As a kid, I was sometimes suicidal. I thought I didn’t like being alive. It turned out I just didn’t like being a kid. I simply had nothing else to compare it to until I attained and got to try out being an adult. – Alicorn

A few years back, I was out having a meal with my mother and a friend. My friend is an academic, and I asked him a few things about what might be involved if I decided to go back to school. It’s a thought that wafts through my head from time to time.

My mother was flabbergasted, and rightly so. I point out rather frequently that school was a miserable, unholy experience. The best part of getting older is that age carries me further and further from it.

I’ve revisited this memory a number of times in the intervening years, because it’s an incongruity and I don’t like having incongruities in my mind. I probably won’t ever return to the campus world, but I do feel like something would be different if I did. It wouldn’t feel intolerable. I think I can sum up why in the following question, which I don’t know if I was ever asked in exactly these words but was certainly asked in other ways:

“What school do you want to go to?”

Look carefully, because parents everywhere ask this every day, with the best of intentions – yet there is something terribly, horribly, catastrophically wrong with it.

There’s a reasonably good science fiction novel I read years ago, Signal to Noise, by Eric Nylund. It contains a set of scenes in which the protagonist, Jack, negotiates a technology trade with an alien named Wheeler. For his side of the bargain, Wheeler offers Jack a choice of any of the following technologies:

  • Electron Reactor
  • Random Logic
  • Tempest Wavefunction

If you’ve read enough fiction, you know what comes next. Here Jack tests the electron reactor he picked, in a VR simulator:

The water became choppy. The single electron spread out over distances Jack had thought impossible. One moment ripples, the next tidal waves that crashed against the xenon dike, parts of the canyon dried up, others submerged; it was a seething silver serpent. It was chaos. A tempest in the tiniest teapot.

Tempest wavefunction. One of Wheeler’s other choices. A synonym for the electron reactor.

Jack flipped a switch and let the reactor interact with the quaternary quantum logic cells that surrounded it. The sea lapped the edges, filled the logic cells, flipped their metastable configurations between four topologies: ones and zeroes, nulls and zeds, back and fourth, without pattern. Random and logic. Random logic.

Congratulations, Jack, you’ve been gulled. My choice about school was the same way: the only differences between my options were irrelevant ones. “What school do you want to go to? You can go to any one you want…as long as you go to classes and do your homework and take your exams and continue to be answerable to us for another four years.” Demanding I pick a college was a bit like demanding I pick an STD. “Would you like AIDS or syphilis?” Nice try, but I see what you did there; either way, I’m getting boned.

I sort of wish I’d tried to get involved in the student council or other forms of faux-responsibility as a kid. I would have been less confused by “choices” like this one. I’d have experienced a comparable measure of agency, somewhere in the ill-defined territory between zero and the square root of minus one.

Not that trading school for employment seemed much better at the time. I was terrified of entering the workforce, with its nine to five grind and its kowtowing to the boss. I wish I could go back and tell my eighteen-year-old self that it’s not actually that bad, that work is inevitable (for now) but that it wins by a mile because it doesn’t follow you home. And, well, money. The cheapest way to buy the feeling of agency is to spend your own money on your own stuff for no better reason than because you feel like it, and justify your purchase to no one.

Twelve years ago, I left home. It was the first real act of agency in my life. Twelve years later, I still don’t know what agency actually is, or if I can reasonably claim it. I still suffer from akrasia and inertia, I still tend to go where Life dictates instead of dictating to Life. But I feel like I can sort of squint in agency’s general direction and see something.

Let’s look at that question again:

“What school do you want to go to?”

What’s noticeably absent from this is a much more important question, one that is not usually asked of anyone. Alicorn calls it the shadow question, I assume because she is a giant geek:

“What do you want?”

I don’t know what agency feels like but I know what feels like agency. Answering this question feels like a step in the direction of agency.

Ask me “what do you want to study?” and I will answer (and should have answered): “What makes you think I want to study anything at all?” And I will kick and scream and plot escape if pressured to study anyway, and I will be right to do so.

Ask me “what do you want?” and I can conceive of a future where I might (might!) answer “Well, I feel like studying natural science for a few years.” And then I go do that. Or I don’t, as I please. There is no incongruity here; the two circumstances are not even comparable.

That is the first piece of my understanding of agency.

So why didn’t anyone ask eighteen-year-old me the Shadow Question? Because you don’t ask that of kids, and we think of eighteen year olds as kids. And it’s true; they are. It’s not an act of hostility, either. We don’t let them command their own destinies, because we want them to reach adulthood unscathed. They get choice when we believe they’ll make good ones. Until then they can make whatever decisions they like, as long as they’re taken from options on the list provided.

But needing permission to make your own calls is exactly the opposite of agency, and Wheeler’s Choice is no choice at all!

The second piece of my understanding of agency is this: It is taken, not given. Agency held at someone else’s sufferance is false freedom, just as promises made under duress are not binding.

What, then, of the objection that children really will make bad choices if they’re permitted to? That we need to protect them until they won’t?

This is the third piece, and to me it also describes the line between childhood and adulthood: You can’t shepherd agency. Like any other skill, you learn to use it by using it. You can’t do life right until you’ve been living it for a while.

I see news articles complaining about how nowadays we have so many people in their mid-twenties that are still basically kids, and I think of course they are; they’ve never been allowed to be adults. You don’t let people out of the playpen when they’re ready; you let them out (or, more likely, they break out) and then they become ready.

Everything we stick an age limit on has this character. Violent movies. Alcohol. Sex. We notice that people at the limit, on average, can’t handle it, and we wonder if maybe it should go up? But that won’t help because the readiness function is not “X years of being alive” but “X years of experience with the concept in question.” No, sex ed doesn’t count as experience, unless you spend less time talking about how You Will Die If You Do Anything Fun and more about how to give your partner an orgasm. With practical exams. Graded. What do you want? If you want your daughter to remain a virgin for its own sake, neuter her. I’ll help her kill you afterward. But if what you say you want is for her not to be a single pregnant mother at 16, you’re better off getting her an IUD, a box of condoms, and the URL of a harlot’s blog post about how to avoid STDs. No, sex ed doesn’t count for that either, unless it is being taught by a retired whore. Hrm. That’s a good idea now that I think of it, someone should use it.

We won’t do any of that, of course. School isn’t about learning, or at least not mostly. We treat higher education as a job ticket, but there is not one thing I learned in college that I use in my day-to-day work, and I don’t think the situation is that much different in other professions. I think what you’re really signaling with a job-ticket degree is that you know how to patiently accept subordination, that you know how to do what you’re told merely because you were told, voluntarily, for years on end. That’s an important skill in our world! Most of the population needs to know that to get by day to day! Most of the remainder does the telling, and far too many of them take far too much pleasure in it.

And that is a horrible state of affairs.

If civilization can’t handle humans who desire agency but not power, that is a problem with it and not with us.