Education, Features

What ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ Gets Wrong About Early Education

Back in 2015, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt published an essay in The Atlantic about the nascent American campus culture of safe spaces and no-platforming. In the intervening three years, this culture has flourished and Lukianoff and Haidt have turned their critique into a book.

The book is an interesting read and one that is strong in documenting some of the defining events of the last few years. I am less convinced of the explanation that Lukianoff and Haidt put forward for those events; an explanation they describe as a culture of ‘safetyism.’ Modern society, they claim, is teaching young people the opposite of the tenets of cognitive behavioural therapy. Young people are told to trust their feelings, that what doesn’t kill them makes them weaker and that the world can be divided into goodies and baddies.

This seems like a plausible account, even if I am no expert in the veracity of cognitive behavioural therapy. However, Lukianoff and Haidt’s explanation may underplay the extent to which campus politics is a real, if misguided, reaction to the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the kind of actual white supremacists we saw in Charlottesville (as opposed to the many imaginary ones targeted by safetyism).

While I withhold judgement on the overall argument, there is one part of the book that the authors clearly get wrong. These are the statements they make on the value of childhood play.

Lukianoff and Haidt argue that unstructured free play is essential for children to build social skills such as the ability to navigate conflict. I agree. They argue that helicopter parenting and a fear of stranger danger has caused parents to greatly reduce their children’s opportunities for free play. This is a fair point. However, they then set-up free play in opposition to any kind of early explicit teaching of academic abilities, even claiming that the latter is harmful.

Let’s examine the role of play in learning before dealing with the claim that explicit teaching causes harm.

Learning social skills is very different to academic learning. Humans have had to learn how to work together since Homo sapiens first evolved. This is what psychologist David C. Geary refers to as a ‘biologically primary’ ability and animals, including humans, have evolved play as a way of learning such abilities.

Reading and writing are ‘biologically secondary’ abilities

On the other hand, reading and writing, which sit at the heart of all academic abilities, have been around for just a few thousand years, with mass literacy only becoming common in the last couple of hundred years. Geary refers to these as ‘biologically secondary’ abilities. Although they co-opt primary abilities, they are something else; a cultural artefact that we have not evolved to learn through play. We can demonstrate this by pointing to the many human cultures that have not developed literacy, but where children still learn a variety of primary abilities through play.

It could be the case that play is also the best way to learn academic abilities. However, the evidence suggests that learning secondary abilities is effortful and involves an element of hard slog. Although children can learn these capabilities implicitly, it is a slow process and many more children will fail to grasp the key ideas than if an explicit approach is used.

The most obvious example is the difference between a ‘whole language’ approach to teaching early reading and systematic phonics. In whole language, children are surrounded by ‘real books,’ hear lots of stories, have plenty of choice of what to read, and are encouraged to use meaning to help predict unknown words. The relationship between the letters on the page and their corresponding sounds in speech is de-emphasised and children are expected to learn these largely implicitly. Essentially, whole language is an attempt to make early reading instruction as similar as possible to the process by which children acquire oral language; a biologically primary ability that most develop with little or no explicit teaching through a process similar to free play.

In a systematic phonics programme, the relationships between letters and sounds are taught explicitly in a planned sequence from the outset. Such lessons are often lively and engaging, with teachers working to invent routines, games and songs to keep the children’s attention, but they are the opposite of free play because the teacher is directing and explaining everything.

Three government inquiries in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia have each reviewed the available evidence and concluded that a phonics approach is superior to whole language.

The finding that explicit teaching is the most effective approach for academic learning does not, however, tell us at what age to begin, particularly if it is potentially harmful, as Lukianoff and Haidt claim. As part of their evidence, they cite a Psychology Today article that draws on research by Schweinhart and Weikart that is worth exploring in more detail.

The influence of Schweinhart and Weikart’s research is surprising. Their study began in 1967 and set out to examine how three different early education programmes impacted children into their teenage years and young adulthood. The three different education programmes included one which incorporated direct instruction (a form of explicit teaching that the children were engaged in for about an hour per day), one which was entirely play-based, and one which was called “High/Scope” (a structured play-based programme). Children from poor backgrounds were semi-randomly assigned into one of each of the three the three groups.

Schweinhart and Weikart tracked children over a period of forty years. But they were only able to trace one-third of the children who had participated in the original study, and there were significant differences between the three groups prior to intervention. For example, the number of children raised by single parents in the direct instruction group was significantly higher than the “High/Scope” group and income levels of these single-parent families were about half that of the “High/Scope” group average. Nevertheless, Schweinhart and Weikart claimed that there was a greater rate of delinquency in the teenagers who had been in the direct instruction group (amounting to a difference of about one or two teenagers) and they attributed the cause of this to direct instruction teaching methods.

Yet such an assertion of causality is surely unsupportable.  It is well-known that educational effects often wash out within a year or two after the original intervention – a source of constant anguish for education researchers – and so a finding that a teaching practice adopted in preschool would substantially affect the behaviour of teenagers, ten years or so later, would be truly extraordinary.

The other evidence that Lukianoff and Haidt present is from a widely discussed but entirely unremarkable study: “The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery,” published in authored by Bonawitz et al., and published in Cognition.

