The struggle for life

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.

In elementary school, grades were handed out in class in a terrifying monthly ceremony. The same deranged Principal would walk into each classroom in turn holding a thick pile of “livrets scolaires,” individual grade-booklets, rather than simple, one-shot report cards, under his arm. There was one livret per student per year with numerical scores and verbal comments for each subject matter, and a monthly overall ranking of students. The Principal would lay the grade-books upside down, in reverse order of students’ ranking for the month ending hence, lowest-ranking student first.

For several years, every month, without fail, the lowest-ranking pupil and the first on the mental scaffold was a runty, scrawny, rheumy-eyed boy who always sat in the last row, “Colinet.” The Principal would start ranting as he entered the room; his glasses would drop down his nose and he would deliver himself of the same furious tirade at the top of his voice against miserable, crouching Colinet. He was a large middle-aged man whose eyes became globulous when he was angry. He would foam at the mouth and spittle would dribble down his shirt as he promised Colinet the guillotine or worse. Colinet never got used to it. I sure did not. I almost crapped my pants several times although I was sitting near the front row and the Principal was staring over my head, straight at the back of the room, as he yelled and screamed. As he called out names from Colinet to the higher-ranking pupils, he would calm down, his voice would subside, and his comments became briefer. By the time he reached the livret of the tenth-ranker, his manner had become civilized as if there had been no raging storm minutes earlier.

In my family, there was a completely arbitrary rule that only the first six places were acceptable. I think my parents secretly thought only the first five were really acceptable but added the sixth because it made them feel magnanimous. Once the Principal had called out the ninth-ranked name, my body began to relax and I was breathing normally. If the Principal was down to the fifth livret and my name had not come up, the sweet song of victory began ringing in my heart. “Very good, my boy,” the Principal would say in a low, calm voice as he handed me my livret (to be signed by both parents).

The safety of safe spaces

Michelangelo’s recent post on safe spaces has led me to revive an old thought I had. It’s not that safe spaces are bad, other than infantilizing students – they don’t tread on anyone’s rights. The worrisome consequence is censorship, which might arise from building bigger and better safe spaces, until eventually the university wants to consider its entire acreage a safe space, and finally the nation does too.

That concern is very real, especially given that political commentary these days is more tense than ever before, and parties may wish to retreat from every corner of the internet or any social gathering. What I want to analyze here, though, is what actually happens with speech, and the inherent problem of protecting ourselves from speech: that the consequences of words are genuinely up to us.

While developing safe spaces on universities, the idea is bannered around that words hurt, and students on campus need administration-sponsored buildings to provide a comfortable atmosphere to avoid or deal with these infiltrations on their emotional-or-otherwise safety. It’s worthwhile to preface that surely, words do hurt, in a sense; it would be ignorant to suppose that vocalizations never have any traumatic impact on the listening party. And that safe spaces are instrinsically tied to minority representation and protection is a claim irrelevant to what the actual message broadcasted by these miniature creations is: again, words hurt, and are somehow a tool of oppression.

It is politically advantageous to think of words as tools of oppression, as I noted with my experience in a multicultural and gender studies class. Attaching the label “oppressive” to an action in the cultural geist makes it far less difficult to get people to rally against that action, or even get it prohibited. However, though words might be useful tools for oppressors, the linguistic oppression is always in a very material way defended and perpetuated by the would-be oppressee.

Let’s think about messages and symbolism. There is no meaning attached externally to an object – only internal, psychological meaning(s) inside of individuals. (These might arise culturally, habitually or traditionally.) Without an existent population of individuals proclaiming that a word means something, the arrangement of squiggly lines given an arbitrary pronounciation has no relevance or meaning. If a word is antiquated it has no meaning (though it may once have, but only for an extant population). I know this position on language might be aggressively denied by some thinkers that commit themselves to this arena, but I think this formulation is adequate for now being common sensical. If it is incorrect, it is at least relevant for my main explanation of why safe-spaces are ridiculous (following Robert Nozick’s analysis of explanations, it could be thought of as a fact-defective potential explanation).

