Don't Stay in School - musings on education

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If you haven't see the educational video Don't Stay in School, check it out:

I enjoyed the song. It's catchy, creative, asks some solid questions, and points to frustrations to which millions of people can relate. Myself, included. But even while I watched Dave's excellent response to the comments [NB: language; this is the internet after all], I had this nagging feeling that just wouldn't go away.

Why was I feeling so ... off?

I mean, haven't I linked to videos suggesting that computation isn't the main part of math we need these days? (Why, yes, I have, and I think I've shared this talk as well.) Over the years, I've certainly wrestled with similar questions. What wasn't connecting?

I went home and mulled it over all evening. I got up, still thinking about the theme of "stuff we don't need to know" / "subjects that shouldn't be mandatory" / "all the stuff we never learned that is way more important than stuff your cellphone can do better." Frustrated with my inability to formulate any coherent thoughts, I watched the video again and read the lyrics...

I wasn't taught how to get a job
but I can remember dissecting a frog

And it hit me, like the sinking feeling I get when tax day rolls around each year, unrelenting, grave, and political: You can't avoid this. This problem is inevitable for very specific reasons. What follows is my attempt to unpack those issues from my perspective.


1. You can't be taught how to get a job.

Seriously. My reason for feeling unsettled by the song was in the very first line: An education does not equal a job. It's just that simple. But why can't you learn to get a job? That is an important question, one I hope I addressed sufficiently in my post.

2. It's easier to introduce concepts and have kids memorize stuff.

Dissecting a frog is relatively easy. Asking kids to memorize the quadratic formula is cake (even easier: give them a bad grade if they don't, and move on).

So while it may have felt like we spent a sufficient amount of time discussing isotopes such that we could have mastered the political system in that time, we didn't. Learning how to vote properly -- whatever that means -- requires way more information, discussion, worldview building, and such when weighed against memorizing how isotopes form.

[By the by, we spent very little time on isotopes when I was at my public high school.]

But the bigger issue is...

3. Your education should not be about indoctrination.

When we bemoan not knowing "how to vote" or "who controls money," we are frustrated by political things with answers that would be highly biased if taught in the same way we teach mental math. This isn't a complex formula you can solve by punching it into your calculator.

In fact, the best way to learn how to vote, in my opinion, is by studying the very things mentioned in the song: Henry the VIII and the Hippocratic Oath. Because, yes, we could discuss politicians and current political issues, but without the history of things like Henry the VIII's break from the church and how modern bioethics connect (or not) with the what Hippocrates formulated, we would quickly make some very poor decisions. [I considered linking to a post about bioethics, but it was too political. You're welcome.]

The short version of this point is this: History helps us make sense of the world. ...and it does so in a way that educates, not indoctrinates. Who of us would rather teachers simply taught kids how to vote? No one. We learn about the flow and control of money by learning about the historical events involving money, and in so doing, we discover how bad things are when governments and corporations and greedy people get their hands on the stuff.

This points us to the fact that...

4. You need background and maturity to tackle really meaningful topics.

You can -- and should -- introduce difficult stuff early (you first encounter WWII in Sonlight's program for 5-7 year-olds). But, honestly, you can't dig into the holocaust, mental illness, your basic human rights, investments and giving, domestic abuse, political change, or even raising children until you have a framework for those things.

If a child is suffering abuse, they have a framework and they should be removed from that situation ... but it's going to take years for them to come to grips with what happened and heal; you will do no better with a kid who has no context for such evil.

With mental illness, yes, we'd love a solution. But looking back on history -- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, anyone? -- we've come a few paces, but we still have miles to go. Families, let alone schools and politicians, have yet to figure out what to do about it. (I haven't seen the movie, but I'm wondering if Maggie is an artistic approach to tackling these hard questions.)

In other words, while I totally relate to the frustration in the song, these are adult issues that can't be answered even now as adults, let alone as a kid who still can't properly hold a fork.

5. Learning should be specialized/tailored to the student ... somewhat.

Personal example: My mom told each of us kids that we had to learn an instrument; she didn't care which, but we had to choose one. That's how I started playing the trumpet. I had freedom -- but, really, did I have any idea what instrument to choose? no -- but I was still required to choose something from a particular category.


Because music instruction is good for you. Same with math, history, science, handwriting, and even foreign language.

The difficulty is in determining how much. And this is probably the point of most connection for everyone who has enjoyed this song: We also feel like we spent too much time on x at the cost of missing out on y.

But I wonder: How much of that is our own personal bias? Put another way, what things would we discover we like if we we were to be forced to try them? How long must you work at something difficult before you discover the pleasure in mastering it?

So, sure, we may spend too much time pushing kids who don't write well to diagram sentences, and we may have wasted many hours insisting math-phobes memorize their times tables ... but, given the right mix of nudging and investment, even kids who hated math or writing can end up top of their class in English or Calculus. (I just interviewed a mom whose child did exactly that.)

