Monday, January 28, 2008

I'll Never Have A Degree ( underestimate me at your peril )

This is a bit of a historical piece. The history of my education, I suppose you could say. If a bit of biographical information isn’t going to do it for you, you can move along to the rest of the only vaguely biographical articles on this site. Otherwise, sit a spell and learn about me and learning and our torrid love affair.

Under whose nose and behind whose back did said affair take place, I hear you ask. Well, it took place under the nose and behind the back of the Institution. The School. The Man.

You see, I was always a gifted child growing up. Driven to excel and succeed in all of my academic pursuits. I was regularly near the top of my class, regularly the overachiever and teacher’s pet and any other insipid comment could be made about that kind of child because we all know exactly what they’re like.

In junior high I started missing class. Sickness, struggles, mental breakdowns and just general laziness all mixed together to make me the most truant child I’ve ever seen who was still attending school. Only my typical teacher’s pet ways kept me from being removed completely. By my Sophomore year of high school, I missed slightly more school than I attended.

This is probably the best thing that ever happened to me.

Why? Well let me tell you. I was in school a fraction of the time of other students, yet I had a 3.5 GPA. I learned well, teacher’s loved me, and I did well with schoolwork. What I didn’t do was attend classes. And somewhere along the way, I missed the indoctrination seminar that turns willing learners into process pre-adults ready for their futures.

I love learning. I really do. I crave it at all times. This makes me something of an odd duck among adults because somewhere on the train from child to adult everyone seems to lose the love of learning. And I believe that the main reason for this is because everyone eventually goes to school where the love of learning is psychologically beaten out of them.

Now, the following opinions are generalizations. They’re what I believe typically happens, or happens enough to have an important effect. I’ve seen exceptions many many times, but it’s not enough to stop the tide. Just so nobody says “But I saw…” Yes, I imagine you did. That doesn’t mean it’s always true. Just keep that in mind.

What is a school? A school is an institution where children are processed into a societal norm. They are given the status quo’s agree-upon “Standard of Education” in an assembly line fashion until they are old enough to be taken in by the labor force, at which point they’re punted out into the real world.

Does that sound harsh and cynical? Perhaps. But look at it this way: our society has deemed kids working as bad, and education as good. There is no real monetary gain to be had by educating people for so long, but the public insists. And thus kids are instructed at an embarrassing monetary deficit to those in power. So it’s done in the most expedient and effective manner available, even if it’s not the best manner.

Regardless, as I was saying, I would guess that despite the troubles that being gone from school so much caused me, in the end it might have saved me from completely burning out on it. I was bored and I was never there. I can’t imagine what it would have been like had I actually come to class and the like.

High school ended and I went off to college. A part of me was reticent, especially since high school was such a disappointing experience (and after everyone said and I foolishly believed it was full of opportunities).

College was touted as an entirely new experience. An experience that was full of opportunity and new vistas of learning. A place for people who loved to learn. An escape from the rigorous and potentially restrictive criteria of a high school. The entire world of human knowledge was going to be made accessible to my whim.

Guess what? College isn’t like that. College is like high school, but in many ways its even worse. A college is an institution with pride and tradition. People who graduate from the school and come back to teach are fiercely loyal. Alumni talk fondly of their alma mater.

Colleges teach academic thinking, not knowledge. Academic thinking is much more limited, much more self-serving. A college is distinguished not by the knowledge they teach but by calling themselves distinguished. It is intellectual and social elitism of a staggering order. It is professors teaching students in the ways they were taught, reinforcing dogmatic learning structures that are catered towards similar (but much more subversive) indoctrination as that carried out in high schools.

The universities and colleges used to be centers of innovation and respect, but these days have decayed into status symbols and degree-factories. Why does innovation not come from universities anymore? There are many factors outside the scope of this article, but one reason is that a university is under no obligation to innovate and does not care to or strive to. Professors care about tenure, which means playing conservative and to expectations. Students are to be given degrees in the fine tradition of their forefathers. Certainly we could not change with the times and still uphold that tradition, could we?

I went to college and dropped out. Twice. The first time I was unaware of the underlying problem, and blamed myself. The second time various factors came into play that precluded my return. At this point, could I return? Very easily. But I will not. In fact, I might never step foot in another university again.

If you ask me, this is cause for celebration.

Schools do not teach learning. In fact, schools discourage learning. Learning means independence and ideas and critical thinking. Our structured learning centers are there to prepare people for the ‘real world’, jobs in professional careers where thinking is nine times out of ten discouraged and looked down upon. People do not ask for degrees to get critical thinking and highly skilled individuals. They ask for degrees because they can continue to play on the mental mindset of someone who has undergone years and years of highly structured instructions, protocol, and logistics.

A person who loves learning does two things in this environment: stops loving to learn or gets out. I got out, and even so it took me months to recover my sense of ‘I can learn and want to learn’. Proponents of independent education call this unschooling. The period where a person stops relying on outside motivators and threats (grades and expulsion and disappointing ‘superiors’) and finds motivation within to learn and a desire to gain tools and knowledge.

I can learn. I do learn. I’m regularly picking up new information and skills, without ever bothering with class work. I read voraciously of nearly anything I can get my hands on. I google a dozen things every day. The internet is a vast resource where learning is almost always free when you know how to look. And even when it isn’t, it’s much cheaper than we’re being told. Paying thousands of dollars to a college is insane when all it takes is the internet, some time, and the desire to learn.

I would put my understanding of many topics on par with a college student. I would put my ability to pick up new idea higher. I can teach myself something much faster than someone could teach it to me. That ability gives me freedom. Freedom to gain knowledge. And in today’s world, knowledge and skills are the one thing separating someone successful from someone who is not.

I’m not talking a simple recitation of facts. I’m talking learning reasons and motivations and the underlying forces behind the facts that are presented for memorization and recitation. I’m talking the ability to question, the ability to stare the status quo in the face and demand a reckoning. That is knowledge. That is what a learned mind can do. To not just understand the way things are but see that that is not all there is, that there can be and is more. It is only for us to take that step and find it.

That is nothing that can be taught. It must be found within one’s self. But nobody ever lets us know that, and instead we’re chasing after papers that mean little and years of work that amount to a numbed mind.

I might never get a degree, I might never even sit in another classroom in my lifetime, but I will keep learning because I desire it and it’s there if we want it and it’s our right to be able to gain what we can have and can reach for. We only must take the effort to. And so while I will have no diploma, while I might forever be a mere high school graduate, I will also be a force to be reckoned with. A mind full of continually changing and expanding understanding.

Self-educated. Self-made. Not to mention empowered.

And free.


LA said...

I know you are speaking mostly of traditional schools. What do you think of the non-tradition education methods, such as montessori and home-schooling?

Literary Rock Star said...

I really wish I could have experienced it myself, to be honest. They sound like good ideas, and I'm all for options and variety.

I'm kind of split on home-schooling, unfortunately. All it takes is meeting one of those family's that's homeschoolin' their child into a life of backwater poverty to make you wary of home schooling. It's so dependent upon the skills and abilities and motivations of the parent, and I have too little faith in humanity.

That said, I would seriously think, should I ever have one, of home schooling my child. Of course, the idea of how broken said child would be isn't lost on me. But the idea of a ten year old with a basic grounding not only in the usual curriculum but also something like ethics or philosophy of reality or literary theory or whatnot sounds very appealing to me in an intellectual sort of way.

Of course, that means any child I have will like cars and sports, thus negating my carefully laid plans. =D