Links: Teachers, strippers, self-publishing, In the Realm of the Senses, Fundrise, and more

* The Case for a Teacher Bar Exam. I’m skeptical: teaching is one of the skills that is least captured by standardized tests. See also “How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?

_MG_8427* The Uses of Difficulty. Maybe.

* “Uncovering Union Violence,” which “is an under-reported story.”

* “The North Dakota Stripper Boom,” which is a tale about unexpected expected consequences: “North Dakota [. . .] is experiencing an oil boom, which is leading to an overwhelmingly male population boom, which has some strange spillover consequences.”

* “The Early Education Racket: If you are reading this article, your kid probably doesn’t need to go to preschool.” Having written Head Start proposals and read a lot of studies on Head Start and similar programs, I’m not surprised, although this article focuses on the effects of relatively wealthy people (hilarious quote: “research suggests that if you have the time and money to argue over the merits of a Waldorf preschool versus a Montessori one, little Emma isn’t going to suffer either way.”)

* Thorium Reactors, by Peter Reinhardt, which explains one aspect of why thorium-powered power plants might be the future of energy.

* Tips for a successful book launch. This is interesting for its own sake and because Roosh never mentions the word “self-published.” That’s simply assumed.

* Fremen Stillsuit soon to be manufactured? Are the Bene Gesserit up next?

* “Going All the Way: The late Nagisa Oshima’s erotic, transgressive In the Realm of the Senses isn’t about sex. It is sex.

* Fundrise has a new project in the pipeline.

* Copy Of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ Can’t Believe The Notes High Schooler Writing In Margins.

Universities for artists: Know your purpose, know what you’re getting

A friend is in his 20s and wants to be a writer. He’s mucked around in college some without amassing enough credits to count towards anything, and he thinks he might want to start at a university again in order to become a better writer. I’ve been discouraging him, because of his age and his state goals. He started classes again this semester but seems disenchanted with them, and after talking for a while the other night, I wrote a long e-mail that summarized my views and why college is probably the wrong route for him:

If you said to me that you’re tired of working in coffee shops and want an office job in a corporation or government, a degree should be your number one priority. Not only is that not your goal, but your goal is to be a better writer. To accomplish that, school is at best a mixed bag.

At anything below the most elite schools, most students in intro-level writing courses are not particularly good writers or interested in becoming good writers (and even in elite schools, bad writers but good hoop-jumpers abound). Intro courses won’t necessarily be of much help to you. Most intro-level non-writing courses (like “Rocks for Jocks,” AKA geology) are likely to be even worse. My honors students say their classmates in classes like “Love and Romance in the Middle Ages” and “Intro to Art History” are barely literate; the honors students turn in bullshit they’ve slammed out the night before and get 100% because they are, most of them, functionally literate. They complain about not learning anything about writing in their other humanities classes. You will probably have to wade through at least a year or two of courses that provide almost no value to your stated goal—becoming a better writer—before you get a real shot at, say, English classes.

Once you are there, however, many professors aren’t especially interested in teaching, even in English classes, and the effect of many English classes on your writing skills might be small. Does reading Paradise Lost and Gulliver’s Travels and the Romantic poets in a Brit Lit I survey make you a better writer of contemporary fiction, essays, and criticism, if your professor / TA spends no time covering the basics of writing? Will sitting through a lecture on Beckett’s role in the Modernism / Postmodernism divide help you understand better metaphors in your writing, or help you construct a plot that has any actual motion?

The questions suggest the answers. I’m not saying these English classes will hurt you. But I’ve sat through a lot of those classes, and few have anything to do with writing, which is one of my many beefs with English departments and classes; too little time is spent building concrete writing and reading skills, and too much time is spent discussing works of some historical value and very little contemporary value (I’m not convinced Sister Carrie, which is one massive violation of the cliche “Show, don’t tell” will make you a better novelist today, any more than studying the math of the 1850s in its original context will make you a better mathematician).

Some professors teach close reading and who will really work with you to develop your writing skills, especially if you follow the advice I offer. But those experiences are at best hit-and-miss, and more often than not misses. They depend on the professor, and you won’t know if a class might be useful until you’re already in it.

Plus, getting to those classes will probably take a long time and a lot of money and hoop jumping. The more direct route for you is through a writers’ workshop, which almost all communities of any size have.

