Do We Go to School Too Long? | #226
June 10th, 2023: Greetings from Austin! I met a number of readers this week at a local meetup in Austin. I didn’t do a good job taking pics but thank you to Julie, Alex, Ben, Charlie, Calvin, David, Noah, and others who stopped by.
#1 School Is Not Enough
Many young adults expect to spend most of their first 22 years on earth in school and increasingly spend 2-4 more years in grad school before they turn 30. This is a lot of school compared to our recent past! My grandfather (as much as we know) dropped out of school in the 4th grade to work on the farm.points this out and discusses many more issues with how we think about school in his essay School is Not Enough, one of the best essays I’ve read in a while. In the essay, he points out that most of us float through life on inertia and that this inertia continues post-schooling.
This resonates. The Pathless Path is my story about how I drifted along, following a path of what I thought I should want until I finally woke up at the age of 32. It was only then that I started even to test the limits of my own agency.
The question Sarris wants us to think about is simple: would someone like me have done something bolder with my life if there had been less schooling? Looking back in history, we find many examples of people who finished their schooling relatively young. For example, Benjamin Franklin:
Franklin, his schooling ended when he was ten. He worked for his father for a time, and at 12 he became an apprentice to his brother James, a printer, who taught him the printing trade
In today’s world, “wise” adults might tell young Ben to get an English degree, then a Master’s, and then take an entry-level job at a large conglomerate. The default path.
Sarris argues that our modern schooling process is stripping far too many people of their ability to act in the world. With so many years spent in school, “people come to inadvertently believe that skill and knowledge transfer are primarily the domain of school rather than a normal consequence of meaningful work.”
I love this point.
Sarris points out that it’s “difficult to blame young adults for thinking that work is fake and meaningless if we prescribe fake and meaningless work for the first two decades of their existence.”
For me, it’s not that I didn’t think meaningful work was possible; it’s that I didn’t even know it existed. This was a shocking revelation in my mid-30s when I finally experienced it, something I wrote about last week, pointing out my folly in thinking that good job = good work. It was even more confusing for me because I always enjoyed school more than work. Not only was I good at school, I liked the challenge of some of my classes. They were where I experienced something closer to meaningful work. Advanced physics and engineering problem sets I worked on for hours were a fun kind of challenge. It was my internships that seemed silly by comparison.
Prestige and status were a good cover story for going to grad school, but I was also drawn by the challenge of being part of a dual-degree Engineering and Business program where I’d get to work on hard problems again. It took me five years after grad school to realize it might be worth trying to find that feeling in my work.
And those challenging moments were still an exception in both college and grad school. Most of my classes were filled with busy work and tests that everyone tried to hack. Everyone was cynical about it all because everyone knew it was a game. Sarris argues that we are failing to help people become ready for life: “How could we celebrate a form of learning that creates something so pathetic—the opposite of a readiness for life?”
And this is a really subtle thing Sarris is pointing at. When I left school, I thought I was ready for life. My folly was that I could only believe this if life only involved knowing how to pass tests and performance reviews.
But if we really think about this, it’s obvious that our schools don’t and probably shouldn’t prepare us for everything needed to really try to live a good life. Our school systems are precisely that, systems. Sarris says that schools “are not your friend. They have no sensitivity to context. Their incentives are not the same as your incentives, and they have no interest in any individual going off-script.”
My belief is that if people expect to live a thriving existence in today’s world, or at minimum, want to find work that goes beyond just earning a paycheck; they will need to go off-script, which is hard when you’ve spent the first few decades of life playing a game with legible rules and goals.
Despite this, Sarris is optimistic about the next generation. I am, too, and if you talk to people under the age of 25, you realize that learning and school are no longer linked. Kids are growing up in a world where the internet provides endless rabbit holes, tutors, and, yes, distractions. I would have loved to have so many resources.
A story that brings this alive is Dylan O’Sullivan’sreflections on attending one of the top universities in Ireland in a conversation with . He detailed how he decided to forge his own path:
“I kind of decided to take things into my own hands again which kind of took the form of listening to lectures on YouTube while my actual lectures were going on”
He skipped as many classes as possible to pursue his own learning:
“(They) were focusing on it was kind of these really weird narrow specialized channels of research that were not really applicable to be outside world. It seemed like it was kind of what they happened to be focusing on as part of their research or to be interested in that week. So these kind of grander kind of questions of writing and the humanities and the classics were glossed over”
This slow and quiet revolution is sweeping through today’s youth. Many people attack schools today based on what they remember from 20 years ago. And in many places, schools are running the same playbook. Despite this, many students still fight to save their own curiosity and explore ideas on their own terms. As Sarris says, “In corners of the internet that are easy to miss, the biggest renaissance of informal skills transfer in history is happening right now.”
I am always confused when people who don’t love their jobs are obsessed with sending their kids to the best schools focused on helping them end up in those same jobs. But the pull of the default path is weakening. More parents are becoming aware of the opportunity for curiosity-first learning and helping people find meaningful work much earlier rather than learning to become another hoop jumper. I know as a parent, I’m much more concerned that my daughter has interests than what grades she might get.
I’d love to know what you think.
+The full essay 👉 School is Not Enough
#2 Speaking of Schools…
This week Columbia University announced it was dropping out of the U.S. News and World Reports undergraduate rankings. This comes about a year after it was discovered that they faked a lot of data (likely over a number of years) to help them climb the rankings all the way to #2 in 2022.
Funny enough, the manipulation was uncovered by one of their own, Columbia Professor Michael Thaddeus. Among other things, he found that Columbia lied about:
100% of Faculty having terminal degrees (really much less)
83% of classes <20 people (really ~62-67%)
$3.1B Spending on instruction (they included patient care at its hospitals!)
Columbia has not admitted it intentionally lied about the data, and in its announcement, it shared its “concerns.”
Yet we remain concerned with the role that rankings have assumed in the undergraduate application process, both in the outsized influence they may play with prospective students, and in how they distill a university’s profile into a composite of data categories. Much is lost in this approach.
This is all quite sad. Everyone knows Columbia is an Ivy League school and that it has always been a good school. But people at the school still decided that climbing those rankings WAS very important and worked to climb all the way to #2 over decades.
When I was at MIT, they begged students to donate, even if only $1, because a higher percentage of students donating would help them in the rankings. I did it, but it felt stupid. Why are we at a supposedly serious and challenging academic institution and also playing these stupid games? I’ve since decided to stop donating to any schools as I can’t support the unsustainable business models of packaging education will all sorts of other things that academic institutions now sell.
It will be funny if Columbia’s self-own here ends up giving permission to other schools to drop out of these rankings. At a minimum, I hope schools stop focusing on an arbitrary set of data points that a random magazine decided were important. Do tiny class sizes really matter in the age of the internet and video lectures?
If you want to hear more about this, Malcolm Gladwell had a great podcast episode on the topic.
#3 Jessica Depatie on Post-Traumatic Growth, Shadow Work, Travel, Korean Culture, Almost Being a Victim of the Hollywood Con Queen, The Hero’s Journey, and More…
This week’s podcast episode is with a fellow Austinite, Jessica Depatie. She’s been working on a pretty fascinating documentary about post-traumatic growth, which was of interest to me as something I wrote about in my book. She also detailed her upbringing and the current path of exploring shadow work. I found the whole conversation interesting.
Thanks For Reading!
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