I want to question an assumption that is made by several of the debaters on this topic, namely that a child or student will not choose a difficult or unknown topic if a school curriculum or teacher does not introduce them to it. Author/teacher John Holt wrote about this often in his books, including this from his last book, Teach Your Own: “A child may not know what he may need to in ten years (who does?), but he knows, and much better than anyone else, what he wants and needs to know right now, what his mind is ready and hungry for. If we help him, or just allow him, to learn that, he will remember it, use it, build on it. If we try to make him learn something else, that we think is more important, the chances are that he won’t learn it, or will learn very little of it, that he will soon forget most of what he learned, and what is worst of all, will before long lose most of his appetite for learning anything.”
People learn in a variety of ways and their emotions deeply influence their receptiveness and retention of new ideas. There are schools, such as the Albany Free School, and colleges, such as Hampshire, that let students decide what, and how deeply, they want to learn about an area, so it is possible to allow much more student agency in school—but only if we do away with our assumption that kids won’t learn anything valuable unless they are instructed to do so by educators. One thing leads to another when you learn about anything! There are no real boundaries between learning about trains, understanding how a locomotive works, the history of railroads, how train tunnels, bridges, and tracks are created, and so on. It is only when we break this into graded, curricular elements that the fascination of train travel gets reduced into lessons of science, history, engineering, and economics and trains become just a means to a grade in those subjects. Our world is interdisciplinary, but our educations are not.