In this study, young children were given a toy to play with. Half of them had the toy demonstrated by the teacher and for the other half, the teacher pretended not to know how the toy worked and appeared to discover some of the features in front of the children. The twist is that the teacher who gave the demonstration also did not demonstrate all of the toy’s functions. Presumably, the children assumed the teacher had demonstrated all the functions because that’s what you might reasonably expect the teacher to do and so they didn’t look for the other functions. Children who had the apparently clueless teacher did discover the other functions. This is somehow presented as evidence that explicit teaching harms a child’s curiosity. It is not. Essentially, in both groups the children simply copied the behaviour of their teacher and playing with toys is a largely biologically primary activity that is remote from academic learning.

Even if explicit teaching is not harmful, it could be argued that we may still wish to delay explicit teaching in order to maximise the time for free play and for children to develop social skills. However, I think that would be a mistake. In early education settings that incorporate some explicit teaching, the majority of time is still devoted to play, something that isn’t widely understood by critics of explicit instruction who often present the choice in either/or terms.

The bigger issue around play would appear to be what is happening in the evenings and at weekends. If we delay the teaching of academic abilities, we can predict what will happen. Children from advantaged backgrounds who are surrounded by academic stimuli at home may start to pick up some academic abilities implicitly, or their parents may start explicitly teaching them. It is the children from less advantaged background who will have to wait as the gap grows wider. This does not seem like a desirable outcome.

However, I suppose Lukianoff and Haidt are not really focused on the disadvantaged. Their concern is with students attending some of the most expensive colleges in the United States. Perhaps these students have been over-parented. Perhaps they have been coddled. Perhaps they should have spent more time climbing trees as children. There might be something in that.

We just need to be careful before we apply this logic in a way that holds less advantaged children back and prevents them from gaining the academic boost that they need.


Greg Ashman is a Ph.D. student at the University of New South Wales. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent any institution. Follow him on Twitter @greg_ashman


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  2. Savager says

    “Back in 2015, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt published an essay in The Atlantic about the nascent American campus culture of safe spaces and no-platforming.”

    “However, Lukianoff and Haidt’s explanation may underplay the extent to which campus politics is a real, if misguided, reaction to the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the kind of actual white supremacists we saw in Charlottesville (as opposed to the many imaginary ones targeted by safetyism).”

    These statements are in contradiction. Haidt and Lukianoff wrote their essay before Trump responding to events that occurred back when a Trump Presidency was a joke and well before Charlottesville. Clearly, it’s not possible for this to just be a response to Trump and Haidt and Lukianoff are well justified in not putting Trump as a key element in the illiberal turn.

    These statements are never really elaborated on later.

    Trump has almost certainly had a role in the intensity and caused the Center left to increasingly fold on these issues, but the problems were around long before then. There are sources and surveys indicating the problems started around 2013, well before Trump or the alt-right were even subjects of discussion. Let’s get our timeline straight so that we can focus on actual causes.

    “Let’s examine the role of play in learning before dealing with the claim that explicit teaching causes harm.”

    The bulk of this essay is fundamentally strong, but the thesis is wrong. The claim isn’t that explicit teaching causes children to not become coddled, it’s that play based teaching fails to educate as effectively as explicit instruction.

    “However, I suppose Lukianoff and Haidt are not really focused on the disadvantaged. Their concern is with students attending some of the most expensive colleges in the United States. Perhaps these students have been over-parented. Perhaps they have been coddled. Perhaps they should have spent more time climbing trees as children. There might be something in that.”

    And here we see the central issue. The upper middle class kids are being carted around from organized activity to organized activity while being ruthlessly disciplined to get good grades to go to the best colleges. The poorer students are left to go home and fend for themselves. The author thinks we need to maintain explicit instruction for the poorer students whereas there is a problem with the students at top colleges. I don’t think Haidt has claimed the poorer students are as fervently swept up into the political games as the upper class students. By any means, you can do one form of instruction in one place and another in another place.

    Ultimately, both matter. The kids at Harvard will (with very high likely hood) become the leaders of the free world–should they keep it a free world.

    As an aside, in my experience alot of lower performing students tend to lose interest in academics, getting them to care about explicit instruction at all is a core challenge.

    • The Atlantic essay was published in 2015. The book was published this year. It is the book that I am responding to.

      • Nick Ender says

        Interesting essay. I was planning on reading that book. I’ll keep this in mind when I do. Savager is right though. The first and third paragraphs contradict each other.

      • georgopolis says

        The research the book was based on predates the Trump phenomenon. Numerous studies show that this shift in campus culture occurred around 2013 when Gen Z entered campus.

        If anything, Haidt and Lukianoff’s theory support the notion that these coddled minds would overreact to a character like Trump. And it’s obvious, even to a Canadian with no skin in the game, that they are overreacting. Though that overreaction appears to have infected every cohort on the left. Your insertion of Trump as the causative agent in an essay about teaching styles is a blatant example.

        That said, I largely agree about structured teaching. I have not read the book but I have heard Haidt and Lukianoff speak about the subject. I don’t really think they are suggesting eliminating structured teaching. It’s about the freedom from oversight when the lesson is over and letting children at least attempt to sort their social problems out amongst themselves.

