That Which Is Learned VS That Which Is Not Learned

Human beings learn constantly and they do so from the time they are born until the time they die. I have yet to meet anyone who did not believe this to be true. Yet, the vast majority of people also seem to believe that human beings between the ages of 5 and 18 will not learn what they need to know in our society if we don’t “teach” them. What would children learn if they weren’t required to absorb a pre-determined curriculum is a question hardly anyone is asking.

People forget, it seems, that this school business is a very recent invention in terms of humanity. Truth is, if our ancestors could not have learned without schools what they needed to know in order to survive and prosper, none of us would be here. By not trusting children to learn what they need to know on their own, we are essentially breaking the shopkeeper’s window on purpose, over and over again, because we do not trust that he will spend his money wisely if he doesn’t have to use it to fix the window.

Many of you are likely familiar with Frederic Bastiat’s broken window fallacy. A young boy breaks a shopkeeper’s window that now needs to be repaired. At first, everyone is upset at the broken window but after a while, some start believing that the misfortune has its bright side because the broken window will provide work for the window glazier, who will then have money to spend with other merchants, and so on.

Bastiat offered another view. He said that this theory is confined to that which is seen, without taking into account that which is not seen. Had the window not been broken, we do not know what the shopkeeper would have done with the money he gave the glazier. He might have bought a pair of shoes and he would have then owned a pair of shoes and a window. Now, he only has a window. Bastiat’s conclusion was that “society loses the value of things which are uselessly destroyed.”

When we put children in classrooms and we mandate what they learn, we do not know what the child might have learned on his own had we not decided for him. We also do not know what activities the child would have engaged in, that might have lead to an extraordinary discovery, if we had not decided for him what he was going to do.

In schools, we can see that which is learned, but we will never see that which is not learned or discovered. Therefore, couldn’t we also say that because of schools, society loses the value of the knowledge that is uselessly smothered?

The unfair advantage of human nature

Let’s now look at another famous narrative by Bastiat. In his “Candle Makers’ Petition,” which is a satire against protectionism, Bastiat suggests to the French government that they pass a law mandating that everyone cover all sources of natural light in their homes and businesses in order to help the domestic candle making industry. As a free source of light, Bastiat wrote, the sun has an unfair competitive advantage over candle makers. By mandating that residents block all sources of natural light, the government would encourage industry and thereby increase employment.

If human beings possess a natural instinct to learn, and children can learn on their own all they need to know to function in the culture in which they are born, as Peter Gray defends in Free to Learn, couldn’t we also argue that human nature has an unfair competitive advantage over educators?

And if, as Gray contends, “there is no need for forced lessons, lectures, assignments, tests, grades, segregation by age into classrooms, or any of the other trappings of our standard, compulsory system of schooling,” aren’t schools merely in place to stimulate an industry and create employment for a slew of educators, administrators and bureaucrats?

The obvious difference here is that educators and bureaucrats have won their petition against human nature decades ago and they have our children. As a society, we have come to believe that this is the way it has to be because it’s the way it has been for generations. Our windows have been closed shut for so long that most, it seems, have forgotten what the sun looks like or that it’s even there.

All is not lost, however, and your child need not be lost. As Peter Gray points out, “The time for revolution is here. It will be a peaceful one, conducted by people brave enough to walk away from our coercive schools, smart enough to resist the propaganda saying that such schooling is essential to success in our culture, and independent enough to thumb their noses at the education-industrial complex that pushes coercive schooling and makes it ever more burdensome.”

There is no need to break the window just so we can fix it; there is nothing wrong with our children. And we do not need to fight the candle makers either. All we need to do is open the shutters, uncover our windows, and simply trust that the sun is still there.

This article was originally published on

What’s Your ONE Thing?

After I wrote The Only Thing Children Really Need Is Freedom, I felt the urge to flip through my copy of The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, by Gary Keller And Jay Papasan. If The ONE Thing offers a sure path to success for people and businesses, I wondered, and if it works in all areas of our lives and on anything as the authors contend, does it also represent a sure path for our children to become successful? And if so, how can we best transmit the lessons of The ONE Thing to the next generation and what signs of The ONE Thing, if any, can we find in our schools today? Could it be that the ONE thing children need is freedom so that they, too, can enjoy the opportunity to pursue their ONE Thing?

In The ONE Thing, Keller and Papasan defend that people and businesses achieve extraordinary results when they go as small as possible, they focus on ONE Thing, and they find the answer to this question: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do / such that by doing it / everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” And then they do that ONE Thing, the ONE Thing that matters most.

“Extraordinary results,” they write, “are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus.” Success leaves clues. People and businesses achieve extraordinary results when they focus on ONE Thing, whether it’s a secret chicken recipe in the case of Colonel Sanders, coffee for Starbucks, or writing books in the case of Gary Keller.

