A Guest Post by Sol Smith
The idea of institutionalized education is something that I have dedicated much of my life to. I have a Masters of Fine Arts in Writing and am a few short semesters away from a Doctorate of Education. While I teach students how to write for a living, there are aspects of education that I have major reservations about. As Mark Twain said, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” There are, no doubt a myriad of advantages to be found in going to school and earning degrees; it is mostly to doing this that my family owes much of our livelihood. However, for many people who go to school, building up debt and spending valuable years, they will leave with a distinct disadvantage. I don’t mean to be disparaging. Certainly the degree will perform as it should on any resume and speak for the hard work of the owner. But for those who treat a college degree as an “education,” they will leave school more ignorant than when they entered.
The completion of school is not the completion of an education, it is simply a point of departure. If you take a literature class–or major in literature–and suppose that you now know what literature is, there is little that can save you. But if you see what you have learned about literature, and the books that you’ve read, as the topmost part of a mountain that sticks out of the ocean, with millions of works that you will never know no matter how long you continue reading after college under the surface, you’ve come a step closer to understanding what literature is. The same thing goes for all the subjects you can be taught–they can never be fully learned.
The danger comes when someone completes their schooling and makes the mistake of thinking they’re finished. Far from it. A degree comes with it a grave responsibility–to continue a quest for an education for the rest of your life. And this is a grave indeed, since the very awareness of this reality comes with the knowledge that your quest will be a futile one. Your quest is destined to fail, and as you learn more, you should only learn that there is so much more that you haven’t learned.
We don’t tell you this in school. We’re peddling a product. For you to earn your degree, you needn’t learn much. Even to get a doctorate, you don’t have to learn anything original. Instead what you really learn in college–or any other level of schooling–is how to navigate the system. Though you may be exposed to wonderful ideas, works, theories, and discoveries, these are simply side-effects of your primary mission in school: to conform. You will have proven to your educators that you can do everything exactly how they want you to. And that way, you have learned to think like they do. Without the gift of original thought, and armed with the notion that you are now an educated person, you cease to be a force of change and movement in the intellectual universe. In short, you’re not a threat to the status quo, but another cog in the mechanism that will keep the machine running. You will get a fine job, a fine credit card, and work your life to promote the thoughts, ideas, and passions of other people.
This starts in childhood. We are told what things are, and therefore what they are not. We are shown a world of black and white–of binary. But the expanses of our reality and of who you can be and what you can accomplish are not so clear-cut. As parents, we should encourage our children to question the reality we illuminate for them. We need to keep in mind that everything we think we know is hearsay, after all. Interpretations should be welcome and encouraged. As teachers, we should recognize that many of our most gifted students won’t do well in our classes. The general route of shaming them and giving them lower grades to denote their deficiency is a tool of conformity and little else. And as people who wish to be educated, we should realize that we know nothing without experiencing it ourselves. This experience, we should be striving to broaden, with enthusiasm every day. And with this in mind, we can hope that our children will do the same.
Sol Smith is a writer and professor of writing living in The Woodlands, Texas. He has two daughters, Solstice and Luna, and one lovely wife who is probably a much better blogger than he. He makes it a habit of riding his bike to work as often as he can, since he feels that this practice establishes ethos, even though most people don’t ride their bikes at all. He maintains a blog about engaged parenting as a guide to new fathers who want to be more than society feels they should be, at badassdad.com.