Six sigma, school defects and the need for deschooling.


A couple decades ago, it was a hot business trend in industrial manufacturing to adopt quality focused programs such as TQM (Total Quality Management) and Six Sigma. One of the ideas behind Six Sigma was that there was an ideal goal for the ratio of perfect products vs. defective products that would come off the manufacturing line. Motorola had famously set the number at 99.99966% quality products, allowing a few out of a million to be defective. The rate can be different for different companies. It was important to not attempt to achieve 100% perfection, because the process cost and capital expenditure difference between being nearly perfect and absolutely perfect would be far more expensive than the costs of the few defective products.

Public school, sometimes called “factory schooling” by its critics, has several objectives as it shapes students through its 13-year K-12 process. These objectives include obedience, conformity and apathy[i]. Through a tedious process of indoctrination and repetition, the factory school looks to make students into compliant workers prepared to obey authority, work repetitive jobs and be good citizen-consumer-employees.

School is not to enrich the children with knowledge or prepare them to be innovative individuals. If this seems nefarious or conspiratorial, simply look to the tasks and outcomes of public schooling: the tasks are boring and repetitive; children are under constant authority and surveillance; and they are not permitted to leave.

If we think of factory schooling as a manufacturing process with the goal of creating obedient and conforming citizens-consumers-employees we could guess that not 100% of them will be non-defective. Sometimes, on a small percentage of students, the objectives and techniques of school will fail. These few defects will not be obedient and conforming, but instead may reject authority and radicalize.

Is there a chance that these defective students, these people who school failed to convert, become free thinkers and radicals? Without any data to back this up, it seems like it could be very true, at least for a lot of libertarians.

It fits my own story and that of several others I know. I had resisted most of school and looked to be left alone by the establishment. I never did homework or prepared for tests. I carried a D academic average. In my later years of school I engineered my schedule to have almost no academics. It continued on in college where I studied the easiest of topics (acting and watercolor painting) at an uninspired third-tier state university. While I spent a lot of time in school in my theatre and art pursuits and had plenty of friends, I would think that the overall experience failed to make me compliant or endure the status quo. School failed in its objectives.

I was a defective product.

As an adult anarchist, atheist, entrepreneur and unschooler of my children, I think I’ve lived up to being fairly radical.


A Cry for Deschooling

Just because the objectives and processes of school fail on someone doesn’t mean that they are perfect or perhaps not severely damaged. A lot of school was still inflicted upon them and the student may not even recognize that the schooling process succeeded or failed. There might be many students who were good at school or excelled academically who still had the schooling fail on them. Many students do academically well so that they will be left alone.

As an analogy, imagine a defective military machine gun[ii] coming out of the manufacturing process. It’s net better than a working machine gun because it is not going to be used to kill people, but it’s still a broken gun. It’s not a collection of its raw materials nor is it a wholly different product that was built to be productive, useful and happy.

That’s what I was for much of my early post-school career. I was the broken gun and it took years of deschooling to shake off the failed indoctrination. Deschooling is the personal process of reversing the effects of school on a person.

One major handicap I had personally was that I didn’t know I was the broken gun/the defective schooler. I didn’t know that I needed to be deschooled, so I didn’t have a destination in mind. Since I had neither diagnosis or prognosis for the problem, I had no path or guidance on how to do it. It became a long and clumsy process of guessing what was wrong and then trying to do something.

It wasn’t until I spent a year doing serious research on schooling that this would all occur to me. I was doing the research for the benefit of my own children, who are now safely out of public school and are unschooling. I only recently thought to turn the lens of schooling and deschooling back on myself. I’m now wondering how much more quickly or effectively I would have deschooled had I been able to diagnose myself right from the start.

This makes me think of different positions people can be in regards to schooling:

Never schooled: My friend (let’s call him Isaac) and hopefully my children were never schooled or only schooled for a short time. They will not need to deschool but instead start adulthood fully individualized and without the cloud of school in their way to envision their lives.

Deschooling identified: Another friend (say, Zak) has identified the damage school very early on in his second year of college. He is able to deschool with the full knowledge of at least the diagnoisis of schooling and probably be able to craft a deschooling path out of it.

In the dark but defected: Jeff, as mentioned, didn’t know the diagnosis or the path until he was at the other end of it in his forties, but since he was a school defect he muddled his way through it and only found out towards the end what he was doing. He has the second worst situation.

The Six Sigma: The rest, say the 95 percent or so of students where school succeeded (the Six Sigma) might have it the worst. They will either mill along or if they break through it will be through a long and tough course of reeducation to radicalize them. Even then, discovering a deschool process may take a long time. They would be lucky to have Jeff’s path at this point.

There’s another possibility that the defect rate is actually much higher, like maybe 50 percent, but instead of these people becoming radicalized and individuated, they simply become ruined people without direction and with poor work skills. They may make up the mess of people unemployed or on welfare, or may be toiling away in mediocrity and a menial existence.

And what of the sad population where schooling worked, where they become obedient, conforming and apathetic? Perhaps they are successfully punching the clock at work and raising their families, but are they as happy as they could be? Or are they eaten by the stress of the status quo, to climb up the management ladder, devotedly waking up at 5:30 every morning to be sure their kids are on the bus and that they are at their desk on time, only to grind it out for eight hours, then a rushed evening of soccer practice, homework, a meal and maybe some self-prescribed alcoholic anesthesia before some TV and bed, all to do it the next day, hoping that their bosses will at least give them a good performance review once per year? Perhaps these people need to be deschooled as well.

This leaves someone with some important work to do.

First, there probably has to be an educative campaign of sorts to help people realize that they have been infected with schooling and that it is a bad condition. John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, Brett Venoitte and others have been communicating this, but its penetration is still extremely low and to most of the schooled population even repulsive. When people understand the real function of school, it would help create Isaacs preemptively, enable Zaks immediately and help wake up Jeffs and the Sigmas.

The next step might be to create information on what a deschooling goal/outcome looks like and descriptions of techniques on how to deschool. It could be a deschooling handbook or a video series or something similar. Without thinking about it much, I’m pretty sure every person might have their own unique path. The guidance here would be to teach people to identify signs of authority, obedience, conformity etc., and suggest general ways of defining custom paths forward.

The long-term project isn’t simply remediating the effects of school in defective schoolers, but to eliminate the source of the problem in the first place. Destroying the institution of compulsory, factory schooling is too big a project, to sacred an institution, to attack politically. The long and difficult path will come down to saving one student at a time. This might only be possible by helping as many defects identify their school diagnosis and giving them the tools to deschool themselves and unschool their children.


[i] Explained in rich detail here by the masterful Brett Venoitte

[ii] Presume for my example that were talking about an evil military gun, not one a normal Joe would use for self defense.