        Thanks for the interesting read.

      • savager says

        Doesn’t matter. If the thesis is fundamentally the same, we should expect the causal effects to be the same regardless of time period in which things were written.

        The only reason to introduce a new factor is is if there has been a fundamental rethinking of the thesis entirely (there hasn’t, as Haidt and Heterodox Academy have been doing a great deal of further work showing the cause was before Trump) or a rapid change.

        Trump might have caused an uptick in the adoption in the center left, but as the thesis clearly predates Trump and hasn’t been discarded, there is no reason to make him a central element (or really a key element at all).

        As an aside, there were other fights around 2013 and 2014 that were largely missed and are coming to light more recently in the culture war, such as the Atheism+ schism, all which predate Trump.

        It’s more likely this is more of Most Intolerant Wins (See: Nassim Taleb’s article) phenomenon, where it started in small communities around 2013-2015 and entered the mainstream consciousness after about 2016. Under such a timeline and theory, there is no need for Trump to play any part in creating authoritarian tendencies except to absolutely inflame the opposition and drive things to the fore.

    • Ferngullible says

      I managed after school programs for almost ten years. Poor kids have myriad free out of school time program options, many not available to middle class kids because of income requirements. If anything it’s lower middle class kids with few options.

  3. Jacqui says

    This is an interesting article. Although I am very much looking forward to reading this book, I have not yet had a chance to get hold of a copy. Therefore I cannot comment on the content of the book itself but did want to reiterate what the author of the article, Greg Ashman says. Both explicit and implicit learning in a structured environment are important for children to learn academic skills. As a speech pathologist and a mother of a child with dyslexia, I would support the role that structured teaching has in education. There is a very large body of research to suggest that the “whole language” approach to literacy has been detrimental to children’s literacy skills, particularly to children with dyslexia. While free play is very important for all the reasons already mentioned in the article and presumably the book, let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. Children still need to learn to pay attention, to focus on what they are learning, to finish a task, to persevere. In addition to these skills that are often learnt in structured academic environments, the explicit teaching of sound-letter combinations and spelling rules has been found to be very important to children learning to read and write. As well as explicit instruction, implicit learning in a structured setting (currently referred to in the learning literature as statistical learning) may also be important in how children learn academic skills. The point here though is that the learning environment is structured, rather than play based (although as Ashman suggests, it is still often fun). What is important is that as children enter school (preschool onwards), it is important that a balance between free play and structured learning takes place. If indeed Lukianoff and Haidt suggest that structured learning is detrimental, this would be disappointing and a position that perhaps the authors of the book have not properly thought through. I would suspect that neither author has a child with a learning disability.
    I think the point that Ashman makes about the differences among children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds is a valid one and one that we should keep in mind when reflecting on the information that Lukianoff and Haidt present. In the community that I live and work in, my experience has been that underparenting can also cause a lack of resilience in children. It is likely that in this cultural moment of our times, the lack of resilience across a range of socio economic groups (caused by different reasons) may be feeding off each other to create not just a sense of victimhood among college students but also within the wider community. It is also important to note that much of what Lukianoff and Haidt present is only just being researched and so while their views may be interesting and resonate with many of us, there is still research that needs to be done to bring greater insight into this topic.

    • @Jacqui “Children still need to learn to pay attention, to focus on what they are learning, to finish a task, to persevere. In addition to these skills that are often learnt in structured academic environments, the explicit teaching of sound-letter combinations and spelling rules has been found to be very important to children learning to read and write.”

      Actually, all these are commonly learnt in an unschooling situation. An unschooled child will learn to read by having text read to them when they want to know what it says – without the explicit teaching of sound-letter combinations or spelling rules. Paying attention, focusing on what they are learning, persevering and finishing a task, are skills which come naturally to a child supplied with resources, the freedom to use them, and help when they ask for it. Perhaps this is something like what you term a ‘structured learning environment’.

      Setting up ‘free play’ in opposition to ‘coddling’ is a mistake – not that unschooling is coddling, by any means, although it does take a lot of care and attention from the parent. Of course, unschooling like that isn’t feasible in a school situation, so there *may* be some argument for explicit teaching. On the other hand, there often seem to be assumptions built into teachers’ conception of explicit teaching, such as the age at which it is best to start teaching particular subjects (reading, maths) and the approach of breaking subjects down into small steps which are required to be mastered before moving on. To construct the choice around explicit instruction on one hand, versus free play on the other, seems simplistic and unprofitable to me.

  4. Edward Freeman says

    “However, Lukianoff and Haidt’s explanation may underplay the extent to which campus politics is a real, if misguided, reaction to the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the kind of actual white supremacists we saw in Charlottesville”

    Nope. Identity politics took its steroids in around 2014.

  5. I enjoy reading Quillette for such thoughtful essays.

    However, I’m not sure it discounts the arguments in the Coddling of the American Mind. It could be true that systematic learning is a better approach than free play in some cases AND that Lukianoff and Haidt’s premises still hold.

