Schooling vs education and the quest for happiness

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year trying to figure out the best advice I can give my kids to help them figure out what it is that they want to do with the rest of their life.  A lot of the advice lately is use the time you have now wisely.  You can try 100 different things in the next 5 to 10 years and fail at all but 1 of them and end up being both happy and successful (side note: we have also had the conversation about measuring success on your own terms and not on someone else’s or society’s, etc).  There are all sorts of negatives that have come along with the invention of adolescence so you might as well take advantage of one of the benefits: people (read “grown-ups”) expect you to make mistakes.
And so comes this article into my Facebook feed last night:  Productivity And The Education Delusion.   The author has tried to tie together a whole bunch of themes in one (relatively) brief article: Piketty’s new book, code camps,  and the proliferation of bullshit jobs.   Its a good summary of a number of issues, but in the end I’m not sure what the author is calling for other than a general call to arms for fellow start ups to figure it out.
The only section that really got my spidey senses tingling was the mention of job specific training in grade school.  I’m all for giving people real skills that will enable them to produce things.  The key question is who chooses?  Far too many of these school to work schemes involve a magic sorting test that tell you what you are good at and then force you into strongly suggest you pursue training for that profession.  For school to work programs to actually produce results that are beneficial to those being schooled, they have to select their own path.  The idea that John Taylor Gatto puts forth in one of his books comes to mind when explaining the differences between text books and “real” books:

One way to see the difference between schoolbooks and real books like Moby Dick is to examine different procedures which separate librarians, the custodians of real books, from schoolteachers, the custodians of schoolbooks. To begin with, libraries are usually comfortable, clean, and quiet. They are orderly places where you can actually read instead of just pretending to read.

For some reason libraries are never age-segregated, nor do they presume to segregate readers by questionable tests of ability any more than farms or forests or oceans do. The librarian doesn’t tell me what to read, doesn’t tell me what sequence of reading I have to follow, doesn’t grade my reading. The librarian trusts me to have a worthwhile purpose of my own. I appreciate that and trust the library in return.

Some other significant differences between libraries and schools: the librarian lets me ask my own questions and helps me when I want help, not when she decides I need it. If I feel like reading all day long, that’s okay with the librarian, who doesn’t compel me to stop at intervals by ringing a bell in my ear. The library keeps its nose out of my home. It doesn’t send letters to my family, nor does it issue orders on how I should use my reading time at home.

The library doesn’t play favorites; it’s a democratic place as seems proper in a democracy. If the books I want are available, I get them, even if that decision deprives someone more gifted and talented than I am. The library never humiliates me by posting ranked lists of good readers. It presumes good reading is its own reward and doesn’t need to be held up as an object lesson to bad readers. One of the strangest differences between a library and a school is that you almost never see a kid behaving badly in a library.

The library never makes predictions about my future based on my past reading habits. It tolerates eccentric reading because it realizes free men and women are often very eccentric. Finally, the library has real books, not schoolbooks. I know the Moby Dick I find in the library won’t have questions at the end of the chapter or be scientifically bowdlerized. Library books are not written by collective pens. At least not yet.

Letting people choose their own path (having more libraries and fewer schools is one way to let this happen) is a good start.  But there is something more fundamental that I think is necessary.  The author talks about the arms race between automation and education – and points to the fact that education has been loosing for at least a few decades.  This assumes that the only valuable work for people to do is task oriented – build this engine, make this hamburger, send this email.

Tasks are of course important to actually getting work done, but getting the right work done requires first deciding what to do.  What kind of engines do people want?  Are burgers the best thing to make right now?  What should the email say to get people to read it and respond?  This work is much harder to automate but it also requires more than just training.  It requires true education, which brings forth a person’s innate abilities, and an ability to think critically, using the lost disciplines of grammar, logic and rhetoric.  School to work is fine (as long as each student gets to pick their own training), but everyone should first have the opportunity to learn how to think.  That’s one job that can’t be automated (yet).






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