Deschooling Society

Prologue

Today I spent the entire day sitting in a crowded room at the San Diego County office so I could get Medi-Cal health insurance. Spoiler: I still don’t have health insurance and I’m waiting for a supervisor to approve me sending further paper documents to Sacramento which may take more than a month. I will probably just get private insurance at this point.

Only reason I was there is because the case worker I was working with for over a month via email disappeared right before completing my application. My online application now in a state of limbo pending “further requirements” without any detail on what those requirements were.

You see a lot in 3.5 hours in the SD County Office. The anger, shouts against the “system”, $13/hour is not enough to raise a family, how people don’t want hire former veterans. A younger woman even shouted out: “If we don’t speak out now, then our children won’t have anything to eat”.

Since I knew the process would take a while, I brought a book with me. Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich — it’s a short book that talks about the issues of modern centralized institutions, in particular the modern education system. I’ve been reading a lot of stuff written by Nassim Taleb, Michael Goldstein and Saifedean Ammous where they echoed similar ideas that really resonated with me — here they are in writing.

I have issues with the healthcare system in the US but I’m no expert on it but I do consider myself knowledgeable enough about the education system to talk about its serious flaws.

TL;DR: Self education with the internet > Any university

Flaws of the Modern Educational System

The school system today performs the threefold function common to powerful churches through history. It is simultaneously the repository of society’s myths, the institutionalization of the myth’s contradictions, and the locus of the ritual which reproduces and veils the disparities between myth and reality — Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society

