Let’s Talk About Education Tuesday Episode 3

I’m not sure if this post is really about education, but at least for me, the content is strongly linked to the way American secondary and post-secondary education is perceived. The issue is this: in my experience, one is considered a successful candidate for prestigious colleges and universities if one is doing either a) homework or b) some structured extracurricular activity in most or all of their free time. At least, that’s the idea. Unstructured time isn’t viewed as productive.

And yet, most of the cool ideas I’ve had and discoveries I’ve made have been outside of school (though not independent of the knowledge attained through school); I always feel the most intellectually engaged when I’m in a relatively free-form discussion. In looking at history, many innovations were made in relatively unstructured settings: just think of the role that coffee shops and taverns and salons played in various revolutions (both political and intellectual).

So it worries me that American society seems to be spurring along the decline of leisure. People seem to interpret time outside of work or school as time that must be filled with other commitments, and those who don’t have a million things to do at any given time are often viewed as apathetic or lazy. Yet I think that allowing time for people to actively think about things is crucial to maintaining so-called “Yankee ingenuity.” I suppose I am Carl Sagan-ing, a little; I’d recommend reading the chapter about “dumb questions” in The Demon-Haunted World. Basically, I think that book learning is underrated in its ability to actually spark interest in new and unexpected academic areas. However, I also think that thinking and learning are skills that can and should be applied outside of studying and school, and this ability to use critical thinking in real-life scenarios is key in innovation.

TL; DR: In the pursuit of post-secondary education (which should theoretically occur in service to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding), one should not inadvertently forget how to think.

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6 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Education Tuesday Episode 3

  1. I think you’re right, Splashy, but only up to a point, and perhaps only in certain contexts. In the context of college admissions (“successful candidate for prestigious colleges and universities”), you’re drop-dead right. But that’s understandable, because admissions officers are biased that way. It’s not that they necessarily think only structured is valuable to the origination and development ideas. It’s that they have at least two strong motivations to judge you by what you do with your structured time, both of which have to do with score-keeping. Structured time tends to be structured toward some kind of outcome. Outcomes can usually be quantified (grades, win/loss records, achievement badges, souls converted, etc.). Quantified outcomes allow one to keep score, delivering a judgment about who’s better/smarter/faster/yummier than whom.

    This score-keeping goes straight to the two motivations of the admissions officer: (1) pick the “best” prospective students, and (2) pick the students who are most likely to apply themselves to stuff on which the college is, in turn, judged. Colleges aren’t judged on the quality of your unstructured time, but on the quality of all the stuff you do with your structured time. Pick students who like to invest in — and who do well in — structured activities, and you’re more likely to end up with a college that has lots of folks investing their time in the stuff on which the college is judged.

    (Steve Jobs, btw, would agree with your underlying hypothesis. His Stanford commencement address makes a fine case for farting around with smart people.)

    On the other hand, most of our society encourages loafing. I would argue that it encourages lonely loafing. Exhibit A: Advertising-driven economic models. Most forms of advertising are consumed by people participating in passive, relatively less structured and less social activities. Yet there’s plenty of social reinforcement that suggests being a channel surfer is acceptable. Now, none of this will make you a more attractive college applicant, and I’m not sure anyone would argue that it’s “productive time”. But, I’m just keen to point out that, beyond college applications, we seem to judge people to be perfectly acceptable — even if not particularly admirable — human beings if they spend much of their time in an unstructured, unproductive way.

    So, how do you increase the likelihood of unstructured time being productive? And how can you tell whether someone is loafing or fermenting?

    Crack that one, my dear Splish-Dish, and I’ll buy the book. 🙂

    • It’s a blessing and a curse to have such a freakishly intelligent and engaged audience. It may take a while to work on the questions you’ve posed here, but I’m (stupidly) up for the challenge. Thanks for the thoughts, and don’t let me let this stagnate.

  2. I should probably start at the beginning and work my way up, but I’m sadly being constrained by societal demands with education… and that is all students must do a specific amount of hours of schoolwork or be deemed lazy. That, and I have to read some online stories that are flooding my inbox, so… yeah… Either way, I will be working on reading the older posts when I am set free to breath the air and relax for a glorious week.

    This was a rather intriguing post, and I cannot help but agree with you. Now I might be slightly veering off topic from what you’re saying with these next comments, however. It seems as if TRUE education – the education that helps you be a good member of society – is achieved through your own experiences. Knowing the books is not enough to survive. Sure, book knowledge can give you some insight into the world and most professions require the knowledge received from school. But life simply isn’t jobs and schoolwork. It is growing and innovating as a human being, and when we’re buried under heaps and heaps of coursework, where is our chance to grow? Our education at school is incomplete. We need to look out and participate in the world more. Sometimes, I feel life is rushing by so quickly for me – I can barely grasp it – and I have no time to really enjoy life with the societal image that we must work and only work.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post!

    Signing off…

    • Chronology is irrelevant! Yes, experience is an incredible teacher. The challenge lies in balancing it with book learning and, to a point, measurable output. I think we should instigate recess in high school (we need it more now than we did as kindergarteners…).

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