The sword of Damocles’ hangs over the educational institution — How to become educated despite education? — The long-term damage of short-termism — Education as a moral enterprise — The virtues an education must foster
The fragility of our modern industrialized world hangs over our heads like Damocles’ sword, threatening to wake us up from the tranquility of our self-induced illusion of stability. Behind this facade, there are unprecedented tectonic processes taking place — economic, cultural, political, social, and technological transitions the like of which the world has never seen.
The most crucial institution that ought to prepare future generations for these transitions is the least reformed one: the educational institution.
Politicians always incorporate education in their campaign talking points, not with the intentions of doing anything meaningful with it once they get into office, but to make themselves appear more electable. Their views on education begin and end with one thing: money. More funding, better infrastructure, higher teacher salaries, etc., as if the only problem with today’s education is a monetary one. As the old Jewish proverb postulates — a problem that can be solved with money is not a problem, but an expense. If the problem with education were a monetary one, we would have solved it a long time ago, but it’s not.
If we assume that Einstein’s axiom is correct, then we ought to ask ourselves what is the value of our current 12-year-long educational framework (excluding higher education), and how effective is it in preparing the upcoming generations for a future of exponential technological advancements and uncertainty?
How to become educated despite education? A personal tale.
What’s education good for? That is a question I have been struggling to answer because I found very little value in the education I received. I became educated despite education — by retaining the Dionysian intuition I recognized early on there is something inherently dysfunctional about the educational framework my generation was subjected to. Hence, I always took into account the fact that I was educated a decade ago in a provincial public school in the most poverty-driven area of the Balkans. In the grand scheme of things, this was a preferable option — excluding a handful of institutions here and there that rested on the shoulders of gifted and selfless educators, the education in most of Europe and Northern America is flawed by design and ranks anywhere between mediocre to awful.
I gave up on public schooling quite early (granted, I did graduate it) — like a lot of kids out there who weren’t very good at memorizing theory with the sole objective of passing a series of standardised tests, I just assumed that I was anywhere between dumb and mediocre when it came to studying. It wasn’t until I approached the top performing students for help when I realized they had no idea what was going on either. School stressed on one thing and one thing alone — the straight-forward path of diploma-college-salary, that was the ultimate goal. The entire educational paradigm that I’ve experienced was designed to create an obedient workforce that doesn’t ask questions and quietly pays its 30+ year mortgage
Since most of the things we learned, we forgot within weeks of passing the tests, I thought to myself — what’s the point of it all? Apart from a shameful waste of time?
Was that the entire purpose of education? Passing tests with little to no retention of actual knowledge? If so, why invest so much time and resources? Why not just pick a trade, get an apprenticeship, and learn from actual practice?
You have to understand, this whole experience was all very confusing for a kid — the bite-sized, fragmented information that was presented to us was so disconnected and chaotic, that I found it counter-intuitive and difficult to see how all this information integrated, or how, for the love of God, this could be considered knowledge! At some point around 10th grade, I just shrugged my shoulders and figured I might as well use the mandatory prison sentence for something useful, so I just began bringing the books I enjoyed reading in class.
Most of the teachers didn’t mind since I wasn’t making any trouble, unlike other pupils. Some of them encouraged the practice to the point where they started borrowing some of my books during spring and summer breaks. My most prominent teachers became the Beat Generation authors like Bukowski and Burroughs, Russian authors such as Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Pelevin, and Nabokov, and a wide range of other authors that I found in our extensive family library — from Oscar Wilde, Umberto Eco, Thomas Mann to Kafka, Jose Saramago and James Clavell (including one unfortunate incident with Marquis de Sade’s Justine when I was no older than 13).
That’s how I came to love learning and resent institutional education, and if I can go back in time, I would not change a single thing — in due time, I realized that was the best decision I could have possibly made, considering the circumstances.