Following my point, in a very real sense, both persons make deliberate decisions through vocalization. It’s obvious that “faggot” or “dyke” are worthless without people to identify them – whether you’re an internalist or externalist with language, this formulation will still hold, thus the simplistic and applicable definition. But it is perhaps less obvious that the meaning of these words is most critical from the person that listens to their proclamation, as opposed to the enunciator.

The listener has to want the word or phrase to mean whatever it means to him or her, and want their meaning to keep. If “faggot” is a prejorative term for a homosexual man to a listener, L, it reflects his desire that “faggot” remain this vulgarity. L’s desire to interpret a word surely does not change the intention of the orator, S, in saying it. Yet if S is speaking with intent to curse provocatively, this curse – passing as a wave form to L’s ears – and its reception is wholly dependant on L’s conscious attention. There isn’t a meaning embedded in the sound wave; there isn’t a meaningfulness-mesh suffused throughout Earth’s atmosphere that attaches purposefully to human undulations that disturb it. Meaning is in S… meaning is broken as the vocalization travels… and a meaning is conceived in L. Meaning isn’t revived, resusitated or reinvigorated in L: it is wholly created anew from his brain. There is a direct, physical connection from S’s oral exercise and L’s auditory reception, but no such connection exists between S and L’s brains where meaning exists. Thus, each person creates it fresh and idiosyncratically. It is always an effort of both parties to communicate meaning.

Given this understanding, seeking protection from words is ineffective. This is not said in ignorance of some of the social research that discloses the power of words as comparable to physical violence. It has been shown that lashing out vocally can cause trauma, perhaps even on par with getting physical. Verbal abuse, the height of dangerous speech, is not the proper nor stated enemy of university safe spaces, however. Safe spaces outlaw any range of contrasting opinions, and controversial dialogue, whereas verbal abuse is, inherently, abusive, and in some degree illegal. Verbal abuse, though it might contain the same and worse prejoratives as any ordinary, disrespectful speech, is legitimately dangerous, and in a sense implies a relationship between the speaker and listener that is absent in the latter type of speech. If cajoled on the streets for wearing a short skirt, one is not verbally abused, but instead harassed (and only harassed if the speech is continuous). Regular encounters with strangers might be distressing and unpleasant, not to mention obnoxious, but they linger in an area of the violence spectrum far below verbal abuse. The verbal encounters a student has at a university with a speaker or faculty member rarely ever constitute abuse, and safe spaces are set up to avoid/deal with these encounters; so safe spaces do not deal with verbal abuses but rather arguments and disagreements.

This sort of analysis seems to assume an innate stoic element to persons, so that emotional reactions are wholly within their rational control. The intention is not to claim that veterans with post-traumatic stress, or victims of violent rape, are willing their capacity to be triggered by speech – that they are entirely complicit in their ongoing trauma. With the analysis it seems more likely that persons with genuine inabilities to “get over” distressing speech have a mental blockage that precedes the verbalization of S. While an untraumatized person has to make an effort to conceive the meaning originally intended by S, war veterans might be triggered by references that are beyond, in some way, their ratiocination; to be consistent with the rest of the reasoning here, we can say they can’t choose to choose a separate meaning.

In discussing persons that speak contrasted to persons that listen, the word “listen” is specifically important. It might have seemed appropriate, at the beginning, to portray the one that does not speak as the “receiver” as opposed to “listener”; after all, with active listening painted as a narrow skillset in behavioral sciences or therapy, far beyond simple hearing, we might not want to apply this connotational activity to the person on the receiving end of a profanity (in order to up-play that person’s role as inactive victim). Hopefully now, the importance of “listener” is clear: the receiver is indeed always L when words hurt, or when any meaning whatsoever is left intact among the orator and audience.

Now, safe spaces are a better alternative to no-platforming speakers with controversial or simply oppositional viewpoints. They are echo chambers that stifle novel opinions, for sure, but as long as their participation is voluntary, they pose no real issue.

