The Book of Learning and Forgetting

The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith

In this intriguing book, Frank Smith offers the compelling argument that school systems are harming children’s innate learning abilities by using a false model of learning. In the first part of the book, the author defines two views of learning and forgetting: the classic view and the official view. Under the classic view, we learn from the people with whom we associate. Smith says, “We can’t help learning from them, and we learn without knowing that we are learning.” The official view of learning, on the other hand, has come about mostly within the last century and says that “learning is work, and that anything can be learned provided sufficient effort is expended and sufficient control enforced.”

In Part Two, “The Classic View of Learning and Forgetting”, the author explains that we “learn from the company we keep.” He says that we establish our identities by “joining clubs” or finding groups of people with whom we identify, and we even learn vicariously through members of our “clubs”. He goes on to describe for us the magnitude of children’s learning. He gives examples of vocabulary learning such as young children learn about 2000 words per year from birth to age 5 or 6, and teenagers learn an average of 10 new words per day… all this without formal study, and perhaps in spite of formal study for the latter example.

Part Three is about the Official Theory of Learning and Forgetting. Smith tells us a little of the history of the official Theory… how the quest for more efficiency led to our educational system being modeled on the Prussian army. Then how psychologists, wars and test-makers helped to form the official theory of learning and our school system into what they are today.


In Part Four, entitled “Repairing the Damage”, the author first offers ideas for freeing ourselves from the official view of learning and forgetting. He says, “We have to learn, or to persuade ourselves, that learning is not effective if we have to struggle to achieve it.” He suggests that we keep company with successful learners in order to become members of the successful learners club. Finally, he gives suggestions for swaying school systems from the official view of learning towards the classic view. An extensive Notes section and a thorough bibliography follow the final chapter. This book is fascinating reading and illustrates why unschooling makes so much sense without ever mentioning the word.