That’s the learning part of the equation. From the job/status/credential part of the equation, and as I’ve said before, the effect of school on labor market outcomes is quite binary: you have a degree and make a lot more money in the aggregate, or you don’t and you make a lot less money. Starting a degree without finishing it is one of the worst things you can do, speaking financially and in terms of opportunity cost. That’s why it’s so vital for you to either start and finish or not start.

If you were 18 and didn’t know what the hell else to do, I would tell you to go to college because your peers are doing it and most 18-year-olds don’t know anything and waste most of their time anyway. You could noodle around in a lot of classes and maybe learn something and at least you’ll finish with a degree. Beyond that, a lot of college happens between the lines, through living in dorms and developing a peer network. But you’re not 18, you already know something (you do), and you have a (presumed) goal that you don’t necessarily have to go through school to accomplish. If your goal changes—i.e. you decide you don’t want to work in retail or coffee or unskilled labor and you want to get some other kind of job—then my advice will change.

A distressingly small amount of actual learning goes on in college classrooms. You can see this in Arun and Josipka’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. You can read a different take by searching for “The Case Against Education,” which is the title of Bryan Caplan’s book concerning signaling / credentialism in education. Or you can look at the people around you, who might be the most compelling argument. People who are really determined to get education do get it, but outside of the hard sciences, there’s a LOT of bullshit. The stuff that isn’t bullshit will be hard for you to find. Not impossible, but hard. And you don’t get the monetary benefits without finishing.

The college wage premium is still real, but it only applies to people who actually want to work at jobs that require college degrees. If you want to be an engineer, go to college. In “How Liberal Arts Colleges Are Failing America,” Scott Gerber points out that “A degree does not guarantee you or your children a good job anymore. In fact, it doesn’t guarantee you a job: last year, 1 out of 2 bachelor’s degree holders under 25 were jobless or unemployed.” I look around the University of Arizona, and it’s clear to me that a variety of majors—comm and sociology are the most obvious—provide almost no real intellectual challenges and hence no real skills, whatsoever. The business school at the U of A seems better, but it’s still hard for me to ascertain, from the outside, if what goes on there really matters.

To recap: I don’t think going to school is bad or will hurt you. But I’m also not convinced that going to school is an optimal use of time / money for you.

I still think that, if you really want to be a writer, the absolute number one thing you have to do is write a lot—and want to write a lot, because the writing itself comes from the desire. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he discusses the research on the “10,000-hour rule,” or the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of a skill. I’m not totally convinced that 10,000 hours is the magic number, or that anyone can deliberately practice for 10,000 hours in a given field and master it, but the basic idea—that you have to spend a LOT of time practicing in order to achieve mastery—is sound. To the extent you want to be a writer and that you spend time in classes that are at best tangentially involved with being a writer, I think you are making a mistake in the way you’re allocating your limited time and resources. You might be better off, say, going to the library and reading every Paris Review interview, going back to the beginning, and writing down every quote that speaks to you.

All of us have 24 hours in a day. Any time you spend doing one thing can’t be spent doing another. If you want to become a writer, I think you should allocate most of your time to writing, not to classes, unless you want to be a writer in some officially sanctioned organ, like a newspaper.

Finally, if you want to be a better writer, write stuff (blog posts, novels, essays, whatever) and send them to me. I will give you more detailed feedback than 99% of your professors. With me, the price is also right.

Beyond that, I want to emphasize just how hit-and-miss my education was, especially now that I look back on it. This was clearest to me in high school: as a freshman and sophomore, I had three really good English teachers from whom I learned a lot: Thor Sigmar, Mindy Leffler, and Jack someone, who taught journalism but whose name now escapes me, though he was very good at what he did and had a very dry sense and hilarious of humor. He also drove a black Miata and was clearly in the closet, at least from the perspective of his students. Then I had two terrible teachers: one named Rich Glowacki, who, distressingly, appears to still be teaching (at least based on a cursory examination of Google, and another named Nancy Potter. The former did an excellent impression of a animatronic corpse and was fond of tests like “What color was the character’s shoe in Chapter 6?” Moreover, one time I came in to talk to him about the “literary terms” he wanted us to memorize for a test. He couldn’t define many of the terms himself; in other words, he was testing us on material that he himself didn’t know.

That moment of disillusionment has stayed with me for a very long.

The other, Nancy Potter, was so scattered that I don’t think anything was accomplished in her class. She also wrote a college letter of recommendation for me that was so screwed up, and so strewn with typos and non sequiturs, that my Dad and I had to rewrite it for her. When your 18-year-old student is a better and more competent writer than you, the teacher, something is seriously amiss.

