Education as a waste of time

I keep encountering people who think the education is a waste of time. These people have this weird divide between their own intelligence and education, a topic I have skirted around in the past, but this is a little bit different. These people think that intelligence is an inherent property of themselves, and not an action you do. That leads them to not value education. After all, they didn’t pay attention in school and they are plenty smart, right?

I had problems with the education system as well, but I have reflected on it for some time. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what education is. People seem to think the the K-12 scholastic system is meant to endow young minds with the pure Platonic facts as they sit on the right hand of a supposed god. That could not be further from the truth. Education is meant to give you the functional minimum for you to be a reasonable actor in society. They won’t necessarily tell you true things. Here is an example. Answer the following questions:

  • What is a noun?
  • What is a verb?

To question one you likely said “a person place or a thing”. Good answer. To the second you probably said something along the lines of “an action word”. Also a good answer.

In a rigorous sense, and that platonic ideal I joked about above, both of those answers are wrong. Because I am just some asshole on the internet, so here is a linguist who is going to explain to you why those answers are wrong:

These are simplifications intended for children, and are not technically accurate. In reality, nouns and verbs are defined by their grammatical functions: a noun can be the subject of a sentence, can be plural, etc. A verb is required in all English sentences, may be in the past tense, can head a verb phrase, etc. Nothingness isn’t a person, place or thing, but it is a noun; To exist is not “a doing word”, but it is a verb.

That’s from Lane Greene’s excellent Talk on the Wild Side. The catch, of course is that Greene’s definition above is useless to anyone who isn’t a linguist. But most people in society can function without this rigorous a definition. It just isn’t needed. And this leads to the disconnect that makes people react so poorly to common core mathematics, and things like that. I’ve met people who deny that humans evolved, electing to believe that we are the product of aliens instead, and when it is pointed out to them that they have no idea how evolution works, they bring up the one class on biology they took in high school. I took the same high school biology class, in the same high school, with the same teacher, and I can tell you for a fact that the class was insufficient to get even the most basic facts of any science correct.

This is a person who happily self declares that ‘you believe what want’. Maybe you do. I follow the evidence where it leads. And I pity you.

I actually largely used to believe that the education system I went through was poor. In many respects it was, but the issues is that ‘poor’ is not very helpful in terms of fixing the problem. Here is a quick comparison. In Italy, you can’t get out of high school without studying some physics. In the school system I went to, it was an option that you had to earn. It wasn’t that the school system was poor, it was that it was libertarian.

Libertarianism fails because it assumes people have the knowledge to make correct choices. Do you see why this is antithetical to education? How does a child, who knows nothing about physics, make an informed choice about whether he will enjoy or succeed at it? They won’t. This happened to me personally. I was pretty much through a liberal arts university when I learned that I fucking love chemistry. If only I could go back in time and do something about it.

But I don’t mean this to be about my poor choices. Knowing what I know now, I think my high school had all the resources I needed to be a much more successful person than I currently am, but I didn’t have the intelligence to figure it out when I was wrapping up high school. There were computer programing classes I could have taken, as well as proper science classes should I have wanted them. I just didn’t know to want them, and there was no real guidance from the school (or from my parents) for me to make the right choices.

I will finish this off with a very specific example of what I mean. In my senior year I had an English teacher who struck me as not really giving a fuck. I to this day don’t know what he was there, but then again at the time I didn’t know why I was there. He gave us a very peculiar final task – a multi-modal essay. We were meant to pick 4 different forms of storytelling from a list and use it to construct an essay. Paragraphs were on the list, but so were things like videos, pictures, music, etc. Anything you wanted to do to fulfill the assignment. I looked at the list and all I saw in it was a way to breeze through a final assignment. I decided to my assignment on Lenny Bruce, and I wrote a few paragraphs, half-assed Photoshoping some pictures, and checked a few other things from the list. I have no idea what grade I got, but I passed.

I remembered this assignment for all the wrong reasons. For the longest time I thought he had just thrown us a bone and kept us from doing a ten page paper or some shit. Maybe that was the case. But now I am not so sure. All of this happened in the 2001-2002 school year. I was already watching a lot of bullshit videos on the internet. But I didn’t know that that was something I could have taken seriously. An assignment like that, taken seriously, would have geared a person up to think in the new coming medium – video essays. All the skills needed to do it were on that syllabus. But I wasn’t paying attention to any of those things.

I can imagine a different timeline for my life where I made different choice. I took that last assignment seriously and just a few years later started putting up video essays to YouTube. Or perhaps I would have challenged myself to go into science and chemistry or computer science.

The education system didn’t fail me. I failed the education system.

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