they're done with them:
From Maria Montessori, My System of Education, 1915: IPFS pdf link
A little girl, about three years of age, was deeply absorbed in the work of placing wooden blocks and cylinders in a frame for that purpose. The expression of her face was that of such intense attention, that it was almost a revelation to me. Never before had I seen a child look with such "fixedness" upon an object, and my conviction about the instability of attention which goes incessantly from one thing to another, a fact which is so characteristic in little children, made the phenomenon the more remarkable to me.
I watched the child without interrupting her, and counted how many times she would do her work over and over. It seemed that she was never going to stop. As I saw that it would take a very long time, I took the little armchair on which she was sitting and placed child and chair on the big table. Hastily she put the frame across the chair, gathered blocks and cylinders in her lap, and continued her work undisturbed. I invited the other children to sing, but the little girl went on with her work and continued even after the singing had ceased. I counted forty-four different exercises which she made, and when she finally stopped, and did so absolutely independently from an exterior cause that could disturb her, she looked around with an expression of great satisfaction, as if she were awakening from a deep and restful sleep.
The impression I received from the observation was that of a discovery. The same phenomenon became very common among those children, and it was noticed in every school in every country where my system was introduced; therefore it can be considered as a constant reaction which takes place in connection with certain exterior conditions that can be well established. Each time a similar "polarization" of the attention occurred, the child began to transmute itself completely; it became calmer, more expressive, more intelligent, and evidenced extraordinary interior qualities, which recalled the phenomena of the highest mentality. When the phenomenon of polarization of the attention had occurred, all that was confused and drifting in the conscience of the child seemed to assume a form, the marvelous characters of which were reproduced in each individual.
School usually steamrolls this process. The teacher has dominion over your attention; you have to either listen to what the teacher is saying, or work on the worksheets. Your location and (nominal) topic switches every hour. Even at home you do worksheets and projects. Your attention isn't you or yours; you're at war with your attention, it says no but your teacher--and implicitly your parents and college admissions and society, and "you"--insist.
Not only are you not the authority on what is worth it for you to spend minutes, days, or years on; if you are even consulted, it's superficial ("Which current event to do a report on? There are many options.") and maybe only for Potemkin village purposes ("We offer many electives."). You have to be a receptacle for what the teacher has brought to give you, because you don't have a perspective, you aren't an organized/organizing entity, and therefore can't be trusted to judge what is worthwhile. In the teacher-student relationship, someone has to defer to the other, and there's nothing in the student that the teacher could defer to. (I recall my elementary school art teacher looking at my painting, and then taking the brush out of my hand and painting new stuff on the canvas over what I'd already put there. In another class, I said "Wait, [...]" because I was confused about something, and the teacher interrupted my question to scold me for telling zer what to do.) Simply, the time in which you'd have created your mind is taken from you.
This creates learned helplessness about being absorbed in anything. It's like if you are trying to program, or write, but at arbitrary moments, someone Harrison Bergerons you until you forget what you were thinking. You learn not to get all worked up (absorbed in something, arranged ephemerally but suitably for the matter at hand, like a standing wave or a rough-and-ready scaffolding), because you'll just have to drop it in the middle anyway. You minimize the deepness and recursiveness of your questions, the length of your strides into the woods; the deeper the question, the more at risk you are of building towers of mental context and pumping neuroplasticity-juice into the relevant areas of your mind, and then having that plasticity act as random brain damage rather than successful reprogramming, when [the task that the plasticity was aimed at taking a compressive snapshot of how to perform/complete] is interrupted.
The self-organization of the child's mind is blocked at every turn, and the results are similar to trying to gestate a fetus in a small box.
2. The world isn't yours.
2.1. We own Space, and decide where you are.
Being forced to stay in a room with restricted range of motion (stay in your seat and stop fidgeting) is captivity, and captivity is harmful. Nuff said, one might have hoped.
A common episode: a student asks "Can I go to the bathroom?", and the teacher responds "You CAN, but you MAY not." or "You CAN, did you mean 'May I?'?". It's not just a stupid joke (what other stupid jokes stick out as vividly in memory as this one?), it's rubbing in your face that your range of motion is restricted by authority as if there were a concrete wall instead of a door, but you're not allowed to bring to the teacher's attention that they are restraining you so severely. Wow, what a doofus you are to think that Can and May are the same, how could you possibly have gotten those confused, I wonder?
