The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Do Adults Really Not Remember School Sucked?

One of the constant refrains which has bemused me during the pandemic is all the people saying how much kids want to go back to school.


This has struck me as crazy, because I don’t seem to have childhood amnesia. I didn’t like school, and I remember that almost no kid I ever met, even those who did, preferred school to days off.

But I shrugged until I read this teacher’s account of asking her students how their time off was.

Surprise, almost all of them were happy they had had the pandemic time off.

School is, well, mostly bad. It teaches things slowly, it mostly trains obedience, and it’s a social horror show. When we say social dynamics are like high school, we never mean anything good, and there are dozens of movies about how awfully students treat each other.

And most of what is taught in school and university is quickly forgotten. I used to amuse myself by asking recent university grads what they had learned, most of them could barely remember anything. Since I was widely read, often I knew enough to ask basic questions about their discipline, and they wouldn’t know the answers.

School is no different: information which is not used or found important, is lost, and it is lost quickly once the final, externally imposed, exam, is over.

Parents want their children to go back to school because it’s a babysitting service, and since we’re not paying parents to stay home, they need someone to take care of their kids. And yes, some may be falling behind or finding distance learning hard, but a decent system could make that up well enough.

But the idea that the kids themselves miss school, except in the sense that they can’t see their friends (which is pandemic related, and if it’s not safe to see them outside of school it isn’t safe to see them in school) is laughable.

It’s fairly obvious that the way we do school is terrible. It doesn’t teach knowledge quickly; the knowledge isn’t retained well, it destroys curiosity and natural desire to learn and it mostly has the effect of making children who should be outside running around into good little slaves: people who have learned to sit down, shut up, and do what teacher (or later, boss) says, the way they want it done.

It’s a wage-slave factory and that students come out with some actual knowledge is a secondary issue (if it wasn’t, effective illiteracy statistics wouldn’t be constantly  high.)

Effective traumatic conditioning makes you pretend that you enjoyed it. And that’s what school is: a way of taking the juice of life out of you and destroying your ability to make independent decisions and love learning.

We forget that, because what was done to us was horrible and all our trusted adults were onside with it. So as with horrible parents, we have to pretend they did it because they loved us.

Maybe they did, since they think being a slave is good, since most of them (us) are slaves, and we must believe that whatever we do is good.

But, at the least, let us not forget something simple. Most kids prefer not being at school to being at school. And if you have honest recollection of your childhood, you probably did too.

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Explosive Growth, Vaccines And Covid Variants


Open Thread


  1. Adam Eran

    A cautionary note about speedy learning:

    From Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein:

    “…learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.” p.11 (emphasis added)

    “…it is difficult to accept that the best learning road is slow, and that doing poorly now is essential for better performance later. It is so deeply counterintuitive that it fools the learners themselves, both about their own progress and their teachers’ skill.” p.90

    That’s one truth of Aesop’s Tortoise and Hare tale…!

  2. popper

    IDK, I quite enjoyed my elementary school years. High school was fun becuase I slept on a couch all day in the hall since I went to SPED school. Public high school sounds like an absolute nightmare.

  3. js

    I hear reports of kids crying when faced with online learning lessons. Of course this may have more to do with being left on their own with online lessons than with non-online (actual) school being any good. If parents are working from home, and don’t have a job that can be completely goofed off on, the parents may be physically there, but the kids ARE being pretty much left on their own with their online lessons.

    When we think back to hating going to school, we think back to long summers of childhood where maybe nothing much was expected of us at all. But being expected to learn and complete online lessons isn’t that.

    And yes how I hated the return of school, how I hated “back to school sales”. Growing up it was agony to see all the “back to school sales” being advertised, I was like: yes I know I have to go back to school, it must be done, or it “is what it is” as we learned to say when we became adults, but why rub it in like a month before hand? How does this help? Ah well capitalism, always profiting off our suffering, even then!

  4. kråke

    I got lucky, I guess. Bunch of liberation Carnelites, Jesuits and Sisters of the Whatever. Disciplinarians, the lot of ’em, but not of the humiliation and shame school 9f thought.

