People tell me I don't do enough personal entries (you don't do any -- pub), and this is a blog after all, so here you go. What follows is the rapid-fire unraveling of my brain.

Readers of this blog will likely know that I occasionally have exhibited symptoms of disillusionment and apathy towards school. However, I feel that some degree of questioning things and questioning your path is healthy by the time one reaches college age. College, unlike high school, is a choice. You choose which college to attend, you choose what field of knowledge to pursue, you choose what classes to take. Many people choose to go to college over doing other financially lucrative things (albeit very few). Therefore I'm not concerned that I'm questioning the point of what I'm doing. So I've been thinking about the purpose of school lately, not in a social or institutional sense, but in the sense of what use it serves the student. For most all professions, you have to go through lots of school if you want to be succeessful. So school is a kind of have-to, which is fine with me. It sure beats going to work at some menial deathly boring that you have to work years at in order to even have the chance of advancing to something more interesting. It also tops a system where good jobs are awarded according to connections, family origin, reciprocal favors or worse. So I'm not complaining about it. But does it give you something else? Is it reasonable to expect school to provide other kinds of fulfillment than just social advancement? Or is it most reasonable to just try to make it as pleasant as possible a step in the larger rat race of which it is a part?

Other than there are three things I can identify that school gives us:

1) School teaches you knowledge. Going to school provides you with a unique opportunity in your life in which you can focus exclusively on enriching your knowledge. Therefore one should look at school as a convenient time in which to pursue what fascinates you.

This is all well and good. If you're interested in a science and your school has a decent science program then the classroom format can be valuable in faciliating the process of learning your subject. Many sciences are hard, and for most students the learning process is aided by the rigor and scrutiny provided by regular problem sets. If you're at a university, then you have to the advantage of being at the frontier of knowledge where new knowledge is being created daily. That clearly presents an educational advantage over just reading books, if nothing else because the newest knowledge hasn't found its way into books yet. At the very least it's inspiring and makes one want to explore knowledge to be in such an environment.

If you're interested in humanities, the concept of knowledge is defined a little differently. Whereas most science course end up presenting a fairly standardized curriculum across different schools, humanities courses that deal with similar topics are more variable; it's harder to say what it means to be a properly educated English major, or even U.S. history major for that matter, than a physics major. Although, even for an English major there is a core group of works that are considered neccessary to be familiar with in order for one to be considered well educated. Now, assuming that the contents of this group is common knowledge, it's a little less clear to me what one gains from reading these works as part of a course syllabus as opposed to on one's own, since understanding or grasping the material doesn't require the same kind of repetition and rigor that a difficult scientific concept would. But I can already hear the response that the knowledge you derive from an English course, for instance, isn't contained within the pages of the book, it comes from the interpretation of what's in the book. And to that end, the more interpretations the better. Hence, the discussion aspect of a literature course is essential to the knowledge derived from the course. Another argument might be that the wisdom derived from literature derives from the way it is to be understood in relation to life, and thus more it is discussed, the more insights it can provide.

All in all, I'm not sure how much greater an advantage for acquiring new knowledge school offers a motivated and capable person. The resources are out there, now more accessible than ever, and if one is motivated enough to seek them out and assemble them sensibly, and capable enough to learn and understand without the oversight of teachers, I'm convinced one can get just as good an education without college. Where school does present an advantage is in providing that structure and incentive, and providing a pedagogical structure. The pardox is that the people I know who are truly expert in the field they are studying - that is, those who have the most to gain from school - are also the ones who are most self-directed, and with the most self-derived interest, and thus most likely to do well for themselves without the guidance of school. What school provides for people who have the interest, the means, and the will to succeed in an area of life, or an area of inquiry, is still unclear to me. Still, you do get four years to just learn things and recognition for having done it. That's worth something.

2. School is a challenge, specifically a challenge for your intellect.

This is only appealing to a particular type of person. But it's probably true that most high acheivers got there in part because they enjoy flexing their intellectual muscle. Most (not all) people would prefer a challenging job to an unchallenging job. People like challenge. There's an inherent joy in testing the limits of one's capabilities. If you perform well, you get to feel good about yourself and that you are a smart person. There's a certain wrestling with things mentally that school provides, and although it's not as dramatic as say the lone scientist deriving on his own the fundamental formula of nature, or solving a hitherto unsolved problem, it still feels good to feel yourself making intellectual progress.

3. Doing well in school is a way to prove yourself to those who would want to hire you or otherwise evaluate you.

Now the one that everybody cares about. It would be hugely inefficient to introduce inexperienced workers directly into the labor force without first being evaluated in a neutral medium like school and placed accordingly. While the system does have its flaws, things that school measures like discipline, intelligence, dedication are highly correlative with traits that result in success in the workplace. As such, the better you do in school, the more you prove that you would be capable of doing whatever you want to do after school. For types who are always concerned about the next step, this is a highly motivating reason to do well and work hard in school, even if they're not particularly interested in the course material.

There are many different values and purposes to school, and often I find it hard to understand how they're packed together in the same institution. I definitely have a difficult time balancing these objectives, usually because I focus too narrowly on one of them, and try to make the whole thing into something it isn't. I think that if you honor only one of them, you're not going to be successful: If you see it as only an education and have any semblance of independence of thought you're going to be frustrated when school requirements and pedagogy conflict with your personal educational aspirations. If you see it as just a mental challenge then you'll come out not having learned anything useful to take into the next stage. If you regard it as just a prelude to your future career you'll find the work more tedious and pointless than other people who are fascinated by the subject matter and will possibly burn out. Of course, I'm sure I'm missing some other equally important purposes of school but I want to keep this short and these are just my immediate thoughts.

No comments: