The Education Trap
To all the people who know they learn better outside of school than in it.
Kids are naturally curious. They love to learn. They want to know more. Before iPads, they would go outside and kick things around. They would create games. They would build community. They would roll in the dirt.
Adults aren’t curious. They go home and turn their brains off. They watch TV. They numb.
I’m going to argue that it’s not because we become less curious as we get older. It’s because of how we treat school. I say how we treat school because I don’t like blaming systems. Sometimes systems are shit, and we should change them. But a system being shit doesn’t mean you don’t do your best within it.
I am focusing on you as an individual.
Let’s talk about school.
You’re an Industrial Student!
Public schools were originally called common schools because they were for the common people. With the removal of child labor, you would expect business owners to be upset. But they weren’t. Why? Because common schools were designed to promote better employees.
Henry Barnard, one of the early leaders in developing the common school claimed that they should encourage habits of “industry, frugality, and respect for property rights.”
These activists had to “sell” school to business owners — business owners who are losing their cheap labor. So, how’d they do it? By arguing that school would make them better employees. What makes a great employee? Predictable, mindless action — fitting you into a mold.
To standardize, we need to make students the same. Individual differences in curiosity and an intrinsic draw to learning is unpredictable. Extrinsic motivation can be made predictable.
From the first quarter of my Kindergarten career, I was receiving grades. They weren’t the traditional A-F style, but they were grades. I was told these were important. I believed that.
To teach hundreds of thousands of students across a state, there needs to be tests to make sure students are falling behind. I took my first standardized exam in 3rd grade. That became an annual event.
Learning became an extrinsically motivated event. I learned so that I could do well on the test. I did well on the test so I would get praise from my parents and teachers.
In sixth grade, I had to take a reading class. It was expected of all students. I thought it was stupid. I had to read and summarize texts. Looking back, I understand how idiotic this task is. Although, at the time, I just wanted to play Clash Royale (I wasn’t thinking much about education philosophy, yet).
With two weeks left in the year and with a 38 in the class, it was made clear to me that I couldn’t fail that class. I became a robot. I did what they told me to do. I passed. I learned to do what others told me to do — not because I enjoyed it but because I could win social approval.
School is a Game
Like any video games addict, I saw games every where. And it wasn’t hard to see in school. It was actually pretty easy to win, too. Please the teachers, shove what they tell you into your brain, get good at taking tests, and you win. I won that game.
I didn’t do it because I loved learning. As much as I would love to say I did it all because I was curious, that doesn’t explain why I sought after the easy A. I wasn’t there to learn! I was there to play the game. The social approval game. The signaling game.
And so, my love for learning slowly deteriorated. Extrinsic motivation stole it from me. I wrote about why this happens about a month ago, and I think it’s worth quoting.
Children love to create art. They doodle, paint, and sing: often for no other reason than the sake of itself. A group of researchers tested how giving kids a reward — e.g., a golden star — affected the kids’ proclivity to draw in their free time. After they stopped providing the reward, children stopped drawing as much as they used to. They traded their intrinsic motivation for an extrinsic type. Once the extrinsic motivation was taken away, they stopped doing what they once loved.
If you want someone to stop doing what they love, reward them for it. It’s why people love what they do until it becomes a career. Suddenly, it’s something you have to do — not that you get to do.
And thank God for the free time provided by COVID. That was the one time I could step outside the school system and learn for fun.
It still baffles me: I’ve never learned as much as I did during those COVID months. I dove deep into neuroscience, took an online anatomy and physiology course, and then took three college courses that summer. Because I wanted to. I reignited my love for learning and combined it with the discipline I had learned from school.
So, school isn’t the worse
I want to make this clear — school isn’t worthless I’ve learned to manage my time, be disciplined, and developed great habits.
The weird thing is, though: most people don’t do this. They procrastinate, pull all-nighters, and do the bare minimum. Because other than in my sixth grade health class, no one was telling me how to manage my time. Hell, despite there being clearly superior methods of learning, no one was telling me how to do that. I learned it on my own. From YouTube.
Here’s the truth: no one can out-learn the person who wants to better themselves. No one can out-learn the person who has a burning desire to build something bigger than themselves. No one can out-learn the person who seeks out the information — the person that isn’t told to learn but chooses to do so.
I try to cultivate that energy into everything I do.
I remember almost nothing from high school
If you asked me to recall everything I learned from high school, it would take me a while to share it all. But, that’s a shit measure of learning. Information is useful insomuch as it can and is applied to your life and your work.
If you asked me what I learned in high school that I still use, today. My answer would be simpler, and it would focus mostly on everything I did outside of high school through extracurriculars and not much from what I learned inside of it.
That’s one of the most significant problems: you’re not tested on the utility of your learning (as you are in the real world), you’re tested on the storage.
Who have I learned the most from?
I’ll name them: my mom, my dad, my co-workers at my first internship, Ali Abdaal, Naval Ravikant, Tim Ferriss, Carol Dweck, Marcus Aurelius.
Oh god, I named none of my teachers. Not because they weren’t good at teaching. I had some amazing professors. But because so very little of what I learned had any application to my life.
The value of a degree. I could learn everything that a CS student learns at some college. But after 4 years, they’ll still make more money than me.
A degree signals you’ll be a great employee. It shows you’re conscientious. It shows you conform. Employers like that, of course. But do you?
The Wealth Deception
The script we hear when it comes to making wealth: get good grades, go to college, get a job, climb in the company.
This idea has been relatively stable. And while YouTube entrepreneurs may come around and challenge it every once and a while, college has remained popular for a reason: signaling and security.
Whether it’s true or not (and I would argue that it’s a half-truth), college offers security. It sells certainty. And for humans, who are terrified of anything uncertain, college is an attractive option.
The expectation is that, once we leave college, we trade our time for our money. We work 9 to 5s. We get paid in proportion to the time we work. But time isn’t worth money.
Value is worth money. Wealth comes from producing value. It doesn’t matter how you do it.
If you play the gatekeeper’s game, you have to signal. If you play your own game, you simply need to create.
And so, yet again, I return to a hope for a decentralized education.