    But, yes, the generally Irish/Anglo-Prussian mode of schooling sucked.

  5. Eric Anderson

    It’s function is to condition cultural literacy.
    Here in amurika, the culturally literate have been conditioned to think we all need to work 24/7/365.

    But, our karma seems to run over our dogma.

  6. Neal Oldham

    Online schooling has been challenging for our children. js is dead-on in terms of the online assignments being much more difficult for the children. We’re expecting 8-year-olds to perform office software tasks at the same level as 30-year-olds. Also, children are deprived of their primary social outlet.

    With that all said, I’m glad they’re not exposed to a major infection vector, and I feel like we’re starting to get the hang of the online assignments.

  7. anon

    I did not like school and I did not like most of the people I went to school with from kindergarten to 12th grade. Most of the good memories I have from those days were from summer camp. Regular school should be more like summer camp – more time outdoors, classes that focused on creativity, independent learning projects, and private tutoring. I mentioned this in the survivalist thread, but students would probably enjoy classes that focused on real world survival like gardening, mechanics, DIY projects, and cooking. Home economics classes that teach real life skills are more valuable than a subject like trigonometry unless you are interested in going into engineering or architecture.

  8. Willy

    I liked public grade school.
    I hated parochial junior high.
    I was neutral towards public high school.
    I despised public university because I also had to work to pay tuition.
    I hated my few years of blue collar work, but slowly did come maturation and confidence.
    I enjoyed 2nd time public university, because when I applied myself I competed well.

    In hindsight, my schooling experience depended on many relative factors. My own physical, intellectual and emotional maturity, the quality of teachers, peers, friends and my own parenting, and the degree of tolerance towards sociopathy. But yeah, everybody did suddenly seem to like that Alice Cooper song come summer.

    Today I can’t even do basic algebra by hand, though with review such skills do come back a lot more quickly than I’d learned them. Plasticity, I guess. As a kid I disliked wood shop but enjoyed fantasy novels. Today I enjoy wood shop but dislike fantasy novels. So maybe add “attitudes” to my variables mix.

    The one thing I did miss was experience with sociopathy. In spite of usually being the smallest in class (for genetic and pushy-parent reasons), I never experienced being serially bullied or ruined by malicious rumors. By college graduation I assumed that I was far too likeable and wily to ever be a susceptible target. Years later, competing out in the real world, I repeatedly ignored the warning signs of toxic workplace realities until it was far too late, while my lesser-performing peers usually adapted far more skillfully. No teacher I’d had, had ever taught those kinds of skills.

  9. Joan

    Going to school was a relief for me because my home life was so stressful and suffocating. Thankfully I learned how to survive in a very crowded school, and I found adult allies like the librarian who let me read quietly during lunch and after school until it closed.

    In the linked twitter thread people are talking about how centralized and packed the schools are. Absolutely. It’s worse than a zoo. That was stressful but in a “I’m in prison for a temporary sentence, just survive” kind of mindset, whereas being at home downgraded to “I’m never going to escape this.”

    Starting at age twelve, I spent all of spring applying to free and cheap summer camps around the state that were sponsored by universities and local governments. I’d try to string those two-week stints together so I’d be home as little as possible. I applied to boarding high schools, but for the one I managed to get into that was free, my parents sent in my rejection letter. I remember in elementary school in the summer I would fantasize about going back to school to the extent that I’d write out lesson plans and reenact classes.

    It’s stressful being trapped as a helpless child. I was trapped in a suburb, not allowed to go anywhere, in a super crowded school where physical/sexual harassment regularly happened during passing period. It’s no wonder I entered the wider world as a neurotic adult. Maybe I need to give myself more room to acknowledge that I did eventually find a baseline of normalcy.

    Online school for children sounds like a terrible idea. If I were a parent right now I’d just home school my kids and let them Skype with their friends. That’s assuming I’m not out working; I understand some families can’t do this.