Despite the odds, I always considered myself one of the lucky ones, because I never caved in — I somehow knew I will figure my way out in the world and will develop Apollonian rationality through practice and real-life experiences. Above all, I got lucky, because I was able to develop the necessary resilience to learn a few valuable lessons from the bad habits that the educational system was trying to instill, namely:
- A life of tests is no preparation for the tests in life;
- True knowledge is rhizomatic*/interconnected in nature, not fragmented;
- Failure should be treated as a respectable teacher, not something to be avoided or punished — you only fail, if you don’t learn anything from your failure, or as the great Samuel Beckett said it “Ever tried, ever failed. Try again, fail again, fail better.”;
- Respect for authority ought to be earned, not blindly given;
- Status games have no return on investment;
- Schools are orderly, risk-free echo chambers, while real life is a risk-ridden world of uncertainty;
- Degrees without erudition are not worth the paper they were printed on
Considering the circumstances, it would be far more beneficial for kids nowadays to play video games, read whatever books interest them or roam feral in the city. That way, children will be making calculated decisions, take on responsibilities of various sorts, learn some street smarts, and will be emotionally invested in whatever it is they do — the most crucial condition for meaningful learning.
The long-term damage of short-termism: how inadequate education breeds mediocre leaders
While the lack of innovation in the area of education is a direct result of short-termism thinking, its consequences have long-term effects. Now we talk about a crisis of leadership — the world is ever more sophisticated, uncertain, and fragile, yet we lack the proper leaders to walk us through the times of turmoil.
No surprise here.
Apart from the prestigious label (and the corresponding massive student debt), Ivy League schools seem to be doing a poor job in preparing students to be good leaders and robust decision-makers. The vast majority of these people are educated in a narrow, domain-dependent manner, and operate with only fragments of philosophy, maths, and sciences. Fewer and fewer students leave with any understanding of crucial fundamentals such as mathematical or scientific modeling, systems thinking, exponential functions, conditional probability, heuristics, or the wisdom of the ancients.
The consequences of an entire generation of poorly equipped and creatively unimaginative people can be devastating, considering how markets and technology are likely to disrupt all traditional institutions on a long enough time scale. Our seemingly functioning civilization is incredibly fragile and vulnerable to large shocks, and these shocks are inevitable. We cannot continue to operate in the traditional paradigms of human politics and societal organization, because we have (partially) transitioned from small, relatively simple, hierarchical, primitive, zero-sum hunter-gatherer tribes to significant, complex, decentralised, technologically sophisticated, nonzero-sum market-based cultures with anywhere between 10 000 to 20 000 distinct occupations.
We have diverse aims, ambitions, impersonal exchanges, complex trade, and private property, yet our most vital institution doesn’t recognize the non-linear, feedback loop driven structure of our modern world. Neither does it perceive knowledge in its rhizomatic nature characterized by ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains. Nah, fuck complex thinking and non-linearity. School prepares you for the top-down imposed, artificial binary reality where you only have two choices — Democrat or Republican, Left or Right, Liberal or Conservative, Capitalist or Socialist, etc. No grey areas, no complexity, no adaptivity. Simple linearity. Our existing educational institutions fail to align with both current and future demands, uncertainties, risks, and opportunities of our time.
The current crisis of leadership is a direct result of short-termism thinking and a complete misinterpretation of the purpose of education. In Nassim Taleb’s Skin in the Game, he made an excellent assessment about the current state of our leaders and crucial decision-makers, and how their flaws can be directly attributed to their linear thinking and domain-dependence:
- They think in statics, not dynamics: for the most part, today’s decision-makers are incapable of thinking long-term. While real life is comprised of first, second, third, fourth, n-th steps, these people demonstrate an innate inability to think beyond their first. The farthest they tend to go to is the next-term elections;
- Think in low, not high dimensions: they give single-dimensional explanations for multi-dimensional problems. Complex systems don’t have an obvious one-dimensional cause-and-effect mechanism, tackling them requires careful understanding of complex interactions and their impact. Intellectual humility will do some justice here as well.
- Think in singular actions, not a multitude of interactions: relationships and dependencies are far more critical than singular acts with no context or connections. For example, the act of removing a dictator from power is far less critical in the long run than the chain of events that are likely to follow these actions.
Education as a moral enterprise: To lead forth, bring out, rise, mold or nourish
I find etymology to be one of the most valuable branches of linguistics — after all, we use language to describe our reality, and words, their history and evolution matter more than most people realize. I rely a lot on the etymological dictionaries to make sense of the world, and education is one of the many words I had to look up. According to the dictionary, education is derived from the 15th-century Latin word educare, which literally means to lead forth, bring out, rise, mold or nourish.
