School's Out

I just read Daniel H. Pink's article on individualized education: very well done ("School's Out," October). As an "unschooling" mom, I found quite useful his analogy of unschooling to free agency. Both come from a love and appreciation for freedom—freedom to decide what and when you will do or learn something.

Of course, in today's society, people balance freedom with security. More security means less freedom, and typically leads to more consumerism and less self-awareness. Steady job, steady income, steady consumerism. In the traditional school, students learn not to think for themselves, since that is usually trouble for the teacher. They're also not encouraged to understand themselves.

Unschooling is working for us. My two kids, 5 and 7, clamor to read, practice the piano, learn the human skeletal system, and build a Lego village—all without prompting from me. They know they have a choice. They play well with other kids, and have lots of confidence. Schooling moms wonder how I do it. I just smile, knowing the importance of freedom.

Jean Nunnally
Houston, TX

I can't thank Daniel Pink enough for his well-conceived validation of our choices as homeschool parents. I, too, never finished college, but have enjoyed great success in the computer industry, including designing my first ISP in 1994.

I am now in a 9-5 job near Tulsa, Oklahoma. We left the rat race of Denver, where I ran my own Oracle consulting firm in order to make homeschooling a little easier. I am hoping to get back into consulting, but for the time being I am teaching myself guitar, participating in building the tiny Unitarian Universalist Church here, and helping my wife homeschool by teaching the kids music and languages.

Just wanted to say thank you and let you know that you reached someone who is experiencing a personal renaissance because of his family's choice to homeschool.

Peter Hand
Bartlesville, OK

Like Daniel Pink, I am a product of the Ohio public schools of the 1970s. Contrary to "system" advice to learn a trade in joint vocational school, I completed high school in 1978, attended a liberal arts college, and then graduate school. Pursuing the only thing that I have ever been any good at, mathematics, I am now a systems analyst for a large firm.

I agree that free agent learning is preferrable. Don't they say that a year on the job is like four in school? More often than not, however, parents do not have the resources, nor do students have the will, for such a course of action. Parents shouldn't be coerced into sending their children to public or private schools, but they need to be there for some.

My position is this: Public education should not go much beyond ninth or 10th grade. At least not full time, as Pink suggests. Public education should concentrate on fundamentals, and allow students to explore their interests independently, with minimal guidance.

Otto Burgess
Dayton, OH

Daniel Pink poses the riddle: If we're so dumb, how come we're so rich? He argues that it is because of homeschooling and free agency trends. Certainly there have been changes taking place in our K-12 and higher education systems. But whether such changes, which have been confined primarily to the past decade, have propelled the U.S. to a leadership position in the world over the last century is highly arguable.

I suggest that he has overlooked a much simpler explanation for why we do so badly on those tests while demonstrably achieving so much in other arenas (Nobel Prizes, patents, space exploration, scientific discoveries, etc.). Perhaps this gap exists simply because the tests don't matter; that whatever they test does not account for much in terms of life success and creative entrepreneurship. They do test knowledge, but after school one also has to apply and use that knowledge, requiring a lot of skills never covered in those tests.

Compared to other countries, maybe our educational system is much more fluid, flexible, and effective than he thinks. It's certainly less stratified and more upwardly mobile than that in almost any other industrialized country. And let's remember, there is a glass ceiling of sorts in regards to homeschooling in this age of two-wage-earner households: It only works when someone is home.

Bill Barrett
San Francisco, CA

"School's Out" makes homeschooling sound a lot better than I've known it to be. Daniel Pink sees home-schooled kids as "independent learners" full of authenticity who "define success on their own terms." I've seen homeschooled kids coming to college thinking, sounding, and even looking exactly like their parents. This has made me appreciate the positive force of school as a bridge between home and society-at-large. Homeschooling more or less equals provincialism.

Pink also begs questions of how "free agents" will construct civic life. The metaphor takes off from professional sports, and the experience of real free agency there should make Pink and others reassess their enthusiasm. There's little continuity to team rosters, and the quality of play suffers greatly. Fans cannot identify with the transient, mercenary players; all that's left is (as Jerry Seinfeld noted) laundry—what the uniform looks like on different guys, all selfishly trying to pad their statistics to get a better contract. Good luck building a good society on these principles.

Pink also comes across in print as quite the philistine. He suspects that "fancy colleges" will suffer under free agency, showing no appreciation that education has value beyond credentialing and social networking. He gushes that millionaires come out of the ranks of undereducated free agents, but I've met a number of them, and sorry, they are, to a person, boors. Big damn deal they have money to burn on SUVs, pretentious restaurants, and mega-stereos on which to play their Kenny G and John Tesh discs.

Jeff Zorn
San Francisco, CA

"People's need for knowledge doesn't respect semesters. They'll want higher education just in time—and if that means leaving the classroom before earning a degree, so be it," writes Daniel Pink.