    Even if the exact same type of learning causes both better reading and writing and lower resilience (personally, I think there are separate systems here), then the better approach would really be to find out how to better balance the two rather than dismiss one or the other, or supplement with other forms. There are countless examples in the pharmaceutical industry of experimenting with the right dose. Too many aspirin will kill me, but I’m not going to ban aspirin, as at the right dose it’s helpful. A more direct counterargument might have been to point out that the extensive rote learning of 50+ years ago didn’t seem to lead to coddling.

    I think Ashman’s mention of the Trump presidency as an alternative cause here weakens his argument. At best it shows a lack of awareness of problems that Lukianoff, Haidt and many others had identified earlier and at worst is willful ignorance of causality. Personally, I don’t agree with Haidt and Lukianoff anyway (at least within this narrow focus on early childhood). I think universities since the 60s have encouraged both liberalisation and a lack of personal responsibility (in both positive and negative ways) and a number of recent events have exacerbated this – e.g. Obama’s Title IX guidance in 2011 and the the pervasiveness of (poor quality) discourse on the internet.

    Ultimately, while I think Ashman’s point about ensuring good practices (for poorer kids especially) is valid, it would be better framed as an addition to Haidt and Lukianoff, rather than a rejection.

  6. E. Olson says

    It appears that the author (Ashman) believes that leftist campus politics is purely a reaction to Trump’s election and the consequent resurgence of the KKK and the Nazi party, which isn’t very surprising given how Trump is frequently equated to Hitler by the mainstream media and academia. After all, Hitler killed 6 million Jews, started a world war, shut down the free-press, jailed/killed political opponents, stopped free-elections, and heavily taxed and regulated the German economy, which is roughly equivalent to Trump’s zero death count, zero jailing of political opponents, zero disobedience of court orders (including the unconstitutional ones), support for Israel, increases in political and economic freedom (from deregulation and lower taxes, and his many mean Tweets about people and media who frequently call him Hitler. The author’s premise is let down more seriously, however, by the fact that college campus leftist indoctrination and violent reaction to right wing candidates and issues pre-dates the Trump administration by a few decades (e.g. Reagan, Bush II, and Romney among others were also equated to Hitler). If K-12 schools and universities actually taught students history, perhaps there would be fewer erroneous comparisons between Hitler and Republicans, and more understanding about how relatively minor our current “problems” are with racism, sexism, and other “isms” that permeate recent campus “protests”.

    In fact, the author’s main point about what works in education might be better addressed if academia would face the real problems of the Western world today. Instead of assuming that it is racism or other forms of discrimination that are the primary (only?) cause of the generally poor academic achievements of the “underclass”, perhaps academia should focus instead on finding the pedagogical approaches that work best on students with low IQ and/or bad home environments and/or coming from cultures that don’t value academic achievement. Perhaps academia might also consider how their emphasis on teaching poorly performing students to consider themselves to “victims” of white patriarchy might not be an effective means of motivating them to study hard. Academia might also consider how disruptive/violent students destroy the learning environment for many disadvantaged students, and that not allowing teachers/administration to punish/expel/arrest problem students because of social justice concerns (i.e. blacks and Hispanics comprise the vast majority of disrupters) means they are hurting the very students most in need of help. In fact, if academia focused more on teaching their subjects and less on social justice, learning outcomes would be enhanced for everyone.

    • I wrote, “This seems like a plausible account, even if I am no expert in the veracity of cognitive behavioural therapy. However, Lukianoff and Haidt’s explanation may underplay the extent to which campus politics is a real, if misguided, reaction to the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the kind of actual white supremacists we saw in Charlottesville.”

      You wrote, “It appears that the author (Ashman) believes that leftist campus politics is purely a reaction to Trump’s election and the consequent resurgence of the KKK and the Nazi party.”

      This is obviously a complete misrepresentation of what I wrote. Complex social phenomena can have multiple causes.

      The book focuses on many events that have occurred since 2016 and attempts to show that they have become more extreme in this time frame. I therefore think we should not discount the role of a reaction to Trump etc.

      • E. Olson says

        Greg, You are absolutely correct that “Complex social phenomena can have multiple causes.”, but your writing only mentions Trump and white supremacists as the instigating cause of campus politics, which suggests you know little about US history and the social phenomena of campus politics. Your lack of historic knowledge and apparent bias in surveying cause and effect are also unfortunately shared by most US journalists and social science/humanities US faculty, and reflect very poorly on the educational establishment that was the focus of your article.

      • Trajan Fanzine says

        Uhmmmm, maybe and not so much, exit question of you will;

        Kids do have an innate sense fairness…. children that watch sports take in ( and cannot help assimilating) the fact that no matter what the sport , the ‘race or color ‘ environment is ‘lets say’ at the least fair to all, black, Hispanic, white….

        Now, take into account the bombardment of ‘victim hood’, would not the innate sense of fairness at some point in time in the child’s mind, be taken aback at the very least by the differences in what they have seen with their own eyes? They would have to at some level question what they are hearing and what they witness actively via the act of sports on the field in front of them……

        It can be this simple……

  7. Peter Davies says

    ‘rise of the kind of actual white supremacists we saw in Charlottesville’
    A rise of a paltry number of tiki torch welding basement dwellers? That’s not a rise, it’s a joke.
    The rest of the article is interesting Phonics particularly.

