Arnold Kling  

Abolish High School?

Robert Fogel Interview... Subjective Age...

Robert Epstein writes,

although it’s efficient to cram all apparently essential knowledge into the first two decades of life, the main thing we teach most students with this approach is to hate school. In today’s fast-paced world, education needs to be spread out over a lifetime, and the main thing we need to teach our young people is to love the process of learning.

...Are young people really inherently incompetent and irresponsible? The research I conducted with my colleague Diane Dumas suggests that teenagers are as competent as adults across a wide range of adult abilities, and other research has long shown that they are actually superior to adults on tests of memory, intelligence, and perception. The assertion that teenagers have an “immature” brain that necessarily causes turmoil is completely invalidated when we look at anthropological research from around the world. Anthropologists have identified more than 100 contemporary societies in which teenage turmoil is completely absent; most of these societies don’t even have terms for adolescence. Even more compelling, long-term anthropological studies initiated at Harvard in the 1980s show that teenage turmoil begins to appear in societies within a few years after those societies adopt Western schooling practices and are exposed to Western media. Finally, a wealth of data shows that when young people are given meaningful responsibility and meaningful contact with adults, they quickly rise to the challenge, and their “inner adult” emerges.

...We produce such turmoil by infantilizing our young and isolating them from adults. Modern schooling and restrictions on youth labor are remnants of the Industrial Revolution that are no longer appropriate for today’s world; the exploitative factories are long gone, and we have the ability now to provide mass education on an individual basis.

Teenagers are inherently highly capable young adults; to undo the damage we have done, we need to establish competency-based systems that give these young people opportunities and incentives to join the adult world as rapidly as possible.

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COMMENTS (16 to date)
randy writes:

fantastic! this has been something i've been saying for years. often i make light of it, it just sounds kind of suspicious to say anything negative about compulsory education. i really think that this idea should be considered as a real option. it seems like our schools have a case of split-personality. what are they there for? are they there to control children or are they there to educate? do we send our kids to school to teach them to love learning, or do we send them there so that their parents can both put in an 8 hour workday? not that these are mutually exclusive purposes, but i think any real discussion ought to acknowledge all these considerations.

John S writes:

This is an extremely interesting idea. Are there societies that have adopted strategies like the ones presented here and are noticeably better for it? If not, then why not? It seems like somewhere along the line some society would discover a secret like this.

Scott Peterson writes:

I agree wholeheartedly with Epstein's statement that "when young people are given meaningful responsibility and meaningful contact with adults, they quickly rise to the challenge, and their “inner adult” emerges." As an example, we can look at the performance of American soldiers during WW I and WW II. By and large, our forces consisted of young men between the ages of 18 and 25, with some fraction of the soldiers entering the military as young as age 15 due to the lack of ability to track actual dates of birth. These young men performed admirably in what is arguably the most stressful human endeavor.

I also agree with the statement that "Teenagers are inherently highly capable young adults; to undo the damage we have done, we need to establish competency-based systems that give these young people opportunities and incentives to join the adult world as rapidly as possible." Most of the play that youth engage in is simulation of adult activities. In addition, a competency-based system would allow youths of differing abilities to advance at the rate of their own capability, rather than being pushed through the system of moving up by grade along with one's age peers regardless of one's success or failure with the material being taught.

prl writes:

Coincidentally, I recently have read an (I think) insightful essay related to this subject.

The author starts out on the subject "why nerds are unpopular in high school ?" and, interestingly enough, comes to pretty much the same conclusions as you.

(By the same author, related to school, I also liked this one a lot)

Bill writes:

I've believed this for years. I was a highly successful student, yet I hated school. Many of my teachers were boring, authoritarian, and poorly educated. Some were not. Kiddie jail or glorified daycare (AKA compulsory education) should be banned. I love teenagers for their potential; I hate teenagers for their actions. People should behave like adults by age 14. They have the ability, but the culture retards it.

I just want to say that I appreciate all this support. It's been an uphill battle getting this book published. The (false) idea that teens are inherently irresponsible and incompetent is pushed by many powerful forces in America, most recently by people quite fraudently claiming that teen turmoil is the inevitable result of a "teen brain" (see my new article, "The Myth of the Teen Brain," in Scientific American Mind). For more info, visit

arthas writes:

For me the question of whether teenagers are incompetent or immature to handle "real world responsibilities" is a no brainer. As the author pointed out

Teenagers are inherently highly capable young adults;.... give these young people opportunities and incentives to join the adult world as rapidly as possible.

The eventual question is what to do with so many competent young people. They need jobs, responsibilities and promotion. Alas! Most of the modern organizations dont create sufficient job opportunities as they need to keep employed the 20/30/40/50/60 some. Depending upon the content of work, adults of 20some with super high IT literacy are as much productive as older employees in 40'some. The current system of school, college and university fits perfectly in the situation by segmenting people into different categories and directing them to available jobs, even if such jobs are brain dead. More than the qualification, an Ivy league degree serves exactly to segment people into different categories.. and the lesser known degrees/ education creates a continuum for segmentation till the level of manual workers. Thus, I see no possibility of change.

