Formal Education

A recently published article, circulating around Facebook and other social media sites, talks about the impending “bubble” that will eventually burst concerning the high costs surrounding formal education. While I happen to agree with the economic argument surrounding formal schooling (especially surrounding institutions of higher learning), I have seen this post most circulated from those who oppose formal education in general – as yet another general argument against receiving higher education.

There are many arguments against a formal education. Indoctrination, high costs (resulting in massive debt) and low economic rewards, socialized conditioning, anti-social behavior, and the ever sounding “school teaches you what to think, not how to think” arguments are but a few of these.

It is becoming less and less arguable that institutions of learning – whether in elementary, preparatory, or higher echelons – are becoming more obsolete as technology advances. Formal education will evolve with time – as it has already evolved with the introduction of the internet, especially over the last 15 years. However, the evolution of education is not a sufficient argument against formal education.

While the education bubble will eventually pop (I believe this is inevitable), the fact that so many people look at formal education as the means to making money is even more dangerous for society than any bubble. However, on the flip-side, the “what am I even going to use this for?” argument against schooling/education is just as dangerous as the answer “to make money.”

“Will This Be on the Test?”

In a basic Economics 101 class at Brigham Young University, Dr. Mark Showalter distributed a memo that Dr. Clayne Pope had once sent through the Economics faculty at BYU. In the memo, Dr. Pope lamented that the overwhelming and primary question asked in class was simply – “will this be on the test?”

This question, he argued, showed the basic lack of the student’s desire to learn for learning’s sake, but merely demonstrated the desire to do well on the test – as to get a good grade as a way to excel financially later on in life (e.g. through getting into a better graduate program or job placement because of a higher GPA).

As I have thought about it, my own conclusion to the origin of this problem is that such apathy towards the desire to learn for learning’s sake was taught at home – long before the student ever breached the doors of a college classroom. Parents, in one way or another, teach their children that getting ahead is the purpose of education, and students reflect this belief system in the classroom.

Today, students of higher learning – as well as, ironically, those who most adamantly oppose formal education (for whatever reason) – almost entirely use the economic benefit of an education as a primary reason to justify their beliefs one way or another.

Such arguments are most absolutely beside the point.

My Own Experience

Those friends who know me best know my “education” story. I was “homeschooled” all my life, and I never once stepped foot in a formal classroom (except for LDS sponsored Seminary) until I attended BYU. My mother was a certified Montessori school teacher (K – 12), yet my “formal” education ended around the time when I was 12 or 13.

From then on, I was largely on my own. I was taught to read from the Book of Mormon, and, growing up, I was very well versed in scripture and Church doctrine – my mother, being a very knowledgeable and intelligent woman on the subject, sought to instruct me accordingly.

More than anything, I fought against any structured learning that she imposed. I do not know whether this was because of my own personal idiosyncrasies in dealing one-on-one with a parent, or something more inherent in wanting to express myself more freely – yet I still rebelled.

Other circumstances added to the fact that my “formal” education ended early on, but what my mother had instilled in me – the most important thing of all – was the desire to want to learn. I read one book after another. As I read, I wrote. I was a horrible writer. I’m still not the best writer, but I have improved. As a teenager, I started writing 10-page essays on how certain gospel principles relate to political discussions. These “essays” were more quotes from General Authorities than actual “essays,” but at least it kept me writing, thinking, and arguing.

Making a very long story short, I finally entered and was admitted to BYU as a full-time student without a high school diploma, GED, SAT, ACT, or anything at all.

So What?

I understand the overwhelming angst that many have against formal education – especially since they have been inundated with it since kindergarten. This is not, however, my experience. I did not have to, for lack of a better explanation, mentally “fight against the system” and rebel to show the failure in formalized education. My experience is that of coming from as near an anarchic state of education to a formalized structure as I believe one can possibly get.

However, all of that said, I have noticed, coming from both places (the structured and non-structured side of education), that the same arguments that are applied to formal education are also applied to other institutions as well – for example, the Boy Scouts of America.

