Free to learn: the immorality of compulsory schools

A peculiar meme seems to have dominated throughout human history, namely, that there always exists some demographic that is less than human. First it was race; then, women. Now, the final demographic desperately waiting for equal moral standing is children.

Today, the institutional instantiation of this meme, of course, is the education system. From the age of five, children are placed on a conveyor belt – tedious for some, torturous for many – until they alight in possession of what authorities have deemed “an education”.

Most would agree that a state of ignorance never justifies coercion, yet for reasons I shall explain below, this courtesy extends only to the point of puberty.

A false theory of mind

Rather than analyse the history of the school system, I think it more fruitful to analyse the current philosophical ideas that are justifying this treatment of children in the minds of adults. After all, we are all prone to err, but something is preventing this error from being corrected.

That something, I believe, is what Sir Karl Popper called, ‘The Bucket Theory of Mind’. The theory is as follows:

Knowledge can be transferred with high fidelity from one mind to another. In other words, the mind is like a bucket into which knowledge can be poured.

As a child, I remember teachers and parents telling me that my brain is like a “sponge”, so it’s important to be exposed to as much as possible during these critical years of my life, because after this, learning becomes slow and arduous.

This theory of mind, then, is the life-raft of the otherwise foundation-less education system. It justifies shuttling batches of thirty kids from classroom to classroom for the entirety of their youth. Exams, curricula, and age-based learning are all natural extensions of the belief that there is a critical age at which kids absorb knowledge. So too, is coercion. As it turns out, this theory of mind is entirely false.

How people learn

Sir Karl Popper, a philosopher of science in the 20th century, can be credited with refuting this false theory of mind and replacing it with our current best explanation for how knowledge is created. His theory, named Critical Rationalism, can be explained as follows:

Knowledge is created one way, and only one way: through a process of conjecture and criticism. In other words, guessing and criticising those guesses.

To better understand what this means in practice, consider how a newborn child comes to understand the world:

A baby’s environment is entirely novel. Every sound, sight, and sensation has yet to be understood.

The first word a baby usually learns is “Mamma”.

But a mother cannot transfer that meaning to the baby. The baby must guess the meaning by conjecturing one possible meaning of this jumble of noises, and then criticising that meaning in the light of reality.

The first time a baby hears “mamma”, it almost certainly goes unnoticed, just like a typical westerner would hardly be able to parse any one particular word from a Chinese television show.

But after a few more exposures to the word “mamma”, it begins to stick out as a problem: something in need of an explanation.

With more exposures, a baby will begin to notice the circumstances under which this problem-word arises, for instance, that it only comes out of the mouth of the baby’s mother, and is usually accompanied by certain hand gestures and facial expressions.

Over time, a baby will come closer and closer to the true meaning of the word before finally making his first utterance.

But, there does not exist a final truth, or final meaning of the word “mamma”. All babies must arrive at their own understanding of the word, which will by definition vary from baby to baby.

This process of learning is the same for all people.

At this point, those unfamiliar with the work of Karl Popper might be thinking:

“Sure, there are problems with the education system. But isn’t this just a case for better teacher training? To bring teachers up to speed with the work of this Popper chap?”

To put into perspective just how wrong the compulsory school philosophy is, consider this analogy:

Newton was wrong. But only in the sense that he was further from the truth than Einstein. Newton’s theory still solved problems, and it truly did capture some of reality. Moreover, it was a great leap forward from the previous state of knowledge.

Galileo, too, was wrong. But only in the sense that he was further from the truth than Newton. His theory explained a great deal about the solar system, and came out of a state of knowledge that believed the earth was the centre of the universe.

But the school system isn’t wrong in the sense that it’s further from the truth than Karl Popper. It’s wrong like the Catholic Church was wrong in refusing to accept Galileo’s heliocentrism and in locking him up so as to protect their worldview.

The school system doesn’t capture any part of reality, and because of this it doesn’t solve any problems. In fact, it causes more problems than it could ever hope to solve.


Understanding how knowledge is created, we now know that there is one critical precondition for learning to occur:

One must be interested in learning.

Education is, and can only be, voluntary; coercion is entirely antithetical to the creation of knowledge. Moreover, it would be criminal to lock your neighbour into an institution against their will because they’re ignorant of your expertise in calculus. And yet, children’s broad ignorance is cause for exactly that.

Indeed, school is immoral because it treats children as something other than the creative knowledge creators they are, which is precisely how we used to treat different races and women.

And if this wasn’t enough to quench one’s thirst for tyranny over pre-pubescents, consider one last argument:

Three months: how long it takes to get good enough at something to be paid in the marketplace.

One year of deliberate practice puts you in the top 5%.

Ten years and you’re in the top 100 performers in the world.

And yet, after 12-16 years in the education system, we all come out utterly mediocre at everything.

One’s entire youth is stolen in the name of education, and it all turns out to be a gargantuan waste of time.

See also:

Christian Dean, 2022, ‘Free to learn: the immorality of compulsory schools’,

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