Education has been on my mind a lot lately. Specifically, the state of most education systems in the world. A pretty hefty subject, but it seems to have continually cropped up within my social networking sphere the past couple months.
I ran across two of William Deresiewicz’s essays, one titled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” and the second, “What are You Going to Do with That?” Both gave me a lot to think about, in terms of my own educational history, the paths I’ve chosen to take along the way, as well as the outward factors that influenced those decisions.
The two essays reminded me of another I’d read years ago when I was seeing M, who was very education-focused, as he was the co-owner of an ESL school. I learned a lot through M, and he pointed me to the essayist, VC, and entrepreneur Paul Graham. The essay I remember is the one entitled “How to Do What You Love.”
At the same time that I was discovering these articles, I also came across the wonderful RSA Animate series. I saw the video on changing Education Paradigms:
And immediately went in search of more information on Sir Ken Robinson. That was how I came across his two TEDTalks on radically changing the education system:
Vodpod videos no longer available.
And finally, another TEDTalk, this time by Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs:
I agree, quite emphatically, with all of them. I have only my personal history and observations to draw on, but I believe the education system is irreparably flawed and in need of radical change. While I was trained and cultivated throughout my childhood precisely to succeed in the linear model of the current system, it was rarely a satisfying experience except when I took those classes that completely deviated from the norm.
From William Deresiewicz’s essays I find a lot that strikes a chord in me, along with a bit of residual bitterness and dissatisfaction with my college experience. But it is equally true that I’m grateful for opportunity to go to college without incurring nearly the level of debt that many of my peers faced after graduation (before disowning me for the second time, my mother almost completely covered my academic fees).
Although it was an unpleasant experience at the time, I now see that event – being disowned and the withdrawal of financial support – as probably the most useful in helping me break free of my mother’s influence over my future and my decisions. I saw clearly her overwhelming desire to simultaneously see me as an adult and keep me continually semi-dependent on her, in the often distorted way that parents define and express their love.
I was also able to feel less guilty about breaking off the path she’d so carefully cultivated for me ever since I was born. I have since made a lot of pretty crazy decisions, like driving across the country without knowing where I’d end up. I’ve made my share of mistakes, of course, but in the long run I’ve been incalculably happier than I think I ever would have been with the options that were laid out for me by familial precedence. I am constantly amazed that things seem to be working out, and this is, I believe, because of the narrow model of success I’d been taught.
Now, whenever I see my family, my mother often remarks that I will likely be the one with the lowest degree in our household. I never have a response to that, but I sincerely cannot believe that the pursuit of an advanced degree is the right choice for me right now. Still, it’s hard to take her sometimes scathing comments, even though I understand her motivation is to shame me into “making more of myself.”
I came to another realization while reading and listening to all of these thoughts: I have, since entering college, felt a kind of self-loathing and sense of being a fake or fraud for enrolling at such a prestigious school. Although my primary interests lay in the arts, especially in graphic arts and design, and despite the fact that I endeavored to take an art class almost every term, I never put much weight on the talents I had in visual media; it wasn’t a real or useful life skill. Yet I also never felt compelled to pursue more lucrative options. I defaulted to biology, because at least I was also interested in ecology, and because Jane Goodall had been my childhood idol. It was also a safe choice that my family could accept – biology could mean a path to a medical field. But I never felt truly immersed in the material except during labs or outdoor excursions.
It’s only now, two years out of the academic sphere, that I can finally admit to myself how much more I’m actually interested in things that fall under the often-stigmatized heading of “skilled labor” – things like woodworking, metalcraft, and leathercraft.
There are also other views to take on the people I’ve linked to and what they have to say; a look at the comments sections of Mr. Deresiewicz’s articles is telling of the scorn people feel for an academic scholar criticizing the system that helped shape his career. And I could argue that most of the people I knew personally fell outside the kind of privileged students he describes. But I also have to admit to having a circle of friends who were more the exception than the rule at our school.
Regardless, I can personally attest to being the recipient of all the stereotypical comments one hears made to smart people who don’t pursue the well-trodden path: I’m not applying myself, I’m wasting my talents, my degree, and my future, I could succeed if only I were more motivated, I’m making a huge mistake.
I believed all of that, and I was weighed down by the belief that I was being intentionally self-destructive and the belief that I was a failure not only to my family and friends but also to my own intrinsic potential.
Reading these essays and watching the TEDTalks, as well as hearing stories every now and then about others who’ve also taken unconventional paths and were successful – using a much broader rubric for defining success – continues to encourage me and help me believe that I am, in fact, capable of a successful, happy life, even if the path in front of me is only vaguely defined and involves a lot of bushwhacking.