The Ethics Of… School

Sigh. You know what really makes you feel old? When you hear young people using arguments that you used to think were really insightful when you were a teenager, and are forced to appreciate just how unbelievably dim you used to be. See I like most adults, tend to think our younger selves as just shorter, fitter, less complicated versions of our current selves, complete with all the extra years of life experience, work, and tertiary study that we can now draw upon.

Personally I enjoy imagining myself as a sprightly young philosopher who, if slightly naïve, still had the same informed and well-ordered rational mind I now enjoy (never minding it took about a decade, a year of semi-solitude, a near-emotional breakdown, and a friggin’ Masters course to get here). So when you run across a video like the one below and recognise half a dozen incredibly simplistic theories I also used to spout from the gaping maw of my own ignorance, it’s not a very pleasant experience.

For those of you who weren’t able to view this little masterpiece of drama, it’s entitled “Why I Hate School but Love Education” and there are a few essential messages in amongst all the uplifting music, strawmen and terrible analogies:

  • Students are forced to learn subjects they will never use in real life, which ignored the evolving needs of society;
  • Students shouldn’t be forced to participate in one-size-fits-all testing, which ignores their individual skills and interests;
  • Young people should be able to determine their destinies for themselves, even if they don’t fit what society expects/demands of them; and,
  • “We will not let exam results decide our fate”.

But hang on a sec, written down like that these kids seem to have a point! Who amongst us hasn’t reflected back on our schools years at some point and wondered why the hell we had to study all that useless crap we never ever used? I mean I’m sure we all understand the value of a broad education, at least in general terms, but Pythagoras’ theorem? How often is anyone going to need to calculate the third side of a triangle in real life? Or know the specifics about governance in medieval Europe? Or know how a goddamn Bunsen burner works for god(s)’ sake?

Why is it that the Australian school system insists on a 3-hour competitive exam for English, which we already speak thankyou very much, and which includes something as abstract as a ‘reflective essay’, but never gets around to teaching us how to do our damn taxes? And while we’re talking about exams, does anyone else find it kind of messed up that we put Year 12 students (18 year olds in their last year of secondary education, for anyone overseas) through a series of exams so insanely intense that they are still the single most difficult experience of my entire life to date, all in pursuit of a magical score which will, if you listen to the teachers or your parents, fundamentally determine whether you succeed or fail in life? And that this magical score, produced under such insane conditions, is the one and only measure we use for entrance into tertiary education – a system which pretty much values the ability to perform in exam conditions above anything else?

Oh, and did I mention that this magical score becomes entirely redundant exactly a year later when you become eligible to enroll as a mature aged student? Or that participation in this mess IS COMPULSORY AND ENFORCEABLE BY LAW FOR AT LEAST 11 YEARS?

Though I hear you can get out in 10 with good behaviour.

What the hell is this system aiming to achieve? Why are we forcing a hugely diverse group of young people through a cookie-cutter system that crams their heads full of random information most of which they will never use, testing them on this arbitrary knowledge under extreme conditions, and then completely discarding their performance in these tests within 12 months? What about the individuals abandoned in this behemoth of a system? What about their interests? What about their needs? Wouldn’t we all be better served by a school system that aimed less to cram information into students’ heads and focussed more on catering to what they care about?

Short answer: no. Long answer:

Like a lot of big debates we have as a society, most of the disagreement comes down to a really fundamental point that we usually fail to notice before we get stuck in. And in the case of ‘How Screwed Up is the School System?’, the fundamental question we haven’t asked yet is ‘what is the point of school in the first place?’.

Like I said before we all know that education is a good thing, in an abstract way at least – by equipping young people with a broad set of skills we’re able to prepare them for life and help them succeed in the careers they choose. But as the ‘Why I Hate School’ video up there points out, this approach arrogantly assumes that we know what ‘success’ means for the young people involved in a time where things like the internet and social media are changing the world at an incredible pace.

By making these criticism, the video essentially argues that the purpose of school and education should be to enrich the individual – to provide young people with opportunities to learn about things they care about, to grow and expand their minds and seek their own destinies. I, on the other hand, believe that the value of school is a lot simpler than that: the purpose of compulsory education is to help you not suck.

dumb teenThis. Don’t be this.

Undoubtedly that snarky little nugget is going to piss a few people off. So what, I’m suggesting that without being forced through a one-size-fits-all system that crams useless facts into our heads, people would suck? I’m arguing that by focussing instead on the things we love as individuals and pursuing our passions, we’d somehow be worse people? That society has the right to judge and rank young people based on their ability to conform to these demands?

Well…yeah. Pretty much exactly that.

See the thing about young people (and all people, frankly) is that they tend to change over time. The things we think are important, the things we think are cool, even the things we care about passionately all change over time until, like me, you will one day look back on a younger version of yourself and see nothing but naïve stupidity where once stood a towering pillar of righteous conviction. Seriously, have a think right now about the things you thought were important say 10 years ago. For me it was; losing my virginity, being thought of as cool, and building an image as an environmentalist in order to achieve the first two (I also actually cared about the environment, but that was far less a priority at this point). You may recognise these are fairly low-quality life goals, and I agree with you entirely. Look back into your own past I dare say there’s a bit of cringe in it for you as well – in fact if you can look at yourself 10 years ago and not feel like you’ve generally improved as a person then congrats, you’re the depressing exception that proves the rule.