In college, I went to Clark University, where pretty much all the professors in all the departments are selected for their interest and skill in teaching. I ran into few exceptions; one was a guy who appeared to be about a thousand years old and who taught astronomy. He has trouble speaking and didn’t appear to know what he wanted to speak about on any given day.

Now that I know more about universities, I can only assume he was on the verge of retirement, or was already emeritus, and had been given our class of non-majors because a) he couldn’t do much damage there and b) the department knew it was filled with students who were taking the class solely to fulfill the somewhat bogus science requirement. He didn’t do much damage, except for some infinitesimally small amount to Clark’s reputation, and I assume the other people in the department were happy to avoid babysitting duty.

He, however, was very much the exception at Clark.

Most public colleges and universities are quite different than Clark, and the teaching experience is closer to public high schools, with some good moments and some bad. If your goal is to be an artist, or to learn any kind of skill in depth, you could spend years paying tuition, taking prerequisites of dubious utility, and struggling to find the right teacher or teachers, all without actually accomplishing your goal: learning some kind of skill in-depth.

I don’t think this applies solely to writers, either. If you’re a programmer, there are hacker collectives, or user groups, or equivalents, in many places. Online communities are even more prevalent. I have no idea how good or useful such places and people are. But the price is right and the cost of entry is low. Determined people will find each other. If you’ve got the right attitude towards receiving and processing criticism, you should be ready to take advantage. Knowledgable people should be able to point you in the direction of good books, which are hard to find. You should signal that you’re ready to learn. If you do those things right, you can get most if not all of what you would normally get out of school. But you also have to be unusually driven, and you have to be able to function without the syllabus/exam/paper structure imposed by school. If you can’t function without the external imposition of those constraints, however, you’re probably not going to make it as an artist anyway. The first thing you need is want. The second thing you need is tenacity. The first is useless without the second.

Stories like “Minimum Viable Movie: How I Made a Feature-Length Film for $0″ should inspire you, especially because you need even less money to be a writer than you do to make a movie. Arguably you also need less money to be a musician than you do to make a movie, although I’m less knowledgable on that subject and won’t make absolute pronouncements on it.

Again, I am not anti-school, per se, but it is important to understand how much or most school is about signaling and credentialing, and how easy a lot of school is if you’re willing to stay quiet, keep your ducks in a line, and jump through the hoops presented. It’s also important to understand the people who benefit most from offering arts training: the instructors. They get a (relatively) light teaching load, the possibility of tenure, a cut of your tuition, and time and space to pursue their passion, while you pay for their advice. Getting a gig as a creative writing professor is pretty damn sweet, regardless of the outcomes for students. That doesn’t mean creative writing professors can’t be very good, or very helpful, or improve your work, or dedicated to teaching, but it does mean that you should be cognizant of what benefits are being derived in any particular economic transaction. When small amounts of money are involved, it’s easy to ignore the economic transaction part of school, but now that tuition is so high, it’s impossible for anyone but the stupendously rich to ignore financial reality, like who gains the most when you enroll in a creative writing seminar.

As a side note, I think we’re already starting to see a shift away from the college-for-everyone mentality (that’s what the posts by Gerber and others are doing). Ironically enough, the universities themselves are involved in a perverse loan-based system whose present incentives are eventually going to drive their customer base away through price hikes. Universities are still going to be good deals and useful for some people, but those people will probably turn out to be more intellectual and analytical—the kinds of people who will benefit from knowledge dissemination and who will ultimately feel the need to create new knowledge. I also suspect a lot of non-elite private schools are going to have even larger problems than public schools. This isn’t a novel argument, but that doesn’t make it any less real, or any less likely to happen.

Anyway, I’m broadening the view too far here. The important thing is that you understand yourself and understand the system that you’re entering and how it incentivizes its participants. If you understand that, I think you’ll increasingly understand my skepticism about the utility of college classes for someone in your situation.

Links: Peter Norvig, Coders at Work, Tucson tedium, bookselling, teachers, Tolkien

* Peter Norvig in Coders at Work: “Certainly I would do things because they were fun. Especially when I was a grad student and I was less beholden to schedules. I’d say, ‘Oh, here’s an interesting problem. Let’s see if I can solve that.’ Not because it’s progress on my thesis, but just because it was fun.”

This is basically my problem, if that’s the correct term, in grad school: I find something interesting and want to write about that, instead of whatever’s immediately applicable in seminars or for my dissertation. In the short term it’s a problem, though in the long term I’d like to think of it as an asset.