But they cannot be justified by recourse to “protection from oppressive speech,” or buffer from profiling hate speech. Verbal abuse is almost never an occurrence at university events, and the maxim that speech somehow, as a singular action of the speaker, causes mental or emotional damage has been refuted. Unless all the people arguing the need for a safe space genuinely suffer from post-traumatic stress or another disorder which limits their ability to choose to choose, their claim for safety is far less strong than it might seem to be.

Gogol Bordello and Multiculturalism

Donald Trump is about to be President of the United States. Trump’s victory is the result of a great plethora of political and cultural attitudes. It is not a “white-lash” (both candidates failed to attract the hispanic and black audience); it is not because America is, beneath the diverse veneer, intrinsically racist, sexist, xenophobic, islamophobic, homophobic, etc., etc.; it’s not simply that Bernie might have won had the DNC not been skewed in Hillary’s favor, nor is Trump’s unexpected win simply a retaliation from general conservatives after a double Democratic term. One of the largest elements in Trump’s victory is the cultural shift toward political correctness, and the backlash from not only conservatives but apolitical entities as well. People on the left won’t understand (except maybe accelerationist Marxists), but the infiltration of academia by progressive ideas, the shifting of institutions into liberal political pandering, and the emerging call for the repression of free speech has bent a great migration of non-Republican and nonpartisan minds into the Trump vote.

Establishment-left politicians are effectively finished after the failed Clinton campaign, just like the old-school GOP is finished following the election of their ugly duckling. What emerges from the left wing will most likely be more radical and extreme than Donald was to his political label. The movements all function under one shared umbrella, one unlikely to back down now that its worst nightmare is in charge for four years. Moving on from these facts, and recognizing that political correctness is a feature of the direction of left politics in general, I’ll comment on my first real experience with the anti-neoliberal left.

As a freshman in college, I took an introduction to Multicultural and Gender Studies course (the sheer fact that cultural, ethnic studies and gender/sex studies are combined implies the sort of ideological commitments necessary to teach these classes). My professor, unlike many in the major, let us be led into her viewpoints, rather than beginning sharply from her own and forcing us to abruptly commit or retaliate (as happens in Political Scienc classes). This approach is more gentle, more clandestine, leading to a greater deal of brainwashing. A few weeks in, she asked, “What is race?” I answered promptly, “a social construction.” MCGS155 was, in a sense, the first class I became utterly submissive to my teacher, and participated at any opportunity. When asked, “What is gender?” I vocally distinguished between the genitalia (sex) between our legs, and the identity in our heads. Thus far, the beliefs I was committed to then are the same I possess now.

Over the semester, however, I was taught lessons that were more sinister, more nefarious, and at times wholly offensive to the reality of the world. When my professor explained that she needed a male professor to negotiate her wages at my university (because women are not taught how to negotiate or argue, while men are tacitly trained to be argumentative and authoritative), I thought it made perfect sense, and it does. Then I was asked, gradually, to believe all women’s experiences were like this, all the time. Gender and racial monoliths began a glacial formation. Through the acceptance of small-scale experiences, a larger picture began to manifest in my mind: that of systematic discrimination and, eventually, oppression.

Prior to taking the multicultural and gender studies course, the word “oppression” was rare to encounter, especially when applied to a contemporary setting. Oppression was what the victims of Transatlantic slavery faced, for me. Indeed, outside of academia and far-left politics, that’s what oppression is: forced servitude. When leftist vocalizations of “oppression” take to the social field, the primary apolitical connotation is slavery, and so slapping the label on our government or culture can only arouse the most sincere feelings of empathy and rage. “Oppression” was used in my class to describe the conditions under which any and all minorities live in the United States. Using such an authoritative word, I began to understand American society as functioning modern-day slavery. Toni Airaksinen points out that women’s studies classes are built on the conjectures of “patriarchy, intersectional oppression, and social constructionism.” To note that “oppression” does not realistically describe any specific group’s position in American society would be to upset my professor, the major, and an entire national field of study.

The epitome and eventual product of my brainwashing was an extended argumentative essay, in which I concluded that Gogol Bordello was, among other things, cultural appropriation, offensive to diasporadical cultures, faux-ethnically inclusive, and, in some mystical sense, racist. I argued that Funkadesi (a South African-styled, funk/hip hop group liked by Obama) was the true gender and cultural warrior. As a teenager I used to enjoy Gogol Bordello as fun, raunchy music; within three months, however, I’d called them “insincere,” “promoting global fornication” with a “condescending attitude of hemispherical and cultural superiority.” My class, effectively, destroyed the fun in life.

