What Michigan's Radioactive Boy Scout Tells Us about American Education

The Public Education nomenklatura boost their credibility by inventing for themselves a glorious pedigree implying that public schools (P.S.) have been around forever.  They also claim that going to school longer will boost a young person's lifetime income.  

Wrong on both counts.  

New York State, liberal and wealthy, passed its first P.S. law in 1874.  Michigan, where I live, passed its first P.S. law in 1871.  It wasn't fully implemented until 1900.


I photographed this plaque at Fayette State Park on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The statement that those who get more schooling will be happier or earn more is based on selection bias.  People who graduate from high school are smarter than, have better family support systems than, have more money than, and are more ambitious than dropouts.  The same goes for college grads when compared to those who only finish high school.  The smarter, moneyed, family-supported and ambitious kids will do better irrespective of whether they go to school or not.

Public schools and factories were developed at about the same time.  The pattern adopted was that of an assembly line with parts – or, in the case of schools, subjects, being bolted on as the child moves on an assembly line, stations one, two, grades three, four.  There is no recognition of differences of personalities or of the individual needs of the students.  The lack of respect for privacy, the kids' expectations of being told what to do, the regimenting and promotions based on politics rather than merit, destroys whatever joy children gain from learning and self-improvement.  Coursework is unrelated to adult needs or to lifetime work.  The public schools don't work very well, are expensive, and can do profound damage.  What to do?

Let's look at other school models.  Take the Amish, who attend one-room schoolhouses through seventh grade and then, at age thirteen, are treated like working adults who need to find their role in life.  During "rumspringa," they can experience "Englisher" lifestyles and are free to make mistakes.  Eighty-five percent remain in the religion, marry, have an average of seven kids, and run remarkably successful small businesses.  I regard the Amish as well educated.

In Germany's schooling, ten-year-olds have to decide the level of schooling they will undertake at the end of fourth grade, selecting from any of five kinds of training available.  Some will become vaunted German engineers – the less zealous, skilled craftsmen.  The system works.

Homeschooling isn't schooling at all.  Soon enough, the formal curriculum is adhered to only superficially.  Questions occur to the young scholars, and they seek answers.  Homeschoolers learn answers to questions they actually have, and that is the essence of the education an adult needs.  By the time these kids become adolescent, they wander around their towns, talking to experts or doing original research.  Many start businesses; others win national spelling and geography contests or are welcomed eagerly at Ivy League schools.  

I'm going to promote two examples from here in Michigan.  Thomas Alva Edison grew up in Port Huron, where he went to school for a few months.  His mother encouraged his learning, and he read scientific books voraciously.  He began as a businessman, sold food on a train, got into telegraphy, started and ran four newspapers – all this before age 19, when he sold up and moved to Louisville, Ky.  There he worked for the Associated Press, did more experiments, and patented an early electric vote-recorder at age 22.  The rest is history.

My favorite student-individualist has been termed Michigan's Radioactive Boy Scout.  Reading the 1998 Harper article first got me thinking about adolescence as a time of hormone-induced hyperactivity.  His real name was David Hahn.  Born in 1976, he lived with his mother in Clinton Township outside Detroit.  He acted normal until age ten, when he got a book on chemical experiments.  By fourteen, David had fabricated nitroglycerine and at fifteen, believing that one day we'd run out of oil, he pursued and earned a Boy Scout atomic energy merit badge.  David got himself a Geiger counter, happened to find a bottle of radium in an antique clock, hoodwinked scientific supply houses into sending him unpronounceable chemicals, worked odd jobs to support his obsession, did poorly in school, retreated to a shed in his mother's yard, and built himself a breeder nuclear reactor, all before he was eighteen.  He realized that he was being radiated, and he and his mother flushed much of the material down the toilet.  His experiments came to the attention of the law, but he was not charged with any crimes.  The backyard was cleaned up by the EPA as a Superfund site.

I used the Wikipedia article to follow up on this Michigander.  His later life was not a happy one, but that does not deter from his fame for doing the unconventional at an early age.  Hahn continued to try to get into nuclear engineering.  He did poorly when he tried college; served in the Navy and later in the Marine Corps; developed mental illness; took to theft; and, tragically, died of alcohol poisoning two years ago at age 39.

My point in citing the Amish, homeschoolers, Edison, and Hahn is that youthful energy, that burst of sex hormones that causes all the physical and emotional changes with which we are familiar, also leads to the oblivion to danger that we value when we send young men into combat and, the tirelessness when our teenager does an all-nighter – and, occasionally, rises to levels of achievement beyond anything the P.S. could possibly plan.  Adolescents face adult responsibility and advance relentlessly toward the challenge.

Our factory-model schools blithely obliterate this explosion of self-awareness, of boundless ambition, and of the student's growing ability to fulfill his potential, which is to achieve what he is passionate about within his range of options.

These effects are most marked in young men.  Teachers regard this assertion of self and of ambition as aggression that will disrupt the bland and mind-numbing drills they conduct in their classes.  They prefer the more docile female students.  School policy lately has tried to feminize the men to make them conform.  The result is that students' zeal is deflected from attempts at possibly heroic accomplishments.  They are instead yoked to the mediocrity and sameness of high school and college life from which they will be, in due course, excreted.  Many students leave schools apathetic toward learning.  Others fall for the fallacy that getting a diploma entitles them to a fulfilling job working for the Man.

The dynamism of our youth is being wasted in factory model schools.  I propose that we recognize adolescent hormones as a powerful force for good and let it loose to drive students to seek their own individual happiness.  Allowing adolescents to become responsible for their own individual future is understood in other educational models, and it works.

Erwin Haas was a flight surgeon in Vietnam, a Kentwood city commissioner, and an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Michigan State.  He is running as a Libertarian for Michigan's 26th state Senate district.  He blogs here.

