Friday, July 13, 2007

Outgrowing school
   The modern superstition of schooling

Concerning Bias has a post adding two more things to the three things Ben Casnocha cited Bill Bullard saying about what we need to unlearn from school: (1) pretending you understand something when you don’t and (2) trusting authority.

Whatever, as one of my students was fond of saying. 

Kids usually pretend to understand because they don’t really care, and they don’t trust authority nearly as much as they pretend to, because it’s easier--at least for many girls. Schooling, from a student’s perspective, isn’t usually about learning after the fifth grade or so.  It’s about credentials: grades, diplomas, recommendations, resumes.

If a course is compulsory--required by law, or for a diploma, or to get or renew a license--learning is probably secondary. If the important thing is to get the continuing ed credit or the grade, then worrying about confusing things that, except for the course, don’t matter is--well, inefficient. The world is full of things we don’t have time to understand and puzzles fabricated by some instructor don’t rank high on most people’s lists of things to pay more attention to.

And as for trusting authority, all the authorities these days say we should distrust authority.

But it’s trickier than that. In required classes, I usually support the teacher in whatever fantasy brings him or her to the classroom, just because I’ve found being obnoxious to be unpleasant and unproductive, and the classroom isn’t my show. Nobody showed up to hear from me. In other situations, it depends. I trust most doctors when I have a rash, because I’m not going to take time to develop my own expertise. With my diabetes, though, I found no doctor was going to take time to become expert on the way the disease affected my particular body at its particular stage of progression that body, and I’ve had to develop considerable expertise and do much of my own thinking.

In general, I tend to trust authorities in technical fields, such as engineering, quite a lot more than authorities in the humanities, because in the humanities there’s a constant perceptual bias based on values, and my values are quite askew from those of the authorities.

These are things I think we could unlearn from schools:

  1. The superstition that most problems can be solved by providing information. The real problems in life don’t get solved. We get through them until we don’t. The main thing is more often character than information.
  2. The superstition that knowledge gained in school is more valuable than knowledge gained other places. Intellectuals want this to be true so that they matter. Due largely to conspiracies against the laity by various guilds, we now have lots of unnecessary requirements for credentials. Quite often, credentials serve as a substitute for knowledge. This becomes more true the more school comes to be understood mostly as a ticket to success, defined by money. This leads to more and more emphasis upon appearances and posturing.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 07/13 at 09:41 PM
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© 2007 Michael L. Umphrey
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