What’s the point of school?
Education is a technology that tries to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at.
Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate
Schools have only ever existed in cultures where culturally specific knowledge has outpaced universal folk knowledge. What is universal – speech, recognising distinctions between the properties of inanimate objects and plants and animals, cooperating in groups, etc. – is clearly the result of evolutionary adaptions; if it wasn’t it wouldn’t be universal. Children don’t have to go to school to learn how to walk, talk, recognise objects or remember the personalities of their friends, even though these things are much harder than reading, adding or remembering dates in history. The reverse is true of machine learning. Fascinatingly, robots and computers are excellent are learning how to do many of the things we’re bad at but, thus far, have found it practically impossible to learn those things we find easy.
Schools exist to transmit that which is culturally specific and does not emerge in the absence of formal instruction. We send children to school to learn written language, arithmetic and science because these bodies of knowledge were invented too recently for any species-wide knack for acquiring them to have evolved. Children are born equipped with adaptions which allow them to learn and reason in specific ways, and, in order to learn and reason is new ways, theses adaptations must be harnessed to master skills for which they were not designed.
As all teachers will know, it’s not enough to simply tell children stuff they don’t know. Schooling also involves three important, but poorly understood processes:
- Debugging – Certain ways of thinking are wonderfully adapted for ensuring surviving in a primitive environment but less useful for flourishing in the modern world. For instance, in order to understand Newtonian physics, children have to unlearn intuitive impetus-based physics. Likewise, to get to grips with modern biology you first have to rid yourself of the folksy ides of vitalism. And no one can truly comprehend evolutionary theory until they unburden themselves of the naive belief in intuitive engineering and intelligent design.
- Making the implicit explicit – The process of becoming educated also requires children to bring into consciousness that which routinely goes unobserved. For instance, while learning to speak is effortless and intuitive, in order to learn written language children need to become aware of phonemes before they can associate them with graphemes.
- Repurposing – We can make it easier to learn culturally specific knowledge by harnessing evolutionary adaptions. For example, innate ways of using language can help children learn mathematics: harnessing rhyme and rhythm: “five times five is twenty-five,’ or recognising that number places are order in the same way as English noun phrases: seven thousand, eight hundred and sixty-two has the same linguistic structure as eggs, bacon and toast.
The final purpose of school is to provide an environment in which children will learn this hard to master stuff. Because we’ve evolved to find learning some things easy, we’ve also evolved a preference for engaging in these activities. Human beings are well-adapted to making friends, acquiring status, honing motor skills and exploring the physical world. In fact, as every parent knows, it can be very hard to stop children doing these things. Left to their own devices the vast majority of children will not learn mathematics, written language or science. Instead, they’ll sit around chatting and messing about with stuff. Any vision of schooling which champion’s the Noble Savage and seeks to follow AS Neill’s belief that children are “innately wise and realistic” and if left to themselves without adult supervision “will develop as far as [they are ] capable of developing” is unscrupulously optimistic. Such beliefs fare badly when assessed objectively, which is presumably why their proponents disdain standardised tests.
If you’re interested, I believe the wider purpose of education should be to make children cleverer.