Why I don't like school

20 September 2015
20 Sep 2015
West Lafayette, IN
17 mins

Okay, maybe that title is a little too harsh. I don’t hate school. I think it’s an okay resolution, to be honest. But on the whole, I’m not to happy about the fact that school occupies 50+ hours of my week – 25% more than a full-time job. And you can agree or disagree with me, my opinion’s very personal on this topic, but here’s my account – my story – of why I don’t like school.

Because this is somewhat of a long story, and I have a lot to say, it comes in three parts: first, on the idea of learning, second, on my personal experience, and third, on my perspective on how we as a society view education. If you’d like to cut to the chase, feel free to skip to Part Three.

Part One: On the Idea of Learning

As a preface to what’ll unavoidably be something of a downer of a post, let me start by recounting what I do like about school. I like that I have school. I like that I have practically free access to education, which is unfortunately and disappointingly something we can’t say for the majority of the world. I like that I don’t face social or political oppression to learn and attend school, and I like that I live in a city and in an environment that doesn’t discourage or prevent me from education, which is also something we can’t say for everyone in the world.

Education is the most powerful weapon which we can use to change the world. - Nelson Mandela

I say these things first because I believe in the egalitarian ethos, the potential, of education, and I love and value education more than anything else in life. My focus and passion for education comes from the fact that, more than any other single factor in the world, education is the one thing that can bring equality and innovation at scale. A simple fact of learning applies equally to the twenty-somethings in Silicon Valley’s startup culture as it does to a seven-year-old learning to read in rural India; it applies equally to a theater student in downtown Manhattan as it does to little John Smith in Nebraska; it applies equally to me as it does to literally every other 7.2 billion people in the world with 7.2 billion different stories to tell and experiences to share. And that common, democratic fact of education is that knowledge and experience are tools of unparalleled , empowering innovative power because they provide opportunities regardless of anyone’s background.

Right now, if you know how to develop an app or a website, with a reasonable Internet connection, you can begin a career, tell a story, or save someone’s life. If you know how to do some simple accounting and mathematics, you can build a small business out of your garage. With a small bit of music education, you can create an artwork that’s entirely yours, and share it with the rest of the world in a few seconds. Knowledge doesn’t discriminate in who it benefits – especially not today. We might not be able to provide all 7.2 billion people in the world with food and water; we can’t cure every single terminal disease; but we can provide education to anyone in the world today with minimal effort, and it grants everyone equal benefits and opportunities in beginning to understand and make sense of the world around them, and education thus gives everyone an equal starting place and direction for beginning to navigate the confusing and beautiful world around us.

The issue of education, unlike the problems of net neutrality, healthcare, or whatever Trump’s being a complete joke about this week, applies equally to everyone for that reason – a good education benefits everyone, and if it’s not provided well, it harms everyone. Education goes beyond making it into an Ivy League School or a high-class position at a prestigious law firm, and it both frustrates me and disappoints me when people don’t see beyond their small bubble of experience to realize that schooling, career, and education are three related but separate ideas. An impressive resume or a shining career isn’t the endgame of education – that’s not the purpose of education, and we shouldn’t make it the purpose of education. The purpose of education is simply to provide a person with the tools and knowledge that they need to successfully find autonomy and navigate the world with their own set of values and experiences, regardless of whether or not they are an all-A valedictorian who wants to become a doctor. And too often I find that we constrain the idea of education to this narrow definition – we lock 90% of the world out of being so-called “educated” because we define education to be something that only 10% of the world can relate to.

Jesus, Muhammed, Socrates, Malcolm X, Mother Teresa, Spielberg, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, Sean Carter, Michael Jeffrey Jordan, Michael Joseph Jackson…Were either of these people unsuccessful … or … uneducated? - Suli Breaks

Put simply, I’m passionate about education because education is universally and democratically empowering in ways beyond our narrow definitions, and it’s empowering in a way that doesn’t discriminate. It’s empowering because it provides understanding, skills, and opportunities to a world where too many people are deprived of them to do their part in pushing the world forward. It provides everyone a chance.

And believe me, we need as much help as we can get in pushing the world forward.

Part Two: My Story

These are the things I believe about education – my own conclusions. But conclusions warrant explanations, so what follows – part two – is my story – why I view education the way I do, and why I view schooling the way I do.

First of all, let me be up-front about one thing: I am a self-motivated learner, and I always have been; I don’t learn well being force-fed information or told what to study and how to learn, and I don’t think almost anyone else does, either. But that’s an argument for later. For now, we’ll talk about my experiences.

One of the things I do when I find some downtime is playing piano – I compose original music, I arrange for the piano, improvise, cover songs, and generally enjoy creating music on the piano. And from how I’ve learned and enjoy the instrument, you’d think I loved piano all along. But as with all good stories, there’s a twist. Although I don’t remember it all that well, from what I’ve gathered, I used to absolutely despise music in general, and piano specifically, that at one point before a piano lesson, I lay down under the piano (proudly, I might add) and refused to move until the teacher left the building. So what? What can I do? I took a few years off.