Even as I wrote the anti-Bordello essay (calling Eugene Hütz a “homogenizer”), I felt that what I was arguing was somehow off. When I hung out with friends, friends who enjoyed Gogol Bordello, my conscience nagged that I ought to confront its problematic elements and put an end to their uninformed participation in oppression; another part of me, more internal and sensible, told me uninformed participation is a staple of human aesthetic enjoyment, and launching into a leftist tirade was not only off-kilter but immoral and misanthropic. After I passed the class I learned to reneg the Anglo-Saxon hatred and reinterpret Gogol Bordello not as cultural offensive, but culturally celebratory, inclusive, and self-aware. 

An element, one that I now consider essential to far-leftist politics, that dominated the course was its utter lack of appreciation for any actual social progress throughout history. This is done singularly and topically. In the beginning of class, we discussed the image of America as a “melting pot”; this ideal was rejected in the 1980s as assimilative: the Western Caucasian template would dominate the pot, as minority groups lost their identities (i.e., globalization). The great celebration of the census bureau that we might all mix together our distinctions and emerge more wholesome was decimated by my professor’s politics. Then, we discussed multiculturalism: instead of the stew of the melting pot, American immigrancy and citizenship would come together as a mosaic or kaleidoscope, with our distinctions still celebrated even as we learned to function together. Multiculturalism, for the second third of my semester, seemed enlightened: different groups would no longer be processed into a Western canon. However, this too was to fail as equally problematic. (Those of you outside of culture and gender studies who might think multiculturalism is still upheld as the ideal, guess again.) My teacher proposed that our society must enter something like a post-multicultural state. Multiculturalism was too tokenizing, too uninformed, too patronizing; somehow, the Caucasians had won again, and we had to move on to new philosophical horizons.

This tradition of dissatisfaction with formerely satisfying solutions is across the board with modern leftist movements. Just lately, a (brilliantly un-self aware) Guardian writer Zoe Oja Tucker wrote about college-aged men being severely punished for a sexist sheet of paper, all while desperately holding on to an ideology that says this sort of punishment is culturally nonexistent. The far-left has been eating itself alive for a while, like when Canadian Black Lives Matter protesters shut down a Gay Pride parade. One might suspect that post-multiculturalism will be answered by a sort of apartheid, and indeed, that seems to be the case with new segregationist options offered for minorities. (The pre-Civil Rights are back, but the positions have switched.) Meanwhile, by squabbling over increasing theoretical accuracy, legitimate gains that have been made are seen as neutral events, or political façades for continued oppression. Thus, the entrenched Marxist doctrine (which informs much of the left’s perception of politics nowadays) that society is composed of only two groups, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, at once twists into the cultural Marxism of “oppressor” and “oppressed,” and simultaneously loses its secondary category to internal disputes over minute aspects of the ideology itself, enlarging at once the first, privilege-possessing class. Progress in women’s rights, gay rights, etc. are even seen as PR-masks for the real tyranny – that of capitalism – by Marxists. So when law is passed specifically to aid the working class, not even this can satisfy the theory of endless, eternal oppression. The dissatisfaction with solutions is also seen with Marxists’ continued rejection of campaign voting: even though an increase in the third-party vote would alter American politics for the next campaign, Marxists across the board have rejected participation, dismissing the entirety of presidential elections as a corporate charade. (In essence, never doing anything for their own progression. Yet this dead philosophy hangs on.)

Leftist political scientists don’t care about legitimate social progress, because the great bureaucracy of professionalized philosophy requires tedious publishing year after year, and if ever theoretical perfection (or genuine satisfaction) were reached, the opportunity for tenure is lost. Thus, utter shit is churned out, like studies on online drinking photos promoting “regimes of gendered power,” dildos as tools of oppression, critical analyses on testicles, or studies on how to convince young women they are systematically oppressed. Freud would probably have castrated himself before he saw his methodology used for such off-base and imbecilic purposes today.