  10. someofparts

    My sister always hated school. The shame of it is that she is brilliant, has an eidetic memory. Got rejected by trade school because her admission scores were too high. They told her to go to college and study engineering.

    She eventually opened her own business and did very well, but high school was all the school she could put up with. I always thought that was an indictment of our schools.

  11. Astrid

    I think it’s possible to have a positive school experience. I went to a magnet high school with very smart, non sociopathic kids and exceptional teachers. A few of my college classes fall into the same category. A good education teaches you how to think, not what to think and certainly not what to regurgitate. I have friends whose kids are attending my old magnet school and they still seem pretty happy. I even retain enough math (my worst subject) to be in the top 10 percentile of every career continuing education class I’ve ever taken. My spouse has a similar experience.

    But I know of no one who prefers school or work to a snow day.

  12. Ché Pasa

    I haven’t been in school for many decades, but I remember most of it, except first grade, very well.

    School sucked? Mmm, some did, yes. I attended 14 or 15 different public schools in California by the time I graduated high school. Different schools because we moved quite often, and sometimes because population was growing so fast, I was sent to the just opened new school from whatever old school I was attending.

    Some of those schools were dreadful for what ever reason. But some weren’t bad, and I found the whole process of education fascinating. There were different approaches, and some schools experimented with the latest new thing — which wasn’t very often a good idea. The rigidity of classes and classrooms was sometimes broken to good effect. We were taught a lot of useless stuff, and the emphasis was always on obedience and conformity, but on the other hand, I went to school when teaching critical thinking, from a very early age, was considered a key component of the curriculum. Sometimes it went “too far.”

    One of my fifth grade teachers got hauled out of the school because he allegedly expressed pro-Communist sympathies. All I recall about the way he taught was that he wanted to make sure we all knew how to critically understand “the news,” that it wasn’t necessarily honest or correct, and that Big Money was behind almost all of it.

    Yes, school was a “day care” for me and some other kids, but most kids had stay-at-home mothers, so the school wasn’t an alternate home for them, like it was at times for me. I also had neighborhood day care givers who mostly just let me do what I wanted and go where I wanted. Given that, school was more like a safe haven.

    So yeah, mixed feelings. And yah, I know the schooling situation had deteriorated substantially since the ’80s and it’s not getting better for most students.

    What to do about it, though?

  13. GlassHammer

    I think I mentioned this before but in the American mind, “school” is mythologized.

    Just a story made of highly exaggerated real events that we tell ourselves and each other.
    The real thing was dull, unpleasant, and full of large spans of time in which nothing of interest happened.

    But… myths keep a thing going far better than an actual accounting of events.

  14. mago

    By the time I hit high school I could articulate what I’d known since grade school, which was we were being programmed and conditioned. And what the curriculum taught I called bread crumb knowledge (and thought I was clever for calling it such.)
    Throughout those twelve years I had teachers who had taught my parents and my older brother, and I was tagged bad news. (There were also some abusive military vet teachers.) My mouth and anti-authoritarianism didn’t help. Mormon country by the way. I was a stoner in a cowboy beer mileau long before stoners were a thing. I could riff on, but to no point.
    However, as an adult I taught a lot of teenagers in unconventional settings, and also became adept at guided online learning back around the time blogs were still a thing.
    I’m sympatico to the plight of students, teachers and parents alike.
    Think I’ll go blast a little Pink Floyd.

  15. Astrid

    I do wonder if this blindness to reality of schooling is related to willingness to procreate. Honestly, even not getting into ethics of bringing kids into climate change and decline, having children these days is incredibly risky financially and careerwise. Wouldn’t you need rose tinted glasses to even attempt such a thing these days? Maybe those with good memory exist but are childless.

  16. bruce wilder

    I was very near-sighted and loved reading, was often bullied by the other kids and pretty much knew everything before it was taught so I am not sure I ever really participated in what might be called the “educational process” of public school. I did learn to type in high school.