  • It takes a long time — I spent 12 years in the same place for primary and high school education, 4 years in undergrad and 2 years in a masters program. 18 years in total of studying that were supposed to prepare me for the real world. Whether it prepared me is questionable but it can definitely be compressed drastically. Modern education is the longest initiation rite in history so it’s worth looking at a it critically.
  • It’s expensive — The internet has made it easier than ever to educate people at scale so why does it cost 50K to study at Harvard? You can buy a Raspberry Pi with 4GB of RAM, an HD monitor, keyboard and mouse for 200 dollars and learn anything you want.
  • In service of administrators not students or professors— every new donation to a university needs a fund manager, an office assistant, an office, a bookshelf with a few encyclopedias and biographies of important people. Wages for administrators at universities have soared to above 6 figures for jobs that involve copying data from one excel spreadsheet to another. PhD and Professor wages have stagnated which is why we’re seeing a brain drain of the best computer science faculty to industry.
  • It’s about signaling not education — Because Harvard prices itself like a luxury good where scarcity determines value not quality. Harvard could easily double their enrollment to serve the community at a larger scale but the alum would complain that the value of their degree is being devalued. It’s zero sum.
  • Publishing business is a scam — Publishing made sense when paper was expensive and you needed to ship books online. Journals that provide exposure for 500 dollars will not exist for much longer. Granted some publishers have high standards with top research but most of that research also ends up on arxiv.org. Ideas rot without being exposed to the real world.
  • It’s competitive — I often hear, but you need to rank people to see who is doing a good job. The idea is that competition would force you to work hard. This is a bad analogy which applies only to sports — most business, technical or artistic work involves working with and drawing ideas from other people. Competition is toxic in the real world.
  • Institutions don’t solve inequalities , technology does— equality is a worthy goal, it’s true not all parents are as rich or smart as each other, shouldn’t all kids get an equal shot? It’s impossible to correct inequality centrally but computers at least make it possible for anyone to become an expert at anything. Something governments and universities have failed to do for centuries now.
  • Depends on country of birth — I still vividly remember how when I was an undergrad in Lebanon applying for tech jobs abroad I got 0 answers back. But 1 week after being in the US as a student UCSD all of a sudden all the tech companies I applied to at least got back to me, some even told me my projects looked “amazing”. This is a side effect of the credential and prestige game where some countries have a lot less prestige than others.
  • Limited peer group and professor pool — Back when libraries were still relevant and knowledge was really limited to a few people, it made sense to travel across the world to go learn from them. Today you can find any academic you admire on Twitter, Github or Hacker News and ask them questions or references. If enough of your interests match you’ve found a peer. If they happen to also live close to you then you can meetup IRL with coffee and a book.
  • There are more efficient ways to babysit — but who is gonna look after the kids when I’m at work? I’ve talked to a bunch of parents that have home-schooled and they tell me that they go through stuff together for 2 hours a day not 8 hours!
  • Best content is already cheap or free — especially in programming and math there’s a gigantic body of amazing references for beginners and experts for free online. You don’t need to pay someone to explain something to you from a book, you can just buy the book
  • There are no basics that everyone needs to know — according to my high school, basic history included details of the political system in France under Louis XIV, I’ve forgotten this and countless other useless facts. I pretty much just remember the stuff I was already interested in.
  • Everyone is interested in something, study that — it’s hilarious how little my interests have changed since I was a kid. I loved computers, robots and video games and I still do today. It took my 28th birthday for me to get the courage to finally start thinking for myself and study what was engaging me.
  • No Skin in the Game — your university gets a check regardless of whether you eventually get one. If I was really rich, I would borrow the VC model for education where I would fund young promising researchers and mentor them in software projects I would then get equity from.
  • Career counseling is a joke — one of my best friends still remembers the time a career counselor laughed at his dream of being a genetic engineer, he’s a consultant sadly now. Career counselors are often rarely successful themselves so why should you take their advice? You can get top career advice from rich and successful people online for free.
  • Lectures are boring — Lectures were the standard when books used to cost as much as a house. You needed a wealthy donor or institution to purchase them and share them with others orally. Printing books is no longer expensive so there’s no reason for us to hold on to this relic anymore.
  • Curriculums are politically charged — My school had 2 hours of religious study a week, I would have preferred to study something else. My history classes included no mention of the Lebanese Civil War which was the single most impactful historical event on my and my family’s life. It was considered too “controversial”, I grokked the basics of the war when I was 28 years old by researching independently.
  • Splits Reality and Theory— Homework rarely resembles work you’d do in the real world so why do it? Why get a grade? Projects are way more engaging and rewarding. Instead of working on thousands of pointless symbol pushing exercises where you compete with your peers for gold stars you could either work on a real project where you’d have to learn a ton of theoretical stuff anyway.
  • Measures the wrong thing — if your exam requires you to understand the French revolution but right now you’re really into Machine Learning then your efforts don’t matter as far as your grades are concerned, you’re interested in the wrong thing. Measuring the wrong thing produces short term thinkers that become very capable at passing BS tests like the SAT instead of people who can actually produce useful stuff.
  • Procrastination is information — If you procrastinate you’re labeled as lazy but I think the lazy label should be reserved for people with 0 interests. I’ve met 0 people in my life with 0 interests so if you find yourself always procrastinating on something, listen to your gut, odds are you don’t want to or don’t care about doing it

Epilogue

Centralized bureaucracies will have a hard time surviving the internet and will be replaced by cheaper and more efficient decentralized alternatives.

Bureaucrats → Engineers & Artists

Central banks → Bitcoin

Wall Street → Small scale VC

Pharmaceuticals → Exercise and Nutrition

Media → Social Media

Schools → Homeschooling

Homeschooling doesn’t mean you spend your entire day staring at a computer screen devoid of all human contact. You can still have peers you meet with regularly. Parents don’t have to inherit the burden of coaching all subjects and can draw experts from their social groups to help people learn specific skills like Programming, Trading, Cooking etc.. Homeschooling is not about eliminating social interaction, it’s about only keeping the meaningful ones.

School is the first bureaucracy that most people experience. While the prestige and credentials matter to get a high paying bureaucratic job today , it won’t matter too much when bureaucratic jobs will cease to exist.

Check out my book

My book the Robot Overlord Manual is a summary of many of things I’ve learnt over the past 1.5 years while I was figuring out how to build robots at home. In some sense, it’s the book I wish I had when I was getting started — my hope is that more people draw inspiration from my story and learn how to become researchers without going through bureaucratic institutions.

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