Education on My Homeworld

I appreciate Eliezer Yudkowsky going public with where he came from. It has given me the courage to speak about the planet I’m from.

Sometimes people ask me how I know so much about such a wide range of topics. It flatters my ego to say the answer is self-study, but while that is technically true, the concept of “self-study” is out-of-place on my homeworld. The closest word we have to the concept literally translates to “deliberate play”.

We have several forms of compulsory education. We call those places “gulags”, “prisons” and “brainwashing camps”. There is no concept of benevolent compulsory education. It would be considered a contradiction of terms, like compassionate torture or scaring a child into laughing. We do have education, but child rearing operates very differently from here on Earth.

Let us begin with the start of one’s life. There are fewer caesarean deliveries. There is more breastfeeding. Women have a constitutionally-protected right to carry infants into offices wherever it would not place an undue hardship on her employer. Technically this was granted under the Equal Rights Amendment, but the custom had already been established for so long the amendment was just a formality.

Childcare, the raising of young children, is more hands-off, with a strong emphasis on the outdoors. Injury rates of children are commensurately higher. Pets too. My own dog fell off a cliff when I was a teenager. (The dog turned out alright in the end, but we evaced him just in case.) I could operate a band saw before I could multiply two-digit numbers in my head. Fewer children survive to adulthood than on Earth (I almost died in a motorcycle accident before I went to college) but those who do are more self-reliant. In order to become a man, boys in my hometown were expected to travel across the country with one day’s pay and a backpack full of supplies, working for money or scavenging food along the way. You are allowed a bicycle, a motorcycle or a Greyhound pass. I choose the Greyhound pass. The hardcore kids choose “none” and go moose hunting in the tundra.

Adults lie to children all the time. I don’t mean that adults conceal taboo truths from children. I mean they just make stuff up for the fun of it. It’s like having a new Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny every day except the deceptions get more sophisticated the older you get and there’s no sharp line between truth and fiction. Children are expected to question absolutely everything. I was indoctrinated into three mutually-contradictory religions and nobody thought it was weird. I prefer[1] the way things work on Earth. It’s less confusing.

Early education is similar to Earth’s where teachers read stories to little kids. Recess is recess. Starting around the age of twelve, formal education is completely different. There is no standard set of skills everyone is supposed to learn because if everyone learns something then its economic value becomes zero. We don’t have classrooms where a teacher lectures at a grid of teenagers sitting quietly at desks. For teenagers we have things which…there’s no name for them on Earth. I’m going to call them “workshops”.

There are several different kinds of workshops. We have them for gardening, farming, dance, metalworking, theatre. Different specialties all operate very differently from each other. I’ll explain a few and hopefully you’ll get the idea.

My computer programming workshop was a big industrial warehouse filled with broken computers and old computer manuals. None of this stuff was purchased new. When big software companies got rid of their old equipment it first goes to the workshop and only if the workshop doesn’t want it does it go the electronic waste. The computer hardware was just a few years out-of-date but the textbooks were way out of date. It wasn’t uncommon for me to read paper textbooks that were published before I was born.

The hardware we received was frequently broken. It took me a entire week to salvage the parts for my first computer. (I shudder when I recall how much lead and mercury dust I breathed.) But once I got it working the computer was mine. The computer workshop was hooked up directly to the wider Internet. My home language has no word for “child content restrictions”.

I heard rumors that adult computer programmers sometimes volunteer at the programming workshops in the rich parts of town. That never happened where I grew up. My computer workshop was supervised by an unskilled corvée laborer who didn’t teach us anything. Which is fine. He wasn’t expected to teach us anything. Supervising aspiring computer programmers is considered menial labor. It’s like watching paint dry. It’s what you do if you can contribute absolutely nothing else of value to society.

That’s because my homeworld treats computer programming as basically untrainable. We consider IQ to be like your height or your Big Five Personality Traits. The adult supervisor’s job was to drive us to the hospital if we got hurt. Which never happened because this was a computer workshop. He was also supposed to kick out disruptive kids or kids who broke equipment for the fun of it but that never really happened either. Hyperactive kids preferred physical workshops over abstract ones.

Other workshops, like woodworking workshops, will kick you out if you waste material or operate machinery dangerously. But that’s it. There’s no concept of detention. The maximum punishment a workshop can impose is exile. A child who act recklessly is not allowed to use dangerous or expensive equipment.

Computer programming is unusually autodidactic. Most other workshops have a hierarchy of older kids who train younger kids how to do things. This is considered normal. Adults are assumed not to know how to use the newest technology and to have better things to do than to teach kids. Adults’ job is the job of the state: to monopolize the use of force, to preserve civility and to prevent theft.

One of the most popular workshops is the community gardens because you get to keep whatever you grow. Of all the things about my homeworld I miss the most it’s the tomatoes. Last year I grew a few tomatoes in my Earth garden. I gave a tiny piece of a perfectly ordinary tomato to my friend. She asked me if it was really a tomato. It tasted so good she thought I had given her a different species of plant. It broke my heart.

Besides the gardens, the animal shelter is very popular too, especially among girls. It’s weird to see adults on Earth walking dogs. On my homeworld, dog walking is primarily the responsibility of children. It happens during what are (on Earth) regular school hours. The sidewalks of Earth feel empty to me without the packs of children shepherding packs of dogs. I wonder where they get their exercise instead.

Mature teenagers are allowed to wander around offices, laboratories, factories and other places of employment on the condition that they do what they’re told. (Usually small, annoying tasks.) Unlike the workshops, this is considered a privilege, not a right. Kids must be quiet. They must obey safety procedures without having to be told. They cannot speak unless spoken to. Working at hospitals is considered vocational training. Teenagers usually receive a small stipend for hospital work, for which they are expected to work hard.

Other workshops include propaganda, marketing, social engineering and bomb-making. Nobody thinks this is weird. To the contrary, industrial sabotage workshops are considered a core pillar of national defense. They ensure no foreign power would ever want to invade. American football and first person shooters are less popular than on Earth. Kids play in airsoft MilSim workshops instead.

Foreign language workshops are more age-segregated than the other workshops. They always have the newest technology. In particular, the foreign language workshops have the newest virtual reality. Bidirectional communication terminals are hardwired from workshops in one country to workshops in other countries. Kids just hang out and attempt to communicate with kids their ages in other countries. The friends they make last a lifetime and form the basis of many business partnerships. The foreign language workshops frequently spawn their own pidgin languages. Foreign language workshops are considered a strategic component of nations’ supply chain infrastructure.

There are no dedicated history, math and literature workshops. They are all just subsumed into public libraries, where frequent tournaments are held. Math tournaments are just like Earth’s. Literature tournaments are writing competitions. One’s knowledge of history is tested in debate tournaments and mock governments.

I like how safe Earth is. (Especially the parts I live in.) The society I come from is far more dangerous than the one I live in now. I like how easy everything is too. Stuff just works. I like that the trains run on time. But I’ll never get used to it.

  1. Though I like Earth’s methods better, I have not broken my native habit of disguising satire as serious discourse. Sometimes readers don’t even realize it’s satire. I like to see how long I can string them along for. ↩︎