The Educational Cargo Cult (WIP)

This article is mostly an attempt to give a contrarian view of the modern education system. My sources are not exhaustive and my conclusions are far from firm. I do however, have an experience with the school system that I believe will be interesting to my readers and hopefully illustrative of the view I’ll argue for.

You might notice that a lot of my sources and observations are duplicative of those floating around the so-called “intellectual dark web.” I don’t purport to add anything new to the conversation other than to make these ideas more readable by weaving the into a narrative.

Note: This article’s sections are divided according to English-Canadian educational stages. I know that most of my readers are American, so I’ll briefly explain those divisions. Elementary school is grades 1-6, junior high is grades 7-9, and high school is grades 10-12.


The greatest benefit I received from parents was that they chose to homeschool me. In many American jurisdictions, homeschooling parents are simply given free reign to teach their kids however they want. In my area however, parents who opt to homeschool must still enroll their children with a school board. Generally, the school board chosen is one that is specifically designed for and run by homeschooling parents. It is the job of the school board to ensure that students meet certain goals.

In my case, the school board was quite hands off. Every few months a ‘coordinator’ would come to my house. Before they arrived, they would send a series of tests for various subjects. My parents would have me write the tests provided, and then they would give them to the coordinator when she arrived. The coordinator would then have me write a few shorter tests while she was there. After the coordinator looked over the results of the tests, she would speak to my parents about my progress and areas for improvement.

Suffice it say, my test results were abysmal. From grades 1-5 I simply refused to learn to read. My parents, coordinators, and various specialists would regularly sit me down and try to force me to make some progress in reading. Members of the education system would always talk down to me, assuming my failure to meet targets was due to some ‘impediment.’ Thinking back, I always responded to condescension by acting unintelligent and agreeable. I would simply let the education expert tell me what they wanted and agree to whatever it is they wanted me to agree to. It would generally go something like this:

Expert: Hey little buddy, little guy. Your parents and I are noticing that you a little trouble with reading. I know you’re really a bright kid so you can definitely do a bit better if you practice.

Me: Yeah, I just no like to read because it so hard, but I know I gotta try.

Expert: Yeah, that’s great to hear. I know you’re a really smart kid and you can get better fast. I’ve given some stuff to your parents that will help you learn in your way of learning. Can you help me and your parents by making sure to try really hard and do each of the modules every week?

Me: Yeah, ok. I’ll do one a week now.

As you might expect, I really hated these conversations. My only goal was always to end the conversation as quick as possible to get out of the situation.

I never really had any intention of following through with what I agreed to. I simply did not understand why everyone wanted me to learn to read so badly. I always hung out with my older brother and he knew how to read. There was seldom -if ever- a time when I needed to read something but couldn’t. I told my parents as much, but they wouldn’t hear it (because it sounds ridiculous). My parents told me that I would eventually need to learn to read to get by in the world. I argued that if reading would be so important in future, I would obviously learn it at that point: when it was important. I was never given a satisfactory response. No one would ever explain why I needed to learn to read now. I understand with hindsight why no argument was given. A reasonable person will not feel the need to explain to a seven-year-old why they should do something that the entire adult world expects them to do. In my mind at the time however, I saw the failure to give a response as a sign of deceit. These adults say they want me to do something that causes me pain for my own good, but they know that it’s not really for my own good. I was left to conclude that adults -and authority in general- were simply my enemy, wanting me to feel mental pain for its own sake.

Learning Early, Learning Late

The previous paragraph brings us to my first substantive point. Do kids really need to start learning early in order to build on their knowledge later? To illustrate this point further: imaging a world where the education system was singularly designed to produce skilled material engineers. In such a world, would it really be helpful to force six-year-olds to learn the basics of engineering at a level that they could comprehend? I would argue no. Such a profession requires a full understanding of a plethora of complex related ideas. The level of understanding that could be expected from the average child of any of the relevant terms or concepts are completely useless without the entire network of concepts involved. Switching back to our world: it is commonly understood that such domains are only in the range of post-secondary students; with the requisite mental development to make use of what they learned. It seems commonsensical to conclude that a person who learned all of the necessary elements of materials engineering piecemeal.