* “The secret lives of feral dogs: A Pennsylvania city instructs police to shoot strays, opening a sad window on animal care in the age of austerity.”

* Now that I live in Tucson, AZ, I totally understand this comment; emphasis added:

In Zoellner’s riskiest chapter, he remembers Tucson as a rotten place to grow up. “My skateboard was no good on those new asphalt streets. … I would sometimes steal into an unfinished house in the late afternoons to smash out the windows with rocks.” He’s not excusing Loughner, just describing what an isolated lifestyle in Arizona can do to people. The state ranks 48th among places where “people trade favors with neighbors” and 45th among places where people eat dinner with their families.

In my case the university ameliorates some of the loneliness, but the “city” of Tucson is laid out so poorly and so widely that it promotes isolation.

* Good Writing Isn’t Enough: How to Sell a Book in the Digital Age.

* The value of teachers; see also “Should teachers be paid more or less? The answer is: both.”  Which comes to a very similar conclusion as my own post, “Are teachers underpaid? It depends.

* See too Jason Fisher’s reply to my last post.

* Yet another reason I don’t pay attention to literary prizes, this one regarding Tolkien.

* “The fragile teenage brain: An in-depth look at concussions in high school football.” After reading about the many football concussion studies, I’ve learned that a lot of the brain damage football causes isn’t from single big hits—it’s from many small hits that accrue in practice and elsewhere. There is no way I’d let my kid play football.

* A friend who read The Hunger Games didn’t especially like the novel and neither did I, despite three-quarters of America having read the novel and its sequels. I mostly thought the writing flat; my friend Heather simply said, “The metaphors are bad.” Perhaps I can get her to yield some examples soon.

Are teachers underpaid? It depends.

There’s a meme going around that teachers are “underpaid;” you can read one manifestation of it in this Hacker News comment, but I’m sure you’ll run across lots of other examples if you read the news. Here’s the poster’s main point about teaching: “It’s way harder than you think, and unless you’re a tenured professor at a university, teachers make shit.” I’ve never taught high school, but I’m a grad student and teach freshmen, so I have some experience standing in front of people for long periods of time and trying to be both interesting and informative at the same time. A few observations:

1) The first time you teach a class, it’s incredibly hard and time consuming, but the difficulty drops like a logarithm to a relatively low plateau after you’ve done it a few times. This appears to be reflected in data. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the average teacher works slightly less than 40 hours per week. If you have better data, I’d like to see it. Note too that people getting teaching degrees at the graduate level get substantially lower GRE scores than those in almost all other disciplines. This will come up later.

2) At one point I thought about teaching high school English. Seattle Public Schools paid about $36K / yr with a Masters or $30K / yr without, and those numbers topped at around $70K and $55K after 30 years (IIRC, Bellevue Public School teachers made something like ~10K more). You can verify that as of July 2011 through the 2010 – 2011 salary schedule (it’s actually a little higher than I remembered, or raises have been substantial). That doesn’t count retirement; teaching is unusual because a lot of the benefits are backloaded in the form of retirement pay. One woman in my grad program taught English for 26 years in Michigan and took an early retirement offer; I think she gets 70% of her last year’s salary for life. Granted, those deals are going away because of the budget crisis, but a lot of the retirement stuff is still baked in.

3) You can multiply those numbers by 1.2 or so because teachers only have mandatory work for nine months of the year. People in most professions gets two weeks to a month off.

4) After two to three years, you effectively can’t be fired because of union rules (unless you sleep with a student and get caught in a flagrant manner, don’t show up, etc.). See this post for lots of citations on that, as well as a lot of the information that’s going into this comment. Not being able to be fired has value. Paul Graham figured this out a while ago, and wrote in an essay that “Economic statistics are misleading because they ignore the value of safe jobs. An easy job from which one can’t be fired is worth money; exchanging the two is one of the commonest forms of corruption. A sinecure is, in effect, an annuity.”

Note: there are major downsides to teaching. You have to like working with relatively undeveloped people (if you’re teaching high school) or children (if you’re teaching elementary school). In teaching, it’s very hard to make substantially more money if you really want to; whether you’re a good or bad teacher isn’t likely to make you more money. Still, you’ll hit the median household income neighborhood of $40,000 pretty quickly. My big impression is that teaching isn’t going to make you rich, but you’re also unlikely to ever be poor. To say that “teachers make shit” isn’t really true. It is to true to say that teachers have back-loaded compensation packages that tend to be high in benefits (e.g. good health care, retirement) and low in upfront salary.