Feminism fought and won victories: in its first wave for voting rights, in its second for sexual freedom and abortion rights. It is not fighting for equally protecting legislation anymore. It is now fighting a culture war, and the only way to fight a culture is by seeking to replace it with a new ideology, and there is no immediate reason to assume the new one will be better than the old one. Third-wave feminism might best be described with a quip occasionally offered by its constituents: “if you’re not offended, you’re not paying attention.” (Or: “if you’re not finding oppression: look harder.”) Thus, the quality of “uninformity,” i.e. ignorance, discussed earlier, so despised by leftists and attributed to any of their opponents, is reckoned as the price to pay for not being enraged all the time. We must be offended constantly, or risk ignorance; this sort of position, of course, propels the lack of satisfaction with actual social progress, disturbs the sense of civil mobility, and leads to a rejection of enjoyment of almost anything.

Porque privatizar (ou desestatizar) o ensino é uma das melhores reformas que se pode fazer

Talvez seja somente uma percepção subjetiva sem maior relevância objetiva, mas a impressão que tenho é que a privatização do ensino é um dos maiores tabus da sociedade brasileira. Até onde eu sei nenhum partido, figura política ou figura pública de destaque está defendendo a privatização total do ensino no Brasil. Segundo as notícias que chegam até mim, o recente anúncio de corte de gastos na educação causa uma de duas reações: indignação ou pesar. Alguns reagem com indignação, e não aceitam que qualquer corte seja feito; outros reagem com pesar, mas consideram que os cortes são necessários. Ditas estas coisas, penso que cabe a mim agir como Walter Block e “defender o indefensável”: o governo (ou o estado – use o vocabulário que lhe convir) não deveria ter qualquer papel na educação. Para isso irei expor brevemente o que é economia, como ela funciona, e o que isso tem a ver com governo, indivíduos e educação. É uma exposição breve, e pode deixar alguns pontos pouco desenvolvidos. Para uma exposição mais profunda deste tema, recomendo o livro Educação: Livre e Obrigatória, de Murray Rothbard.

Economia é a gestão de recursos necessariamente escassos que possuímos. Os recursos são necessariamente escassos porque somos seres humanos finitos, e não deuses. Alguns paradigmas econômicos (notoriamente o marxismo) partem de um pressuposto de abundancia de recursos, mas isto é falso e até mesmo perigoso: até mesmo o homem mais rico do mundo tem somente 24 horas no seu dia. Tem somente um corpo, e não pode estar em dois lugares ao mesmo tempo. Tem energia limitada, e fica cansado. Todos nós possuímos recursos limitados (ainda que alguns possuam mais recursos à sua disposição do que outros). A economia é a arte de melhor gerir estes recursos.

A gestão dos recursos limitados que possuímos é feita através de escolhas. O nome que os economistas dão a isso é “custo de oportunidade”: a não ser que você detenha infinitos recursos, gastar em uma coisa significa não gastar na segunda melhor alternativa. Exemplos: comprar o carro A significa não comprar o carro B; morar na cidade X significa não morar na cidade Y; casar com Z significa não casar com W; e escolher a carreira α significa não escolher a carreira λ. Como disse um antigo professor meu, “a vida é feita de escolhas”.

Considerando que possuímos recursos finitos e precisamos fazer escolhas, qual é mecanismo mais eficiente para tomar decisões? Certamente muitas pessoas gostariam de tomar decisões com base nos seus gostos pessoais. Gostariam de escolher aquilo de que mais gostam. Porém, aquilo de que mais gosto nem sempre está ao meu alcance. Exemplos: ainda que eu goste mais de uma Ferrari do que de um fusquinha, talvez eu precise me contentar com a segunda opção. Ou ainda que eu queira viajar, talvez eu tenha que me contentar em pagar o tratamento para um problema de saúde que acabei de descobrir que tenho. É por coisas assim que a economia ficou conhecida como “ciência triste”. Muitas vezes ela está aí para lembrar que nem sempre podemos ter o que queremos. Dito isto, a melhor forma de tomar decisões é pelos preços: os preços nos dizem se aquilo que desejamos é compatível com os recursos disponíveis.