  8. Michael says

    I’m not sure that the author is addressing the thesis of the book. The causes of the current campus climate – the actions, policies, and practices that led to what Haidt and Lukianoff call “safetyism” versus the different needs of underprivileged kids aren’t necessarily the same thing.

    It seems that the article is calling out some potential fallout from policies Ashamn is concerned could be caused should H&L’s ideas gain widespread adoption.

    If that’s true, it’s the kind of problem that’s happening with this kind of science. Someone says “we believe that this is what the data says.” I.e., After analysis, we think these are th facts. This is followed by assertions that these kinds of facts can hurt people.

    • Joshua D Schwartz says

      Neverind, it’s in the article. I mistook an author name. I should have read more closely.

  9. To the Author,

    Your essay would be greatly strengthened by adding a quote from Lukianoff and Haida that structured learning is detrimental to Children. Without it, you seem to be arguing against a strawman. I have not read the book, so I can’t say for sure that is the case; but it would seem to be be hard to argue all structured learning is bad when your source population of the phenomenon you question is upper-crust academic institutions of higher learning; and Haidt is a college professor. Certainly these men believe in at least some forms of structured learning, it is their career. I understand their argument to be that we need both structured and unstructured learning, and have a serious deficit of the latter. Again, a quote here would be advantageous to the argument you are making.

    And on a personal note; the causal dig at them for ‘not focusing on the disadvantaged’ when it is obvious they are trying to understand and stop a dangerous social phenomenon whose effects cuts across racial, social and economic backgrounds is crude. Not a crude as trying to put the cart before the horse and attempt to blame Trump for a type of terrible social behavior that both clearly predates him, and is at least inpart responsible for his rise; but taken together both are rather shabby.

    • Here is a quote from the relevant section:

      “Today, kindergarten is much more structured and sedentary, with children spending more time sitting at desks and receiving direct instruction in academic subjects – known as the ‘drill and skill’ method of instruction, but that teachers not-so-affectionately call ‘drill and kill’. Such methods are sometimes effective ways to communicate academic information to older children, but they are not appropriate for use with young children. There is growing evidence that with young children, these methods can backfire and produce negative effects on creativity as well as on social and emotional development.”

      They then cite the two sources that I discuss above.

      As an aside, I have never heard anyone describe this method as ‘drill and skill’. However, I have heard plenty of educationalists describe it pejoratively as ‘drill and kill’.

      • Matthew says

        I would just note that drilling is not synonymous with direct instruction. Conflating the two makes for a muddied argument. Young children can receive direct instruction in a variety of settings and in a variety of ways, not just by filling in bubbles for standardized tests.

        Also, let’s not demonize drilling; it is an essential component of learning for *specific* skills, usually foundational skills that are building blocks for more complex, abstract skills..As with all things, the toxicity is in the dosage (and in this case, with the timing).

      • Andrew_W says

        I agree with Matthew, the “drill and s/kill form of instruction is not synonymous with structured learning, so unless the author can find a quote from H&L in which they state that “explicit teaching of academic abilities” . . . “is harmful.” I’m calling strawman on the authors claims.

  10. It seems Greg Ashman, PhD, Uni. NSW, is a moron who cannot keep a simple chronology straight in rendering his considered opinions.

    BTW: How does this Aussi get to insert “we” into US politics?

  11. This is a nicely balanced article. The difficulty people have in engaging with its ideas is striking. Libertarians have been concerned with safetyism for a while. But those of us who don’t only look at partisan media recognize a massive uptick in Identity concerns in major media since the advent of Trump. And really it is not a major point unless you need to have a knee jerk response every time Trump or schooling is mentioned.

    Libertarian antagonism towards schooling is a little baffling. From the quality of posts there seems for some people an anger that their (dubious) brilliance wasn’t recognized in their school years. Other actually intelligent people seem to believe that everybody should be able to learn by osmosis like they can. But truly intelligent kids are not going to be damaged by instruction and the average kid undoubtedly needs it.

    Yes, your kids are going to develop ideas different from yours if you don’t keep and iron grip on their minds. That is a good thing.

    I feel sorry for the kids that are kept away from traditional schooling and the social and intellectual benefits it confers, whether capable of self-schooling or not. I highly recommend supplementing traditional school with personal exploration and self-education, but I have little doubt that most kids educated under the sole aegis of doctrinaire parents who think they know everything are suffering for it.

    • Conan the Agrarian says

      “Libertarian antagonism towards schooling is a little baffling …. truly intelligent kids are not going to be damaged by instruction and the average kid undoubtedly needs it.”

      I have a different take and experience.

      I was a very bright kid. School felt like wearing a straightjacket in the chimp enclosure at the zoo. I went along to get along, but I was miserable, bored to literal tears, felt like I was trapped in a bad dream. I couldn’t relate to the other kids at all. I got deeply depressed. I wanted to die. I didn’t know there were alternatives.

