Unschooling + Math
By Bryan Caplan
One popular variant on homeschooling is called “unschooling.” The practice varies, as practices always do. The essence, however, is that the student does what he wants. He studies what he wants. He studies for as long as he wants. If he asks you to teach him something, you teach him. Yet if he decides to play videogames all day, the principled unschooling response is: “Let him.”
Almost every parent is horrified by the idea of unschooling. Even most homeschoolers shake their heads. Advocates insist, however, that unschooling works. Psychologist Peter Gray defends the merits of unschooling with great vigor and eloquence. According to unschoolers, the human child is naturally curious. Given freedom, he won’t just learn basic skills; he’ll ultimately find a calling.
On the surface, unschooling sounds like Social Desirability Bias run amok: “Oh yes, every child loves to learn, it’s just society that fails them!” And as a mortal enemy of Social Desirability Bias, my instinct is to dismiss unschooling out of hand.
One thing I loathe more than Social Desirability Bias, however, is refusing to calm down and look at the facts. Fact: I’ve personally met and conversed with dozens of adults who were unschooled. Overall, they appear at least as well-educated as typical graduates from the public school system. Indeed, as Gray would predict, unschoolers are especially likely to turn their passions into careers. Admittedly, some come across as flaky, but then again so do a lot young people. When you look closely, unschoolers have only one obvious problem.
They’re weak in math! In my experience, even unschoolers with stellar IQs tend to be weak in algebra. Algebra, I say! And their knowledge of more advanced mathematics is sparser still.
Staunch unschoolers will reply: So what? Who needs algebra? The honest answer, though, is: Anyone who wants to pursue a vast range of high-status occupations. STEM requires math. CS requires math. Social science requires math. Even sophisticated lawyers – the kind that discuss investments’ Net Present Values – require math.
Won’t kids who would greatly benefit from math choose to learn math given the freedom to do so? The answer, I fear, is: Rarely. For two reasons:
First, math is extremely unfun for almost everyone. Only a handful of nerds sincerely finds the subject engaging. I’m a big nerd, and I’ve done piles of math, yet I’ve never really liked it.
Second, math is highly cumulative. Each major stage of math builds on the foundation of the previous stages. If you reach adulthood and then decide to learn math to pursue a newly-discovered ambition, I wish you good luck, because you’ll need it.
What’s the best response? Mainstream critics of unschooling will obviously use this criticism to dismiss the entire approach. And staunch unschoolers will no doubt stick to their guns. I, however, propose a keyhole solution. I call it: Unschooling + Math.
What does Unschooling + Math mean? Simple: Impose a single parental mandate on unschooled children. Every day, like it or not, you have to do 1-2 hours of math. No matter how boring you find the subject, you’re too young to decide that you don’t want to pursue a career that requires math. And if you postpone the study of math for long, it will be too late to start later on.
While most people don’t wind up using much math on the job, ignorance of basic math is still a severe handicap in life. And when smart kids don’t know advanced math, they forfeit about half of all high-status career opportunities.
We should have a strong presumption against paternalism – even the literal paternalism of a parent for his own child. “Maybe the kid is right and the parent is wrong” is a deeply underrated thought. The value of math, however, is great enough to overcome this presumption. To be clear, I don’t mean that the government should force homeschoolers to teach math. What I mean, rather, is that homeschoolers should require their kids to learn math. Guilt-free.