The authors also write about the 6 lies or myths that stand between people and their success and those are that Everything Matters Equally, that Multitasking is a “good” thing, that you have to have a Disciplined Life to be successful, that Willpower is On Will-Call, that there is such a thing as a Balanced Life, and that Big is Bad.

The message of The ONE Thing is indeed a very simple one: “When you bring purpose to your life, know your priorities, and achieve high productivity on the priority that matters most every day, your life makes sense and the extraordinary becomes possible.”

Put in a simple equation, The ONE Thing looks something like this:

Focus on ONE Thing + Do What Matters Most = A Life that Makes Sense + Success

Now, let’s look at education. In most of our schools today (and that goes for public and private schools), children are being taught, day in and day out, year in and year out, that every subject matters equally, that multitasking is a required skill, and that it is all about having a balanced curriculum and a disciplined life. Children, in essence, are being taught that the equation is actually this:

Focus on a Dozen Things + Do What Matters to Others = A Life that Makes Sense + Success

Clearly, something is not adding up. If focusing on ONE Thing and doing what matter most leads to success and a life that makes sense, there may be several possible answers to the second equation but it can’t possibly be the same. So we are left with this:

Focus on a Dozen Things + Do What Matters to Others = X + Y

You can fill in the blanks with whatever you wish, but it really doesn’t matter what comes out of this equation. If our goal, our ONE Thing, is for our children to have successful, meaningful lives, what we need to do is actually begin with this:

X + Y = Life That Makes Sense + Success.

And we already know what X and Y stand for.

Success Leaves Clues… in Education, Too

As adults, we take for granted the freedom we have to pursue our ONE Thing if we choose to. Nothing can stop us but ourselves. As adults, we are also free to seek any knowledge we want at any time. If you are reading a book so you can learn to change your own oil and fix your car, which would make trips to the mechanic unnecessary, you probably wouldn’t have the instinct to put it down after an hour in order to read about history for a while so you can have a balanced life. When we make something our ONE Thing, as adults, we do what matters most to achieve success in that thing and when we’re done, we move on to another ONE Thing… of our choice.

Children appear to be wired the same way we are in that they naturally and instinctively pursue ONE Thing after another from the moment they are born, and they do so until we, the grown ups, put a stop to it by sending them to “schools.” When the child is learning how to talk, his ONE Thing is to make sounds and practice until the sounds that come out also make sense to other people and he can be understood. When the child is learning how to walk, he naturally makes it his ONE Thing to get into a vertical position and put one foot in front of the other until he’s able to walk. Walking makes getting around easier, and talking makes crying unnecessary when the child wants something. Children go through several ONE Things in the first few years of their lives, ONE Thing after the other.

When the child enters school, everything changes. All of a sudden, his ONE Thing doesn’t matter anymore or if it does, it matters equally with all the other things. And when the bell rings, it means that his thing won’t matter again until the next day or the next week. What matters most to others becomes his new reality. Everything also becomes harder, required by others, and necessary. Not much seem to make sense anymore and “learning,” the child quickly realizes, is a long, boring, and painful process. The natural instinct he had to pursue his ONE Thing slowly fades away. He has to learn to live a disciplined and balanced life because for him, there is no way out.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can give our children lives that make sense by simply not taking away the freedom we have let them enjoy since birth. We can do this by creating school environments such as Sudbury schools where children are given the freedom to pursue their own interests and are given the responsibility to do what matters most to them at all times. When children learn by pursuing their ONE Thing, one thing at a time, instead of being taught all the things others think matter all at the same time, everything else does indeed become easier or unnecessary… for them.

Let me give you an example. In Sudbury schools, children are not “taught” how to read and they are not given a time frame by which they have to be able to read. Yet, every single one of them does learn how to read long before he or she graduates. Why? Because somewhere along the way, as the child was pursuing her ONE Thing, the skill of reading became necessary for the exploration to continue. How? For a while, the child made it her ONE Thing to learn how to read so that she could quickly return to the other ONE Thing she was working on. Learning how to read may or may not have been perceived as “hard,” but her life never stopped making sense. To her, learning to read was just one more step in the pursuit of her ONE Thing and in the end, it made her life easier. And no, she will not learn “everything” her schoolmates are learning for they, too, are pursuing their ONE Thing. Some learning thereby becomes unnecessary. Children in such environments may go through several ONE Things but that’s the point. Children are not born with tags on their toes telling us what their ONE Thing is and it is for them to figure out, not us. As Keller and Papasan point out, “if you don’t know what your ONE Thing is, your ONE Thing is to find out.” That’s every child’s ONE Thing, until she finds out.

If we are serious about changing education in this country, we have to start by making it our ONE Thing and then ask ourselves the right focusing question. So what’s the ONE Thing we can do (when it comes to the education of our children) / such that by doing it / everything else will become easier and unnecessary? The answer, to me, is surprisingly simple and clear. The ONE Thing we can do, the ONE Thing we must do for the sake of our children, is give them the freedom to pursue their ONE Thing.

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