How to Structure Education

Martin Rezny
Words of Tomorrow
Published in
6 min readSep 3, 2017

Without turning it into a thought-prison


Similar to what I said in one other response in this thread, I don’t think you can realistically have no structure in learning. It’s just not possible in a human society. The key question is not whether we need some structure in education, it’s what that structure should look like.

I completely agree that it is necessary to be able to provide guidance to students who have not already figured out who they are and what they want to do, along with the outlines of where one can go in particular educational branches. I personally prefer the idea of modelling that after skill trees in RPG games where you can see branching paths along which you can develop.

However, I don’t believe there is any necessary foundational knowledge (especially not an unbiased one), only foundational skills. In my experience, the only common education everyone absolutely needs are the capacities of literacy, numeracy, and oracy, meaning the abilities to read, write, compute, critically think, and speak, which should take about 3–5 years tops to develop.

The ancient Greek model of trivium/quadrivium was much like that — focused on thinking skills and not unnecessarily long. It also shouldn’t be mandatory that every kid has to get to the same point in them in the same amount of time, which makes quick students frustrated and held back and slow students left uneducated. And don’t even get me started on the batch structure of grades where only those born in the same year learn together.

Bad Structure Is Bad

The way I see it, the three main problematic types of structure in education are subjects, cookie-cutter learning paths, and rigid schedules, which is not surprising given the fact that they’re built on oppressive social structures that limit education for ideological and economic reasons (which are mostly an extension of ideology).

First, let’s address the obvious problems with the ideological/economic foundation. Every time somebody decides who gets educated and who doesn’t because they’re too poor, wrongly gendered, not raised by proper comrades, or otherwise subhuman, somebody’s just being an asshole. Assuming one is allowed to be educated, they’re definitely not safe from ideology, though.

The really harmful structures are those that tell the students what it means to be a man/woman, proper American or North Korean or what have you, good Christian or other person of faith, a person of a particular level or kind of “intelligence” as determined by biased grades or fundamentally scientifically unsound conceptions and tests of intelligence, etc. These are all actually indoctrination, not learning, and not meant to be to the student’s benefit.

This is what I meant by structures that are limits to learning — taboos, dogmas, stereotypes, stigmas. It seems obvious on the surface that these things are wrong, the problem is to identify them inside of one’s own political bias. For starters, slap vague “economic reasons” over them and they’ll get uncritically accepted just fine. Educating someone to become a worker within a fully predefined profession is not fundamentally different from making them a Muslim, a Communist, or an American — you teach them to fit in.

That’s why it’s informally refered to as a cookie-cutter process, as you squeeze the students through a predefined template to end up in a particular shape. On the surface, it’s done to “give them a job”, but that’s still no different from “saving their soul”, or “making them citizens”. You of course claim you’re doing it for their own good, so that you can demand gratitude and label those who reject the system as traitors, witches, dumb, lazy, or anything you’d like.

In terms of free rational thought, freedom of choice in general, or the free market of ideas concept, if we want the best ideas to win and to empower people, we shouldn’t indoctrinate them before they can think to never be able to think or unthink certain things. Why not teach them to think and then let them choose what makes sense? We of course know why — we don’t really want them to think freely, do we, because then they may think differently.

The result would not be economic failure, it would be cultural evolution, which is way more unacceptable. To be exact, an economic failure might happen, but economy is too complex to be predictable or retroactively explicable. Whatever will happen, someone will say I told you so, because some prediction will come true, but any certainty any expert is displaying is fake. Doesn’t matter what the rationalization is, it’s still a political powerplay.

Compared to this, the subject and schedule limitations are minor technical problems that mostly do not stem from politics, only failure of imagination or management. They’re still annoying and unnecessary, though. I think the main reason that keeps the subject division so sharp completely needlessly is the expectation that teachers have to be experts dispensing objective knowledge to memorize, along with a bit of political interference with the specific content of curriculums, which you can only do with standard content.

Assuming the teacher shifts into the role of a guide or moderator who gives questions without predetermined answers, the resulting discourse will not be easily contained within the borders of content-based subjects. When that happens, the whole notion of standardized curriculums centered around preapproved answers will become pointless. As for flexible scheduling, we only need to fully use our existing communication technologies which allow for a global education system that enables delocalized learning at any time.

A Word Against Abusive Relationship of Science with Education

With all that said, however, one should be cautious not to turn the idea of teaching people critical thinking first into a dictatorship of material science. If not making people biased is our true goal, we need to be careful about not teaching a prejudice against predetermined “irrational” beliefs. After all, pseudoscientific claims from scientific authorities about what intelligence or truth are played an important part both in eugenics and the Marxist-atheist persecution of all religious people. Not to mention standardized tests.

I feel the need to make this clarification precisely because it is the hope of some scientifically-minded people that not teaching nationalist or religious biases early on will result in a world where everyone must logically decide that material science is the only way to go. It will not, as it hasn’t during the postmodern period. When people think freely, they culturally diverge, not converge. I understand some people choose to see this as a bad thing, and I for one am completely okay to let them. Let’s aim for some kind of balance, then.

Not being politically neutral in implementing this reform also makes it harder to realize it, as people of more subjective, traditional worldviews may feel threatened by it. Then again, I have seen pretty good home-schooled high school-level debaters from the Bible Belt. Also, scientists themselves should care about not misrepresenting science in the process of promoting it. The problem with equating critical thinking with any current idea of science is that no current idea of science is science — thinking that would be scientism.

Scientific method is at its core a self-correcting process, not a definite set of facts. Conventional teaching of science therefore gives everyone exactly the wrong idea of it, since you memorize some facts only to learn later in your life that they’re at least in part no longer valid. If anything, this discourages people from putting much trust in science. To learn science means to learn to think scientifically and adapt to new discoveries, which would be much more effectively taught within a system like I propose. But even then, it’s important to understand that science is not the only viable worldview or lifestyle.

More subjective worldviews or lifestyles are not so much about the opposition to scientific facts and by extension reality itself, they are about the quality of human experience and about dealing with the meaningful unknowables. In other words, things beyond science or having to do with fundamental axioms of what life is about. For example, scientists should doubt, not believe, but that doesn’t mean that the skeptical position always has to turn out to be right in the end. Not to mention that freedom requires the ability to choose wrong.

In short, a world of free thought has to be a multiverse — a place where things truly can turn out differently. Unless people are allowed to think differently, their thought is not free. It can of course turn disastrous when the education system is unable to effectively teach people fundamental principles of logic and critical thinking regarding not only facts, but also values and policies. Of course, the internet is quite enough to drive that divergence of thought by itself, so we have to do something. I opt for something that can help.

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