Some things are so embedded in our society that they are difficult to question, even to the point where questioning them becomes offensive. But why should these topics be off limits to questioning, especially if they are such a vital part of our lives? To blindly accept the premises upon which we live is chillingly Orwellian and undemocratic.
One of these topics is education. I’m not solely talking about reforming the education system or changing our testing policies or even fixing the university process. These things are important—trust me, I am the first in line to bemoan the anxiety soaked atmosphere of the school system—but they are hiding the real question that nobody seems to ask. Why are we educated this way? **In other words, it is imperative to question why we as a society strongly favor our established, standardized system over any other types of learning. It is almost unthinkable to remove your child from school, and even many homeschooling programs are modeled from textbooks, strict subject separations, and fact-based knowledge. However, this process of learning is only one in an excess of options we could also use.
I started thinking about this issue after reading a wonderful book called My Ishmael, the companion to Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. In it, the author proposed a radical idea: that the education system is fundamentally flawed in not only its execution, but in its foundation. Why was it formed, and why does it persist? Why do we spend more than a decade, sometimes up to two, involved in schools and universities? What do they even teach us?
In a sense, these questions aren’t new. (It’s a popular joke that all we know is the mitochondria.) But it is worth our time to explore why after years of seven-hour days of elementary, middle, and high school, we aren’t prepared for the world in any manner of speaking. Are we ready for a career or a job? No; we do not learn any practical skills and high school graduates start with a menial, middle waged job and can earn their way up through experience. Are we better people? That is not the focus of school. We (usually) don’t have classes to learn philosophy, explore religion, treat others well, or think about the meaning of it all. If we do, it’s just an external benefit: school is for information, not for life tips. Are we well-rounded, knowledgeable individuals? No. Its a tired statement we’ve all said: “I haven’t learned anything.” I have gotten good grades and exam scores, but I can tell you I’ve forgotten almost every piece of factual information, other than vague ideas about broad concepts. I’m not complaining, or blaming my teachers, or even the classes themselves-- it’s merely an observation about the real-life results of how we learn. The theory isn’t panning out to reality.
Try to imagine a world without school—after the laughs and blissful thoughts of homework-free days, I had an almost defensive reaction. What? How are we supposed to learn things and become educated and learn our rights? What would I do in my childhood and adolescence? But an idea was proposed: perhaps an organic, individual system would work better than an institutionalized way of learning. What do you remember best? It’s not a surprise that it’s probably the things you enjoyed. It is how many children learned way in the past—exploring the areas that interested them and gaining the skills they wanted. We may joke all the time about watching Netflix all day, but people want accomplishment and knowledge and good lives. Would it be that horrible to choose teachers and subjects from your own world and community? In other words, I don’t think we’d lose very much. Perhaps we wouldn’t know what the mitochondria are; or we would, if we cared to. As of now, all that I know I probably would have googled any way, out of curiosity.
It’s not a well-formed, political proposal. I realize it will probably never happen; but it is an interesting thought experiment about what high school education gives us. There are many theories accounting for the popularity and ubiquity of the system, ranging from the innocuous to the conspiratorial. On one end of the spectrum, perhaps the education system is merely an escalation of what was and could have been a great thing—a development of society, the widening of scholastic opportunities to all, the rise of a knowledge economy. However, in My Ishmael, Quinn proposes a much more radical idea: that the system was created to keep us largely out of the workforce for a couple decades in order to make the economy work. That’s a bit hard to swallow, but it echoes themes from more popular sentiments: that school serves to conform citizens to one mode of thinking, that it maintains the political power structure, and that it is a distraction from true social ills.
I’m not sure what the answer is, and I will keep thinking about it for my whole life. All I know is that something is wrong with our system, both on the surface and in its core. The amount of people who have anxieties about school is startling. The lack of discussion about more humanities based, philosophical questions is unsettling. In times past, religious, ethical, and existential questions consumed scholars and popular culture. Now? It’s still there, and people do discuss significant questions through literature, movies, and the arts. But it’s not our focus, and generally these queries are considered inferior to STEM fields. The scariest thing of all is that in general, society doesn’t really question itself. I can’t speak for individuals, and I know everybody has had moments where they doubt the authenticity of our society. But really questioning the education system, or debating about whether democracy is best, or truly considering religion: it is forbidden, at least socially (and in the democracy issue, perhaps legally). A final question: is it possible that our ‘education’ is diminishing, rather than expanding, knowledge?
Semensky is a contributor for The Millennial Times.