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How Do I Teach These Kids?!
Thoughts on educating my kids in a fast-changing world
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Hi friends 👋,
Happy Monday! Big week here at Not Boring HQ: Friday was Puja and my 5th anniversary (Happy Anniversary Puj!), tomorrow is Dev’s 2nd birthday, and Thursday is Maya’s 2-month birthday.
Last year, when Dev turned 1, I wrote Dad Life, a piece about working and raising a kid at the same time. I wasn’t planning on writing a similar piece for his birthday this year, but I’ve been thinking a lot about a related question and the timing worked perfectly.
The question is: how the hell are you supposed to educate a kid today?
Dev and Maya get a blank educational slate to start with. Puja and I are responsible for figuring out how to give them the best education possible, one that helps them love learning, have fun, and get prepared for life beyond school. I don’t think the answer is as simple as “Get them into the best schools possible.” I think it’s a lot more complicated than that, and will only get more complicated as things move faster.
This isn’t meant to be a complete survey and analysis of the modern educational system, it’s more of an exploration of how I’m thinking about it personally in the very specific context of Dev and Maya’s education. What’s the best way to prepare my two kids?
And I don’t have the answers – there’s probably no “right” answer. Instead, this is meant to start a conversation, and selfishly, to give me some more direction as I think through it. I’d love to hear your thoughts, jump in here:
Let’s get to it.
How Do I Teach These Kids?!
Now that we have kids, my most important job is raising them. I want them to be happy and kind and smart and creative and hard-working and a little devilish. I remember walking around holding Dev when he was really little and telling him those things, listing the qualities I wanted to instill in him as if he could absorb the words and make them so. In reality, it’s a lot harder than that.
A timely example. Last night, after we had our family over to celebrate his birthday, I gave him a bath, put him in his pajamas, and started reading him a book, Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site to be exact. As we were finishing – “Great work today! Now…shh…goodnight!” – my mind was already on getting back to work and finishing this piece. I was tired, and starting back up after a long day was already daunting enough. When he asked, “Can we read one more book please?” I started to shake my head no, tell him it was time to go to sleep, that dad had to work… and then I remembered what I was about to go work on: an essay about educating him and his sister. The hypocrisy was too thick. We read another book.
There are a million little trade-offs like that, though rarely quite so on the nose. Historically, the way to deal with a big lump of those trade-offs is, eventually, to try to put your kids in the best schools possible and make sure that they’re doing their homework and getting good grades and doing all of the extracurriculars, which serve double duty as resume fillers and extra childcare.
But thanks to the pandemic and our jobs, Puja and I have been lucky enough to be home most of the time, getting to spend time with Dev and Maya, getting to watch them get smarter every day, like little human large language models with big emotions. At the same time, the real large language models have been getting stronger by the day, surprisingly upending creative work first, which has made me reflect on what the world will look like when they’re older, and how to prepare them for that world. What will people need to know in a world in which the Enchanted Notebook exists?
While we’ll still put them in school – Dev started a couple weeks ago, for a few hours three days a week – it’s become clear that if we want them to grow up to be uniquely them to the fullest of their potential, and stay ahead of seemingly daily advances, we need to do a lot more than that.
The question is, what? And I guess another one is, how? How do we teach these kids?!
There are these charts that pop up every once in a while that show how much graduates of certain majors make or which majors are becoming more popular.
One that has recently caught peoples’ attention is this chart that shows that computer science degrees are on the rise, and humanities degrees are on an equal and opposite decline. This chart has caused either celebration (“Good! People are studying things that will help them get jobs.”) or anguish (“Oh no! The death of humanities will lead to a duller, less ethical and moral society.”).
I don’t have a strong view. What struck me when I looked at the chart, and the related hot takes on Twitter, was just how hard it must be for educational institutions at all levels to keep up with the increasing rate of change in the world.
It’s an oft-cited fact that the modern education system was created during the Industrial Revolution to prepare children to grow up to work in factories. “Factory schools,” as they were called, sprang up in Prussia in the 19th Century and quickly spread throughout the industrialized world, to teach kids to be “punctual, docile, and sober.” Moving from the family farm to the corporate factory required a different set of skills and behaviors, and schools stepped in to teach them.
That model worked well, and persisted for two centuries, in part, I would guess, because the types of jobs that people were going to get after school, and the skills they would need for those jobs, stayed relatively static. And a literate, numerate population trained to follow orders generalized well. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit worked in an office instead of a factory, and wore nicer clothes, but was still expected to be punctual, docile, and sober.
While some of the details have changed, the system works largely the same way today, even among the top students at the best schools.