TL;DR: Many thousands of times a year, kids in Illinois are locked up in a small room alone, sometimes for hours.
In Illinois, it's legal for school employees to seclude students in a separate space — to put them in "isolated timeout" — if the students pose a safety threat to themselves or others. Yet every school day, workers isolate children for reasons that violate the law[...] [snip]
For this investigation, ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune obtained and analyzed thousands of detailed records that state law requires schools to create whenever they use seclusion. The resulting database documents more than 20,000 incidents from the 2017-18 school year and through early December 2018. [snip]
"Please, please, please open the door. Please, I'll be good. Open the door and I'll be quiet."
"I'd rather die. You're torturing me."
Also, in Connecticut: 'Scream Rooms': Punishing Disabled Students in Isolation, Emily Richmond, 2012. Presumably in other states as well.
Autistic 11 year old locked in a small room alone for hours in the UK: "He had always loved school... but by the end of October in fifth class he hated it. I was dragging him into school every day."
It sounds not uncommon in the UK: Consequence Rooms. "Then he got 22 hours in an isolation booth in one week and he was just an absolute mess. He came out at the end of the day and he didn't look well. His legs were shaking and he could hardly string a sentence together. He looked completely done in."
Most schools aren't like that though, right? Well, the extremes, the ones that get reported, tell you about the hidden distribution and the attitudes that produced it. We own space, and decide where you ca... MAY go.
From Children's Games in Street and Playground, Opie and Opie, 1969: IPFS pdf link
TL;DR: Kids in confinement are more violent and cruel than kids not in confinement.
The places specially made for children's play are also the places where children can most easily be watched playing: the asphalt expanses of school playgrounds, the cage-like enclosures filled with junk by a local authority, the corners of recreation grounds stocked with swings and slides. In a playground children are, or are not, allowed to make chalk diagrams on the ground for hopscotch, to bounce balls against a wall, to bring marbles or skipping ropes, to play 'Conkers', 'Split the Kipper', 'Hi Jimmy Knacker'. Children of different ages may or may not be kept apart; boys may or may not be separated from girls. And according to the closeness of the supervision they organize gangs, carry out vendettas, place people in Coventry, gamble, bribe, blackmail, squabble, bully, and fight. The real nature of young boys has long been apparent to us, or so it has seemed. We have only to travel in a crowded school bus to be conscious of their belligerency, the extraordinary way they have of assailing each other, verbally and physically, each child feeling—perhaps with reason—that it is necessary to keep his end up against the rest. We know from accounts of previous generations with what good reason the great boarding schools, and other schools following, limited boys' free time, and made supervised games a compulsory part of the curriculum. As Sydney Smith wrote in 1810, it had become an 'immemorial custom' in the public schools that every boy should be alternately tyrant and slave. [snip for length; more descriptions of abuse by kids in school]
[snip] [...]leading us [educators] to believe that a Lord of the Flies mentality is inherent in the young[...] [snip]
Thus recent extensive studies of apes and monkeys have shown, perhaps not unexpectedly, that animal behaviour in captivity is not the same as in the wild. In the natural habitat the welfare of the troop as a whole is paramount, the authority of the experienced animal is accepted, the idiosyncrasies of members of the troop are respected. But when the same species is confined and overcrowded the toughest and least-sensitive animal comes to the top, a pecking order develops, bullying and debauchery become common, and each creature when abused takes his revenge on the creature next weakest to himself. In brief, it appears that when lower primates are in the wild, and fending for themselves, their behaviour is 'civilized', certainly in comparison with their behaviour when they are confined and cared for, which is when they most behave 'like animals'.