Have we sometimes gotten the balance wrong? Certainly. But I don't think that means such subjects shouldn't be in school. And it's certainly not insane. It is ironic, however, that this very problem shows up as something Dave seems to want changed...

6. We need not follow the rest of the world

... in foreign language or otherwise. There is a very good reason people outside the US tend to know at least two languages: They often learn English. Why? So they can communicate with English-speakers.

How did English become the language of commerce? There's some very interesting history on that, but the fact remains: America -- and the UK? -- doesn't feel pressure to push a second language because there is no such pressure.

The high school and college foreign language requirements are built upon the same foundation as what I've argued above... it's good for you.

But my study of Spanish, while useful in some areas, hasn't stuck with me because I simply don't need it. So while Dave wishes he kept up with the rest of the world in this subject area, I don't see a benefit to investing that much time into mastering that subject. And isn't that the very point of his video?

What now?

7. We should once again look at the purpose of education.

My childhood wasn't wasted. I was educated. Yes, even while in a public high school. Did I go through some pointless exercises? Yes, even in college, while pursuing my personally selected major.

...all that to say...

I appreciate the frustration. I resonate with the critique. But upon further investigation, I don't think the complaint holds water.

Can we do a better job deciding what to teach when and for how long?


We homeschoolers have that opportunity uniquely open to us.

But even with that freedom, I'd still recommend at least touching on history, science, literature, math, handwriting, etc... because these subjects provide the foundation upon which we can understand and learn about the bigger issues in our world, like politics, mental health, parenting, first aid, investment, and more. As I argue, that's the entire reason to get an education.

I am interested to find out what he ends up doing, and what impact that makes. He's certainly struck a nerve and I hope it leads to improvement in schools and education in general.

What do you think?

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Pseudo-Dad

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  1. Marguerite

    The "meaningless" basics of education that he rails against are all jumping off points. We never know when a child (or we ourselves, for that matter) will spark on a particular area and become fascinated with it. One has to explore many, many "general knowledge" subjects to get to that point. (At that "spark" point, one of the beauties of homeschool comes into play. We CAN explore further. There is time for it, if we allow.) Also, I believe all citizens of any given country must have a common knowledge to function together -- a common understanding of the basics of history, math, language arts, etc. Finally, working hard on something you might not particularly enjoy does develop character. (I remember my granddad advising me - the English major - to take more algebra in college for that very reason.There wasn't enough time for that if I wanted to graduate in four years, but I could appreciate the thought behind it.) We can belabor this, as you mentioned, but there is merit in pushing through. Thanks for this excellent, very thoughtful article, Luke.

  2. Luke, I really like your thoughtful post.

    My conclusion is that all these things are also useful; however, with the movements to accountability and extensive testing all the time (not completely a bad thing, but I think it's gone way too far) it doesn't leave time for discussions of why things are important.

    For example, I'm working with a third grader who studies in a French school (we study in English). She told me they were studying the names of the planets and some general information. But the teacher was mainly giving them information just to copy off the board and memorize. I spent an hour talking to her about why it's useful to us NOW to study the stars and planets. We talked about why humans are now attempting to go to Mars, and what kinds of problems would have to be solved for them to successfully do that. We talked about the possibility of aliens existing and how the universe is expanding. These are the issues which make learning the information INTERESTING and USEFUL. By studying such issues together with the information, it helps people develop into citizens capable of participating responsibly in a democracy--just like you mentioned about the usefulness of studying history, or ecology, or even basic biology of an animal somewhat applies to all animals, including ourselves, in terms of general principles of not polluting our ecosystems, of how plants and animals are important. Too many teachers don't help inspire students by making these connections and just shove "information" at students, topic after topic. I think this is what the song was about. The student didn't know how what he learned was useful in his life. There seemed to be no connection, and that's sad.

    • That's a great point, Mary! Facts alone are rather less helpful; we must help show application as well... interesting. As I think about it, the application side of things is where people tend to disagree (I see it all the time in social/political hot button issues). Which this just has me thinking again about education instead of indoctrination... if we want to show how things are useful, we must be able to demonstrate how people have used it (for good and ill) and urge students forward. ...hmm... good stuff. Thank you for sharing! My wheels certainly are turning again!