I didn’t take up piano lessons since then, actually. For a while, the piano sat collecting dust in the house until sometime several years later in 2011, when I heard this piece and decided to learn to play it, because I loved the song. Fast foward some, and I learned to play a few other pieces, than to play pieces from memory, than by ear, and then I tried my hand at writing music.

And all through that time, I never took another piano lesson. Until sometime in 2014, when I decided I might want to try again (FYI: that didn’t last too long.)

But piano isn’t the only character in this twisted story; before 2014, I would never have believed anyone who told me I’d be writing for fun. Thousands of words every week, on my own free will? I didn’t like writing, to say the least. It a means of communicating information, and as long as I got the point across, the point of writing was achieved. Period.

But fast forward two years, and … well, I stand corrected. I don’t know if I’m any good at this yet, but I enjoy writing, and there’s no doubt I’ve improved, if not in quality, than certainly in speed and organization.

I still enjoy teaching myself new things.

Once you enter the monotony of education that is high school, leading up to collegiate studies and then a slow march into the labor market, it’s easy to forget the curiosity that used to flood you when you were younger – the curiosity that you just had to solve before you do anything else.

For me, that curiosity came in science. What is space made out of? If the universe started from nothing, where was that nothing in the first place? Who put that nothing there? Why can’t you divide by nothing? Is my red the same as your red? How do I know I have a brain? Why doesn’t laser shoot out of your eyes? and so on, I asked the kind of questions that didn’t involve the scientific method or problem-solving steps or worksheets or equations or citations or abstracts or designed experiments or the five parts of an essay response. The answers I looked for weren’t in the back of the book, they weren’t something I scrambled to finish the night before I had to know them, and they weren’t something I noted down in case it came up on a test.

I just wanted to know the answers, because I was curious. And when you’re curious, you want to know the answers, and you want to know why things are the way they are. And you want to get the correct answer because an incorrect answer doesn’t answer your question, and it doesn’t tell you why things are the way they are. So I looked for answers to my questions, because I was curious. That was it, and I learned that way.

Eventually, that curiosity got a bit deeper every day, until around my seventh grade year, I began teaching myself trigonometry and calculus out of my bedroom from what I could gather between Wikipedia articles on the Stokes theorem and online video tutorials on definite integration. I didn’t go research calculus because of an assignment or a test, not because I had to know it to graduate or because I wanted to go to MIT, but because if I wanted to understand general relativity (which I needed to understand to get inflation, which I needed to get in order to understand the history of the universe…), I needed to understand calculus. And I wanted to know how the universe started. So I taught myself calculus.

I wanted to know how the universe started. So I taught myself what I needed.

Flash forward to eighth grade, and I had taught myself rudimentary differential equations and differential geometry, the theories of relativity, some basic quantum mechanics, and was beginning to get into quantum field theories and the modern theories of quantum gravity. That was exciting. This was the part of physics nobody’s figured out yet. I was still looking for answers. Why does anything exist? Why does space bend? Why is light so fast? Why is the speed of gravity exactly the speed of light? And in looking for answers, I was still teaching myself.

Right now, it’s 2015, and I’m in my junior year of high school. I’m “taking” a calculus course and a class on Newtonian physics*.

I’m not asking any questions about calculus in my homework, and I’m not curious about how to predict where a cannonball will land if it’s fired at a 30 degree angle to the ground with no air resistance at thirty miles per hour. I was curious. Five years ago. And I’d found answers to those questions online. Five years ago.

I still love learning, and I still teach myself.

In the past year, I’ve taught myself how to design and develop a website; how to organize an independent project and see it through to execution. I’ve learned how to deal with failed projects, I’ve learned how to use professional design software, and I’ve learned more than I’d ever dreamed of about computers and infotech. But not a single one of those skills I learned, I learned because I went to school. I just learned them because I wanted to know how to do things, the same way someone reads about basketball stats or the specs of the newest iPhone because they’re curious.

There is a point to all this humble-bragging.

Everything I taught myself, I learned because of one of two reasons: I either wanted to answer a question I had, or I needed to know something in order to do something I wanted to do. That’s the point. Learning happens not when we’re staring down into textbooks or answering questions on a worksheet, but when we ask questions that we want to know the answers to, and when we want to learn how to do things. We don’t learn because we’re told to, but because we need to learn. Because we want our questions answered, because our curiosity – the ultimate motivator of learning that all seven billion and some of human beings on Earth are born with – demands that we learn what we’re curious about. And the huge scientific body of research on education and learning over the past several decades agree – unanimously – that learning happens, and it’s most effective, when it’s not borne from some outside pressure to do well or go to a prestigious college but instead borne from some internal motivation to answer our questions and quench the curiosity we’re born with.