Boy Scouts of America

I have noticed that most who reject a formal education also reject the “indoctrination” that is supposedly laced throughout the BSA. I am an Eagle Scout (with 5 silver palms), and, having gone through the programs of the BSA, I get the similar arguments… I’m not especially and ideologically on par with the nationalism (as opposed to patriotism) that has crept into the BSA, but that is another argument for another time.

My family took a proactive approach to scouting and almost entirely integrated the BSA program into my “schooling.” Instead of school, I worked on merit badges and requirements for advancement.

I find it extremely interesting, however, that, towards the end of my time as a Scout, it took my going to the BSA National Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia to see any correlation between the BSA and any form of nationalism. My parents had taken such a proactive approach with my scouting that I was taught in the learning of my fathers – not in the institutions of the BSA. I had little nationalism after scouting, but I did have patriotism for liberty and freedom.

The Point Amid the Rambling

I have noticed a general distinction in people’s critical thinking skills, between those who have received formal education and those who have not. There are four groups, in this regard, that I have generally distinguished people

Formal Education

Non-Formal Education

Critical Thinking


Very Rare:(1)    Generally enters school with a skeptical mind, and builds critical thinking skills to approach life on a principled level.

(2)    Can think critically, but have learned how to see beyond every little criticism ever presented.

(3)    Time was taken in school to evaluate things and reality on their own terms, as objectively as possible.

Common:(1)    Generally approaches life with a skeptical mind, and does not immediately accept anything at face value.

(2)    Have not been tried and tested in a structured environment, as professionals push back on their views.

(3)    While they may desire to be as objective as possible, they generally use their own emotionalisms to justify their views as “objective.”

Non-Critical Thinking


Common:(1)    Enters school with the desire to make money.

(2)    May take away a few critical thinking skills, but these are, at best, narrowly learned and applied. Usually, critical thinking skills are subject-based as per the student’s major and/or emphasis.

Very Common:(1)    These people are plain ignorant.

(2)    They do not have critical thinking skills, nor do they even have a “piece of paper” to fall back on.


Of course, this table is obviously not all encompassing and has gross generalities. I readily admit this. I readily admit, for instance, that there are true critical thinkers who have never received a formal education.

However, my own experience has proven that such is not the standard. On the same note, I do not see that a formal education necessitates critical thinking skills. I argue that what you put into a formal education magnifies what you take out.

The formal education, if treated correctly, will push back on stated beliefs. Sadly, I see far too many people selling themselves short on excuses pertaining to the insignificance of a formal education – especially in the libertarian community.

This is not to say, however, that a formal education is for everyone and that it is necessary for a good and fulfilling life. But the general reasons that I have heard thus-far pertaining to the promotion or defamation of formalized education are insufficient and grossly lacking.

To repeat, a person will get out of a formal education what they put into it. I did not attend BYU with any grandeur of thinking I could actually do something practical with a degree in philosophy, human geography, and political science.

I attended BYU with the desire for it to push back… I did not waste my time thinking that the school was one thing or another, or that a formal education was one thing or another. Whether right or wrong, I developed my own ideas. I did not parrot my professors – nor did I want to. And, with all of the arguing that I do in person and on social media sites – many might be surprised that I was largely silent in my classes, as I listened to others’ opinions (as I formulated my own).

I do not feel that I have to defend or criticize BYU or the institution of formalized education in any particular way. I made my education fit my desire – I did not contort my understanding to fit the institution’s goals.

All of this said, if a person honestly believes that a formal education is entirely unnecessary – in that a formal education will necessarily harm one’s self-worth and thinking – then I honestly believe that such a person should not endeavor to receive a formal education. I do not believe such a person has the mental fortitude to stand on their own beliefs, while others push back; to develop critical reasoning skills, while keeping true to one’s own self; or to learn for learning’s sake, and not for the conventional conceptualization that a formal education’s primary purpose is to make more money.