School’s Out Forever

A thought provoking piece from Robert Epstein on education wonders whether we’re doing more harm to kids with our current system than good. Snip:

Our educational institutions today are cursed by at least four fatal legacies of the Industrial Revolution—ideas that may have been helpful a century ago but have no place in today’s world.

First, although cars can be assembled on demand, it’s absurd to teach people when they’re not ready to learn. As the brilliant German educator Kurt Hahn (the founder of Outward Bound) said, teaching people who are aren’t ready is like “pouring and pouring into a jug and never looking to see whether the lid is off.”

Second, although mass education was exciting in the era that invented mass production, it does a great disservice to the vast majority of students. People have radically different learning styles and abilities, and effective learning—learning that benefits all students—is necessarily individualized and self-paced. This is the elephant in the classroom from which no teacher can hide.

Third, although it’s efficient to cram all apparently essential knowledge into the first two decades of life, the main thing we teach most students with this approach is to hate school. In today’s fast-paced world, education needs to be spread out over a lifetime, and the main thing we need to teach our young people is to love the process of learning.

Finally, whereas that first compulsory-education law in Massachusetts was competency-based, the system that grew in its wake requires all young people to attend school, no matter what they know. Even worse, the system provides no incentives for students to master material quickly, and few or no meaningful options for young people who do leave school.

As the father of an elementary school student, I can appreciate how school seems to be more adept at making learning a chore, rather than a joy. Part of that, I suspect, comes from the curriculum itself, which seems to be based more on hitting SOL benchmarks than letting teachers teach and more importantly, giving kids the incentive to learn.

Ideas like those that Epstein puts forward here have almost no chance of being tested, let alone adopted, so long as Virginia’s political class and assorted interest groups remain so firmly wedded to the status quo. That’s a shame, bordering on a crime.

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11 responses to “School’s Out Forever”

  1. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Excellent post, Norm. I am pessimistic that we will ever reform the public educational system. It’s too bureaucratized, too politicized. Even vouchers and school choice are only a partial answer. Private schools may not have the bureaucracy and administrative overhead of public schools, and they may do a better job of enforcing standards of behavior, but they are still relics of the industrial economy.

    I hate to say it, but the future of education may look a lot more like home schooling — radically decentralized and with curricula and a pace of progress totally geared to the individual student.

    Of course, home schooling as currently practiced will never serve more than a small minority of the population: Most people don’t want to be their children’s teacher.

    What’s interesting about “home” schools, though, is that they are rapidly evolving. Many “home” schools aren’t taught at “home” any more. They are collaborative ventures between groups of parents, drawing upon tutors, topic area specialists, distance learning, etc. My sense is that the organizational form of “home” schools is evolving rapidly. At some point, I suspect, we will see that “home” schools do a significantly better job of educating their pupils, and they do it at a fraction of the cost of either public schools or private schools.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    “Most people don’t want to be their children’s teacher.”

    Most people can’t….they have to go to work and make a living. IMO, the ability to be able to stay home and teach your own kids is a LUXURY most people don’t have and never will have. In most cases, it’s a simple question of economics.

    “What’s interesting about “home” schools, though, is that they are rapidly evolving……”

    That they are and that’s a good thing. I have been seen first hand a group of parents come together and form co-op’s….it’s not uncommon to see a 7-year old in the same “class” as a 10-year old.

    Different students learn at different rates and the home school/co-op model is light years ahead of the public education system in this regard.

    Our public education system is broken….it only worries about the really smart kids or the really not-so-smart/poor kids. If you are under the bell curve in a public school then you are doing well. That’s not a recipe for success, IMO.


  3. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Excellent Post.

    Prety much what I tried to tell my high school principal back in 1966.

    Will our schools never learn?

  4. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    How you teach may suffer from cookie cutter applications to non-cookie cutter kids. Yet, the one thing that often goes missing in these discussions is the body of knowledge for what constitutes the body of knowledge for every academic subject. And the building block, cumulative nature of creating that body of knowledge in a child. It’s at the heart of standardized testing.

    The tests may be wrong. Or off. But, the idea that the body of knowledge is explicit, finite and well-defined should be kept at the front of the discussion. And, the discussion should include open debate about what should be included or not as ‘necessary’ knowledge.

  5. Avatar

    I just want to say that I appreciate all this support. It’s been an uphill battle getting this book published. My new book ( says very positive things about home schooling, but I think that even home schooling doesn’t always go far enough: we need to give young people incentives and opportunities to join the adult world and to escape from the absurd world of teen culture, and education needs to be spread out over our entire lives, not crammed into the early years. The cramming idea is a leftover from the mass production concept of the early years of industrialization. The most important thing we need to teach young people is to love the process of learning, rather than filling them with knowledge which they’ll soon forget and which is probably already obsolete.