Our observations of children lead us to believe that much the same is true of our own species. We have noticed that when children are herded together in the playground, which is where the educationalists and the psychologists and the social scientists gather to observe them, their play is markedly more aggressive than when they are in the street or in the wild places. At school they play 'Ball He', 'Dodge Ball', 'Chain Swing', and 'Bull in the Ring'. They indulge in duels such as 'Slappies', 'Knuckles', and 'Stinging', in which the pleasure, if not the purpose, of the game is to dominate another player and inflict pain. In a playground it is impracticable to play the free-ranging games like 'Hide and Seek' and 'Relievo' and 'Kick the Can', that are, as Stevenson said, the 'well-spring of romance', and are natural to children in the wastelands. Often, when we have asked children what games they played in the playground we have been told 'We just go round aggravating people.' [snip; more descriptions of abusive games]
Such behaviour would not be tolerated amongst the players in the street or the wasteland; and for a long time we had difficulty reconciling these accounts with the thoughtfulness and respect for the juvenile code that we had noticed in the quiet places. Then we recollected how, in our own day, children who had seemed unpleasant at school (whose term-time behaviour at boarding school had indeed been barbarous), turned out to be surprisingly civilized when we met them in the holidays. We remembered hearing how certain inmates of institutions, and even people in concentration camps during the war, far from having a feeling of camaraderie, were liable to seek their pleasure in making life still more intolerable for those who were confined with them [...].
2.2. We own people, and decide who you're with.
You're segregated by age, and divided in classes. Maybe you'd've learned to learn from a kid a couple years older than you, or learned to teach a kid a couple years younger than you. But that's hypothetical, because we've decided you're not to be with those people.
2.3. We own Import.
In standard schooling, kids aren't around adults in adult environments doing adult activities for adult reasons. There's the real world, the adult world, where everything of Import is, and then there's the kid world, which has to make way for the adult world.
From Children's Games in Street and Playground, Opie and Opie, 1969: IPFS pdf link
What is curious about these embroilments is that children always do seem to have been in trouble about the places where they played. In the nineteenth century there were repeated complaints that the pavements of London were made impassable by children's shuttlecock and tipcat. In Stuart times, Richard Steele reported, the vicinity of the Royal Exchange was infested with uninvited sportsmen, and a beadle was employed to whip away the "unlucky Boys with Toys and Balls". Even in the Middle Ages, when it might be supposed a meadow was within reach of every Jack and Jill in Britain, the young had a way of gravitating to unsuitable places. In 1332 it was found necessary to prohibit boys and others from playing in the precincts of the Palace at Westminster while Parliament was sitting. In 1385 the Bishop of London was forced to declaim against the ball-play about St. Paul's; and in 1447, away in Devonshire, the Bishop of Exeter was complaining of 'yong Peple' playing in the cloister, even during divine service, such games as 'the toppe, queke, penny prykke, and most atte tenys, by the which the walles of the saide Cloistre have be defowled and the glas wyndowes all to brost'.
Should such persistent choice of busy and provocative play-places alert us that all is not as appears in the ghettos of childhood? Children's deepest pleasure, as we shall see, is to be away in the wastelands, yet they do not care to separate themselves altogether from the adult world. In some forms of their play (or in certain moods), they seem deliberately to attract attention to themselves, screaming, scribbling on the pavements, smashing milk bottles, banging on doors, and getting in people's way. A single group of children were able to name twenty games they played which involved running across the road. Are children, in some of their games, expressing something more than high spirits, something of which not even they, perhaps, are aware? No section of the community is more rooted to where it lives than the young. When children engage in 'Last Across' in front of a car is it just devilment that prompts the sport, or may it be some impulse of protest in the tribe? Perhaps those people will appreciate this question most who have asked themselves whether the convenience of motorists thrusting through a town or village is really as important as the well-being of the people whose settlement it is, and who are attempting to live their lives in it.
Let yong Peple go!
From John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down, 1992: IPFS pdf link
In Monongahela by that river everyone was my teacher. Daily, it seemed to a boy, one of the mile-long trains would stop in town to take on water and coal, or for some mysterious reason; the brakeman and engineer would step among snot-nosed kids and spin railroad yarns, let us run in and out of boxcars, over and under flatcars, tank cars, coal cars, and numbers of other specialty cars whose function we memorized as easily as we memorized enemy plane silhouettes. Once a year, maybe, we got taken into the caboose that reeked of stale beer to be offered a bologna-on-white-bread sandwich. The anonymous men lectured, advised, and inspired the boys of Monongahela — that was as much their job as driving the trains.
