What About Learning?

Right now I’m staying up with my cousin who’s a senior in high school. It’s midnight on Sunday, and she’s busy finishing up her homework for the weekend. There’s a roll of tape on the coffee table, along with pink ribbons, a glue stick, cutout pictures from glamour magazines, and a bunch of construction paper. For her weekend psychology assignment, she has to make a book using a vocab word as the header for each page.

I rant about school every once in a while here, but the truth is that it had been a long time since I’d really experienced what school was like. I dropped out in 2001, twelve years ago. Usually I visit my cousins during school vacations, but they’re in school this time, so I’ve had the chance to live vicariously, help with homework, and remember just why I disliked school so much.

My cousin’s project, as best I can understand, and as best she can understand, is essentially busy work. She had to spend an hour or so writing some paragraphs that were related to psychology. Then she spent four or five hours finding pictures, cutting them out, printing the paragraphs, cutting them out, arranging construction paper, pasting, and binding. It’s insane.

Her younger sister, a sophomore in high school, asked for help with biology. Some of the material was really relevant and useful stuff, but that material was buried in a bunch of cruft. Some questions were so ambiguous that you would have to read them two or three times just to understand what they wanted you to answer. Some questions were made difficult not to simulate real-life situations, but just because the underlying material was too intuitive and basic in its natural useful form. Then others covered material that was so insignificant that it is guaranteed to be forgotten within a week, and would have to be relearned from scratch if my cousin ever were to become a biologist.

I had no real responsibility to help with the homework, but I felt frustrated just becoming involved with it. The material wasn’t challenging, it was just offensive. It was an insult to her time and intelligence.

On the other hand, her Chinese homework seemed reasonable to me. Vocab was pretty well chosen, and although the homework was repetitive, that’s how you learn a language. Her older sister, now finished with her psychology project, is taking notes from a textbook. Even though it’s late and she’s tired, she agrees that it’s worthwhile to do.

It’s clear from looking at the work these girls are doing that school has lost its way and is only indirectly related to learning. There is good knowledge to be gained, valuable practice to be executed, and worthwhile studying to be done, but all of that is buried in a mountain of rubbish. The only appropriate strategy for such a huge load of mostly time-wasting work is to go as fast as possible, learn as little as necessary, and get the bare minimum done.

In high school, I learned some programming. I learned some math, probably about 20% of what was thrown at me. English did not teach me to write or read any better than I did before. Thanks to a great physics teacher who really cared about learning, I learned a lot in physics. I learned roughly zero in chemistry, and not much more in biology. Despite loving history, I can’t remember a single thing I learned in history class. Spanish didn’t seem very efficient at the time, but I speak it pretty well now and probably owe a lot of that to the six years I took in school.

Given the hours I spent in school, that’s a pretty poor payoff. When I see the ratio of useful work to useless work that my cousins are engaging in, the poor return isn’t surprising at all. School should be a wonderland of knowledge, learning, exploration, and peer socialization, but it’s not. It’s compulsory drudgery that insults more than it educates.

Where did we go wrong? I don’t know if school was ever centered around learning, but it’s certainly not anymore. It’s now about adherence to petty minutiae like stapling papers in the “right” direction (or you lose points) and “participation” that amounts to regurgitating what the previous student said. My cousin was graded on how she decorated note cards, and lost points because she forgot to dot i’s on those note cards.

Children love to learn, but what school teaches above all is to hate learning. The joy of discovery is squashed with prison-like rigidity and irrelevant forced work. So much is assigned that students come to school sleep-deprived, which is the worst state for actual learning. Besides teaching kids to hate learning, school also teaches mindless obedience and the importance of spending your life doing things you hate.

I’m not sure I’ll be able to send my kids to school. Montessori may be a good choice. Unschooling preserves love of learning and has the potential to impart way more useful knowledge, but the friendships I made in school were one of the most important parts of my childhood, and they alone make me glad I went to school. Sometimes I think that the best possible option is to send a kid to school, tell him that grades are not important and that he doesn’t have to do any homework, and then spend that time teaching him useful things.


I’m doing another round at Give Get Win, Sebastian Marshall’s non-profit. For $20, you get in on a Google Hangout I’ll be doing with 9 people. Each person will have some time to ask specific questions about travel, being a nomad, or finding adventure, and I’ll do my best to give you specific advice. Best of all, all of the money goes to charity.

Photo is a shot from the island.


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