Given this growth over time, designing the school system to cater to the specific passions of each and every student is not just self-absorbed, it’s also going to be completely wasted when our special snowflakes completely change their minds 6 months down the track. Quite apart from the insane expense it would require to provide this sort of specialise attention (expense which I seriously doubt any tax-payers are going to be thrilled to fork out for), all you’re going to end up with at the end of a full 12 years of schooling will be either an extremely specialised and thereby impractical skill-set, or thousands of half-started never-finished interests that equip you to do precisely squat.

Ridiculous qualification

But hang on, that’s taking the whole ‘celebrate the individual’ idea a little too far; surely we can have a balance between ‘you’ll learn what we tell you to learn’ and ‘special snowflake anarchy’? Why do we force students to learn all sorts of useless information that they will never use in real life? Surely we can all agree that in the grand Age of the Internet the curriculum should be updated to remove factoids which any 5 year old can google up in seconds?

And this is where the ‘school is designed to prevent you from sucking’ theory really comes into its own. Yeah sure, google is amazing and you can search up all the facts you want from your phone these days. But it’s a funny thing about those facts; you can’t search for what you don’t know exists.

I get that the average person is likely never going to need to know calculus in their day to day lives, but you know what they absolutely definitely will need to know to function as an adult? That calculus friggin’ exists and that it works. Can you imagine what would happen to society if learning basic mathematics was entirely optional? If being able to figure out anything more than ‘3×4=?’ was a specialised skill? Imagine the utter chaos in the financial sector as the concept of a budget became virtually unknown, let alone such advanced ideas as probability and the functions in Microsoft Excel. And yet as terrifying as such widespread incompetence would be, it would actually pale compared to the far worse consequence of this mathematical ignorance; people would stop believing that maths worked.

You know how there are currently a legion of people who think, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that vaccines cause autism or that climate change is a hoax? People who, in their ignorance of the complex science of climatology or immunology and fear of facts that tell them things they don’t want to hear, rise up in opposition to reality? Well imagine what would happen if those same people didn’t understand calculus and then went out and got a bank loan. And when it all went to hell do you reckon those terrified people, completely clueless as to why and how this situation had come about, would happily accept this reality and deal with it rationally?

Me neither.

The same goes for pretty much every other ‘useless skill’ we force young people to cram into their heads in school. Who needs history? I mean it’s not like those that fail to understand it are doomed to repeat it or anything. And historical context totally doesn’t have anything to do with modern social, economic and political issues! What a waste of time amiright?

English? Pfffft, you mean the language I’ve been reading, writing and speaking in since childhood? Oh yeah, THAT’S a useful skill to learn. I mean the way school makes such a big deal about understanding literary techniques it’s almost like those techniques are routinely used to manipulate what we think, feel and agree with!

Geography? Why would I ever need to know about the fundamental physical processes that support all life on earth, let alone the impact of human interaction with those forces. Useless! And what about science? The investigation into the practical nature of reality, upon which the entirety of human technology, medicine and civilization is founded? Boooooring.

Oh and don’t even get me started on philosophy or social science. Even those egg-head normal scientists laugh at those extra-useless subjects! I mean seriously, ideas? Beliefs? Right and wrong? Fundamental questions that dramatically alter our approach to life depending on the answer? How could that ever be valuable? I mean it’s not like we make decisions each and every day based on our individual ethical framework or something, and even if we did I’m sure those framework are in no way very poorly constructed largely during childhood and rarely if ever reviewed! Nah, see the reason other people make mistakes is that they’re stupid is all. Either that or foreign.

You know the really tragic thing here? As sarcastic and exaggerated as that little rant was, I have actually ran into people who seriously hold those opinions. I never used History/Science/Math/English/other subject in real life, so why even bother teaching it? Well buddy, we forced you to learn about those things to prevent you from being an even bigger idiot that you are right now. We forced you to cram a few stray facts on some fundamental subjects and then tested you on them to try to make them stick, because it turns out that being an adult doesn’t involve a competency test. Worse, it also turns out that adults (regardless of competency) can do things like get jobs, vote in elections, and participate on public debates, all of which have real world impacts on how things are done, and how those things impact on other people. And if we let a generation loose on these delicate systems that didn’t understand such basic concepts as history, science, language and geography then said system is going to go to hell in a handbasket – all so that dumbarse teenage you could pursue your passion-of-the-week and feel temporarily fulfilled.

Here’s the part where I sum up and this week it is remarkably simple: You do not have the right to be ignorant. Why? Because contrary to the popular phrase, money is not the root of all evil; ignorance is. If you do not understand how the world works then you are not equipped to live in it, let alone participate in it. And since we can’t prevent idiots from participating in the world (short of establishing a police state and eugenic breeding program) then we have only one other choice: compulsory education that covers all the basic info necessary for a functional citizen, whether you like it or not.


3 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… School

  1. Initially I was a bit worried about where you were going with this but in the end, this is a brilliant piece of writing. Yes, there are some things that many do not use in later life that we learn at school but at least we have knowledge of them. When people ask why I became a Teacher, my response is that there are so many unintelligent people out there that I want to help reduce the number by teaching our young people to think, learn, understand and apply their thinking. Also given that current stats state that most people with have an average of 7 career changes, you never know when you may need some of that useless knowledge and understanding.

    It’s not about knowing the answer, it’s about understanding have to find it and why it is the answer!

  2. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Private Schools | The Ethics Of

  3. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Punching Nazis | The Ethics Of

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