Yet some people see time invested in education as more than job preparation. When Franklin D. Roosevelt graduated Harvard in three years, he stayed a fourth anyway. Sure, there will always be people like Bill Gates, who left Harvard early, but I don't think anyone would accuse Gates of being a "well-rounded individual."

The future of education will be life-long learning. Much of that will come from independent reading, and taking classes here and there, even on-line. However, a college degree is worth no less now than it ever has been. There are tech careers, such as Web development, where know-how is more important than sheepskin, but throughout our history, the correlation of degrees with high salaries and low unemployment has been dramatic.

Don't bank on that changing.

Bruce Mitchell Sabin
Deltona, FL

Daniel Pink asserts that school is a modern invention, not "something we inherited from antiquity." This is utterly untrue.

Formal schooling was practiced widely and with much success in Athens in the fifth century BCE. Parents chose and paid for their teachers, and teachers competed with one another for the opportunity to serve students. In the Hellenistic era circa 200 BCE, the Athenian model of free-market education had been reproduced all over the Mediterranean. Though imperfect, these schools spread literacy beyond a tiny ruling elite to much of the free population, despite what we would consider crushing poverty and technological backwardness. Nurtured by its unregulated education system, Athens enjoyed a cultural explosion the like of which has seldom been seen since, almost single-handedly creating the Western cultural tradition and literally inventing democracy (albeit in a crude and problematic form).

Even state-run and state-funded compulsory school systems are not a recent invention. The Spartans, just a hundred miles from Athens, contemporaneously developed such a public system. It focused on military training to the exclusion of virtually all else. Neither parental choice nor dissent were tolerated. Sparta's cultural legacy, not surprisingly, amounts to little more than a useful adjective and a name for high-school football teams.

Andrew J. Coulson
Senior Fellow
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy
Mackinac, MI

Daniel Pink replies: The response to this story—both its volume and its intensity—was astonishing. For the majority of readers, the critique of dreary classrooms and bureaucratic schools resonated with their own experiences.

Of course, some readers took issue with certain arguments. I learned from Andrew Coulson that free agent schooling thrived in Athens. Bill Barrett argues that Americans flourish in spite of meager test scores because tests don't measure what matters and because the U.S. system is more fluid. I agree.

A handful of readers offered perspectives similar to Bruce Sabin's. My view: Yes, a college diploma will remain an important form of certification. ("B.A. Harvard" on a résumé functions somewhat like "Intel Inside" on a computer.) However, colleges and universities won't be the only entities performing this function. Professional associations and unions will provide both learning and imprimaturs. And one's portfolio of adult work will ultimately matter more than one's youthful report card.

Jeff Zorn, alas, tumbled into a trap of his own making. Leaving aside the fact that he labels me a philistine while quoting Jerry Seinfeld, he argues that free agency will destroy education as surely as it wrecked baseball. Let's hope so. Since baseball's free agent era began 25 years ago, fan attendance has soared, the value of franchises has increased, television revenue has climbed, a greater variety of teams have won pennants, and a host of once unassailable records have fallen. To paraphrase another television icon, free agency has been berry, berry good for beisbol. It will, I suspect, be very, very good for learning, too.

Our Mad Scientist

Ronald Bailey's "Blastocyst Brouhaha" (October) was so annoying, and the logic so puerile, that I must speak against it.

Surely anybody can distinguish between a sloughed-off skin cell and a fertilized egg. In the normal course of events, one will become an infant, and the other won't. At some time in the future the two may, with tremendous scientific intervention, both become human. But that does not make them identical, just as the inevitable similarity of any human's end does not make us all identical.

There are other reasons to oppose using blastocysts for research. If one believes in a unique human soul, one must suppose that at some point it inhabits the agglomeration of cells that will become a human. There is no logical reason to suppose that this does not happen at fertilization; indeed, I can't think of any logical reason to pick any other moment for this event. If you accept the possibility of a human soul, or even believe in human dignity, then reason counsels prudence, caution, and consensus before embarking on the wholesale slaughter of blastocysts.

In fact, if we follow Bailey's reasoning, there is nothing to stop us from manufacturing zygotes solely to be harvested for the benefit of others. But where do we draw the line? At what point in development is it no longer allowable to destroy one life that another may live—or have his quality of life improved? Any line drawn is arbitrary, and cannot be defended logically from those who will keep smearing the lines.

I sometimes watch old horror flicks, in which a "mad scientist" rationalizes his awful experiments, in which monstrous acts are done for "the good of humanity." Until I read Bailey's piece, I had not realized that Dr. Frankenstein's ethos had penetrated to my favorite magazine. Except here, Bailey is crying, "It's not alive, it's not alive!"

Lindsay Peet
Studio City, CA