Yes, children are clueless but highly creative and flexible creatures, who need, I repeat, need to be treated as individuals (not a collective) and led forth in their learning, without attempting to put them in a box. God knows how many creatives we have lost due to the dogmatic structure of our educational system.
Education is essentially a moral enterprise in the business of character-forming. The tabula rasa children that walk through the threshold of schools nowadays rely on this system to prepare them for real life, and at its current configuration — it does a very lousy job at it.
“It takes a village to raise a child.” — African proverb
As Homo sapiens children, we are born prematurely and rely on our family and community for many years to adapt and learn the ins and outs of survival in our environment. For a long time, we are unable to walk, talk, or provide nourishment for ourselves. Our abilities and talents are not fixed, they are elastic, and our environment either stretches them or doesn’t. It is people — parents, teachers, other members of the community — who shape the next generation based on their interactions with children. As a society, we are unable to interfere with a given household (you cannot change apathetic parents), but we can interfere in the second most crucial character-forming institution we have — the educational one.
“The function of education is to develop the mental and emotional resources that young people need to cope well with the real demands of their real lives.” — Guy Claxton
Education will not change top-down — government intervention has done enough damage already, let’s spare the next generation from being yet another lab rat experiment for salaried bureaucrats with no skin in the game. If education is to change, it will be in a bottom-up manner, where thousands of students, their families, and teachers truly understand the value of fundamental reform and demand it. After all, public education is funded with our tax money, and as a customer (especially if you are a business looking to recruit talent), we are dissatisfied with the end product.
A life-long apprenticeship in meeting criteria and passing exams is no preparation for the real-life dynamics of our time, and the current model of pre-planned, pre-approved, fixed, sequenced, graded type of bite-sized learning is only useful if you plan on making a career out of taking tests and pleasing people.
The virtues an education should foster
As a finale, let’s point out some of the virtues that can and should be cultivated within the educational framework — after all, as we’ve established, if education is to be treated as a moral enterprise, then it ought to be able to cultivate virtues amongst its students. And virtues are not mere skills or habits; they are cognitive frameworks, a state of being in a way.
Curiosity: children are genuinely curious about the world. No, they don’t predominately have ADHD and don’t need amphetamine-based medications to remain focused in the classroom. When their innate curiosity isn’t captured, fostered, and directed, kids, will inevitably grow bored and restless.
Risk-taking: remember when you were learning how to ride a bike? Not the safest undertaking out there, isn’t it? You likely fell dozens of times and came back home in bruises. But the risk of injury outweighs the reward of being able to ride a bike. It is that childlike capacity to be up for a challenge, willing o take a risk and see what happens, to leave your comfort zone of all the things you know you can do — that’s the type of virtues schools ought to be fostering.
Tinkering: children like to tinker, and like most humans learn best via trial-and-error. Tinkering is the virtue of the practical inventor. The successful dynamic of the Wright brothers (thanks to them we have airplanes nowadays) was the combination of Wilbur’s inventiveness and Orville’s practical tinkering (or vice versa, I can’t remember who the tinkerer was).
Imagination: day-dreaming is a sign of a powerful imagination that shouldn’t be punished, but fostered. Imagination enables kids to use their inner, fantasy world as a test environment for their ideas — a theatre of possibilities. The imaginative have a powerful intuition that helps them navigate the ins and outs of life.
Discipline: the opposite of the unstructured and wild imagination is discipline (both in physical and cognitive areas). Discipline teaches children to think carefully, rigorously, and methodically, which will ultimately enable them to implement their imaginative ideas in reality. Disciplined learners can follow a rigorous train of thought and spot the holes in arguments and theories. Imagination and discipline are the yin and yang of real creativity.
Reflection: introverts are more naturally inclined to introspectiveness. Reflection is a virtue which enables children to learn how to reflect and contemplate, taking some time off to think things over, analyze their decisions and actions, and brainstorm for alternative strategies. Those who learn how to reflect won’t be paralyzed by self-consciousness or fear but will be empowered by their self-awareness and ability to step back, reflect, and learn.
An educational system designed to condition children how to survive as opposed to thrive is not worth the generous taxpayer subsidies. A mediocre system designed by mediocre people that teaches mediocracy at scale. It won’t end well.