  3. Enraged Student

    1. You can be taught how to build a resume, answer interview questions, how to seek out/apply for the job you want.
    2. So what you're saying is that we teach them to memorize junk because it's easy? You talk about framework and how hard it is to grasp heavy subjects. But school is 12 YEARS at minimum. You can teach children how to grasp things in that time.
    3. You bury all the facts that might be useful in hour long lectures about people and subjects students don't care about. Having people learn about Henry isn't going to teach them where money comes from today. Just say where it comes from.
    4. All ready touched on in #2, He doesn't say "teach us how to solve all mental disorders" he says he wants to be able to recognize mental disorders. Mental disorders do have indicators and he had wanted to learn them.
    5. That's what the video says. Introduce someone to a subject to see if they're interested. Schools cram subject down your throat. Forcing someone to learn something isn't exactly creativity and wonder promoting.
    6. He's saying he wants to take a foreign language but instead had to take useless classes he didn't care about. He was saying he is forced to learn other thing when he wants to continue learning about something he wasn't forced to learn.
    7. Like I said, school should introduce us to these subjects to provide a general knowledge basis. But anytime you were learning pointless things, as you said you had, is time you could spend learning first aid, how to fix a flat tire, etc.
    (good job if you read this far, always happy to discuss)

    • I think I agreed with much of what you say here, Enraged. Indeed, we may be saying the same things from two different sides. For example:

      1. Yes, you can take seminars on building resumes and interviewing well... and we even offer a program that helps you sort out what you want to pursue in your college years. But as I think I argued fairly well in the linked "education does not equal a job" post, our goals of education have expanded far beyond the idea of simply passing on the family job ... which moves education toward something else. Thus, we don't actually go to school to get a job; we often go to school to prove we have developed the discipline to accomplished required tasks, which is attractive to employers but doesn't mean we can do the job we're hired to do. And if my best friend is any indication, his private schooling did not help him get a job at all ... indeed, he dropped out of school to pursue an opportunity that came up wholly outside of his educational background; what's the stat on how many people don't use their major in their job?, you're right: If we had different goals in education -- e.g. apprenticeships in technical fields -- we could make our education be about task-based jobs; but that's not what we do these days with education. Is that a bad thing? I'm not convinced it is.

      2. Sorry if I wasn't more clear on the time thing. This has as much to do with psychological development as it does the time we spend in class. My psych teacher would be better at using the right phrases, but we struggle to see the complexities of things until after high school (the 12 years you mention). And if we're going to talk about, say, the political system, we can't even get adults to productively converse on the idea of how to balance "taking care of needs" and "respecting private property" (what I'll call the "Jean Valjean problem" of stealing while starving). So I'm not convinced you can teach kids a solution in those 12 years while also giving them broad skills... which makes this point ultimately a repeat of #1: Do we want education to be about "big ideas" (as I think you're requested) instead of a broad introduction to various things (as it is now) or a hyper-focused time of on-the-job training (as it once was)? And if so, we'd likely spend far more years memorizing stuff first, a la the "classical method."

      3. I don't believe I'm following you here. I wasn't talking about money with Henry, but rather the separation of church and state and using politics to push through your objectives. A distinct idea to this is how modern bioethics could be highly informed -- in my opinion -- by revisiting the Hippocratic Oath. Yet, I am with with you: Lectures about "facts" are not nearly as helpful as learning the "why" behind things. And that's why I urge that we study history: It can help us understand the why of so many things we go through today.

      4. You're likely right and I'm likely too cynical on this point. The politically hot idea of "recognizing mental disorders," to me, sounds dangerous (like the psych wards of Cuckoo's Nest). Help me understand, because this is where I'm getting stuck: Let's say someone determines the "markers" of mental illness such that even a child could identify them ... how will that help them help their friends when children with obvious disabilities are currently shunned by mainstream society? I'm still stuck on the idea that there are huge issues we haven't even begun to sort out, so this feels like a pipe dream. So what would be helpful for a 5-year old to learn? I've clearly missed it, so your insights are most welcome!

      5. Agreed. Still, as I point out: There are some things we learn we enjoy once we've been push to take the time to learn them. So there must be balance here. Our current system certainly is off-balance in one direction, but I'm concerned about swinging too far the other way as well (and, thankfully, there's a lot of research on things like "unschooling" which do seem to yield poorer results; my hope is that we zero in on a more optimal balance ... of which I postulate that homeschooling offers the greatest chance of success).

      6. We agree that we do waste time in classes (far more in traditional school than homeschooling). And what I love about homeschooling is that it demonstrates to us, on a daily basis, that we can continue to learn something we aren't forced to learn. My only point here was that, when developing educational requirements, whose preferences do we formalize? Why? And this is where a school system is not nearly as flexible and functional as a tailored education you can get at home.

      7. We agree here. Totally. But, as in #1 and #2, if we want general knowledge we're going to miss out on specific technical skills or something like rhetoric. So how do we get the best balance that meets our students' needs? My suggestion: Homeschool.

      I am very curious your thoughts on the areas where I clearly missed your point or am too stuck in my own thinking. Thanks for pushing back! I'd love to see this help find ways to make education a better thing, be it in a classroom or something we're doing on our own time.