Os preços são geralmente definidos em termos de dinheiro. Dinheiro é melhor definido por aquilo que faz do que por aquilo que é. Muitas coisas podem ser dinheiro: papel, metais preciosos, cigarros, balas ou dígitos num computador. Mas o que dinheiro faz é servir como uma linguagem: o dinheiro transmite de uma pessoa para outra o valor dos recursos envolvidos numa mercadoria ou num serviço. E valor é algo subjetivo. Contrariando a teoria do valor trabalho, é impossível saber de forma objetiva qual é o preço de uma determinada mercadoria ou serviço: é necessário que este valor seja definido por relações de oferta e procura. E é de incontáveis relações de oferta e procura que os preços são feitos. Em outras palavras, os preços nos transmitem de forma simples algo que jamais poderia ser calculado por uma pessoa: uma infinidade de relações de oferta e procura, escolhas e preferências, dentro da economia. Como disse Friedrich Hayek, “a economia somos nós”.

E assim chegamos à educação. Como eu disse acima, escolher a carreira α significa não escolher a carreira λ. Como essa decisão é feita? Certamente que muitas pessoas escolhem sua carreira com base em aptidões que percebem em si mesmas, ou em considerações sobre o que poderá ser uma atividade profissional mais prazerosa. Porém, este é um luxo que não está disponível para todos: muitas pessoas precisam escolher uma carreira com base no que pode dar mais retorno financeiro com menor investimento e menor risco. Posso escolher uma carreira que promete um grande retorno financeiro, mas com grande risco de não conseguir emprego num mercado de trabalho altamente competitivo, ou com um investimento de recursos (em tempo em dinheiro) que não posso arcar. A vida é feita de escolhas, e essas escolhas muitas vezes envolvem riscos. Escolher uma carreira é dizer não (ao menos temporariamente) para todas as outras. Algumas pessoas tem a chance de arriscar mais. Outras não têm o mesmo luxo. Considerações como relação candidato/vaga, salário médio, nível de empregabilidade e outras são semelhantes aos preços, e podem ser bons parâmetros ao se decidir por uma carreira. Mas com o governo criando vagas em universidades, determinando regras de acesso ao mercado de trabalho e adotando outras medidas, os preços não refletem a real relação de oferta e procura. Em outras palavras, a linguagem é distorcida, e as decisões não são as melhores, nem para os indivíduos, e nem para a sociedade.

Compreendo que pensar assim possa soar extremamente cínico, e pode ser um banho de água fria, especialmente para os mais jovens ou mais sonhadores. Muitas pessoas preferem tomar decisões considerando seus gostos pessoais, sua vocação, seu desejo de ajudar o próximo ou outras considerações. Não estou desmerecendo nenhuma destas considerações. Estou apenas dizendo que somos seres humanos limitados que vivem num mundo de recursos limitados. Precisamos fazer o melhor uso possível destes recursos. Embora os recursos sejam limitados, nossa criatividade para aproveitá-los não demonstra um limite óbvio. O uso criativo e sustentável dos recursos necessita de uma bússola, um guia. O sistema de preços é o melhor guia que possuímos. Sem propriedade privada não há formação de preços, e sem formação de preços o cálculo econômico é impossível. Por esta razão os gastos com educação não param de aumentar e a qualidade dos resultados não para de cair: o melhor juiz para determinar como os recursos serão empregados é o individuo fazendo uso de seus próprios recursos. A interferência do governo prejudica ou até desfaz este julgamento.

Em tempo: estou defendendo que o governo precisa sair da educação e deixá-la para a iniciativa individual (até mesmo porque somente indivíduos podem ter iniciativa). Não estou defendendo que educação precisa ser necessariamente paga pelos alunos. Como disse Milton Friedman, “não existe almoço grátis” (mais uma dessas frases que tornam os economistas – especialmente os liberais clássicos e libertários – pessoas pouco populares). Mas quando uma pessoa tem fome e não pode pagar pelo almoço, outra pode fazer isso. O nome disso é caridade, e quero incentivá-la o máximo possível. Caso você se preocupe com os pobres, sugiro que pare de mandar dinheiro para Brasília na forma de impostos, que serão necessariamente mal empregados (segundo tudo que discuti aqui), e procure pessoas que precisam. Com certeza você não terá dificuldade de encontrá-las.