      My teachers were well intentioned people, but they had no clue what they were dealing with, that the normal system couldn’t possibly serve me. It wasn’t until a family friend–a retired NASA rocket engineer who designed the anti-water hammer absorber in the liquid fuel system in the Saturn V rocket platform–told my mother “Your son may be the smartest person I have ever met. YOU HAVE TO DO SOMETHING OR HE WILL IMPLODE.” that I got tested and put into college classes in junior high. I was still bored, but I finally had the freedom to do things on my own terms. I taught myself calculus and Latin on the side, read Shakespeare’s collected works … that kind of stuff.

      I think the libertarian criticisms of the educational system illuminate a terrible problem. The school system serves and promotes a narrow section of the population who can conform to it and lets the rest fall to the side, both the extremely bright and those below average. The kids who are “differently abled”, who perform terribly in a classroom but are wizards with a socket wrench, welding torch, or Skilsaw and hammer endure 12 years (and sometimes 16 years) in a cage before they are allowed to spend their days in a rewarding manner.

      It’s intellectual strip mining. The waste of time and potential is staggering and little remarked on. Economist Bryan Caplan wrote a fascinating book about it. I recommend it if you want to understand this whole issue more deeply:

      • Well, as an intelligent person you recognize the problems with generalizing from anecdotal evidence.

        In my case, I got to go to classes at the Gifted Child Society of my own choice (dinosaurs, fish, space, chess, etc) when I was 5. My Mom taught me reading and arithmetic and chess when I was two. I lived in a great school district and 95% of teachers were pleased to have me in their classes and gave me flexibility and enriched experiences.

        Frankly I enjoyed whatever I was learning in any class. I did a lot of reading and learning on my own. I loved electronics and building things. There was undeveloped land near my house and I used to like to find and identify all sorts of land and water creatures. I climbed the wall to the police range and brought back lead that I molded into various things. I did model rocketry. I found asteroids with my telescope and microscopic life with my microscope. I looked for artifacts with my metal detector.

        I have a hard time figuring out how structured classes could prevent me from doing these independent things in my outside school time.

        I was a bit of a loner (and bullied) so in high school my teachers pushed me to join debate, math league and model congress. My math teacher got me to apply to a national science foundation program that taught high school freshmen most of undergraduate computer science. My professors were AI researchers and we used an AI language. I designed and wrote my own computer algebra system (like Mathematica) and helped design and simulate a large scale computer that was later built. As one of the best students I got to audit any graduate course I wanted and could get an account on any computer I found at the university.

        My high school had a wide range of electives. I particularly enjoyed structured classes on constitutional law, economic systems, tragedies and Existentialism. My math teacher let me choose any college level class and he taught me a new class each quarter. I taught myself calculus and advanced calculus completely independently. I had independent study English my last year. I loved poetry and felt that it was very similar to a well written computer program. If I didn’t like my French homework I’d write a sonnet or villanelle in French and hand it in instead.

        I found the ivy league to be boring, so I quit and started a programming career. I have no regrets. I went back to school for some quantum and psychology classes and quit when I learned what I wanted. I’ve taken some great online classes, but mostly I teach myself whatever I am interested in, poetry, artificial intelligence, social psychology, quantum and particle physics, or whatever. Now I have enough that I am free to live a unstructured expat lifestyle.

        Again, this is just another personal experience. But I am happy for the teachers I had as well as the time I had to do my own learning.

      • Andrew Mcguiness says

        @Conan the Agrarian: A good comment that goes beyond a simpistic free play vs instruction dichotomy.

        “School felt like wearing a straightjacket in the chimp enclosure at the zoo. I went along to get along, but I was miserable, bored to literal tears, felt like I was trapped in a bad dream.” That describes my own experience of school very closely. Not that I was necessarily as bright as you, but bright enough to be sitting and waiting for the rest of the class to catch up with what I’d already understood. By the middle of first term in high school I’d stopped listening to the maths teacher. I was fascinated by maths and physics and chemistry when I started school and had the capacity to make a career in some related field; my learning progress certainly was damaged by instruction.

        And that’s why I homeschool my child – not because I’m a “doctrinaire parent” but because I don’t want my child’s formative years to be long days of boredom and drudgery. The social and intellectual benefits of homeschooling by parents who educated and thoughtful are little understood by people whose information about homeschooling comes from negative documentaries and articles.

        • Chris says

          I hope home schooling works out for your kids. Most of what we learn is school prepares us for having interesting careers. I’m sure teachers can make it boring, but I don’t see anything inherently boring about school subjects. And kids’ minds are geared for learning. I still live mainly off the store of what I learned before 18. In my 50s now I wish I still had the power to learn that quickly and deeply. Do you teach your kids a full math and science and humanities curriculum or is it free form? Do you try to insulate them from certain material or can they roam as they please in their studies?

          I was allowed to skip physics classes as long as I aced the tests. I didn’t have to read the book usually because the problems were solvable by calculus. But I skipped because my girlfriend had a free period. Otherwise I’d go. It is hard for me to conceive of attending class as a painful experience, even if the content were easy for me. I’d extend the problems into something that interested me. For example, if people were grinding out falling object results I’d see if I could figure the effect on a falling object of the inverse square law of gravitation. What was the acceleration in the center of the earth? Halfway there? I never had a teacher refuse to let me answer harder questions than the ones on the test or refuse my extra credit work.