  6. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Dr. Epstein, thanks for joining the conversation. I was fascinated by the anthropological studies you cited showing that teenagers in non-Western cultures don’t go through years of teen angst, as well as your observations about “the absurd world of teen culture.” These phenomena are the inevitable consequence of segregating teenagers with their peers instead of integrating them into larger society with people of all ages.

    The advantage of home schooling, it seems to me, is that it allows greater opportunities for teens to interact with the adult world than traditional schools do. Of course, I don’t home school, so I don’t have any personal experience to draw from. I’m wondering what you have observed. Are home-schooled kids less vulnerable to the peer pressure of their age cohorts?

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    The comment that public education is a “relic” strikes me as merely stating the obvious.

    What is the answer if we don’t want to continue a relic?

    What kind of education should public education be providing?

    …and I don’t mean for YOUR kid who we all agree needs “creativity” and maximum latitude to achieve his/her potential but for most kids who will need to make a living – rather than living off the public dole?

    What will we teach to kids who do not have the benefit of superior parenting? Anyone know the statistics for how many kids are not born out of wedlock?

    When Public Education was first born – it was clear in an agrarian world what the deficit was and what the need was.

    That same model also seemed to “fit” an industrialized world where non-college kids needed only “enough” education to read/write and be able to follow instructions on how to assemble parts into cars or washing machines, etc, et al.

    So – is the essential question…

    where you want a school system that was deliver to YOUR kid the best education that you want him/her to have….

    … or do you want an education system that will “deliver” an educated workforce that competes in a world economy for world jobs rather than have your kids pay for the welfare benefits of kids who end up not educated and not able to compete in a world market for jobs?

    batter up…..

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    well.. I need to take time to review…

    I really MANGLED this:

    “where you want a school system that was deliver to YOUR kid the best education that you want him/her to have….”

    The actual question was:

    ” do you want a school system that optimzes the education that YOUR KID will receive …. or….. “

    an educated workforce?

  9. Groveton Avatar

    Reading, Riting and Ritmitic – taught to the tune of a hickory stick.

    Sometimes it’s the easy ideas that make the most sense.

    The study breaks, weightlifting classes, independednt work and teachers’ work days are the culprits.

    Keep the kids in school and teach them. All day every day. Reading Writing and Math.

    After that, it’s all BS.

    Anad math teaches you how to approach a problem logically – which is the same as teaching a child to learn.

    More math, less feminist studies.

    More math, less weightlifting.

    More math.

    This isn’t hard.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross


    It’s not all work and no play per se.

    The problem is that we look at education in terms of what benefits it brings to our individual families so of course middle and higher income families want “enhanced” services – which really comes at a tremendous cost.

    Check the SOLs that Virginia is so proud of – no .. not the overall pass rates – but the pass rates for minorities and kids in poor economic or parenting circumstances.

    The same school that offers AP and many, many other services does indeed leave these “other” kids behind.

    Even if you never gave a rats back-end about those kids from a moral perspective – how should we all feel about the virtual certainy that these lower tier kids will require subsidized services for their health, shelter, food, etc?

    Folks who favor good, efficient government should have that as one of their first priorities when it comes to education… I would think and would agree that “enhanced” education services is truly the responsibility of parents and not all taxpayers.

    We pay, on average, 8K or more per student, per year – among the highest costs for all industrialized countries and yet our test scores for BASICs puts us out of the top 10 in the world.

    Because.. we seem to prefer our educational system to cater to kids who do have financial and parental advantages – over the kids that will eventually go into the workforce .. without a basic education that will allow them to compete for jobs in a world market.

    My view: we need to be clear about what the purpose of public education is and we need to recognize that personal fullfillment for kids of financial and familia means, while very important to us personally, is, in fact, not as important a priority as having an educated and competitive workforce that in the end benefits all taxpayers.

  11. Groveton Avatar

    “…compete for jobs in a world market.”.

    With those 7 words Larry Gross has said a whole lot!

    I believe:

    1. You have to link transportation to human settlement patterns.

    2. You have to link human settlement patterns to economic development.

    3. You have to link economic development to global competition.

    That’s why I think BaconsRebellion has to look beyond transportation (which it does). It would be nice to compartmentalize problems into one area and then study only that area. However, reality is more complex and “leaks” from area to area.

    If you believe what I say then any discussion of transportation must have some higher level discussions about economic development along with it.

    Virginia has to survive (preferably thrive) in, as Larry says, a “world market”. This has impacts on everything – including transportation.

    So, first – what does the future “world market” look like and how should Virginia approach this “world market”.

    Answer that and the rest of teh questions will still be difficult but at least it will be possible to answer the questions. Fail to answer that and all you’ll do is spin in circles.

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