“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” – Albert Einstein
“I have never let schooling interfere with my education.”- Mark Twain
Once we allow ourselves a smirk and give a nod of approval for the quotes above, as it confirms the thoughts in the child within each of us that what we learn in school is mostly useless, perhaps it’s necessary for the adults within us to ponder their disturbing nature as well.
Our education system is what forms the basis of our modern world; it’s what we depend on to make our doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs and all the professions that define the society that we have constructed. And two men who we glorify in the platforms of science and literature express their disapproval of it? Appreciating these statements beyond the wits on its surface perhaps brings up questions that require intense thought and consideration. Is our education system really representative of the full potential of humanity? What is it that constitutes an education? What exactly makes us ‘intelligent and superior’ compared to the rest of the inhabitants of the planet?
We were foragers and hunters once, just like the rest of the animals we lived with, before we came up with the idea of agriculture. When food could be grown on its own, more time could be spent expanding the capacities of the mind. Gradually the development which forever drew the line and relegated all other living things below humans emerged: Language. The power to communicate large volumes of information with precision meant that experiences and knowledge now had a place to accumulate, grow and, in effect, become immortal in a collective memory. In effect, our society today is the result of experimentation, experience and lessons learned from the past.
There really aren’t any rules to life. It has just been trial and error.
Seeing from this perspective can be unsettling because of how well-structured our society has become. There are rigid steps which give us the impression that life is a game that can be won if we follow the rules properly. Go to school, get good grades based on the skills we are taught, get a good job and live a respectable life. If we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, our societal construct itself is also a creation of our collective experiments, our intellectual inquiries and our resourcefulness.
Great authors advise aspiring writers to read much more than write. The only true form of apprenticeship for a writer is reading the work of other writers. To the experiences of previous writers they vicariously live, they add their own style and flavor and come up with something new for the world. If you think about it, this is exactly how the world has run for absolutely everything else. We have learned from ourselves and grew as we passed on our knowledge. The education system is an institute that is just supposed to make this process efficient; it is not the place which has all the answers to life.
An education system is supposed to teach people how to think, not what to think. Key innovations in our society did not happen within the walls of classrooms. They happened beyond them as people used what they learned to create more things to be learned. The fear is that a highly rigid system becomes better at creating professionals needed by the existing society than nurturing minds to continue the cycle of creative thought and innovation. Degrees exist today that attempt to ‘teach’ entrepreneurship, leadership and other qualities which only come through experience and intuition. Why not nurture a culture early on which inspires these qualities more naturally?
Our system focuses so much on the cramming of facts into the mind that it leaves no space to appreciate why and how these could be useful. Did the Xs and Ys in algebra mean anything more to us than a means to get good marks to get in a good college? Did the words of great authors stay with us any longer than it took to write a reaction paper for a test? We defined history as ‘a study of the past’, but how much have we actually learned from it? Nothing we learn in school is useless. It’s just that none of it has meant anything to us as we were never taught why we need them and how we could use them in the real world.
And is education just about innovation? Just a system to ensure that we can keep the economy running? There is more to being human than ‘satisfying unlimited wants with limited resources’. There are issues of morals, ethics, rights, wrongs and religion which we continuously debate in our everyday lives. Throughout our history, it has resulted in hatred, war and intolerance. A truly educated person cannot rely on his background alone to form his values. We must study all major religions and assess what each of them has to say to make an informed choice about our own beliefs. In this, we will understand different perspectives and become more tolerant as we discover that the core of all religions remain constant in its mission to promote welfare and peace.
A proper education also dispels stereotypes and biases. How can a learned person disrespect a woman and deny her rightful status in society, abuse her and treat her less than what she deserves? How many sophisticated and well-read people have you seen who are racists?
Besides the things we should teach and the values we should dissipate, we must take into account the implementation of these systems very strongly. We must learn from the countries which excel at it. In Finland, students do not get homework until they got to high school; they give one standardized test only before college. In Japan, the first few years at school are non-academic: they are taught manners and respect. The countries with the best school systems instill the correct values and the proper mindset before introducing the students to facts and numbers.
The TIMSS is a tedious science/mathematics standardized test used to compare students of different countries in terms of educational aptitude. It comes with a very long questionnaire and participants of different countries vary in the number of items they answer on the form. Interestingly, a researcher had found after ranking the students based on how many questions they answered on the questionnaire and compared to their rankings on the test scores, they were identical. It could be broadly concluded that you can identify the countries doing best in these subjects simply by identifying who are willing to put in the most effort. These statistics give us a sense of what values are important for success. It would be much more beneficial to imprint the values of hard work and perseverance than having them memorize times tables to avoid being scolded.
It is not just the world that a complete education teaches you about. It gives you a comprehensive understanding of who you are as an entity. How you are shaped by your environment and how you contribute to it. How your feelings, fears, happiness and all other emotions come to be and how to control them to your own advantage.
The education system that we have created is a reward system that only works within its own structure. Once the students are faced with the real world, they are converted into the rank and file of organizations created by people who had the courage, values and opportunities to break free and innovate.
We have the responsibility to create a system of imparting knowledge that truly creates erudite people for the future; People who understand their universe and their place in it, along with their powers and their responsibilities. Otherwise, we can just pray that the best of them don’t let school interfere with their education.