          I have to say I really loved my school. My favorite teachers were mentors and second parents. I still remember the love they communicated for their subjects and things like my English teacher’s anguish at the climax of Light In August, or fear that we would be disturbed by the villain Iago in Othello. They were special people.

      • peanut gallery says

        My son can quit High School and just get a GED when he reaches that age as far as I’m concerned. Schools are more like prisons than ever.

    • Tim Bugge says

      The classical Libertarian criticism is not of schooling per se but of the method of it’s funding.

      Where government funding begins to compete (put upward pressure on prices) for the resources necessary for schooling, the less organized but more potent initiative of private schooling is made to bear an arguably politically unfair burden.

  12. Back in my day, it was the liberals who decried the structured world of children, and sought to liberate them with Montessori style free play and self directed learning.

    Which brings up the central dichotomy facing those who are alarmed at the social justice movements like #metoo and BLM.

    Criticizing these movements as priggish and authoritarian, and calling for individual freedom and iconoclastic smashing of boundaries, inevitably leads to a collision with the traditional forms of social control such as religion.

    • Chip, that sounds like a good thing to me. Religions are simply failed autocratic governments. They still have that power in much of the Islamic world, but thankfully they have lost most governmental powers in the West.

      #MeToo is a problem because it doesn’t believe in due process or reasonable standards of evidence. It also wants to “empower” women by declaring them unable to protect and stand up for themselves in ways that are taken for granted by men. I am totally in support of women’s safety and would defend it in the moment under any circumstance. I have never had to do that in any real sense (although I have interrupted several attacks on men). The most I have experienced was degrading speech, which I refuse to allow in my presence.

      There is nothing that anybody can effectively do about actions that occurred decades in the past. My family can’t even agree on benign history. Memory of that term is totally unreliable.

      BLM seems totally reasonable to me. Police misconduct is not solely a black issue, but it affects them disproportionately. In my opinion, police are like soldiers, volunteering to risk their lives for our benefit. Their lives DO certainly matter, but if they are not willing to take a bullet to avoid shooting an unarmed person they are in the wrong line of work. And, like in the army, negligence or malfeasance by a police officer should be a criminal offense, just as soldiers are court martialed for negligence in the line of duty. Being an officer isn’t supposed to be an easy job. That is why it is held in high regard.

      The police issue is complicated. I realize that training often teaches police that they should be belligerent and shoot to kill if they feel threatened. So they may not be solely responsible. And they work in a largely isolated culture that may reinforce a Fort Apache mindset and punish people for not conforming to an aggressively police-centric viewpoint.

      I wonder how useful it is to give a group a monopoly on violence when it leads to a split in world view. America is a power obsessed country. People tend to use the power they have.

      I don’t think of BLM as priggish or authoritarian. Why do you say that? I get most of my information concerning the police from, which seems to share my concern with police abuses, but maybe does not reflect some information.

      • Lert345 says


        ” but if they are not willing to take a bullet to avoid shooting an unarmed person they are in the wrong line of work”

        Unarmed is not synonymous with harmless. An unarmed person can choke you, beat you, violate a woman, and so on. Police are certainly justified in shooting an unarmed person who is threatening others or themselves.

        • Chris says

          Lert345, yours is scary logic. Threats are a low bar for killing someone. And incredibly vague. That’s why police are taught martial arts and given non lethal weapons. They should also be trained to back off and contain a situation where they need backup to arrest a suspect who might be scary but isn’t actually hurting someone at the moment.

          Everybody is potentially harmful. They should not be shot for that reason.

          An assault or rape in progress certainly needs to be addressed immediately, but you probably can’t use a gun when the suspect is in close proximity to a victim. You have have courage and take a risk. Not everybody is brave. But if you are not brave, if you need to respond to a fist with a gun, you shouldn’t be an officer.

          My face is scarred from where I fought off muggers. I have stood up to a gang attacking an individual. I didn’t use a weapon. I used guts. People without guts shouldn’t be police officers.

  13. Is there compelling evidence that kids today read more than before?
    Academic learning generally requires being still and quiet, which tends to put boys at a disadvantage.
    From what we see in our culture today, more time to socialize is clearly needed. Kids didn’t shoot each other in school in bad old days.
    Free play is often not replaced with academics, but with organized play. Swings, climbing, slides, etc. are all disappearing over fear of litigation as much as fear of injury, but these all just focus on on fear rather than adventure and risk taking.

  14. “This is somehow presented as evidence that explicit teaching harms a child’s curiosity. It is not. Essentially, in both groups the children simply copied the behaviour of their teacher and playing with toys is a largely biologically primary activity that is remote from academic learning.“

    I find it interesting that this is dismissed so easily ‘it is not’ (okay why?). While it’s definitely not a direct connection it’s an interesting insight on how children learn. It’s suggests they do imitate adults and if we teach them ‘exact’ acedemic processes they not going to do much exploring for themselves only imitate what they’ve been shown.

