Voluntary Education and Active Learning

Robert Murphy writes about the harm caused in the education industry by government meddling. I think the following paragraph is a crucial point.

I'd like to point out that one of the most pernicious effects of State-controlled schooling is that we're reduced to such petty bickering over details. Squabbles such as this one blind us to the outrageous uniformity that the State imposes on all forms of official schooling. Even those of us who, in the abstract, favor a completely free market in education often lose sight of this, and consequently we should take a moment to seriously imagine the possibilities of an unregulated market, where innovative entrepreneurs are free to experiment with new curricula and teaching methods.

The usual issues surrounding educational reform tend to deal with run-of-the-mill questions such as "Should class size be decreased?" or "Do 'we' need tougher standards?" or "Do students need more discipline?" Even voucher proponents seem to limit themselves to these questions.

Most discussions about education issues are sorely lacking in imagination.

Schools fail not because of lack of funding, discipline, or standards, but rather because they are inherently flawed in their very basic design. The model of a teacher standing up in front of students sitting in uniformly homogeneous desks equally spaced apart listening and taking notes is highly destructive. If a child is to learn, that is the worst sort of environment to place him in, no matter what the size of the classroom, how much the teacher is paid, or how severely infractions are punished.

Education should be an active process of discovery, not a passive absorption of knowledge. Instead of being taught to, children ought to seek out new information about the universe in their own unique ways. They are the ones who should be chasing learning, rather than someone else 'learning' to them.

I don't think any of this runs against how humans are designed to learn. Babies and pre-school children are inquisitive. They crawl and run around from place to place, stopping when they find something new, asking all sorts of "Why?" questions, even to the exhaustion of the parents answering them. They have a joy in exploring the world. Forcing a child to learn is like forcing a fish to swim.

Yet, after 12+ years of schooling, most emerge as adults with essentially no desire to learn new things, no interest in furthering their knowledge, and no joy in finding out more about the way nature works.

What happens in between? Schooling. They are forced to sit still for seven hours a day (how many adults can do that?) and given the message that the only way to acquire knowledge is via someone else babbling at them from the front of the classroom. They are told that they are not unique individuals with unique tastes and needs, but rather part of a large group of "peers" with the same needs, requiring the same pace of learning. They are punished for non-conformity, held back from pursuing excellence beyond their peers, and forced to associate with people they have no desire to associate with.

My hypothesis of why homeschooling is successful is that it allows children to do what they are naturally wired to do - learn actively - which promotes their desire to learn, rather than stifle it like government schools do.

As Murphy points out, most of the proponents of government schooling and even some of the ones against it, fail to truly imagine the possibilities voluntary education would provide. The debates about class size, teacher pay, standards, etc are not going to change a thing.

Though few dare ask them, the more interesting, fundamental questions are along the lines of, "Is the teacher a destructive element in learning?", "Why do children hate school so much?", "How much do you need to memorize when google is at your fingertips?", "Is the industrial model of schooling obselete?", and "Why is learning no longer looked at as an organic, lifelong, emergent process?"

And if we really want to answer these questions, vouchers are not going to help, and if anything, will hurt the cause. At best, vouchers will simply give more of the same limited choices in the non-imaginative schooling paradigm.

Instead, a truly free market in education would allow experimentation of different methods, weeding out the bad, keeping the good. It will provide much more diversity in education options, including individualized approaches for the unique needs of different children. But most of all, it will give those of us who believe in active learning a chance for our children to retain the gratification humans naturally enjoy from learning.

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Here in Texas, the huge

Here in Texas, the huge issue at the moment is school finance. All manner of extra taxes are being proposed and bandied about. As far as I know, not a single major voice in the game is calling for a reduced role for the state in education. No one questions the orthodoxy of tax-funded schooling.

They're even thinking of imposing an income tax, which would remove one of Texas's nicer economic aspects.

I always assumed there was a

I always assumed there was a free market in education with some sort of strange taxpayer-funded baby-sitting service provided by the government that provided an understandably poor-quality education.

Please don't answer and explain to me why my family and I don't have the choice to do what we please. The government has agents in the real world with guns that sometime stop us from doing what we think makes sense. But in our minds, we are free.

Mark, "I always assumed


"I always assumed there was a free market in education with some sort of strange taxpayer-funded baby-sitting service provided by the government that provided an understandably poor-quality education."

Did you notice that schools were highly regulated even outside the baby sitting service? Did you notice that participation was mandatory?

How is that like a free market?

These are excellent points

These are excellent points Jonathan, but as an advocate of free markets all along I didn't need to concern myself much with imagining what they would produce, I knew the matter would engage the minds and imaginations of hundreds of millions in a free market.

Jonathan, I am in complete


I am in complete agreement here as someone who has provided private alternative services for students in public, private and home schools. I homeschool my own four children. What I do have a question about is if vouchers are not what you suggest, what do you suggest? Elimination of government support and involvement completely? Some form of refundable tax credit? I am deeply interested.