Dumbing Down the World

Public education has been a slowly degenerating disaster throughout the West, and now it seems we’re exporting it to the rest.

At a United Nations meeting 15 years ago, the world’s governments agreed on the goal of enrolling every child on the planet in primary schooling by this year.

Indeed, they have nearly succeeded, with 2014’s reports indicating that 90 percent of children in developing regions now attend primary school. Presumably, the numbers for developed countries are above 95 percent.

But strangely, this lofty plan did not say anything about the quality of the schooling into which we have now driven more than 9 out of every 10 human children; the whole idea is to get children into government-approved classrooms, apparently regardless of what happens there.

The reports of UN agencies like Education for All (EFA) are full of ideas on how to get kids to go to school in developing countries: making education entirely taxpayer funded (commonly by taxpayers from richer countries), providing free medication or food to students who show up, or even just paying cash to the parents in return for kids’ attendance.

But are the pupils who spend more time at these schools actually learning more as a result? Has the goal of putting more kids into classrooms actually led to more kids getting a proper education? MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel reports, “Several programs which have raised participation, from providing worm medicine to free meals, show no evidence that children are learning more as a result.”

And EFA’s Fast Track Initiative admits, “In nearly all developing countries the levels of learning achievement are shockingly low.… In many low-income countries students learn virtually nothing and end up functionally illiterate.”

In fact, the situation is so bad that Jameel says one area to be improved is “more regular attendance of teachers.”

A crucial fallacy

The international education agencies seem to have been duped by what Austro-libertarian Murray Rothbard calls “a crucial fallacy … confusion between formal schooling and education in general.”

Promising to educate every child in every culture through primary schooling is a bit like promising to clothe every child in every climate by giving them a parka.

In fact, until recently, nearly all children learned the important skills of life largely outside of schools, through observing and joining in with the activities of adults. Rothbard writes with respect to American education, “Education is a lifelong process of learning, and learning takes place not only in school, but in all areas of life. When the child plays, or listens to parents or friends, or reads a newspaper, or works at a job, he or she is becoming educated.”

All the medicine handouts and free school lunches EFA proposes are attempts to offset the direct economic opportunity cost of the child spending a day at school instead of working on the farm or in a factory. While these handouts do take into account the child’s economic contribution to the family’s labor, what about that labor’s educational contribution to the child? What about the educational opportunity cost?

If students in many schools are learning very little and graduating “functionally illiterate,” if attendance doesn’t actually produce real education, and if teachers sometimes don’t even bother to show up, perhaps the parents and children feel that they would learn more outside the schools than in.

The presence of this educational opportunity cost may help explain why, despite all the subsidies and bonuses meant to drive kids into classrooms, the 2014 report on this goal laments, “high dropout rates [of children] remain an impediment to universal primary education.”

The kids are going into school, they and their families are seeing the results, and they and their families are deciding they are better off elsewhere.

But sadly, this important educational opportunity cost doesn’t seem to be on the global pedagogical philanthropists’ radar. Jameel says only that “there is no consensus on why so many poor children don’t attend school, or the best way to increase participation. If children’s labor is crucial to their family’s welfare … it may prove very difficult to attract more children to school.”

There is no mention of any learning that might happen while the child is outside the classroom.

For the moment, let us grant this assumption: Only schooling is education. No learning happens outside of schools.

Under this assumption, not only do children’s minds profit nothing from a day spent at home or in the bush, but most of the parents of children in the developing world are themselves totally un-“educated” — benighted savages whose heads are filled with cobwebs.

Thus, for our benevolent pedagogical overlords, it could make sense to get those kids away from their parents and into schools as soon as possible, even if, as EFA acknowledges, “in some countries nearly every aspect of the schooling system is seriously deficient — infrastructure, teaching materials, teacher availability and qualifications, lack of student assessments and lack of incentives for improving learning outcomes.”

