How Schools Limit Our Lives With Permission

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May I go to the bathroom?

May I borrow a pencil?

May I have next Monday off to go on a family vacation?

These questions and ones like them are going to be asked countless times today and over the course of the next couple of months. Everybody from first graders to adult high school seniors and even their parents will ask for things like whether or not it is acceptable for them to use the bathroom, whether or not they can take their children with them on a family retreat, and whether or not they can borrow a pencil.

This is a central feature of the schooled mindset -- students are forced to ask for permission for anything as little as enforcing basic bodily functions before they can rightly act upon them. Enforced under the guise of cordiality and good manners, schools' permission requirements teach young people that there will be an authority from which they must seek permission before they can do anything -- and they carry this mindset with them through life.

Even in college, young adults still seek permission from professors to go to the bathroom, request days off for basic family functions, and see themselves as subject to the authority of the classroom despite being grown adults. It expands beyond petty classroom requirements to careers, too. Graduates expect that they can't go into business if they graduate with a liberal arts degree and need feel-good articles showing others who have done it successfully before they'll consider it. They think that if they haven't taken a class on economics, then they probably shouldn't try to read more on the subject (although they're happy to have opinions on the subject come election time). It bleeds into their parenting styles and they are raised by and/or become helicopter parents and believe their children must ask them for permission on careers and basic lifestyle choices before they can act on them. They think they have to have some sort of approval from somebody before they can pursue their careers -- this can be the university, a college recruiter, a book about what they can do with their degree, their parents, it doesn't matter -- they've fallen into the trap of a permission-based mindset.

And it's not entirely their faults. They go through 12-16 years of what is essentially a constructed mini-society. When you spend 5 out of 7 days a week in a controlled environment with clear authorities, clear structures, and clear ways to "win" and "lose," you will probably start to view the world that way. If you spend all these years in a system where your actions are entirely dependent on the approval or disapproval of one or several individuals never more than a few levels removed from you, you'll probably view yourself as subject to these decisions and permission of people not too far from you for much of your young life.

This is one of the features of a constructivist order. Constructivism is, as put by FA Hayek, a belief that an order or system was purposefully designed by people and that it can be understood in this context. There are planners and designers and boards and commissars who decide what goes where for which use when. A command-control economy is a good example of a constructivist view of the world. This is to be contrasted with a spontaneous order, or a order or system that is emergent from the decisions and actions of many people. An example of a spontaneous order is a free market economy that is able to allocate resources to build a pencil -- an amazingly complex task.

Schools are miniature examples of constructivism. There's no sense of an economy in a school -- all resources are managed and directed by different advisors, managers, and administrators. The rules that govern the school are laid out very clearly in a student handbook -- and although norms and mores may arise in the hallways and on the playgrounds, they're unplanned -- and a board governs appoints an administrator to govern how teachers spend their time with students. Students are always subject to another direct authority, either a teacher, vice principal, principal, guidance counselor, superintendent, school board member, or a bureaucrat off in the state capitol.

In a constructivist society, it's the same way. You must have permission from the foreman, or the local commissar, or the state commissar, or the planner in Moscow. Your actions are determined by a schedule that you have very little control over and what you have options in is entirely determined by the options you had previously.

"Well, that just sounds like life, what's wrong with that?"

After several generations are thoroughly schooled, this permission-based mindset becomes rampant throughout a culture. It's so rampant in modern American society -- where nearly everybody goes through some form of compulsory schooling -- that it doesn't strike us as odd anymore. It should, especially if we still believe that individuals are individuals and that no one person or group of people is more fit to rule or to organize society than any other. Whether we believe in the efficient ways of spontaneous orders on a societal level or in the moral equivalence of all individuals, the idea that any one group is better fit to rule you or your life should be incredibly foreign.

On a personal level, if you have ever envisioned yourself doing something that doesn't require the permission of other people to achieve, then you should reject the permission-based mindset. If you've ever thought about creating a 4-hour workweek, launching your own business, or becoming an artist, you must reject this mindset. There will be other people out there who tell you that you can't do those things; "you aren't playing by the rules," "what about your career?" " how can you do that if you don't have a business/art degree?" They will start to wear down on you if you don't reject this mindset entirely.

For many people, this permission-based mindset won't seem like anything odd. It will just seem like the way things are. You go to school, score good test scores, attend the best college you are allowed to for your dollar, and then either go off to become a doctor/lawyer/consultant if you're lucky. If you're less ambitious, you'll go do your 9-5 that you ask permission for once you graduate and can live your life on the side so long as you have the permission to do so.

If either of those truly calls out to you, then don't see that as a slight. For some people, becoming a doctor, lawyer, or consultant is what they really want to do. For others, though, it's an expectation. Once you reach the end of the permission-oriented system that is K-12, the obvious continuation is more permission-oriented systems like pre-med/pre-law/business school, and then graduate school, and then a job that very much mirrors that K-12 system.

If that doesn't call out to you, realize that you don't need anybody's permission to live your life, just like the 8 year-old who doesn't need anybody's permission to go to the bathroom.

I'm Zak. I'm a venture capital professional and writer focusing on how to build a great career. You can find my writings here or reach out to me at

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