Daniel Lurker writes:


Just because signalling is powerful doesn't mean that it follows that reform at the margin is impossible. Strong as the signal of getting into Harvard may be it is imperfect (eg. Ted Kazinzki vs Bill Gates.). Of course we can tax education as Bryan has suggested or at least stop subsidizing it.

Profit maximizing firms would love to have very young blooded programmers (or skilled workers of any stripe), they just can't. I can only think of one example of a teen friend who's highly competent and got to use his IT knowledge, and that was in a state internship program because government can ignore its own standards.

If not all societies infantalize adolescence and worship education, as has been suggested I see a lot of potential for change in the long run. We just need to change American mores and get ideas out. Economists are bad at this, but I think the public views psychologists as inherently more human and authoritative. A mind IS a terrible thing to waste, especially when its owner could care less about Etruscan civilization and be raking in the dough in a more merit based system.

I'm happy to see Dr. Epstein's book out.

Giovanni writes:

This is still merely useful insights rather than a ready to roll policy change that it hints at.

However, I'll still preorder the book as soon as I can.

Giovanni writes:

so does this mean I could've stayed home for 4 years? Do I remember what I learned in HS? Only the subjects I was interested in, you can axe out science, some math, gym, health, english. yet I remember History, Economics and hmm some Programming classes but I think Students loose the meaning of learning because they aren't learning what they want or have a course they can focus on as in College.

a example of this is reading a book for english class that has been assigned to you. did anyone even read it? I never read the assigned books but read my own books and started reading assigned books in college.

Fundamentalist writes:

Dr. James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, has been saying the same thing for two decades. Dobson clames that adolescence is a modern invention that does nothing but prolong childhood and promote irresponsible behavior. Based on how many college students act, I would guess that college performs a similar function for all but a few students.

Fundamentalist writes:

PS, Farmers and ranchers have known this all along. Teenagers raised on farms show a remarkable amount of maturity compared to their town-raised contemporaries. Farm-raised kids start working an an early age and are often driving pickup trucks and very expensive farm machinery by the age of 12. They learn responsibility early by taking care of several farm animals. I was city-raised, but my rancher grandfather starting teaching me to drive one of his tractors when I was 10.

TGGP writes:

I was a teenager just a few months over two years ago, and by my memory teenagers WERE irresponsible and incompetent. Perhaps it is just the result of them not having been given the role of an adult but an adolescent though.

TGGP writes:

Dr. Robert, I am inclined to your view, but something on the front page of your website seems odd to me. It mentions a "unique" test you have created and that adults and teenagers have the same score on it. Shouldn't the worth of a test be how well it discriminates? How do we know if your adultness test is any good unless it, say, predicts later behavior by the test-taker?

Tom West writes:

I think that Dr. Epstein is almost certainly correct, but is fighting a far stronger force than he may understand.

What is the difference between responsibility and make-work? If you fail your responsibility, there are consequences. Long lasting, quite possibly fatal and often life-damaging consequences.

Most adolescents will indeed blossom upon being given meaningful responsibility. But some will fail.

Unfortunately, we have a deep drive to protect our children. It's built into our brains in the lowest level. But the only way of protecting our children from damaging failure is to protect them from responsibility to the extent that we can.

And as our society grows wealthier and wealthier, it becomes easier and easier to protect our children for longer and longer. Evolution didn't design for modern societies. The mechanism that propels us to protect our children never conceived of the possibility that we could protect them for so long that we could damage them, just as the mechanism that causes us to crave fats and sweet foods never conceived of the possibility that they'd be so plentiful that it could kill us.

Every evolution of our educational system in modern times has been towards protecting children from long term consequences. And we've done that because that's the drive of parents and people as a whole.

If we are going to change society to hand back responsibility to adolescents, then we have to be prepared for the occasional consequences of catastrophic failure of that responsibility. (And just to emphasize: if there is no possibility of catastrophic failure, then there is no real responsibility.)

That is the challenge that we face in changing society. Every fiber of our being is saying "protect the children" and when 1,000 adolescents face unhappy fates that could have been prevented, there will every impulse to say it outweighs 10,000,000 successful youngsters.

But if those who support this movement fail to acknowledge that there *will* be catastrophic failures, then they blind themselves to the weapon that will destroy their goal of making adolescents meaningful human beings.

(And yes, I've seen drives towards meaningful tests in education founder again and again because proponents cannot acknowledge that not everyone will rise to meet the challenge. These drives instantly lose the first time that large numbers of children suffer real long-term consequences for failure to perform.

This failure to acknowledge consequences usually occurs because there's a general belief that people "can't handle the truth" and would never adopt the policy if one acknowledged the costs. There's some vague hope that when the reality does occur it won't be a problem. Of course when the down-side of such policies do occur and thus real children are facing real consequences, such policies become impossible to defend if you haven't acknowledged the possibility of consequences in the first place.

My feeling is that if you cannot persuade people to adopt such policies when the costs are only on paper, you are certain to fail when the costs become real.)

Deckerd writes:

The education industry is a multi-billion dollar special interest group. Most US federal elected officials received significant campaign support from the teacher's unions and other educational monetary interests.

As abysmally stupid as our form of adolescence has become, it is set in stone! It can only be changed around the edges----homeschools, internet schools, combined work skill/school skill programs, etc.

Dropouts who go on to be successful may have discovered the secret all on their own.

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