I probably at this point have a reputation as having a rather strong tendency towards the tragic view of human nature (Hayek, Sowell, HBD).
I would, however, like to show the other side from time to time.
At a very deep level, I'm an individualist..."swearing eternal hostility" and perpetually edging towards anarchism. Right now, of course, de Soto's book has pushed me well past the edge, in demonstrating the extent to which the state's efforts to participate in folks lives were largely ignored throughout history...but I may come back soon.
I am also an educator, with more lifetime hours spent teaching than being taught (at 19 years in school, that's a lot). While I normally like to talk about the mechanics or theory of education, I'd like to at least nod at the core of my optimistic beliefs about the topic.
There are 5-ish important factors in learning. In order of importance, they seem to be
1. Practice (quantity and quality and feedback)
3. Desire (this can create practice)
4. Self-efficacy (I think I can do it)
The interesting part of this (I'm going to ignore IQ and self-efficacy for today) is that dilligence in practice can be managed by EITHER conscientiousness or strong desire. I played the piano for an hour a day for a year because I loved it...not because I was supposed to. Other people practice an hour (or 6) a day because they're disciplined.
On top of their effects on practice, both desire (to learn) and conscientiousness have other effects. People who are really interested in a topic are known to learn substantially better than people who are not, given that IQ is controlled for. Conscientiousness leads one to do things more carefully, which also often leads to better outcomes.
I am a general believer in the rationalization hamster, though, and in human weakness...so I tend to believe that in general conscientiousness-driven learning fails over time. Instead, interest-driven learning may wane, but doesn't fail in the same way.
So what...well...it means that I tend strongly towards supporting interest-focused learning. In practice, this mostly means unschooling, in the John Holt, Sudbury Valley tradition. Allow humans to pursue what they're interested in learning, because as human beings we're wired to find learning almost as interesting as sex. However, and I'm stealing from a friend here, just as sex, when forced, becomes highly unpleasant, and causes emotional scars...so too does learning.
In addition to my belief that forced learning is somewhat akin to mental rape, I also find that almost all of the curriculum taught in schools is either pure propaganda, or is simply make-work. I buy the usefulness of the 3 R's (Reading, wRiting, and Reckoning), and indeed, I'd broaden it a bit...I think that communication (verbal and written, sent and received) and quantitative skills (arithmetic, algebra, statistics, maybe Calculus), and programming (write, err, debug, test, debug again, etc.) are useful for life, and will be ever more increasingly. I think also that micro-economics, methods-of-science (observation, hypotheses, data collection, statistical analysis), and history (of science, of religion and philosophy, of war and politics, especially of changes in real standard of living) are useful also for thinking, but not necessary for day to day living. I'm also inclining towards a course of study on dealing with life (tax filing, checkbook balancing, changing diapers, proper use of a saw or hatchet, proper use of a handgun or shotgun for self-defense, basics of cooking, sewing, how to wash clothes, etc. )
However, those are my inclinations, not solid ideas...and I'm not really into art, while others are. Indeed, I have a hard time arguing for the study of Algebra over the study of Painting as a useful skill, unless you want to be a scientist/engineer. Not studying algebra AT WORST makes the study take a little longer (It took around 1 extra year of community college math for my mathless, unschooled friends who decided they wanted to be engineers [God knows why] ), before they ran off to get their 4-year programs.
If it's not useful, and it's akin to intellectual rape, why should you do it? One of the Sudbury supporters, himself a college professor, reminds us that at least all kids from educated households, going to a free school with other kids from educated households eventually learn to read(HT: Wife). Much of the time with no formal instruction at all. Would this work if the childrens' homes were not filled with books, and their peers didn't read either? Probably not. But so long as we're talking parents who like books, and a literacy-friendly social environment, kids ALL teach themselves to read if left alone.
Someday I'll kid-blog and tell the stories of how each of my kids started (or is still @4) learning to read in this unschooling environment.
Best arguments against this position? Practice. Parental costs. Thousands of hours of practice stack up, and stuff you don't start early, you'll never catch up, most likely. Of course, if it's not a race...then who cares? And if IQ dominates practice after N hours, and N is smallish, then unschooling is clear. Parental costs: 1 parent at home with kids. that's half (40%, assuming some inequality) your potential income.
If human nature is learning-positive, most of what's taught in school is worthless or worse(duh!), you're not keen on the lord-of-the-flies social environment in the schools, and you can handle the costs (above), you might consider home/un-schooling as well.