    I was rebellious enough to sometimes get sent to the supervised study hall in high school and from boredom much more than sympathy would try to assist mediocre students, who really were punished by the relentlessly remedial and useless textbooks. I campaigned against the biology teacher for choosing a terrible textbook and teaching biology as vocabulary, but people just thought I was disrespectful; the teacher himself (a closeted homosexual with a wife and a son roughly my age that no one seemed to know) did not see the problem with taking the most fascinating subject and reduce it to a labored prerequisite for a course no one would ever take.

    The politics are pretty clear: bad schools are favored by elites as a way of reproducing a rigidly class-based society. There is rarely any interest in reforming the collective care of children in ways that might actually benefit the poor and middling students/children.

  17. Joe

    Great comments. Ian’s audience seems to have a lower reverence for the educative establishment than the mean. It’s good to hear i’m not alone in dismissiveness and dislike of the school system. Often reflecting on the experience, on the waste to our lives and time and energy, i feel pained. Not just for myself but for the waste of potential on so many sprite young people. I wish I could have appreciated school more and had the maturity to get the most out of it. Largely i didn’t know or care what was going on around me in any class. Grades were really somebody else’s trip nothing to do with me. I was present only in physical form. My family was insistent that i learn to fit into the system as a lesson of fitting into society. My never missing a moment of this crucial process was important for them So i went and sat. It’s laughable now when i think about it but my friends and i were all going to be rockstars and get through lives on our wit and coolness. We were bathed in pop culture. Rock and roll concerts and friends were important not school. The fuck you attitude toward society was were myself and my peer group ended up by high schools end. The job market was not impressed. I didn’t take school at all seriously until college when i could take the courses which i found interesting. I continued to go to school into my forties and finally graduated with a B. A’s in art and nature freak studies. It all ended up working out somehow.

  18. Linda Doane

    Absolutely right. On the personal level, the worst educational decision I made was to choose MIT as a graduate school to study Political “Science”, as though there were any science to it and it was not all mafia/CIA/blackmailing & pedophilia/the occult/secret societies/etc. But an actual rational science. And it had to be MIT, not one of several other PhD/grad schools that gave me very generous full funding, tuition waiver, no. I was unaware of a lot in those days, but particularly, I had never heard of trauma-based mind control/torture. And I believe I was, in a certain way, at the least, an institutional victim of it. I did really well there academically, but I consider it perhaps the equivalent of a bad marriage and you can never change the fact that you willingly entered into the agreement.

  19. Heard a recent Jordan Peterson lecture where he said something along the lines of “people remember negative experiences far more than positive experiences”. That resonated with me, because in college, students would mysteriously complain about the food, which I thought was generally excellent. In my graduating year, my university won a national award for best cafeteria food.

    Public school was sufficiently meh for me, that I was happy to graduate early. I mostly wanted out of the home, but the morons who would pee on the radiators in the men’s room, creating a horrible stench in the winter when the heat would come on, didn’t endear me to high school. I assume it was this same class of morons who would stick gum under desks, and rip the doors off bathroom stalls. I also resented it when I overheard my 3rd grade teacher tell a student to teacher to “always give them a little more work than they can handle”. She was talking about busy and rote work, not solving puzzles or something like that.

    School, and my young life, in general, is painful to reflect on because of lost opportunities. It’s quite easy to study and apply yourself when you love a subject or activity. As Krishnamurti said, “The purpose of education is to find what you love to do.”* But I didn’t fall in love with piano, and classical music until I was in my early twenties, so just dabbled when young, in spite of years of lessons. Hardly applied myself to sports, in a serious way, when I was young, partly because again, I didn’t fall sufficiently in love with basketball until my early 20’s. (Have applied myself, ever since, literally for decades. Can shoot jumpers left or right handed, would smoke any player my size who made the team, one on one, too late to make any difference in terms of schoolboy athletics… OTOH, I didn’t force the issue when I was denied permission to join the closest YMCA. So, love for the activty was actually there from a young enough age)

    I could easily have fallen in love with physics before my junior years in HS, having loved it from first exposure, and thus have done self study, say from junior high. (Advanced physics and math is common in high school, overseas.) That wasn’t taught any earlier. OTOH, uncle who lived upstairs was physics/EE graduate, could have given free tutoring, if only I had caught the bug, earlier. Was interested enough in relativity to read a book about it in junior high school, but it wasn’t enough to catch the bug.

