On Free Education

One day, back at Pearson College, we were discussing literacy during French class. One of my friends suggested, to my absolute disbelief, that it was wrong of society to force children to learn how to read. I argued that this was absurd, since it is almost impossible to be a functioning adult in a modern industrial society without the ability to read. He replied that it was wrong of us to design our cities in such a way that this is the case. At the time I thought he was being ridiculous; in fact, I thought he was just making this up for the sake of argument, as if he rejoiced in contrariety.

Last night, as I remembered this conversation, I realised I was too quick to dismiss my friend’s argument. Education in general is, if anything, a service that the state provides to its citizens. In that case, why should it be compulsory? Presumably it’s because of the assumption that children are unable to make decisions before they reach a certain age, so somehow the responsibility falls on the state to decide what is good for them, or at least good for society.

But I wonder, how true is this assumption that children can’t make decisions? If you’ve ever talked to a child you should know that they are usually very aware of what they like and dislike. The assumption is that the decisions children would make if we allowed them to decide what to do with their lives would have negative consequences later on. That is, we assume that many children would choose not to study, and therefore ruin their chances of becoming doctors or engineers, or even getting a job at all once they become adults. So the only solution appears to be to force them to study, and to decide what they should study based on what we think they will need to know once they grow up.

I disagree. I think there are better solutions, solutions that avoid many of the problems caused by the current system. I think these problems are best summarised by the following youtube video, based on a TED talk:

A possible solution

The main reason anyone may not enjoy going to school is because they don’t find the material interesting. It’s silly to say that they are lazy. Most kids can run around or sit down and draw for hours, so long as they’re doing it for fun. So clearly, if they don’t want to go to school is because it’s no fun. But does it have to be that way?

Imagine a school in which children could choose what classes to take from their first day, one that offered classes according to the likes and dislikes of the students. The challenge is that we want children to take classes that teach them literacy and basic arithmetic, and some children may not find those classes interesting. So what do we do?

One option could be to have interesting classes that require literacy or arithmetic. For example, you could have a class where you just read adventure novels and talk about them (all boys will want to take it) that requires literacy, or a cool mathemagic class that requires arithmetic.

But I think the best option would be to make it clear that if you want to be, say, an astronaut or a teacher or a doctor, you need to take at least such and such classes. True, that may mean that many children won’t worry about the so-called important classes until later in their schooling. But do we care? Is it really necessary to be able to read by age 7? Even with the current system, I can definitely say I had friends in 6th grade that I wouldn’t have qualified as literate. So maybe if we allow them to take the classes they need later in their lives, and as many times as they need to without feeling pressure to move on, they’ll do better.

I think the best part of this system is that students will never complain that they’ll “never need to know” whatever it is they are being taught, they’ll take classes they like and classes they need. Moreover, there will necessarily be more classes offered on topics that are important to a person’s life and that schools don’t usually focus on because they aren’t a usual academic subject, such as personal finance, carpentry or cooking. Also there will be more classes offered on topics that interest many people but that aren’t necessarily useful or academic, such as painting, pottery or creative writing.

On testing

I think there is little doubt that constant testing is detrimental to a child’s educational development. Further reading: 1, 2. So, if we’ve decided that studying should be a voluntary thing, there should be no reason for us to continue to administer tests, right? This is probably true to some extent, but there are certainly cases in which a person will need to show what they know. An employer may want to have an impartial assessment of a possible employee’s ability to do something, and we certainly want to make sure that when we hire a doctor they actually know something about medicine.

So perhaps we do in fact need to have a standardised test, but we may not need to administer them constantly and in every class. There could be tests offered every year that each student can take whenever they need to prove that they know this or that.

On the length of education

One possible setback of this system is that, although many people may end up knowing much more than they would have at a certain age in modern school systems, many people may not have the time or interest to take a class that later in their lives they’ll wish they could have taken. But why does education have to stop at age 18? I think it should be a right of a 30- or 60-year-old to take a class on calculus at their local school if they so wish. There is no reason schooling needs to be an uninterrupted block of your life between ages 6-18. If a person wishes to take a few years off to work or volunteer at age 15 and then go back to school, shouldn’t that be encouraged? Aren’t there a million things in life that we cannot learn in classrooms?

The problem is that later in their lives, they may need to have a daytime job to support their families, thus preventing them from going back to school. But maybe there is also something wrong with work taking 40 hours off of each week in a person’s life. Most developed countries in the world currently have a pretty bad unemployment problem, as you can see in the following map (click to enlarge):

worldunemploy4 Unemployment Rates Around The World

Perhaps it’s time to realise that in a modern industrial society, in a full week of work each person produces more than they can possibly consume in a week. I could write more about this subject than I have space for in this post, but I think it is clear that if we implemented an economic system like the one described here, adults would have plenty of time to go back to school for a couple of hours a day whenever they wanted. And as George Iles said, “whoever ceases to be a student has never been a student”. I think we should encourage this kind of mentality.


I have mostly been talking about public schools, but I think the same should apply to public universities. Perhaps the distinction between school and university will disappear and both will simply become institutions that allow anyone to take a seat and learn. As I said, we will perhaps need a completely separate institution which provides certification of certain skills after students pass certain tests, much like in many countries doctors and lawyers need to pass a test before they receive a license that says that they’re allowed to practice medicine or law.

There will be complete freedom to take a class or not, to go to school or not. There will also be complete freedom to take these classes at any point in your life. Moreover, classes will be completely free in the monetary sense.

Sorry for all the rambling, and for writing about a topic about which I know relatively little, but then again, this blog is just meant for me to write about whatever I feel like rambling about.

Author: Mauricio Maluff Masi

My name is Mauricio Maluff Masi. I come from Asunción, Paraguay. I’m a Philosophy PhD Candidate at Northwestern University. If you wish to contact me, e-mail me at mmaluff (at) gmail (dot) com. You can also find me on twitter at @mmaluff.