When I asked people for their favorite essays, William Deresiewicz’s Solitude and Leadership was one of the most frequently-recommended (I marked it up with notes in Readwise Reader here). The essay is the transcript of a talk Deresiewicz, a former Yale English professor and author, gave to the incoming plebe class at West Point in 2009.
While at Yale, Deresiewicz spent some time on the admissions committee, where he experienced this:
Well, it turned out that a student who had six or seven extracurriculars was already in trouble. Because the students who got in—in addition to perfect grades and top scores—usually had 10 or 12.
So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.”
I definitely want my kids to be able to get into schools like Yale, if they want and if that still matters then, but I definitely don’t want them to be excellent sheep. Excellent sheep seldom make history.
While I don’t have answers to the very difficult question of how to educate millions of kids, kids of all backgrounds and levels of income and aptitude and parental support, and I don’t envy those who have to come up with those answers, it’s become pretty clear to me that optimizing just for my own kids, the factory school model, or the more modern excellent sheep model, won’t work.
I say that as an excellent sheep myself. I was lucky enough to go to great private schools and to Duke. I was a good student. I did a lot of extracurriculars. I remember one weekend in high school when I had a debate tournament one night, ran in Pennsylvania Cross Country State Championship (and finished All-State) the next morning, and drove back to my high school to perform in the school play that same night. In college, I studied econ, because I wanted to go into finance, and then spent four years in a finance job I didn’t love doing work I didn’t really care about and that I realized I was worse at than a lot of people who were plain smarter and actually loved the work.
It took me a decade post-college, and unemployment at the start of a global pandemic, to find the thing that I was uniquely good at: writing a newsletter, of all things.
I think that a lot of the things I did, in a roundabout way, contributed to what Not Boring has become. Debate helped me frame an argument, finance helped me use a spreadsheet, running helped me put in countless hours of hard work with almost no benefit to show for it for over a year. In retrospect, I wouldn’t change a thing about my education because I’m really happy with where it’s all led. Serendipity is part of the process, and my parents raised us to be able to follow it. They led by example – both leaving good, stable jobs to start their own things – and as a result, my sister, brother, and I all started our own things.
But I also want our kids to be better off than us, something that only a depressing 32% of Americans expect to be true for their children:
Finances aside, Dev and Maya will set their own definitions of “better off” and their own goals in life, but when I think about how I want to guide them, the words “Philosopher King and Queen” come to mind.
The idea, put forth by Plato in The Republic, is that the ideal polis, the kallipolis, or beautiful city, should be ruled by philosophers who love knowledge, who seek truth and ideals instead of power. It’s an idea as beautiful as it is impractical. Plato is essentially calling for benevolent dictatorship and assuming that there exist people who absolute power wouldn’t corrupt absolutely. If some people throughout history may have fit the bill, they’re too few and far between for benevolent dictatorship to be a realistic form of governance, so we’re left with democracy, “the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”
I still think it’s a good north star for raising a kid, particularly when those kids are going to grow up into a world in which they’ll have more power at their fingertips than our generation can even imagine. Dev and Maya won’t be Philosopher King and Queen of the United States, but they’ll be Philosopher King and Queen of their own little worlds.
They and their fellow Gen Alphas will command personalized AI and govern decentralized organizations and access overwhelming amounts of information and bring ideas to life with Enchanted Notebooks and shape biology itself, and I think that it’s going to be important for them to grow up with a philosopher’s love of truth and wisdom and a benevolent monarch’s sense of fairness and goodness. And above all else, I want them to have a critical curiosity and pragmatic optimism, a willingness to explore new things openly and excitedly but with a more incisive and critical eye than I have.
And I think that the Factory School / Excellent Sheep model is increasingly incapable of making that happen.
For one thing, I have no idea what skills are going to be in-demand in twenty years, when Dev would graduate college, or twenty-two, when Maya would. There’s no factory job waiting on the other side, the corporate ladder gets more slippery every year, and the well-worn banking/consulting/law/medicine path seems less certain.
Ok, well duh consulting and banking aren’t the sure-things they once were. Everyone who makes real money today knows how to code. That’s why college students are abandoning the humanities in favor of computer science. Teach a kid to code, feed her for a lifetime. We sent Dev to a school that will start to teach him the very basics of coding next year, when he’s three. That’s the obviously right call, right?
Not so fast.
Ok, so then I’ll teach my kids ~*prompt engineering*~. If AI is the future, then we should teach our kids to get really good at getting AI to do exactly what they want, like this young genius, Urdagirl69.