  15. Hannah Lee says

    Haight is arguing for Unstructured PLAY and Structured Teaching BOTH- unstructured play forces children to work it out for themselves without appealing to an adult Authority (as Millenials do to excess (and risking offense) while still having expecations about time in class, to focus on specific skills..

    spoiled, temper tantrum throwing entitled young children are convinced the world revolves around themselves like a precious snowflake, and grow into self regarding ‘woke’ Antifa members

    • John M says

      @Hannah Lee

      Haidt goes to great lengths in the book to dispel the notion that it’s Millennials who act the way you describe. It’s the iGen/GenZ according to him, which is a distinct and newer generation.

  16. Jason Cooper says

    The question that should be asked is whether or not ‘coddling’ and ‘helicopter parenting’ is inclusive of fears associated with having a child fail academically, and parents subsequently doing their school work for their child. I perceive a natural relationship between the concepts of social and academic learning when the decisions in both spectrums are being made by the same individuals, fulfilling the same role. This leads to the general point that subject child averts the failure lessons implied through the social model emphasizing the value of unsupervised play.

  17. Great job Quillette: praise the book where deserved, criticize it where needed. I love that from a website.

  18. David Turnbull says

    Any reference to Psychology Today as a serious citation will only undercut your argument.

  19. I wonder what Tiger Mother would have to say about all this. BTW, I think, Rousseau, writer of – Emile ou de l’education-, would have read the stuff with a lot of interest, and remarked- Amazing, after almost 3 centuries, stil discussion on what I started-. Also Maria Montessori’s comments would have been interesting here! It’s all our beloved Western world, but sometime you wonder where it’s all going to end! In a muddle? or in some improvements?

  20. petros says

    “… the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the kind of actual white supremacists we saw in Charlottesville ….”

    Ooooof. Okay, this is just my thought process as a reader:

    Read this sentence, facepalmed, and scrolled directly to the end of the piece thinking, “This can’t be a serious person.”

    “Ah. PhD student who doesn’t identify his discipline. Hmmm…”

    Encapsulating the election of Trump and calling the complex disaffection of “the kind of actual white supremacists” in a sentence and rolling right through might fly on Slate, Vox, or Huff Post, but not on Quillette, not for me.


    • Andrew Mcguiness says

      Greg Ashman’s discipline is instructional design, this is his profile from The Conversation:

      “I am currently studying for a PhD at UNSW in educational psychology/instructional design under Slava Kalyuga and John Sweller. I am a practising teacher with 18 years experience and hold professional qualifications such as the UK National Professional Qualification for Headship.”

      He seems to proselytise a bit for direct instruction (as against an inquiry-based approach). I agree that the article lacks depth – it reads rather as if he read Lukianoff and Haidt’s book and took one point out of context to use as a foil for his same-old.

      • josh says

        “…took one point out of context to use as a foil for his same-old.”

        You mean the way half the commenters on here are getting het-up about an off-hand mention of Trump and the rise of “ethno-nationalism” as contributors to leftist reaction?

        For those making this complaint, please note it has nothing to do with the thrust of the article. Then please note that Trump didn’t pop out of the ether, but is a product of decades of Republican efforts to construct a hyper-partisan alternate reality that simply discounts inconvenient facts. The insanity of the Bush-Gore election, the rabid ‘patriotism’ of the Bush era, the rise of right-wing radio, then Fox News, then right-wing internet enclaves, the unhinged attacks and obstruction of Obama all, etc. these all laid the ground-work for Trump’s election. And he didn’t start in 2015, Trump was attacking Obama with the Birther conspiracy theory in 2011.

  21. As Hannah Lee said above, the argument is not about structure in school. Its about structure and adult supervision ALL THE TIME.

    Yes, it exists. My daughter was strongly criticised for allowing a 6-year old to walk unaccompanied 2 blocks home from school, in daylight, in a good neighbourhood. As for allowing 2 boys to go to the park together without an adult – well it was considered too dangerous by other parents.

    • dirk says

      Yes Fran, in my day it wasn,t different, I only went to school unaccompanied on the day of inscription, at 5 years old. The last time that my mother went with me there, uptil I quit at 11, I walked alone, and had to cross a main road with an(at the time) casual automobile. At 8, we went out climbing trees, collecting blackberries between brambles and thorns and swimming in a lake, skating on thin ice etc etc. When I came home, my mother asked- What did you do, where were you, How was it-, and I answered -Fun-. She had no time for us outside the home, she was busy enough there. These were the times of inquisitivity and exploring, and many small accidents, yes. Now we have the times of total control, no more exploring, but a rigid agenda with transporting by the adults, for the coddled kids.

  22. Pingback: Early Childhood Education: Is “Play-Based Learning” Imperiled – or Alive and Secure? | Educhatter

  23. Nicholas says

    I’m both puzzled and troubled by the closing thought: if delayed explicit teaching in structured settings, combined with environmental learning at home is a superior combination for childhood development, the argument that we should deprive all children of this optimal configuration at school because some children may not have the correlary optimal setting at home is shocking. Certainly ethical interventions should be designed to lift disadvantage children to the level of advantaged children, not hold baxk advantaged children until they perform as poorly as disadvantaged one?

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