In Finland, compulsory education begins when children are seven years old1 as opposed to most developed countries where it starts at age six. Finland also has one of the highest levels of educational achievement. PISA tests are international scholastic achievement tests conducted in OECD countries. The PISA tests provide a ranked list of educational achievement by country. Finnish students regularly score in the top 10, and dominate in Europe. You can see the data for yourself on the wikipedia page or the original report.2

In America, the educational authorities were much concerned with the “underperformance” of black students. They therefore decided to create a new program titled “headstart.” This program gave “underprivileged” students access to pre-kindergarten education. The idea was that certain students came from homes with under-educated parents. Theses parents would be at a loss to teach their own children the basics necessary for entering kindergarten and grade one. The state -read the education lobby- could therefore provide more education before kindergarten to prepare students for entering education. The idea was that by giving education to certain students early, they could provide a “headstart” which would level the playing field.

As you might imagine, headstart was a laughable failure. Though children showed slightly better test scores in the beginning, all effects were gone by the first grade.3 Even later studies by the US government showed the same results, headstart is useless.4 If we are to go back to my material engineer analogy, we find what I expect: education only provides marginal increases in theoretical aptitude which disappear over time.

More school has no effect. Less school has no effect. If you surmise that school has no effect then you’re not insane.

Catholic Homeschooling Activity Days

By the time I was in grade one my parents believed the experts that I needed expert instruction. When the experts from the school board told my mom that I was “handicapped,” my mom responded “no, he’s just lazy.” In the end, the experts won out marginally. I wasn’t forced to attend the industrial mental labour camp called ‘school,’ but I was enrolled in “Catholic Homeschooling Activity Days” (CHAD).

CHAD was a way for homeschooling parents to give their kids the “benefit” of normal schooling for a small portion of the day. My brother and I were forced to wake up far earlier than we should have to go to this strange institution. We would be arrive at a rented house where we would be separated by grade level and taught by an actual teacher for a couple days of the week. I sat at a desk and was asked to perform all of the required educational tasks that a normal kid might be asked to complete in a class setting.

CHAD’s grade-level system separated me from my brother; something I’m still angry about to this day. Because I was born at the wrong time, I was not allowed to be with my brother. No consideration was given to my brother and I’s ability. The fact that we were in different “grades” meant that we couldn’t be in class together. I don’t mean to say that an aptitude based division of students would have been different. My brother would still certainly have placed ahead of me. The arbitrariness of the system itself still made me uncomfortable.

To explain why the separation from my brother was so impactful, I’ll tell a story about our trip to the US for a continental Catholic event. The event organizers offered free child care so parents could attend talks. My brother and I were sent to this free child care service where we would do crafts and watch videos. At some point during our care, my brother hid under a table while I wasn’t looking. When I finished talking to another child I realized my brother wasn’t there. I started looking for him frantically. When I realized he wasn’t there I just fell down and started crying. The volunteers rushed to me -a five-year-old- to ask me what was wrong and make me feel better; I just refused to answer anything, for fear it might implicate my brother in some wrongdoing. My brother popped out from under the table, laughing. I immediately stopped crying and laughed along with him. It was a good gag, and a hilarious meme which he still brings up to this day.

I’m still indignant about the arbitrary separation from my brother some ten years later. When we played together as children everything was magic. We would climb trees, steal apples from our neighbour, and test just how much a mouse trap could hurt our hands. Every moment we were forcibly separated was stolen. I know that everything my parents and the experts did was reasonable, I would do the same. I can’t however, just ignore the fact that they stole that time for no benefit to either of us.

