Studying children in school is like studying orcas at Sea World

Tuesday, July 25th, 2023

Can a school make your child smarter?, Michael Strong asks:

Two hundred years later, after free public education has extended beyond the three years endorsed by Jefferson to thirteen years, we are seeing more skepticism around the benefits of education than ever before. The spirit of the times is quite different than it was when Jefferson was manifesting the Enlightenment in the U.S.

Freddie DeBoer has an essay “School Doesn’t Work” summarizing the ineffectiveness of a wide range of educational interventions


Economist Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education makes the case that schooling is mostly signaling rather than adding human capital.


Between the emphasis on genetics, on the one hand, and the ineffectiveness of most education, we have reached a point at which many people believe that most K12 spending is a waste of money; Scott Alexander somewhat facetiously suggests that we give everyone the $150K (now more like $200K) we currently spend on each child so they can buy a cabin rather than waste time in school.


But clearly human performance can be improved. Anders Ericksson, the researcher most responsible for researching “deliberate practice” as a technique for improving performance, one of the world’s leading researchers of expert performance, has been arguing against the genetic determinists for decades.


From a young age, your child is biologically programmed to be a status optimizer within a given cultural milieu seeking niches for optimizing social status (including love and attention as good things!). In order to do so, they will reflexively imitate the behaviors of those who are regarded as prestigious, successful, and skillful in their social group, and whose sex/gender and ethnicity cues are something that she can emulate successfully.


These people (including Montaigne, Pascal, Mill, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, etc.) were raised by parents who were keen to immerse their children in environments in which interesting people were constantly around thinking and talking about ideas.

Today, teens with access to the internet who choose to devote themselves to achieving excellence for the sake of optimizing status among a chosen community of peers can learn extraordinary amounts without any classroom environment at all.


In the best circumstances, a school is a place where your child is exposed to a peer culture that supports learning. In the worst circumstances, the peer culture so undermines learning that all of the academic instruction becomes largely irrelevant.


Harvard’s David Perkins makes the case that much of what we regard as “intelligence” is a matter of dispositions towards thinking. Thus while it may or may not be the case that we can increase “g,” the underlying factor that is believed to result in high IQ scores, we can improve the ways in which minds think.


But as Carol Black, the screenwriter for The Wonder Years TV show notes, studying children in school is like studying orcas at Sea World. I regard almost all educational research as inconclusive garbage insofar as it is premised on schooling.

For instance, many people are excited by Bloom’s “2 sigma” finding, that students tutored one-on-one using mastery techniques performed two standard deviations better than students in a classroom environment. One reading of this is, “Wow, tutoring is powerful.” Another is, “Wow, classroom instruction is garbage.”


Schooling is a cultural monoculture that is far more damaging to human cultures than is agricultural monoculture on natural ecosystems. To shift from the Sea World metaphor, imagine studying Monsanto treated industrial wheat farms in Kansas and suffering from the illusion that one understood plant life.


  1. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    Strong weakens his point by using performance at chess as an example of cognitive antinomianism, as in more absolute terms chess is a highly simplistic activity in which the primary factor of performance is memorization (knowing what lines to play in a given board state), something which he himself notes is one of the most trivial criteria of cognitive performance.

    The studies that seek to demonstrate cognitive differences disappearing with expertise – and the people who make them – suffer from quantification bias; the easiest things to measure are often also the most trivial. A given selection criteria will stop making meaningful distinctions between subjects past a given point because you’ve gone past the point where its depth is exhausted; so that a one sigma increase and a six sigma would both be equally unimpactful on the outcome past that point.

    You see this all the time in ‘child prodigy’ stories; they are all but always about something like mathematics, or playing an instrument, or a board game, or other things of that nature; that is to say, things that are all heavily weighted to calculative aptitude; things that are easily measured and easy for a normie himself to recognize.

    When he thinks of a ‘genius’ he thinks of something like Sherlock Holmes writing a dissertation in his head in the middle of a fist fight about how he is going to totally own the other guy. In reality a genius fighter, if he has experience in fighting, is just going to intuitively anticipate his opponent without even having to think about it consciously. It’s not simply a difference in process, it’s an alien perspective altogether.

  2. Lucklucky says:

    I fully agree that intelligence can be increased by learning. But schools are not for that. School exists for equality, so mediocrity. It is more important to a school to decrease IQ than to increase it.

  3. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    All that being said, he touches on a lot of points that are worth saying. Such as: the child prison systems being worse than useless; the importance of status hierarchies, and especially the intentional curation thereof, to what behaviors, modes of thought, and forms of being subjects will converge towards – which of course touches on something with implications that reach far beyond the subject of child rearing alone; the fact that any genuine transmission of tacit knowledge from one subject to another requires direct personal interrelationships between the subjects – which is why credentialism is the devil and the disappearance of apprenticeship as a social technology has resulted in unfathomable loss of understanding, lore, and know-how in basically every sphere of society under the sun with every generation for the past 70+ years; just to name the most pertinent.