Furthermore, in many poorer countries, the office jobs (the only ones for which schooling is actually required) are nearly all government and international NGO jobs. That’s because these countries have not (or at least not yet) developed a strong market demand for literate and numerate workers. So those kids who do succeed in school end up moving to the capital and writing reports on the importance of international funding for schools.

The kids who do not do well in school go back home to the farms or the factories, having spent years of their lives learning, in some cases, “virtually nothing.” But since the bureaucrats seem to believe that the traditional cultures the children might have spent those years immersed in held no knowledge anyway, this result might not be seen as much of a loss.

Setting young minds free

No doubt, some kids who would profit from schooling are being kept out of it by very bad things: wars, forced prostitution, and outright poverty. EFA’s programs to make schooling more accessible could have a huge positive impact on these children’s lives.

But instead of focusing on gimmicks to get kids into the classes governments want to teach, educators should focus on materials that kids want to learn — or that their parents are willing to invest in.

James Tooley has reported on the existence of an entire underground economy of black- and gray-market private schools in the slums of India and Kenya. Since these schools either hide themselves from the local authorities (to avoid being shut down) or are hidden by the local authorities from the national and international authorities (to avoid embarrassing the public schools), it’s difficult to know how prevalent they are.

What is clear is that these dirt-cheap private schools are operating with a profit motive under serious competition. Students’ parents often have to choose whether to pay for a loaf of bread or a day in school. How good would your kid’s school have to be for you to pay for it under those circumstances?

Meanwhile, these schools’ profits are being siphoned off in bribes to the local inspectors.

We could unleash these not-quite-legal schools from their government shackles by breaking the chain between government and education. Ending the drive for compulsory, state-run, subsidized schooling would, in Rothbard’s words, “give children their head” and let them seek out “a genuine and truly free education, both in and out of formal schools.”

This article was originally published in the Freeman online, and is based on an older article written for Mises Daily. Many thanks to Max Borders and BK Marcus for the opportunity to publish in the Freeman, and to Dan Sanchez for the opportunity to publish in the Mises Daily during his tenure.

Failure and learning

The last few months I’ve been thinking about the relationship between failure and entrepreneurship. Just now I’m listening to a podcast and that old point came up: going to prison teaches you how to be a better criminal. You’d think that failed criminals would be the last sort of people to learn from, but really it’s just about the perfect sort of school. The general assumption is that people in prison have high discount rates, so they probably came into prison with one thing on their mind: what the hell went wrong with that last scheme?! So you’ve got dozens of people who all screwed up and that’s all their thinking about. That’s a whole lot better than you would get at a university; nobody at a school is thinking about how they screwed up, they’re thinking about how stupid other people are!

So the question is: how could you set up a system where the incentives of K-grad school teachers are constantly thinking about mistakes they’ve made and are able to pass those lessons on to their students? Sounds like science fiction to me.

Here’s what I knew about education when I was 18

Fresh out of 12+ years of high end public education in Canada I had learned two (and a half) things about education. These two bits of information are relevant for understanding the closely related problems of poor academic performance and school violence.

1) Education means going to a school where bundles of knowledge are presented to students who are compelled by law (and subsidy, but I figured that out later) to be there. This learning occurs while sitting quietly at desks in rows, listening patiently to a teacher (most of whom genuinely care) teaching a standardized curriculum (the best!). Smart students will get good grades without much effort, “dumb” students will pass without much effort (because they need that education to succeed it would be unfair to deny them their future).

1.5) Europe’s version of this system has higher standards and works better some how.

2) The above I learned from experience and discussion with my peers, the following from watching discovery channel and in science class: all mammals learn by play fighting. Bear cubs gnaw on each other’s faces, squirrels chase each other, and in this constant movement they learn how to survive.

This second stylized fact about education points to a deep systemic cause for gruesome violence in schools. School is not the same thing as education. By confusing the two and establishing policy to dramatically increase schooling, we are essentially bear baiting teenagers and being left with predictable results.