This Reddit post went viral last week. An enterprising young student figured out that she could use GPT-3 to help write her essays (she used it as a starting point, and then made the essays her own). Writing good essays became so easy, in fact, that she was able to write her classmates’ essays, too, for a $100 profit.
One teacher replied that, “If I learned that my students were submitting AI-written papers, I’d quit. Grading something an AI wrote is an incredibly depressing waste of my life.”
While I sympathize with the teacher – spending your life grading papers written by AI does seem incredibly depressing – I want to teach my kids to be more like Urdagirl69. By that, I don’t specifically mean that I want to teach them how to use GPT-3 to write essays and build a modern paper-farm lemonade stand, but that I want to teach them to have the curiosity, agency, and initiative to use whatever tools they have at their disposal to do the best work possible.
Urdagirl69 seems excellent, but not sheep-like. GPT-3 will be ancient, ancient technology by the time Dev and Maya are assigned their first essay, but the erudite impishness required to seek out and deploy whatever the current most advanced technology is in order to do their work, even if it’s kind of against the rules, is something I want to instill in them.
That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be rules, or that we should teach them to break the rules for rule-breaking’s sake. Setting boundaries seems important, if only so they can find creative ways around them.
On a recent Lunar Society podcast episode, Dwarkesh Patel asked Tyler Cowen if we should just let high schoolers go wild and educate themselves without structure, and Cowen’s response seems instructive for designing educational systems in a world in which kids can write essays with AI:
“I think they need some structure, but you have to let them rebel against it, and do their own thing also.”
There’s an obvious tension there. How do you encourage rebellion? If your parents or teachers encourage something, it immediately ceases to be rebellious.
My best answer is that, when it comes to their development, I need to be their Hand instead of their disciplinarian, the one who makes sure that they get in trouble in a way that isn’t going to ruin them, and suggests even better ways to rebel.
That sounds good in my head, but I’m sure reality will play out differently. They’ll be their own people, and they won’t want my advice. My dad tried to get me to read The Way Things Work about a hundred times, and I didn’t, and now I really wish I understood how a lot of basic things worked better than I do. He bought The Way Things Work Now for Dev. We’ll try again.
Anyway, where were we?
The pace of change is going to accelerate to the point where it’s practically impossible to prepare kids for any given potential career with any particular set of hard skills.
Schools are already struggling to keep up, and it’s going to get harder.
AI is starting to advance really quickly, to the point where curricula will need to be redesigned or left behind. If Urdagirl69 can break your system, a lot of other kids will too.
College admissions optimize for a kind of hoop-jumping that doesn’t lead to peak outcomes.
Our kids probably won’t listen to us if we try to tell them what to do.
Rebellion is healthy.
I want Dev and Maya to be the Philosopher King and Queen of their own little worlds.
Given all of those, and so many other variables we haven’t touched on – who their friends are, what they’re exposed to, the negative mental health effects of social media for young people, the coddling of the American mind, and more – how can I teach these kids?!
The best synthesis of everything I’ve read and listened to and spoken to people about is this:
Expose your kids to a lot of things early, and then help them go as deep as they’re able to go on the things that excite them the most. It doesn’t matter what those things are; cultivating curiosity and depth is the point.
One of the best summaries of this method I’ve heard came from Stripe’s Patrick Collison, responding to Tim Ferriss’ question about, “what [his] parents did to cultivate excellence and/or clear thinking without necessarily pigeonholing the direction of either of those.”
Collison listed three things:
“They showed us the world. They took us to the library every day. They took us traveling in the summers. If there were interesting guests coming over for dinner, we weren’t dispatched upstairs or told to get an early dinner before the adults came. We were thrust right into the middle. So they really took us seriously and showed us the world.”
“They really gave us agency and autonomy and treated us as adults. And those went two ways and that on the one hand, they gave us a lot of freedom. On the other hand, they expected quite a lot of us.”
“If there was a small chute of interest, they looked for opportunities to water it. But they never thrust those opportunities on us. Or I never felt that – or rather, they wouldn’t’ thrust the interests on us. I never felt that I was following a track laid down by somebody else.”
(Full transcript here, Ctrl+F “cultivate excellence” to start at the beginning of the right section.)
The example Collison gives on the third point – watering chutes of interest – doesn’t relate to the coding prowess that would ultimately help him build Stripe. It was about studying ancient Greek. When he threw away an off-handed comment that he was interested in learning ancient Greek, his mom tracked down someone at a local monastery who was willing to teach ancient Greek, and took him there once a week after school for two years.
