Elon Musk’s School: For Rich Families Who Don’t Care About Arts Education

Ad Astra has some innovative but very flawed ideas about modern education.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk. Photo: The Henry Ford Foundation, via Flickr.

Are you a parent in LA, looking for the best education for your children money can buy? Have you looked at the staggering accomplishments of billionaire inventor Elon Musk — cutting-edge Tesla vehicles, SpaceX rockets, the quirky infrastructure projects of The Boring Company — and thought, “I wish this man, clearly brilliant in technology and engineering, would turn his attention to something he knows nothing about — education — and build an elementary school!” Well, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is, such a school exists, but you’re not likely to get in. That school is Ad Astra, a nonprofit, tech-focused organization that Musk founded in 2014, originally for his own children. Over the past few years, the school has gradually expanded, but at a current total enrollment of 31, admittance is hyper-competitive and available to just a few of the hundreds of families who apply. The good news? If you want your kid to get a well-rounded education, you probably wouldn’t want them going there anyway.

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Ad Astra, according to Musk, exists to “exceed traditional school metrics on all relevant subject matter through unique project-based learning experiences.” For Musk, however, “relevant subject matter” apparently means only the subjects relevant to him, as the school prioritizes the kind of important but esoteric technological questions at the center of his career while ignoring much of the spectrum of human knowledge. At Ad Astra, students from age seven to 14 take on technical projects of their choosing, with a “heavy emphasis” on science, math and ethics. One curriculum module, Geneva, has students debate the solutions to major global issues, such as the rise of artificial intelligence or pending nuclear war with North Korea. Another module, A-Frame, has students take on engineering projects, creating everything from weather balloons to robots armed with flamethrowers. Students also learn to code in multiple languages, along with more conventional courses in math, physics and chemistry, and they complete weekly in-depth research assignments called Folio. They can even opt out of entire subjects they’re not interested in. There are scores, but no letter grades, and students are instead encouraged to learn from the outcomes of their decisions and experiences.

Finding ways to evolve traditional school curricula for the 21st century is a worthy endeavor, but all this middle-school robotics and geopolitical crisis-management comes with a cost, as Ad Astra doesn’t teach physical education, music or any foreign languages. “None of the specials,” Ad Astra’s principal Joshua Dahn puts it, for apparently Spanish or French aren’t core academic subjects and robot battles are. Ad Astra doesn’t seem to have dispensed with the humanities entirely: students can still learn creative writing, interact with various guest artists and seem to have opportunities to take on literary assignments of their own choosing. But these are clear side dishes on what is otherwise a steady diet of math, science and engineering, at a school that is run like a startup and literally housed within the SpaceX campus.

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Ad Astra is not without their reasons for this specialized curriculum. Musk believes perfect translation technology will soon exist as to render learning foreign languages unnecessary, and his staff consider the school day too packed to include many cultural activities, which they assume students can pursue in the evenings. They also offer flexible hours to accommodate some students’ unique artistic needs — such as one 12-year-old master violinist who spends a week out of class each month. But this line of thinking is full of obvious, and elitist, flaws.

First, it embodies the worst stereotypes about how scientists view the humanities, starting with a fundamental misunderstanding of what certain subjects even are. Language classes, for example, aren’t simply about developing a raw, mechanical skill for communicating with people in another country. They offer immersive study into other countries’ traditions, history and culture, as well as providing enormous academic and cognitive benefits, from enhancing students’ abilities in their primary language to improving their aptitudes in — yes — math and science.

Second, treating art as a “special” or optional subject, when STEM courses are required, devalues the skills that the arts are uniquely qualified to cultivate. The approach Ad Astra has toward art feels suspiciously like art appreciation rather than genuine arts literacy. It’s unclear what exactly their curriculum is — Dahn says they write regularly in English class, but also that “we just don’t have the staff to provide all these things really well.” And telling a student they can do some projects on a few books they like is quite different from curating a rigorous language arts curriculum that asks them to engage regularly with fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama as key realms of information.

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The arts play a crucial role in helping children learn how to think about and engage with the world. They teach us how to examine human thought and behavior, how to develop arguments and how to communicate complex ideas across writing, speech, images and even sound. STEM classes can teach kids how to develop the necessary technologies of tomorrow, but they won’t prepare them for essential questions of life, like how to be a parent or how to face death. They won’t convey to them what it was like to be a soldier in World War II, a monk in the Middle Ages or what it’s currently like to be anyone other than a child from an uber-wealthy family going to school in a rocket factory in Hawthorne, CA. The thought processes needed to understand art, rather than simply appreciate it, also require critical thinking on the great monoliths of our identities — gender, race, religion, class, etc. And in case there’s any doubt that scientists need to understand identity politics, just look at Ben Carson, Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris for the kinds of conversations we end up having when they don’t.

Unicorn Fart
Tom Edwards has since released new art inspired by the unicorn Musk used without permission. Photo: wallypots.com

Not surprisingly, this approach to art as something to appreciate, but not necessarily comprehend, seems to match Musk’s own relationship with art over the years. He clearly seems to admire art and the people who create it. The drilling machines of his Boring Company each have literature-inspired names — Godot, Line-Storm, Prufrock — and his past wives and most well-known romantic partners have all been artists: author Justine Musk, actor and author Talulah Riley, actor Amber Heard and currently the eclectic musician and visual artist Grimes. Yet he doesn’t always seem to fully appreciate what artists do. In her account of their marriage, Justine Musk claims that Elon, while supportive of her career when they were dating, later said she “read too much,” and dismissed her book deadlines when they inconvenienced his busy schedule. More recently, he also featured an image of a flatulent unicorn in Tesla promotions and in the cars’ interfaces themselves, without ever acquiring the permission of the original artist Tom Edwards. When confronted by Edwards’ daughter on Twitter about the money owed to her father, Musk brushed it off and said her father benefited from the free promotion. (Tellingly, he recently Tweeted a call to support music streaming services that give the most royalties back to artists not long after he began his relationship with Grimes. So apparently he’s less open to companies stiffing artists when it involves people close to him.) When it comes to writing, Musk also doesn’t understand how journalism works, with a habit of spreading conspiracies theories and making false claims about reporters who give him bad press. But yes, by all means, let’s have him plan our kids’ curriculum.

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Musk may know how to make a good car, but like a newly released Tesla Model 3, his philosophy on education is full of bugs. The arts aren’t merely a “special” — they’re resources for learning the skills beyond the scope of math and science. And Musk’s behavior toward certain artists and journalists, along with his immature, sometimes staggeringly offensive behavior (like complaining about the “phoney [sic] PC police” or baselessly calling one of the divers from the Thai cave rescue a pedophile) only further exemplify what happens to people who don’t take the time to properly develop these other forms of emotional, cultural and media literacy. I don’t doubt that Musk wants to help kids learn, and SpaceX sounds like it could be a great place for a field trip or educational programs outside of school. But otherwise, send your kids to a regular school, and give them a balanced education. Only some of us need to understand robots. We all need to understand our fellow human beings.

(Update: since this article was first published, Musk and Edwards have reached a settlement over the unicorn image.)