(And when the scientific community unanimously agrees on something, you know it’s true, because even the scientific community can’t agree that climate change is “real”, and we know it is.)

So that’s my story, and why I believe the things I believe about education: my life changed because of everything I learned. My life didn’t change because there was a teacher or a school that wanted me to read books and score highly on a standardized exam; my life changed because I wanted to know things, and because I wanted to do things I didn’t know how to do.

If you take one thing away from today, make it the fact that motivation does to learning something literally nothing else can do: it makes it applicable and relevant – it makes it exciting.

Part Three: Why I Don’t Like School

At this point, it’s hopefully obvious that what I don’t like isn’t the idea of school – I’m not attacking any particular institution, and I’m certainly not attacking anyone who is a part of the education system. Doing so would be worse than blaming the President for the national debt. (Doesn’t mean I like them, but it doesn’t mean I blame them for the reasons I don’t like school.)

Here’s why I don’t like school.

I don’t like school because despite all that we’ve discussed – the incredible importance and value of education to literally every single person on the face of this planet, going back a hundred million years and going forward billions of years; despite the fact that learning is something that’s designed into every single human being to be enlightening and exciting when it’s self-motivated and autonomous – despite these things, schools today have made it less of an exciting, motivating experience and more of an obligatory prison sentence. And on that particular statement, I’m more serious than I’ve been anywhere else on this blog. A school today is the embodiment of the opportunities and potentials of education combined with the excitement and joy of learning, where thoughtless restraint, ruthless standardization, uneducated politics, unnecessary measurement, and ignorant expectations have evaporated any positive energy left and replaced it with a twelve-year sentence inside a prison decorated with knowledge.

In these schools we don’t learn things to answer our curiosity – we consume information to satisfy requirements established as a compromise in political disputes. In these schools we don’t learn things because we enjoy learning – we take in facts and statements because that’s what everybody else does between the ages of six and eighteen, and if you don’t, you’ll fall behind. In these schools we don’t learn things because our curiosity and imagination motivate us to look things up – we record information inside our minds’ volatile hard disks only because it feels right.

From my perspective, learning without having its cause in motivation is learning without a purpose. It’s being told to play a thousand etudes without ever playing a beautiful piece. It’s being told to run miles without ever bringing you out into a competition. I won’t recite the chain of almost zombie-esque responses we hear after the question “why do you want good grades?” and the answer “because I want to go to a good college….”, but schools today reduce the gift of education and the enjoyment in learning new things down to simple checklists. We ought to learn because we’re motivated to learn, but instead, what we face is a society that tells us, the students, that we ought to be motivated to learn because we need to learn. We’ve got education backwards, people.

I realize that this is a subjective post, coming from a teenager seemingly genetically opposed to an external pressure to learn, under the privilege of one of the best schools in the state, in a family well-supportive of higher education. I realize that there are exceptions to everything I’ve mentioned**, and I realize that I propose these ideas without an iota of a suggestion as to how to improve it or change the system.

But I also want you to realize that when I don’t want to go to school some days to be recited things I’ve taught myself five years ago, that there’s a reason behind it. I want you to realize that when I weigh the option of teaching myself how to do something I feel passionate about against the option of spending those eight hours doing things I’m hardly motivated to do with almost no freedom to use that time how I want to use it, sometimes, the choice isn’t what the rest of the society deems “reasonable”.

I want you to realize that when I draw a conclusion from the experiences I’ve had teaching myself the things I love to do, versus the experiences I’ve had being the object of measurement in a system designed two centuries ago for a different economy, I wish that the people who aren’t so lucky enough to go to these schools would find some other ways of becoming educated, rather than be rolled into the conveyor belt of the industry of education.

But above all, above everything else I’ve said, I want you to realize that when I sincerely wish that the education system in the United States can change to reflect something of the last few centuries of findings in cognitive science, when I wish that school should be a motivating environment of interaction between teachers and students that guide students to their interests than fit them into cookie-cutter standards – that there is a reason behind it. I want you to know that this isn’t the grumblings of some angsty teenager, and I hope you’ll accept my ideas and perspectives as the ideas and perspectives of an educated individual. Because according to how you, the society, has set up your educational standards, that’s who I am – an educated individual, a successful product of a system over a hundred years old and still going.

* You might want to bring up the fact that I could skip some of these classes, or take them online. You’re right. I could skip them. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make – my point isn’t how school prevents me from learning new material, but on how school isn’t a motivating environment, so your nonetheless true statement isn’t quite relevant here (read on for my conclusions). And you’re right. I could take them online. I could re-learn the material during my own time instead of doing things I enjoy so I wouldn’t have to re-learn what I know during school hours instead. Those are both very true statements, but those are irrelevant to my arguments (please read on).

** Except that one bit about the scientific body of research unanimously agreeing that motivated learning is better than learning without motivation – that one’s flawlessly clean.

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