I used to be somewhat cynical about The School of Life’s views on education. It’s easy to see them as a reflection of that oft-bemoaned “Peace, Love, and Understanding” mentality which has supposedly downgraded the millennial generation to a bunch of wimpy participation-trophy addicts.
You can get away with thinking that way if all the outward signs in your career point toward the fact that yes, the education you’ve received and continue to receive has helped you build professional assets that yes, you can exploit for their material comforts. An even more treacherous road, in my view, is if you attribute your success to the competitive nature of the education system.
However, I cannot get away with my criticisms of The School of Life because they don’t hinge on the assumption that education “worked out fine” for me. Fair enough, I’m on a promising path as far as getting a degree is concerned; but ever since high school I’ve been plagued by a looming fear that education is passing me by because I’m not retaining much factual knowledge. And nothing has changed about that. When it comes to the general knowledge argument, education has failed me. Even if you were to argue that high school enabled me to weed out the areas that aren’t my cup of tea and thus balances basics with specialization, then how come I was voted second in my year as the designated “linguistic genius” but could only ever claim proficiency in one out of three foreign languages I was taught?
Given these biographical details (which I know are not the exception), it’s kind of laughable that my objection against shifting the focus of education was some vague fear of losing sight of the “larger” issues of life, the universe, and everything. A curriculum that prioritizes managing interpersonal relationships over elemental particles couldn’t possibly replace the current one, with all its high-minded policies ostensibly devised to cater to all domains of human curiosity.
I can still sympathize with that criticism to an extent, but I’ve come to believe that this is not the discussion we should be having as there’s little talk about abolishing subjects to begin with: the main problem with the status quo is that we skip over some crucial components of life entirely, assuming that shoving arbitrary assortments of students into a classroom together will take care of teaching them about conflict resolution and the like. Fortunately, I stumbled across a debate that was more to my taste than the ones I’m used to encountering in a 2014 episode of Brady Haran’s and CGP Grey’s podcast Hello Internet, where Grey raises the question “What do schools do?” after being criticized for his cynicism about the education system. That question appeals to me because it doesn’t risk spiralling into a philosophical concern with what schools are supposed to do. At this point it really does seem more important to put aside ideas about the purpose of education for a moment and scrutinize the education system for what it presently achieves.
The most crushing fact about the Western model of education that Grey brings up is its reliance on certificates as a discriminating factor in the work force. He cites a study that found a more advanced education to have little to no impact on a person’s future earnings if they did not complete their additional stage of training; i.e. if you make it 90% of the way through your degree, you might as well not have bothered with it in the first place. Even though, as he acknowledges, income isn’t the best metric here, it does throw some light on the role of the stamps of approval modern societies so generously hand out to their students. A high school diploma, much like many undergraduate degrees, prove to employers that you’re a certain kind of person — conscientious, academically inclined, eager to advance — rather than providing a record of your qualification on a skills-and-knowledge level. (Which, come to think of it, might account for the weight which many of them attach to job experience.)
Although I can easily see parallels to my experience, some people might be more critical of such sweeping statements. So let’s try a personal survey.
- Did your secondary school provide you with lasting general knowledge which you can call upon to this day? Even in subjects you didn’t particularly enjoy?
- Is the majority of your learning gains in any school you’ve attended relevant to you today? Did it use to be?
- Do you feel like any of those schools have taught you efficient and reliable methods for acquiring knowledge and/ or skills?
- Did your teachers make use of differences between students in a way favourable to their individual progress?
- How would you rate the overall extent of gratitude you had and/ or still have toward your teachers?
I’ll take a wild guess here and say that your system bypasses the majority of students and that you’ve bypassed the majority of the so-called education it provides. But I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. Does my prediction pan out?
Ultimately, my request, born from the burden of my own doubt, is simple as can be: we have to face up to the fact that the path we’ve mapped out is more of a trophy hunt than an education. This model is virtually designed to be reduced to an adjunct of the economy and a preexisting social hierarchy. It’s high time we started redrawing that route. Otherwise, how are we ever going to give our students a truthful answer to the question “What do schools do?” that inspires them to keep learning?