Given this, we’re still left with the question of whether this is “too much” or “too little.” Some teachers are probably “underpaid” and some “overpaid,” depending on the demand for their field. To understand why, look at Payscale.com’s salary data for college majors. Humanities and social science majors are on the low end of the starting salary scale—not far from education majors, who start at $35K and have a mid-career median at $55K. This isn’t far from the pay at Seattle Public Schools, although Seattle probably has a higher cost of living than most places in the country. Salaries also vary by district; there’s been a lot of fury over, for example, New Jersey teacher salaries, since they’re relatively high, especially when one factors in health care. Arizona, by contrast, does not appear to suffer from that problem. The “underpaid” kind are experiencing major shortages—math, science, computer science, and so forth, which start in the vicinity of $50K and have a mid-career median in the $100K range. Those fields start close to where teachers can expect to be after 15 years. If you’re teaching computer science instead of taking a job that starts at $100K from Microsoft, Google, or Facebook, you’re underpaid. That’s why it’s so hard to districts to find really good math or science teachers.

There’s also the issue of student quality. In Seattle, there’s a strong north-south divide, with most of the southern schools being really tough and much more dangerous than the northern schools (the breakdown occurs along racial lines, as discussed in this 2006 Wall Street Journal article). If the pay is the same—and in Seattle, it is—most teachers will prefer the easier schools.

In the U.S., pay is in part proportionate to risk. Bill Gates isn’t just rich because he’s smart and hardworking; he also spent long hours in a company he created that could’ve easily netted him nothing. To some extent, teachers have collectively traded firing risk for lower salaries. Among other things, educational reformers are trying to sever this link, since getting great performance out of people who have no incentive for great performance save the goodness of their own hearts is problematic. Most people who experienced public schools—which is to say, most people—are probably aware of this on some level. There’s a movement afoot to make teachers more accountable, and I think it’s going to succeed. This should drive more money to great teachers, less to lousy ones, and more to people in technical fields. If teachers as a whole want more money, they better be ready to take more risk and be prepared to have their performance evaluated—like it is in virtually every other white-collar profession.

EDIT: A countervailing view that observes U.S. teachers don’t appear to be as productive as teachers from other countries, perhaps because of pay problems. Still, I wonder what alternate professional opportunities are like in other countries relative to the U.S.

Week 35 Links: College life, sex scandals (these two are not linked, this time), student reflections, memoirs, coding, and more

* Top Colleges, Largely for the Elite, mostly overlook low-income students. File this under, “Seems obvious, nice to have proof.”

* From a student’s reflection memo: “Thank you for all your humor in class and thank you so much for not being boring because if you were I probably would have died.” Uh, you’re welcome?

* Penelope Trunk: “The Joys of Adult Sexting.”

* From the New Yorker, appropos of recent events: [. . . L]et’s also take a moment to remember nine women in politics who have caused ripples with their sexual exploits.

* The dying of the light, on why so many movies in theaters look like crap. This a) explains something I’ve noticed but never actually spoken about and b) should be mandatory reading for movie studio executives. He writes:

I began by asking if you notice, really notice, what a movie looks like. I have a feeling many people don’t. They buy their ticket, they get their popcorn and they obediently watch what is shown to them. But at some level there is a difference. They feel it in their guts. The film should have a brightness, a crispness and sparkle that makes an impact. It should look like a movie! — not a mediocre big-screen television.

I hadn’t—but I felt it in my guts.

* Tailor Made:

Anderson’s memoir, Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed, has been called the Kitchen Confidential of the tailoring world, an insider’s look at the industry and one that exposes a certain amount of its foibles and eccentricity.

* Naked Binders sound appealing. Already ordered two; shipping is steep.

* Why GM Couldn’t Be Apple, According to a Former GM Exec. This is actually about creativity and corporate culture.

* The global war on drugs has failed.

* How I Failed, Failed, and Finally Succeeded at Learning How to Code.

* Helping Teachers Help Themselves. This seems like the kind of thing that will only work in a school system that is already functional.

Week 33 links: The secret sex lives of teachers, B. R. Myers and A Reader's Manifesto, digital cameras, a book in the home, science fiction writers' picks, adultery and politics

* The secret sex lives of teachers, which notes, “there is clearly something irresistible about teachers with decidedly adult extracurricular activities.”

* The Soul-Sucking Suckiness of B.R. Myers, which I don’t buy. I read A Reader’s Manifesto and loved it. Hallberg says, “It was hard to say which was more irritating: Myers’ scorched-earth certainties; his method, a kind of myopic travesty of New Criticism; or his own prose, a donnish pastiche of high-minded affectation and dreary cliché.” I suppose one man’s weak “method” is the opening of another’s eyes to something he’d long suspected but never quite articulated.

I remember trying to read DeLillo and Pynchon as a teenager, thinking they were incoherent, boring, or both, and putting them back down again—an opinion I haven’t managed to revised.

* Why we’ve reached the end of the camera megapixel race.

* A Book in Every Home, and Then Some.

* The Stockholm Syndrome Theory of Long Novels.

* The stars of modern SF pick the best science fiction. A lot of the choices don’t look very appealing to me; I wonder if this is an example of the values of writers and reading diverging.

* Normally I think the day-to-day of politics is stupid and cruel, but some meta political commentary can be amusing, along the observation of hypocrisy. Like in this New York Times column: “What is it with Republicans lately? Is there something about being a leader of the family-values party that makes you want to go out and commit adultery?”

* The Magician King is done.

* The annoyances of eBooks, and why they will probably win anyway.

Policies have consequences: Teacher edition

There’s a nifty thread on Hacker News regarding this post from a teacher dismayed at his district’s inability or unwillingness to enforce any sort of discipline on students (if I were him, I’d try to get the New York Times interested in the story). This comment from Maxharris caught my attention, in which the writer says, “My solution? Make attendance voluntary by abolishing truancy laws.”

I agree in theory, but in practice removing truancy laws probably won’t work out so well. Look, for example, at the chapter in Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational about prebinding commitments and universities. In one experiment, he (and his co-authors) took a group of similar classes and divided them in three: one was told that it could turn in papers whenever each member wanted; another group was told it could pick due dates at the beginning but had to stick with them; and the third group was given conventional due dates spaced over the course of the semester. The last group did the best, grade-wise; the second did reasonably well too, since most students picked conventional due dates; and the first did the worst.

The lesson: people are often bad at committing to things. Most of us know this intuitively and can remember times we’ve put things off to our own unhappiness.

I’ve observed similar prebinding effects when teaching freshman composition at the University of Arizona. I used to conduct many more experiments by ranging the number of mandatory drafts: sometimes I’d require as few as one and tell students they should go through at least three to four drafts, and sometimes I assign as many as five. The more drafts, the better papers tended to be, the higher the grades I hand out, and the fewer students I find bellyaching to me in office hours or via e-mail. Without those mandatory drafts, students (mostly, though not universally) got bad grades and then resented me for it. Solution: require more drafts.

If I were the teacher with the discipline problems, I probably would’ve tried to get the local newspaper to publish my post as an article, then shown up at a school board meeting, ideally with a reporter, and a detailed list of abuses. That might get me fired. But it also might actually get something to change. The solution to the specific problem mentioned isn’t with attendance policies; it’s with district administration. And sunshine is sometimes a very effective disinfectant, as teachers’ unions are discovering the hard way.

It’s also relatively easy to advocate no truancy laws on Hacker News (and don’t such laws only apply up to 16?); if you were actually a school principal or district superintendent who did, you would probably be fired or voted out of office if such a policy were implemented and you or your community had to face the consequences of it. You’d get (even more) dumb 15-year-olds deciding to drop out of school on their own volition because school is hard and video games are fun, or whatever, and they’d probably be more likely to have crime problems (since 15-year-olds don’t have job skills), and you’d get parents unhappy that they don’t have stronger laws at their disposal to try to force recalcitrant students into school. These kinds of unintended consequences can be the most pernicious kind.

I’ve noticed that, on a lot of tech-oriented Internet outlets (think Slashdot, Hacker News, and the like), a libertarian, let-students-choose ethos prevails—see, for example, this post on student laptops in class. I’m very sympathetic to this kind of ethos and try to incorporate it in my own assignments to the extent possible. The problem that I perceive is that relatively few of the posters like Maxharris fully understand the issue they’re dealing with, the law of unintended consequences, and how bad most people are at managing their time. To some extent, this is just how it goes: some people are going to fail at things, and that’s okay. But in things like school, it’s probably not a bad idea to make this harder than it could be otherwise.

This goes beyond classes and truancy; in my time teaching, I’m pretty sure I’ve had dozens of students who were convinced they were good enough writers not to need freshmen composition. Most of them did it; maybe one to six didn’t, and probably only one. That’s why such classes exist as they do: because most people aren’t great at judging their own skill level.

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