What were you doing when you were 12?

When Steve Jobs was 15, he was working in the HP factory. Bill Gates was debugging software for the Computer Center Corporation. At 12, Thomas Suarez is building iPhone apps and giving TED talks.

Only decades ago, it was legal for children to build things. When I was a teenager, I was allowed to wield power tools during my summer/holiday jobs. By the time I graduated high school, I was earning $10/hr as a carpenter’s assistant. By the time I finished college, I was making $15/hr as a passably skilled carpenter. But that’s still a penance compared to what young people were allowed to do back in the day.

In the early 1800s, children could begin apprenticing when they were old enough to be useful, and very few failed to reach maturity and self-sufficiency by the time they were 18. Remember David Farragut (“Damn the torpedoes!”)? Yeah, that was him at 13 years old commanding his own ship in the War of 1812.

The early 1800s were also an explosive period of creativity and productivity in America, and a time when the majority of (free) Americans were self-employed. Coincidence? Doubtful.

Contrast that with today: Now, it’s illegal for anyone under 16 to be around a power tool, and anyone under 18 must be directly supervised (i.e. they can’t work independently, which pretty much makes them useless). What does this accomplish? Builders won’t hire a teenager, and kids will reach 18 years old with no practical skills.

Fortunately, programming is different. Why do Americans still lead in software development? While most other forms of child labor are criminalized, the state hasn’t yet figured out how to keep them from programming. As a result, kids can still build things with computers. They can still become accomplished programmers by the time they’re 18. Then they go on to build worldchanging products.

The same great things could still be happening outside of software. But they’re not; instead of young people spending their time developing self-sufficiency, marketable skills, and practical experience, they sit in classrooms, learning that the only way to learn is to be instructed.

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