My behaviour at CHAD was considered “disruptive.” The teacher assumed that everyone knew how to read and I did nothing to repudiate that assumption. I knew that everyone else could read, and assumed they would think I was dumb for being unable. Whenever the teacher asked us to to something that required reading; or worse, wanted us to read to the class: I would cause a ruckus. I would stand on my table, roast the teacher, and make jokes to derail the class. I could get the whole class behind me with this tactic. Instead of judging me for my inability to read, the class would be chanting my name, egging me on to fight against the perceived tyranny of our ward. “Acting out” was the reasonable alternative to being made the village idiot.

One day at CHAD, we were asked to write a math test. I wasn’t super worried about the test, since I could just read the numbers on the page and understand what type of question was being asked. My inability to read didn’t really hurt me in class. I could understand numbers, and the way they were arranged, to understand what the question was. We learned to solve some kind of problem with a “number line.” During a test, I ran into a question I recognized as a problem involving a number line. I saw that there was no such number line, so I put my hand up to ask for help. The teacher was unnecessarily harsh. She told me “the question says to solve without a number line, why are you asking me about a number line, DO WHAT THE QUESTION SAYS.” I obviously could not admit that I couldn’t read the question. The teacher made me feel like a loser. I told her the question was stupid, she was stupid, and there should be some consistency between the course material and the test. My tenure at CHAD didn’t last long. My parents passed on the teacher’s diagnosis, telling me I was disruptive, belligerent, and probably some other insults. I was finally pulled out of CHAD, after dealing with organized education for a year too long.

Rebel Without a Cause

One of may parents’ many solutions to my “learning” problem was to enroll me in piano classes. I refused -adamantly- to learn a single thing. I managed to set a record for the longest to play every song in the first training book. My report cards from piano class are actually a hilarious read; here are some of my favourite quotes:

I later found out that these report cards were no longer sent to parents after I stopped going to lessons. Apparently, my attendance was a more than minimal contributor to the need for critique.

My mom tried relentlessly to get me to learn to read. I would desperately try to find a way out with various methods I’d developed. I could use strategic bathroom breaks, feigned intense hunger, or a well-placed tantrum to get out of pretty much any reading. Those methods could only get me so far though. Eventually, I’d be forced to sit down and stare straight at a piece of paper, littered with indecipherable symbols. Inevitably, I’d be told to “sound-it-out.” This advice -to sound it out- is somehow common, despite being totally asinine. Ah-puh-puh-luh-eh is not the same as ah-pul; not even close. I don’t think I’m out of line to attack the entire education system for something as fundamental as phonics. Reading the English language is simply not a matter of learning letters and stringing them together. Most words are simply an assortment of letters inexactly correlated with phones based on:

That’s not an indictment of the English writing system. I actually think the English writing system is one of the best -if not the best- writing systems around; but that’s a story for another article.

My attack on the way phonics is taught should not be construed as an indictment of the learning method per se. Sounding out words is very likely the best way to begin to learn simple words and get a handle on reading. I simply take issue with having been lied to. If I were told that this learning method was actually inexact and flawed, but that it was a useful exercise, I would not take issue with it. I strongly disliked the fact that I was being trained. In other words: rather than being told the stakes and allowed to respond properly, others would transparently create artificial stakes (like test scores) in order to simulate problems I might face in the future such that I would be prepared for those later problems.

The Importance of Time

I don’t think childhood should be taken as lightly as it is. It is the only time where a person can go mostly wherever they please and do mostly whatever they want. Once childhood ends, that kind of freedom becomes more and more valuable.

Though I do consider the time I spent in school to be a complete and utter waste of my childhood, it wasn’t really that bad. Being homeschooled meant that school work was highly efficient. There was no time wasted in class, only time spent teaching the basics of a subject and required to complete a defined set of tasks. My siblings and I were generally always done our school work for the day around noon. The rest of the day was play time.