    I didn’t fall in love with mathematics until my sophomore year in college. Thought it kind of a strange subject, throughout high school. However, I don’t see how you can get deeply into physics, and not fall in love with math, as you get deeper into it. So, more lost opportunities to use summer days that eventually got so boring, I was eager for school to start, even though I was always glad when the school year ended.

    I blame bad karma for most of the lost opportunities, not the school system. Certainly not the public library, which had college level books on physics and math. Too painful to talk about everything that went wrong, and continued to go wrong, in my life. I will say, though, that even catastrophes that one has gone through, that were unavoidable to one degree or another because of karma, will still provide benefits when integrated into the psyche. I follow Dora Kunz in taking a positive attitude towards whatever the Lords of Karma throw at you.

    Regarding the lockdowns, I think it’s a matter of fact that they’ve been catastrophic for literally millions of American children, and projecting my personal experience over the situation is irrelevant.

    * He actually had more grandiose visions of education. “Krishnamurti often stated that the purpose of education is to bring about freedom, love, “the flowering of goodness” and the complete transformation of society. ” I visited the Krishnamurti center in Ojai, CA, and was favorably impressed with a student from one of his schools. However, we were also (honestly) told that the school experience wasn’t radically different from regular schools, in many respects.

  20. I mostly (and honestly) liked school but don’t pretend that this feeling is in any way universal. I also got lucky by mostly being schooled in non-conventional school formats/environments. I think we will always have some sort of formal mandatory education but yes, the way we do it now sort of sucks.

  21. Mr Jones

    I was rebellious enough to sometimes get sent to the supervised study hall in high school and from boredom much more than sympathy would try to assist mediocre students

    How telling.

  22. StewartM

    I actually liked school, especially high school. But that was because my parents wouldn’t allow much in the way of any social interaction with other kids at home. And Saturday for me was a horrible day, all day we cleaned house and did chores; we tried to sneak in watching Saturday morning cartoons when we could. I can’t say I was asked to do that much, from an adult perspective, but it takes kids four times longer to do something an adult would purposefully do.

    So, compared to that, school was interesting.

    However, I agree with your comments overall. My ideal of schooling would be to make it more like college–there are no grades, only courses, which have prerequisites and you have to fulfill a curriculum to graduate but other than that the selection is yours. The school opens at 6 am until 10 pm, so people can arrange their own times, and it also incorporates adult education, vocational education, and the first two years of college (community college).

    Thus, if you’re a math whiz, say, you can push up to math course scale and find yourself sitting with a college-level class–there’s no need for “AP classes” as the system handles it. Open the door to a computer class, an art or music theory class, or a class on carpentry, you’d see a variety of faces from say 9 to 80 in the class. Kids would learn that learning is a life-long ambition, and moreover with adults in the classes the stupid rules about having to ask to go to the bathroom go out. I would predict that bullying would almost disappear because bullying is mostly limited those of rougly the same peer age; 15 year olds don’t bully 12 years olds when there are adults or older kids to stop it.

  23. elkern

    Always sorry to hear of other’s bad experiences in school systems. I have a few unpleasant memories, but overall, I enjoyed all my school years AND learned a lot (including some stuff that has been important through my life since then).

    I attended public schools in Princeton, NJ, so a critical mass of my school-mates were children of University professors. There are likely both genetic & environmental components to “intelligence”; my classmates had advantages in both. I was surrounded by curious kids with interesting cultural influences, and curiosity – the primary precursor to intelligence – is wonderfully contagious.

    There was apparently a critical mass of intelligent & caring adults, too, because the school system was run pretty well. Of course, I wasn’t involved in School Board stuff, but looking back, it’s obvious that the system hired lots of good teachers, explored modern methods (I actually enjoyed “New Math”), and funded the schools well enough.

