Formal Education Is Overrated.

(Note: This is a repost of an article which appeared on my LiveJournal on January 24, 2009.  I am transferring it over because it is the first in a series, which will be continued soon.)

I’ve never been a fan of formal education.

Maybe it works for some people, but it never worked all that well for me. I’m just a self-directed kind of guy, and working on someone else’s tasks to someone else’s standards on someone else’s schedule is nothing but irritating to me, and it hampers my education. The bottom line is that I love learning, but I can’t stand being taught.

My biggest problem with formal education is pacing. Most classes run at a fixed pace for a fixed period of time. That just isn’t how I learn best. Sometimes I make a cognitive leap in a subject and want to keep learning non-stop for hours or days on end. Other times I’m just not feeling it and the best thing I can do is set the subject aside for a while (hours, days, weeks, months, or even years) and let the concepts I’ve already absorbed gel before proceeding. Maybe I’m unusual in this regard, but I think it more likely that teaching at a constant pace is a sub-optimal system for many students. Even students who learn well at a constant pace will probably prefer a pace quicker or slower than what the instructor has chosen.

There is, however, a reasonable argument to support this system. It’s easier to teach if everyone’s learning the same thing at the same time at the same pace. It’s also easier to tell if someone’s falling behind, in the instance where there’s a deadline involved. Reluctant students may be more likely to complete a class if there are numerous fixed checkpoints along the way. Thus, our traditional educational system works in favor of the instructor and the least common denominator. The focus is on the numbers, working to herd students through the system in the largest numbers possible with the least inconvenience and cost.

This means that the students with the most potential must either fend for themselves or slip through the cracks. It’s sad, but it’s true, and it’s far worse in high school than it is in college. I was very disappointed in the “education” I received from my high school, which was very proud of its status as a “California Distinguished School”. My brief stay in Portland taught me, through meeting high school students and speaking to their parents, that Oregon schools are even worse. I advised one student there that if she wanted an education, she would have to take responsibility for it herself. High schools aren’t interested in educating kids, they’re only interested in processing them through the system with a minimum of fuss and hassle.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

-Mark Twain

And really, that’s the key. If you want an education, you must take responsibility for it yourself. I can’t tell you how much harm I’ve done to my education in my younger years by misguidedly allowing my schooling to interfere with it. I permitted the school to persuade me that they were taking responsibility for my education, and sat back in expectation of its delivery. I was appalled by the paper-shuffling busy-work that I got instead, but continued waiting for the fulfillment of the promise, encouraged by the words of the adults in my life. In elementary school, “you’ll like middle school better”. In middle school, “you’ll like high school better”. And in high school, “you’ll like college better”. And finally I left high school early to go to Middle College, because every level of schooling before had utterly failed me. I had become more and more unhappy as the promises that things would be better next year proved to be not only empty, but bitterly ironic as things got WORSE every year. It wasn’t until I rejected traditional schooling and sought out an alternative program that I found a way to even make the situation TOLERABLE enough to graduate (and even then, not on time).

My bad… though I don’t know what I could have done differently with the limitations (both real and imagined) and lack of information I had to work with at the time.

But there is a solution to these problems, at least for those who are no longer beholden to the educational system. There’s a viable alternative to a college education — a college-level self-education. You may not wish to get the knowledge you seek from schooling, but you have to get it from somewhere, and believe me, it’s out there! I’m working out the details of how to go about this right now. It seems to me that the first step is to work out a curriculum — you have to know what you want to learn (perhaps not everything, but at least a starting point) before you can begin to assimilate knowledge. This is the step that I’m working on now, and is what prompted me to inquire about what should be included in a well-rounded education. I’m presently in the position of being able to design one for myself, and want to put some thought into it rather than just accept the structure that was thrust upon me by a system that thoroughly alienated me.

After deciding the general categories of my education, I’ll be narrowing each down to an initial focus, investigating and choosing educational resources, and beginning to read — I do expect that most of the knowledge I’m looking for will be found in books, despite my personal preference for the Internet as a source of information.

There’s still a hiccup in this plan, which I will investigate in another post — independent scholars face an additional challenge in having their studies recognized by those (such as employers) who use such things as a basis for decision-making. There are, of course, exceptions and ways around this, but as I said, that’s for another post.

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