Sometimes a riverboat would stop in mid-channel and discharge a crew who would row to shore, tying their skiff to one of the willows. That was the excuse for every rickety skiff in the twelve-block-long town to fill up with kids, pulling like Vikings, sometimes with sticks instead of oars, to raid the "Belle of Pittsburgh" or "The Original River Queen." Some kind of natural etiquette was at work in Monongahela. The rules didn't need to be written down; if men had time they showed boys how to grow up. We didn't whine when our time was up: men had work to do — we understood that and scampered away, grateful for the flash of our own futures they had had time to reveal, however small it was.
The world isn't yours, it's the adults's. We're driving in our cars on our way to and from important things, and you better get out of the way. They're very important things, they aren't for you, go play (somewhere else).
Imagining that your activities, explorations, and questions in the classroom could be taken up with the solemn seriousness, open reality, and pivotal consequence of a factory floor, a judge's courtroom, or an artist's studio, is very cute and child
likeish. That I would believe you, is laughable, though I will of course humor you. If the work I give you is comically fake, well did you expect it to be real? You're only a child.
3. Preference falsification and double binds.
(See Wiki: Double bind, h/t Michael Vassar.)
It's Sunday afternoon. My father wants me to visit our grandmother. Let's say my father is a traditional authority. What would he be doing? He would probably tell me something like, "I don't care how you feel; it's your duty to visit your grandmother. Be polite to her and so on." Nothing bad about this I claim because I can still rebel and so on. It's a clear order. But what would the so-called post-modern non-authoritarian father do?
I know because I experienced it. He would have said something like this, "You know how much your grandmother loves you, but nonetheless I'm not forcing you to visit her. You should only visit her if you freely decide to do it." Now every child knows that beneath the appearance of free choice there is a much stronger pressure in this second message. Because basically your father is not only telling you, you must visit your grandmother, but you must love to visit it. You know he tells you how you must feel about it. It's a much stronger order.
Your attention is yours (and you must give it to me). Follow your interests (and be interested in what we're "teaching"). You want to be good, right? So you want to follow the rules we make, right? And they're rightful rules, aren't they, or why else would you want to follow them? Develop your own unique specialness (make sure it's one of the things on this list though). God help you if you question our authority to deny you bodily autonomy, and you'd better pretend that CAN and MAY are meaningfully different here.
Many of these harms can be alleviated or avoided by just not being crazy. (Yes it's that easy.) It's fine if the kids aren't paying attention to what you're teaching, why are you trying to teach 20 kids at once anyway? If something is truly repulsive to a kid's attention, then you're just wrong about what's good for the kid right now, period. And so on.
What's left is for teachers (or "mentors" or "guides" or something) to bring the world to the children. Montessori wrote about this at length. In general, there's much work to be done with teaching; but this is mostly unknown territory, since teachers have mostly so far been obliged to do something other than facilitate learning, and teachers will have to learn how to let the students learn, which is a detailed activity with unknown challenges. Maximize blocks of uninterrupted time. Maximize the environment for opening up the world, deferring to children's interests. Allow the children to make their own environment, like the people that they are.
It would be trivially easy to make school a better product for parents. Have it run until 1720 or later, so parents with work have daycare (kids of course need daycare until they're 18; or at least, that is the revealed preference for whatever reason). Allow flexible sign-in and sign-out. Be completely open to parents visiting. Let kids play outside for many hours, so they aren't stressed, sick, and depressed. Never give homework, so kids can be with their families.
I spoke with someone who runs a pre-school in the spirit of Montessori. Ze told me that ze started a Montessori school, but regulations and money problems made it go under. Ze was sure there's a market, though. I suspect (not having carefully evaluated things) that Effective Altruism is severely underweighting the value of investing in education. I think that harming kids makes them grow up to be more likely to harm other people and be less creative. School almost certainly doesn't matter if AGI comes in the next decade or two, but if we have longer, then more rolls of the dice for brilliant natural philosophers seems like maybe a pretty good way to spend resources.
Contact me at my gmail address, username "tsvibtcontact", if you want to discuss with me possible interventions and funding (not that I'm well-suited to these tasks or have too much energy for them, but I'm interested).