The Public Education nomenklatura boost their credibility by inventing for themselves a glorious pedigree implying that public schools (P.S.) have been around forever.  They also claim that going to school longer will boost a young person's lifetime income.  

Wrong on both counts.  

New York State, liberal and wealthy, passed its first P.S. law in 1874.  Michigan, where I live, passed its first P.S. law in 1871.  It wasn't fully implemented until 1900.


I photographed this plaque at Fayette State Park on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The statement that those who get more schooling will be happier or earn more is based on selection bias.  People who graduate from high school are smarter than, have better family support systems than, have more money than, and are more ambitious than dropouts.  The same goes for college grads when compared to those who only finish high school.  The smarter, moneyed, family-supported and ambitious kids will do better irrespective of whether they go to school or not.

Public schools and factories were developed at about the same time.  The pattern adopted was that of an assembly line with parts – or, in the case of schools, subjects, being bolted on as the child moves on an assembly line, stations one, two, grades three, four.  There is no recognition of differences of personalities or of the individual needs of the students.  The lack of respect for privacy, the kids' expectations of being told what to do, the regimenting and promotions based on politics rather than merit, destroys whatever joy children gain from learning and self-improvement.  Coursework is unrelated to adult needs or to lifetime work.  The public schools don't work very well, are expensive, and can do profound damage.  What to do?

Let's look at other school models.  Take the Amish, who attend one-room schoolhouses through seventh grade and then, at age thirteen, are treated like working adults who need to find their role in life.  During "rumspringa," they can experience "Englisher" lifestyles and are free to make mistakes.  Eighty-five percent remain in the religion, marry, have an average of seven kids, and run remarkably successful small businesses.  I regard the Amish as well educated.

In Germany's schooling, ten-year-olds have to decide the level of schooling they will undertake at the end of fourth grade, selecting from any of five kinds of training available.  Some will become vaunted German engineers – the less zealous, skilled craftsmen.  The system works.

Homeschooling isn't schooling at all.  Soon enough, the formal curriculum is adhered to only superficially.  Questions occur to the young scholars, and they seek answers.  Homeschoolers learn answers to questions they actually have, and that is the essence of the education an adult needs.  By the time these kids become adolescent, they wander around their towns, talking to experts or doing original research.  Many start businesses; others win national spelling and geography contests or are welcomed eagerly at Ivy League schools.  

I'm going to promote two examples from here in Michigan.  Thomas Alva Edison grew up in Port Huron, where he went to school for a few months.  His mother encouraged his learning, and he read scientific books voraciously.  He began as a businessman, sold food on a train, got into telegraphy, started and ran four newspapers – all this before age 19, when he sold up and moved to Louisville, Ky.  There he worked for the Associated Press, did more experiments, and patented an early electric vote-recorder at age 22.  The rest is history.

My favorite student-individualist has been termed Michigan's Radioactive Boy Scout.  Reading the 1998 Harper article first got me thinking about adolescence as a time of hormone-induced hyperactivity.  His real name was David Hahn.  Born in 1976, he lived with his mother in Clinton Township outside Detroit.  He acted normal until age ten, when he got a book on chemical experiments.  By fourteen, David had fabricated nitroglycerine and at fifteen, believing that one day we'd run out of oil, he pursued and earned a Boy Scout atomic energy merit badge.  David got himself a Geiger counter, happened to find a bottle of radium in an antique clock, hoodwinked scientific supply houses into sending him unpronounceable chemicals, worked odd jobs to support his obsession, did poorly in school, retreated to a shed in his mother's yard, and built himself a breeder nuclear reactor, all before he was eighteen.  He realized that he was being radiated, and he and his mother flushed much of the material down the toilet.  His experiments came to the attention of the law, but he was not charged with any crimes.  The backyard was cleaned up by the EPA as a Superfund site.

I used the Wikipedia article to follow up on this Michigander.  His later life was not a happy one, but that does not deter from his fame for doing the unconventional at an early age.  Hahn continued to try to get into nuclear engineering.  He did poorly when he tried college; served in the Navy and later in the Marine Corps; developed mental illness; took to theft; and, tragically, died of alcohol poisoning two years ago at age 39.

My point in citing the Amish, homeschoolers, Edison, and Hahn is that youthful energy, that burst of sex hormones that causes all the physical and emotional changes with which we are familiar, also leads to the oblivion to danger that we value when we send young men into combat and, the tirelessness when our teenager does an all-nighter – and, occasionally, rises to levels of achievement beyond anything the P.S. could possibly plan.  Adolescents face adult responsibility and advance relentlessly toward the challenge.

Our factory-model schools blithely obliterate this explosion of self-awareness, of boundless ambition, and of the student's growing ability to fulfill his potential, which is to achieve what he is passionate about within his range of options.

These effects are most marked in young men.  Teachers regard this assertion of self and of ambition as aggression that will disrupt the bland and mind-numbing drills they conduct in their classes.  They prefer the more docile female students.  School policy lately has tried to feminize the men to make them conform.  The result is that students' zeal is deflected from attempts at possibly heroic accomplishments.  They are instead yoked to the mediocrity and sameness of high school and college life from which they will be, in due course, excreted.  Many students leave schools apathetic toward learning.  Others fall for the fallacy that getting a diploma entitles them to a fulfilling job working for the Man.

The dynamism of our youth is being wasted in factory model schools.  I propose that we recognize adolescent hormones as a powerful force for good and let it loose to drive students to seek their own individual happiness.  Allowing adolescents to become responsible for their own individual future is understood in other educational models, and it works.

Erwin Haas was a flight surgeon in Vietnam, a Kentwood city commissioner, and an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Michigan State.  He is running as a Libertarian for Michigan's 26th state Senate district.  He blogs here.