Why are we doing this to ourselves?

How ludicrous it is that the greatest achievement we can make within our educational system is to survive it.

I didn’t really understand why I had to learn, study hard, get good grades and pass exams. The process for applying to university requires some effort. Think about what you want to have a career in. Research the best universities and courses for said career. Study. Be (academically) good enough to be accepted for that course. Write a hyperbolic, biased personal statement that blows wind up your own ass.

I abhorred the thought of all that work. Not to give you the wrong impression. It wasn’t from any position of moral superiority. I didn’t opt out of our educational system because I felt it would bankrupt my intellect or compromise my learning. It was merely indecision. 

The deadline for applications approached. I did nothing. And then I missed the deadline.

Over the last year I’ve come to think, maybe my stupidity was the best thing that could have happened to me.

Peter Thiel has this great passage in Zero to One. He’s talking about how our fascination with competition takes the uniqueness and originality out of us. It made me feel lucky to have avoided it.

“And it gets worse as students ascend to higher levels of the tournament. Elite students climb confidently until they reach a level of competition sufficiently intense to beat their dreams out of them. Higher education is the place where people who had big plans in high school get stuck in fierce rivalries with equally smart peers over conventional careers like management consulting and investment banking. For the privilege of being turned into conformists, students (or their families) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation. Why are we doing this to ourselves?”

Why indeed.

I cannot claim the desirable title of dropout. I never even made it into higher education. But after browsing my notes on learning and education this morning, I thought I’d share some ideas that jumped out at me.

– “The activity of the student must somehow be responsive to the activity of the instructor” says Mortimer Adler in How to Read. Learning is a conversation, not a lecture. The communication and questioning must run in both directions, from teacher to student, and student to teacher.

– Knowledge can never be effectively imparted without a narrative. Facts don’t stay in our heads. Stories do. For maximum recall, attach emotional significance to what you want to remember. This is one of the primary lessons of behavioural economics.

– The enemy of education is boredom. Consistency in learning the fundamentals of your craft does not have to mean endless monotony and repetition. The basic truths of your discipline are few, but their variations and patterns are endless. Learning does not have to be boring. If it is, you’re doing it wrong.

– Wisdom is attained by the elimination of unwisdom. Try to consistently avoid stupid.

– Karl Marx: “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of attaining its luminous summits.”

– We have some incredible tools to bolster our ability to learn. For example, the internet and access to boundless information. But they are only powerful if we know how to use and navigate with them effectively. Many don’t.

– Physical therapist Gray Cook says “don’t add strength to dysfunction.” In a similar vein, we should avoid adding specialised and advanced knowledge until we have a fundamental understanding of the big, basic ideas.

– Umberto Eco has a concept called academic humility. It’s essence is this: “the knowledge that anyone can teach us something.” Every environment, every situation, every person has something to teach. Pay close enough attention and you can unearth the lesson.

Homo sapiens means man the wise. This clearly demonstrates the humility of our race and the esteem with which we hold ourselves. Keep in mind that we are not wise unless we make ourselves so.

– Malcolm X was a man who shunned formal education. When asked about the cause of racism, he cited the failures of the American education system. “So it takes education to eliminate it(racism). And just because you have colleges and universities, doesn’t mean you have education.”

A puppy is not just for Christmas. And education is not limited to the few years we spend within the formal system. It is a lifelong obligation. A daily responsibility. And we must begin to treat it as such.