What is the point of the American Public school System ?

There are many ways to assess performance. One approach is to see if a *thing* is living up to the objective of said thing. Another method is to criticize the objective of said thing. In the context of the American public school system (dated around 2023, though it has been a few years since I left the public school system), you could ~certainly critique BOTH the objectives of the system as well as the competence (i.e. ability to achieve said objectives).

I will say that my context in this arena is rather limited. I have read a few books on the subject, but most of my “data” is based on anecdotal experience having both A) gone to public schools for the majority of my life (up until University) and B) thought about “what I would do if I were in charge of the not small task of educating America.”

We will get to the latter, important topic in a moment. Where I want to start is trying to candidly assess, at least in my own head (and subsequently on this page), what is the point of the American education system? Why are we here?

Now a note is that if I were serious, really serious about this topic. I would probably (and even now should probably) take a different approach to writing this exploration. I would be far more serious about my analysis. I would be far more rigid in coming up with a PLAN as to how to assess the not small entity that is the education system. And I would work to come up with (the likely many) rigorous varieties of analysis because in order to judge the success of such a complex system, I would need to understand the system from a whole bunch of different angles. Success may be relative and subjective but I figure, with the requisite variety, I could eventually come up with a pretty objective analysis that clearly articulates why the system should be architected in such a way. This sort of deep analysis would illuminate a whole bunch of things for me—but would also require me to abstract far enough out to really get me thinking about my values, society’s values, and what is important for the world to base the American education system around. Thus, it would be a pretty thorough exercise. A fun one, too. But for this exploration, I am just word vomiting—am more schizo-analyzing, just getting SOME of the thoughts out (knowing that this is not comprehensive and calling that out).

So where my head starts in thinking about what the objectives are today (not what they should be or have been in the past) it FEELS like to me the answer is actually rather straightforward (though may surprise some people, as it certainly would have surprised former me, the public high school student) in that the goals of the system are effectively:

  • Babysit kids so that parents can focus on work
  • Prepare the kids for getting into a US college

Correct me if I am wrong but these feel like where the focus areas are.

Parents are busy and kids growing up definitely takes a toll on them. Perhaps a totally different topic but my intuition is that most parents are not particularly good at raising their kids. I mean, again, you would have to define what good looks like but at minimum my guess is that parents, especially the average American parent, are extremely, and yes I say EXTREMELY, unintentional when it comes to raising their kids. I mean this makes sense? in the capacity that we, and now I am saying we more as a species, do not yet really understand exactly the impact that our parenting modes actually have on kids (and their development and their world views in the short and long term). If we did, well that would be pretty cool and powerful. I would imagine that 100 years from now we will figure that out. I do not think the path is to write more self help books on how to be a great parent. I imagine this is more of a tech problem, if you model tech as knowledge, then I think that we lack the requisite knowledge to feel extremely confident in how we parent. I think we can fix that, but that is a separate essay (or book or lifetime of projects).

But if you accept the above—that the median parent (or really most all parents) in the US are not particularly good at being parents—you could go onto say that one driver of this difficulty is that parents most automatically have two jobs: being a parent and making sufficient money to pay for their family and kids. Sometimes these two do not intersect. And that sometime certainly happens in the middle of the day when parents are balancing working (aka trying to make money to feed the kids!) and when the kid is wide awake with lots of energy.

So we need to distract the kids. Let’s send them to a place where someone can more scalably manage them. I say scalably manage them meaning in more than 1 or 3:1 ratio (like it would be in a single household).

Enter schools.

School starts at like 745 AM in a lot of parts of the country. Besides stunting growth for kids (like physical literal growth by having them wake up early, google around I think there is a study on this), I think the purpose of this is to get kids out of the house so parents can go to work. Parents gotta work!!! So having kids at home all day while they are working does not really make sense. I never fully understood the purpose of summer break. Adults I guess get to work a little less during the summers so this could be an opportunity for the family to bond together. I read once that the purpose of summer break was so that kids could help out on the farm once the crops were in season during the summer.

So this objective makes sense in the capacity that if you want a productive workforce, you need to give them some amount of free time to actually focus on work. (I write this today with some amount of confidence based on intuition but want to note that this intuition is based on pre-AGI version of the world where work leads to productivity gains on the micro and macro level. This may not be true in the future, where AGI perhaps creates SO much productivity that any of these types of gains, we could call them human gains, are nothing compared to what technology is able to create. Again, a topic for another day, but my hope is that human spirit still has value in the future (and that technology enables us to focus on that). It may not show up in the GDP metric for success but would likely show up in the living-ness metric, so that if we reoriented society in that direction, it would certainly mean “gains.”

The other I believe objective of the American school system is to push people to go to college. This one feels ~weird in some ways. The obvious question to ask yourself is whether or not the AVERAGE american student should actually be going to college. Before you answer that you could say, should the average american student even be preparing to go to college. You could say that they do not have to go but the training program is sufficient enough that even preparing them would put them on the right path.

The answer to both of these thoughts, at least the lazy answer that I am providing now, is something like obviously no. Obviously pushing every kid to college is silly. For a lot of people, going to college is a strictly bad financial decision. It makes absolutely no sense to attend most overpriced, dated colleges. It makes sense for some people, surely, but for a lot of people, they will need to go into debt, and sometimes serious debt on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars, in order to make it to University.

Preparing for college is not even clearly a productive exercise on its own. Feels like a lot of motion and not a lot of progress or actual learning. A lot of resume building. A lot of trying to differentiate by following a playbook rather than actually being yourself. A lot of nothing, honestly. Boring.

Pushing every kid to college I imagine will not be a stated goal a few years or decades from now. The idea of self teaching or AI teaching us as a real way to get educated will probably displace a lot of the typical American college experience. We could still build epic campuses. That would be awesome. But imagine you go to school and it’s ~close to free in cost (or maybe just the cost of housing) and then all of the education is self-guided and you have the absolute best ai-powered instruction. Probably something there.

Anyways, the above was a really quick exploration into understanding objectives of the American school system. It was honestly a lazy version and not very seriously taken.