Arnold Kling quotes Sugata Mitra and asks about libertarian schooling. In a comment, I bring up something which I haven’t figured out yet: how would private, non-compulsory education teach subjects which aren’t always popular, and their positive attributes not always recognized by parents? When I originally posted my comment I think I framed it the wrong way, because it’s a bit absurd to assume that a free society wouldn’t have schools that more-or-less imitate current public (and private) schooling. What I mean is that there would be schools that teach a set of subjects, independent of what the students want to be taught. But, the point stands that I’m not sure this type of schooling can ever be replaced — although, surely, the way these topics are taught and the environment they are taught in will change —, and society is better off when as many children as possible are subjected to it.
In the same vein, I don’t see a lot of merit in the idea that kids can pick and choose what they want to study. While I agree as much as anybody else that alternative forms of education, like Wikipedia and the internet more generally, are great, and absolutely constructive — it’s a different form of independent reading —, the problem is that most children aren’t completely aware of the costs and benefits of different subjects. For example, to many, mathematics has high costs and low benefits. I was surely one of these kids, which is why I am so far behind in my mathematical training. The same is true for different languages. Yet, these can be subjects that people grow into (as they often are), and it will turn out that their “forced” teaching is beneficial. This is also one reason why university programs aren’t built entirely on the basis of electives, but more often constrain choice to required core classes. The fact is, sometimes we don’t know “what’s good for us,” which is why we pay people to give us hints as to the direction we should go (and why parents pay for the schooling of their children).
Libertarians who concoct ideas of completely voluntary schooling fall into the same trap as radicals who want to completely deconstruct social hierarchies. Sometimes these hierarchies make sense, which is why they form in the first place. Parts of schooling are subject to the same principle: sometimes it makes sense that we’re forced to do something, because otherwise we wouldn’t do it on our own. Another analogy with more-or-less the same meaning: this is why we pay personal trainers to push us to exercise to an extent we wouldn’t have otherwise (I once got one free lesson and it was more tiring, but more enjoyable, than a day at infantry school). While independent study is great, there’s no reason to reject the conventional model as something which only holds with the state.
As I had originally framed my point, I used it as a mark against private schooling. As I suggested in the first paragraph, I obviously erred there. But, there’s a grain of truth. Children who are subject to a certain intellectual stimulus early on are probably going to be more productive than children without that stimulus. The logic behind public schooling, at least for younger people (let’s say elementary school), is that education provides this productivity boost that may not otherwise occur, partially because the benefits of schooling are externalized. Public schooling comes at a cost, and the question is whether the opportunity cost is low enough to justify the program. We should admit the benefits exist. The real argument against public schooling is that the costs aren’t justified, on average, and that the elimination of public school would allow the reallocation of capital to better ends, increasing productivity, and over the long-run making schooling increasingly affordable (not just because of a hypothetical fall in the price of education over time, but also as a result of an increase in real income by other means).
The two points I’m making are as follows: (1) conventional, “compulsory” schooling makes sense (it makes less sense as the individual ages) because there are real benefits attached to it; (2) with this in mind, sometimes the libertarian criticism of public education goes too far. Wikipedia and conventional education aren’t substitutes, they’re compliments.
P.S. In the comments thread to Arnold Kling’s post, someone mentioned that people can simply choose to learn a subject later, once they realize its benefits. It’s to say, rather than try to teach a partially unwilling kid basic mathematical operations when they’re young, let older people decide to learn it when they want to. I think there’s a good point to this idea, but it misses the true value of an early education. Kids who learn how to read early, or they learn second and/or third languages, et cetera, are developing their brains during an incredibly important part of their lives. Children who are less stimulated when they are really young are probably going to preform worse as they age. Likewise, someone whose brain develops early on will have an easier time voluntarily learning much more complicated subjects when they’re older.