There are two important pieces there:
Cultivating curiosity instead of any particular subject. Collison’s mom must have known that learning Ancient Greek wasn’t going to bring in the big bucks, or even a guarantee of stable employment, but he was curious, so she poured fuel on that fire.
One of the best essays I’ve read recently, Erik Hoel’s Why We Stopped Making Einsteins, argues that the vast majority of great geniuses in history had something in common: tutoring. Hoel distinguishes tutoring we’re familiar with today, preparing kids for the SATs or helping them catch up in a subject, and tiger parenting, pushing kids to pad their resumes with those 10-12 extracurriculars, from aristocratic tutoring:
Aristocratic tutoring was not focused on measurables. Historically, it usually involved a paid adult tutor, who was an expert in the field, spending significant time with a young child or teenager, instructing them but also engaging them in discussions, often in a live-in capacity, fostering both knowledge but also engagement with intellectual subjects and fields. As the name suggests it was something reserved mostly for aristocrats, which means, no way around it, it was deeply inequitable.
I wonder if AI could help make aristocratic tutoring more widely available, as Neal Stephenson envisioned in The Diamond Age with the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, an interactive book that evolved its lessons based on the pace and life circumstances of the reader. Hoel imagines a startup focusing on aristocratic tutoring, to mirror the rise in home-schooling, while also recognizing that for that startup to work, it would have to perpetuate economic inequality. In the absence of full-time aristocratic tutors, parents can fill the role.
Whatever the solution, the evidence would suggest that a system optimized to do the best job for the most people is unlikely to produce historically-great leaders or geniuses. But as a parent of just two kids, I feel like it’s my job to optimize for giving them the chance to be historically great at whatever it is they want to do.
Aristocratic tutoring, or more freedom and support to help kids learn as much as they want about the things that pique their interests, seems like a powerful response to the excellent sheep dilemma. Deresiewicz, Hoel, and Collison agree on the main points:
Patrick Collison: Yeah. But it was the kind of thing they did. And obviously, some other interests, like programming, they really took hold in a deeper way. And so I don’t have kids today. But I do reflect a lot on the kind of childhood we had because it was pretty different in multiple regards to the childhoods of the people around us. And especially when I got to college in the US, it was so foreign for me the idea that people were so laden with extracurriculars and burnishing their college resumes from age 12 or earlier. And the period of teenagerhood and adolescence was so intense, whereas for myself and John it really felt exploratory and that we were given – that our parents were some kind of life coaches or –
Tim Ferriss: Facilitators?
Patrick Collison: – mentors while we were – yeah, exactly, while we were roaming but that – yeah, exactly. I think that they were playing a supporting role rather than having us be – with these friends in college, it felt like they were at the front of a locomotive, and the locomotive is speeding along down the tracks. And they’re just hanging on for dear life being pushed along by the little cattle protector.
I hadn’t re-read that section when I pulled in the Deresiewicz article earlier, or when I said that my role in our kids’ education should be as their Hand. I wrote those pieces, then searched for the Collison-Ferriss conversation. I was shocked when I saw how well it lined up. It’s all starting to triangulate.
Last week, as I was thinking about this essay, I had a conversation with Emad Mostaque, the founder of Stability AI, the company behind Stable Diffusion. He has two kids, and is at the cutting edge of tech, so I had to ask him: how do we teach these kids?!
His answer was that the education system, as it stands, is there to turn kids into cogs. But no one wants their kids to be a cog. What it should be about, according to Emad, is happiness, which is a function of agency and progress.
Help create systems instead of goals, and show kids that they can keep exploring, finding linkages in hidden spaces. “Teach kids freedom, and that they have agency.”
There’s that word agency again. First Collison, then Emad.
Giving kids the agency to follow their own curiosity seems right for a lot of obvious reasons: it will make them happier, intrinsic motivation will fuel them to learn more, it keeps the youthful flame burning instead of extinguishing it with routine. I loved reading as a kid, and I love reading now, but I didn’t love reading as much in between, at school, when I was told what and how to read.
But it’s also important for a less obvious reason, one that will be even more important as things change faster and faster: it helps them ask the right questions instead of just getting the right answers.
Near the end of his speech at West Point, Deresiewicz calls out a crisis that is more real today than it was then, a little over a decade ago:
We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of expertise. What we don’t have are leaders.
What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.
I think when I say that I want Dev and Maya to be Philosopher King and Queen, this is what I mean. I want them to be people who have a vision, who are curious enough to ask questions, not just answer the questions they’ve been given, to set goals instead of just fulfilling them.