You might be tempted to doubt the efficiency of homeschooling based on my underperformance. You might concluded that I was only able to have so much free time because I wasn’t forced to learn anything. Let me dispose of that notion quickly. My siblings and I were all homeschooled, and none of them were under-performers. My oldest brother finished grade 5 and 6 in the same year on a whim (if you’re finally reading this, hi Josh). My oldest sister remained in the top of her class from elementary to the end of her graduate program. If I’m remembering correctly, I probably spent more time doing school than my siblings, mostly as a result of being too stubborn to actually do anything.

When I wasn’t doing school, I got to experience a very happy and fruitful childhood. I was seven when my family moved out of the city. My brother and I would go for long walks in the woods, climb trees, and talk about nothing in particular. After a few years in my new house, I came upon an unused mp3 player under the stairs. I would load various podcasts on the device, then wander through the woods with my earbuds in. I listened to everything from libertarian political commentary (which was fashionable at the time) to a six-hundred episode series on the history of Rome. I eventually decided to keep track of the time I spent on these walks. They averaged around two and a half hours, with the longest being just over eight hours. I looked for ways to extend how long I could spend in the woods. There obviously wasn’t any substantive food, but eating the inside of a dead thistle or pine needles and poplar leaves made the feeling of hunger go away. There was also plenty of water in the river. Those childhood memories are some of the fondest I have. Even if my childhood exploits didn’t really achieve anything, at least I got to spend my time in a way that made me happier.

Junior High

The Fecklessness of Training

I remember talking to a friend right after halloween night. I was pretty happy with all of the candy I’d gotten and started talking about how awesome it was to be able to eat as much candy as I wanted. My friend replied that he wished he could say the same but his parents “take our candy and dole it out to us a little at a time.” I was dumbfounded at why any parent would do something so strange, so I inquired further. My friend explained that his parents wanted him to learn “self control.” My brother and I both looked at each other confused, and then began to laugh. It’s not self control if it’s not yourself.

I would like to now shift to a criticism of modern parenting in general. The stated goal of the many training regimes imposed by parents is to prepare children for the future. I will argue though, that the “future” that children are being prepared for is different than anything training can prepare for.

Let’s take the example of a parent who forces a teenager to wake up at a “reasonable time” on weekends. The thought behind making the child wake up is that eventually, they will have a job and responsibilities that necessitate waking early. Since such an eventuality is certain, why not start getting someone used to the routine they’ll have in the future? The reason this training fails is that the future being prepared for is so far removed from the present realities of the patient. The teenager has no responsibilities forcing them to wake up now. They are therefore not being trained to respond to reality correctly; rather, they are being forced to pretend to exist in a future reality.

The preceding example might seem week. The fact that future reality will be different does not mean that one can’t start training the child now. The point is that the theory behind the training is a “just so story.” I could easily propose contradictory story, which without any evidence would be just as compelling as the doxastic view I’m arguing against. For example, read the following argument against training children:

Training children is paradoxical as it makes it more difficult for people to make rational decisions in adulthood. An adult needs to be able to fully comprehend a situation and make a judgement based on the facts. People get better at making decisions by understanding the motivations and outcomes involved in their previous choices. Enforcing rules on children deprives them of opportunities to make decisions. Hard rules therefore prohibit children from developing decision-making skills that wil be useful in adulthood.

The argument above is another “just so story.” There is no reason to believe this theory any more than the view it argues against without further information.

There is a common cultural view of northeast Asian “tiger” parents as exemplary parents. Asian students regularly outperform students from other countries on standardized tests.5 Asian adults in western countries are overrepresented in STEM fields.6 Much of the difference in outcomes is attributed to so-called “tiger parenting.” This stereotypical view is based on the notion that Asian parents (especially mothers) are extremely strict and controlling, pushing their children to succeed in education.7



  2. PISA report, 2018↩︎

  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Head Start Impact Study: Final Report↩︎

  4. ibid.↩︎

  5. supra, PISA Report↩︎

  6. Pew Research Center, Diversity in the STEM workforce varies widely across jobs. 2018↩︎

  7. Scarlett Wang, THE “TIGER MOM.” Applied Psychology Opus↩︎