    Of course, good funding was possible because the town was rich enough to do it. But I was also lucky to have grown up mostly before the anti-tax revolution and the resurgence of reactionary religious Fundamentalism attacked education in the USA.

    I’m pretty sure my parents chose to move to Princeton largely for the school system, and I’m very grateful for that.

    Unfortunately, I’ve come to see that bad education systems are all too common. Unfortunately, that is ultimately the result of political choices.

  24. Jan Wiklund

    Defintively! Breaking-up in spring was always a joyous liberation – and yet I was a receptive pupil with a memory like a blotting-paper. I can just imagine how it was for those who had to work! I never did, never did a homework, grown-ups never did so why should I?

    Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose said about the same thing (he was born in 1899) in a debate about extending mandatory schooling to nine years in Norway. He finished after six years, and begun to work in a commercial garden. After a year he figured that he had to have some education, and enlisted in a “people’s high school” – a Scandinavian phenomenon of a school run by an voluntary association, e.g. a trade union or a church or in his case, the farmers’ cooperative movement. After a term he had learnt what he should have learnt in the elementary school and a little more. Because this time he had motivation. And the teachers had no power over him.

    Perhaps a good idea to emulate?

  25. Etaoin Shruldu

    I would like to express a contrarian view.

    I attended a private school in Spain. Students who did not do well academically or who bullied others were asked to leave the school. This made the school a reasonably safe place to be. The religious order that ran the school were, in general terms, a group of reasonable men whose driving impetus in life was to make sure we did well in life. On the other side my mother at home was a horrible person.

    At the time, I did not think that what I was taught in school was my education. I always took the view, that the responsibility for my education was mine, and enjoyed many happy hours in our local libraries reading books about topics I found interesting, including anthropology, business and maths. I thought that the advantage of school, was that it brought subjects to my attention that otherwise I would not have read about. Looking back, I like what they taught me about philosophy and history, even if my career path has led me elsewhere.

    I loved going to school. I did not like exams, but I have very fond memories.

  26. Thanks

    Thanks for writing this, I’m glad I’m not alone in thinking this

  27. awesome

    Agree. But, as I’m in an Asian country, most of these parents very emphasize grades. I’m a slow thinker, I always neglect about getting high grades. All I think is to understand that topic well and can explain it to my friend and teacher. Also, apply it into my life by experimenting and so on…

    I only excel on big examination only, just to pass the requirement to pursue university.

  28. Trump’s legal team had a list of over 300 witnesses, including Pelosi, Schumer and Harris.

    Trump’s legal team, basically selected by Trump back-stabber Lindsey Graham (source: Robert Barnes), did the MAGA movement no favor by agreeing not to have any witnesses. If Trump actually cared about the MAGA movement, then it would immediately follow that Trump’s legal team did Trump no favor by agreeing not to have any witnesses. Well, now, that doesn’t seem too likely, does it?

    At the Duran, they’ve expressed the view that McConnell definitely did want impeachment, and had a secret deal with Pelosi and Schumer. McConnell broke the deal because of the blowback by the Republican base. The CNN reporter didn’t mention McConnell as on the Trump team witness list, which is interesting. I have previously expressed the view that I’m not sure whether Graham’s witness threat was directed at McConnell and Pelosi; or primarily at the Democrats.

    It now looks like it was directed primarily at the Democrats, but that still doesn’t mean that Graham and McConnell were on the same page. In Trump’s eyes, it must look like McConnell is the bad cop, and Graham the good (if back-stabbing) cop.

  29. Keir Fogarty

    Look—I agree that “traditional school” has been largely proven to be an ineffective educational method, but there are so, so many educators (myself included) who constantly seek methods and avenues to make learning fun and engaging for students of every level—I will not deny that politicians, ceos, and people like betsy devos have the cynical mindset you describe, but don’t throw teachers in with that—are there bad teachers? absolutely! but wee could get paid more doing almost any other job—we have a passion for EFFECTIVE, FUN education, and could give two shits about turning kids into wage slaves (the very idea is abhorrent to me)—and, yes, I DID enjoy school

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