That was an important quality when Deresiewicz gave that speech, it’s always been an important quality, but it will be even more important in the world of the Enchanted Notebook, when the gap between vision and reality shrinks. Having a vision and asking the right questions might be the most important skills when Dev and Maya grow up.
Already, making kids ask their own questions seems like the right response to Urdagirl69 - if she’s able to type her teacher’s question into GPT-3 and get the right answer, then the assignments might have to shift to getting kids to ask the questions themselves. Kids, I’ve learned, are very good at asking questions.
Assignment: Teach me something about the Roman Empire, using every tool at your disposal, and be prepared to lead a Socratic discussion in class.
Assignment: What’s the biggest challenge facing the world that you could contribute to solving? What are the factors at play, what are the best paths to explore, and where would you start?
Assignment: Create a game in Replit. Grades will be given based on how much fun your classmates have playing.
Assignment: Surprise me.
The good news for parents is that, while aristocratic tutors of old needed to be experts in their fields, we have access to vast amounts of knowledge if we’re willing to learn the tools. We can serve as mentors or Hands, listening and taking their interests seriously, and creating open-ended games that help them ask and answer questions they care about.
So how do we teach these kids?!
Like I said at the start, I don’t have the answers. All of this is certainly going to be harder to do than it is to write. But here are a few of the major things that I want to hit, a kind of educational equivalent to the Jeff Bezos question of what won’t change:
Stoke curiosity. Helping Dev and Maya discover things that excite them, and then giving them the space, time, and resources to explore those things fully seems to be priority #1. Everything else flows from our ability to keep their youthful curiosity alive.
Encourage spikes. I’m a proud generalist, and I want my kids to be competent enough in a bunch of things, but if they’re really drawn to some things, I think I want to focus more on helping them get world-class at those things as opposed to trying to catch up on the things they’re not as good at or excited by.
Teach them to think in systems. This deserves another full essay, but it feels like, once again, the battle between centralization and decentralization is coming to a head in a bunch of areas, proto-Cold Wars on many fronts. Web2 vs. web3. Russia and China vs. the West. OpenAI vs. Open AI. My bet is that in all cases, despite short-term messiness, open, decentralized systems win, but running those kinds of systems is way more complex than running centralized systems. I’m going to give them Ender’s Game early.
Leave room for solitude and play. The pull to spend more time on screens will keep getting stronger, so we’ll need to make sure that they go outside and play and walk around and explore and think. I love my Kindle, but I’m going to make sure they have a well-stocked bookshelf of physical books to read distraction-free.
Give them the gift of Carlo Rovelli (and the equivalent in every discipline). If I had read Carlo Rovelli in high school, I would have put more effort into physics class. More generally, I want them to understand the beauty of what they’re learning before they dive into the formulas and equations.
Experiment with alternative educational models. I invested in and wrote about Primer because I love the company’s mission: free the next generation of kids to be more ambitious, more creative, and think for themselves. If they skip Social Studies homework to participate in a Primer Science Fair, I’ll be happy. As new models like Primer grow, I’ll keep my eye out for opportunities that might be better than the traditional school system.
Set an example by being good people. I don’t want Dev and Maya to be smart, successful assholes. I don’t think there’s any better way to help them be good people than for Puja and I to try to set a good example.
Celebrate hard work. One thing that Puja picked up from parenting books is that when your kid does something good, like sing the alphabet, you’re not supposed to say, “You’re so smart!” You’re supposed to say, “You worked really hard on that, I’m proud of you.” No matter what changes or how good technology gets, and no matter how much I want their education to feel like an infinite game, there’s no substitute for hard work.
Show them the value of optimism. If they get so smart that they snarkily fixate on what’s wrong with everything instead of coming up with better solutions and moving the world forward, we will have failed.
Prioritize happiness. Nothing I’ve written matters if they’re not happy. I think that spending real time with them, letting them explore, giving them agency, and helping them make progress will all contribute to happiness, but above all else, more than any job or financial success, I just want them to be happy and fulfilled.
The world is going to change a lot between now and when Dev and Maya are grown up, and it’s going to keep changing really quickly once they are. Figuring out how to prepare them for a world we can’t possibly imagine is a really hard job that is unique to our time.
Whether that world is a utopia or dystopia will depend in large part on how well we prepare our kids – and continue learning ourselves – to deal with all of that change.
Like I said at the beginning, I don’t have the answers, but I want to get this as right as I can. I’d love to hear any thoughts and resources you have here:
That’s all for today. See you back here Friday for your Weekly Dose of Optimism. Have a great week.
Thanks for reading,