  4. Michael van der Riet says:

    As I have said on these pages before, the primary purpose of schooling is day care. To understand the second objective requires understanding Chesterton’s Fence, which Michael Strong, Freddie DeBoer and Bryan Caplan patently don’t. It is simpler to demand that all children spend their days in school than to prevent businesses from employing child labor. Grant me the leeway to assume that sitting in a classroom is less harmful to the child than performing menial and possibly dangerous work.

    At one time, a learner would not be promoted to the next grade without having passed something called a “test” or “exam” (yes I know that these are cancellable words but damn the torpedoes). Children neither literate nor numerate stayed in the same grade until they passed, or were rerouted to a special school, or achieved the age of school leaving. Somehow the terrible, tortuous, inefficient and ineffectual teaching methods of the past pumped out hundreds of thousands of literate and numerate graduates every year, and remember that this was before dumbing down became mandatory. The sheer mass and volume of bovine excrement produced by modern education socio-psychologists baffles the brain.

  5. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    “Grant me the leeway to assume that sitting in a classroom is less harmful to the child than performing menial and possibly dangerous work.”

    Leeway not granted.

  6. Handle says:

    The funny thing is that despite all the perfectly legitimate and accurate criticisms that applied even as far back as when I was in them, I learned a lot in my public schools. Am I normal, average person – ok not really. And yeah, they were “good schools”. And yeah, a lot of what I learned was lies and/or good for nothing. But still. It’s not like my parents observing just my development would have had any reason to believe that I wasn’t learning something, indeed, a lot.

    On the other hand, I can’t say the same about my own observations of kids in contemporary public schooling, which really does seem a few major steps down in this regard. The overall model, process, structure, and basis for many of these criticisms was all there a long time ago, but something else has gotten much, much worse recently, and people are shooting at targets that, while valid, aren’t the beast at close range charging at us at full speed.

  7. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    If one wishes to invoke Chesterton’s Fence, then the biggest social upheaval that tore down preexisting social superstructures left and right was the implementation of the child prison system in the first place, where groups of men who coincidentally all happened to be lawyers floated the unsubstantiated notion that having the bureaucracy kidnap people’s children and send them to child prison would usher in felicity and enlightenment across all society.

    They went to an academy – which is to say, a seminary – and so they though, make all of society a seminary; the whole of the human mass digested through the officially unofficial state church; through such an entity that would always and inevitably become such an entity, in the event of such a happenstance.

    It is nothing less – and nothing more – than men with priestly caste consciousness, seeking, consciously or unconsciously, to universalize that consciousness, universalize their own particular mode of engagement with Being, to all beings in general.

    The past is a foreign country, and most people in 2023 are tourists. Their Dickensian mental images of what more civilized times and places were like come from the Wreckers who destroyed them to begin with.

    The only thing an academy format can teach people is how to priest. This fact was in fact long understood for centuries, millennia. The first universities were all founded as religious institutions – and they have never stopped being religious institutions. In an academy setting a man can learn a priestly vocation, such lawyer, scribe, preacher, j*urnalist, et cetera. Literally any other kind of vocation though, no dice. No such edification takes place in reality, only cargo-cult larping posing as the vocation, to no good effect.

    No matter what ‘major’ you take at whatever institution you sacrifice too, you will end up needing to learn how to actually do whatever your actual job is at whatever sphere you end up in anyways. The institution itself provides negative value in this respect.

    It is telling how every time someone defends systematic internment of society in academies, it is always for reasons like ‘networking’, or ‘socialization’, or ‘keeping potential criminals off the streets and under watch in prison’; ie, things that all have little to nothing to do with *the academic format itself*, and could be better served without it getting in the way, and are in fact substantially undermined by it getting in the way.

    A humanoid being learns things by watching and working with someone or someones who knows that thing. This is why an academy can’t teach anything except priestly vocations, because what you are watching is an academic do academics.

    And likewise why the destruction of apprenticeship as legally realized social technologies has resulted in mounting ignorance, incapacity, and inability to do what once could be done in pretty much every sector of industry in the occident. Such phenomena as ‘child labour’ laws were the product of priestly factions seeking to usurp greater control over society from other parties that were theretofore incumbent; to gain authority over minds in their most impressionable stages, in order to impress them.

  8. McChuck says:

    “Harvard’s David Perkins makes the case that much of what we regard as ‘intelligence’ is a matter of dispositions towards thinking.”

    Well, duh. Another brilliant observation by an academician. I must mark upon my calendar that a Harvard professor accidentally uttered a true statement.

    Smart people think. Stupid people don’t. Average people usually won’t.

  9. VXXC says:

    What is the nearest political entity that collects the most taxes and has the most power where you live? Schools.

    Politics is power, schools are the power of the system and the foundation of the current system’s power, from the ground and the next generation up.

    The children are as relevant as slaves in the quarry pits of the ancients.

  10. Jim says:

    Juvenile detention center delenda est.

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