Education, education, education. The education system has changed a great deal since I was subjected to it, but there are some abject shortcomings that are often overlooked.
Education is the key. It is vital for the functioning of society, especially a civilised democracy, and also for the development of the individual student. Perhaps it takes three distinct forms: structured education, passing on the acquired wisdom from the accumulated experience of humanity; normative education, teaching you how to function as a productive member of society, including vocational and ethical preparation; and personal education, the lessons you learn about your capacities and capabilities.
The formal education system does an incomplete job on all these fronts.
Firstly, there is the problem of relevance. You learn about fascinating things such as photosynthesis, trigonometry, conjugating French verbs, the socioeconomic impact of the Aswan high dam, the hierarchy of the Roman army and the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but you’re taught none of the knowledge and skills required to survive day-to-day or make something of yourself.
Secondly, employers complain about graduates who are unready for work. Despite sixteen years of education you have negligible vocational skills and some, despite three years in higher education, lack basic literacy, numeracy and IT skills.
Thirdly, part of the reason for the lack of basic skills is that the system pretty much forces you to specialise. You choose to drop the subjects you do badly in or don’t enjoy. And you focus on those that you’re already good at. Hence you don’t improve on what needs improving, and you invest precious resources in something you would happily have worked on in your own time.
Fourthly, you’re encouraged to specialise in this way because you, your teachers and your school are all judged based on getting the highest grades, rather than what would actually be best for you. Not only in terms of the subjects you’re taught, but also the tendency to “teach the test” so you don’t even get a good understanding of those subjects, let alone a thorough, all round education.
Fifthly, you’re misled by the meritocratic nature of formal education. You do the work, you get the grades you need and you can progress to the next level and the appropriate role within that level. Unfortunately the real world doesn’t work like that. Rarely do you encounter real world scenarios that have such a clear cut structure of rewards going to those who deserve them. Unless you work in a performance-based occupation such as sport, music or acting, it’s usually an array of other factors that determine your career progression, your actual ability to do well least among them. In fact even in those professions that reward good work, luck and other externalities will have a far greater say in your overall success than they do in the rarefied and artificial world of academia.
Seventhly, and lastly, the education system has lost pace with the modern world. Technology has exploded, meaning not only do we all have calculators to do our arithmetic, we have encyclopedic knowledge at our very fingertips. The world of employment has changed profoundly and with the advent of cheap, ubiquitous computing, virtually no job is recognisable from what it was ten years ago. Not to mention new ways and means of working and recruitment and the fact that the most successful people in society are business owners and investors, not doctors, lawyers and accountants.
All of this leaves today’s graduate crucially stunted and ill-prepared for modern life.
The greatest learning experiences are not to be found in the classroom. For personal education it is life experience which really tells you what you need to know. Perversely it is in our failures, break-ups, disappointments and defeats that we really find out what we’re made of. And it is in those things that make us passionate, that we love and enjoy that we see what we’re truly capable of.
The most important and powerful learning experience comes from facing adversity. We also need to build up genuine working knowledge by operating in the real world, experimenting with ways to overcome challenges, observing and extrapolating, practicing and perfecting. To become well-rounded we need to work hard on development in areas where we are weak or lack a natural interest or ability. We need to be objective-focused and think about what we’re actually getting out of a learning experience. We need to be self-aware and analyse and frame our experiences and our reactions to those experiences to learn about ourselves and build up a better understanding of what drives us.
However these are lessons one must be prepared to learn, and the education system is not designed to enable us to achieve our maximum potential. By presenting us with an oversimplified microcosm of the world it limits our ambition and indoctrinates us into an institutional, hierarchical view of the world. While the real learning could be done in the extracurricular activities or in the playground, the underlying message from our schooling is to keep your head down, do what you’re told, play along with the system, lower your expectations and be a good little worker bee slaving away for the benefit of society.
So, despite it’s failings, the education system produces a ready supply of hard-working citizens. And it is the responsibility of those who believe they have something more or something other to give to teach themselves and others how it really works.