Why is education a waste of time?

Joy for some, a chore for others

Recently I went back up north and got the opportunity to visit my family. I sat with my three-year-old nephew while he taught me how to build a wall with his building blocks, when asked what he was doing he simply replied “I’m building a wall”.

Often when I am asked what I do, it is not such a simple answer, and trying to explain to a three-year-old what I do at work is near impossible. The simplicity of the answer “I’m building a wall” triggered a thought in me about the Trump campaign and THAT wall.

The truth is that the concept of building a wall is so easy to understand that you can tell a small child that is what you want to do and it makes perfect sense to them. This wall policy may actually be a calculated and intelligently motivated move from the Trump campaign.

A wall, English bond if I’m not mistaken

According to the Literacy Project Foundation 50% of American adults cannot read a book at an 8th Grade level (13–14 years old) and there have also been recent studies that suggest Western intelligence levels have decreased on average by around 14 I.Q points. If we assume that the Trump campaign knew what it was doing, the wall policy (among others) are simplistic for a reason. The campaign exposed a flaw in the American public and is exploiting it.

Here in Britain we saw something similar emerge after the Brexit vote. The BBC reported that “29 out of the 30 areas with the most graduates voted Remain” and a poll by Lord Ashcroft found that 57% of people with a graduate degree, 64% of those with a higher degree and 81% of people still in full-time education, voted remain. The same poll found that if you left education after secondary school you were more likely to have voted leave. It’s clear from those poll results that the level to which you are educated had an impact on your decision on 23rd June.

However, it is also worth noting that Lord Ashcroft’s poll also found that there was a class divide with social group AB (typically managers or those in higher professional positions) more likely to vote remain and the C2DE social group (those working in manual professions, on pensions or very low earnings) more likely to vote leave. The class divide sits similarly with the education divide which is not particularly surprising if you look at how the the media and the papers supporting the leave campaign are run.

Compare and contrast the message from News UK’s sister titles in June

Taking The Sun as an example, the pro-Brexit newspaper is aimed primarily at the working class. The Sun is notorious for its simplistic linguistic style and is often said to have an extremely low reading level. This article from the New Scientist in 1979 puts the reading level at ten years old, and more recent articles suggest the reading age is eight years old, however it’s pretty safe to say Google’s clever reading level algorithm which describes it as “basic” is a good cover all. Mirroring Trump and his wall campaign, simplistic arguments were presented in formats that the lesser educated general public accepted.

And here is the audience breakdown for each title

So if education is a difference maker, shouldn’t we all want more of it? Or is it turning us all into sheep?

Having worked in the startup world over the last five years, I am aware that there is a dropout culture surrounding successful entrepreneurs that seems to argue against the idea that the uneducated and the C2DE social group are one and the same. In some respects I agree; it is more than possible to not complete university or higher and still end up at the top of your game professionally, but this is where we need to understand that education is not rooted entirely in traditional schooling and whether or not you attend university.

Jonathan Wai from Duke University writes that “Many of the people who are transforming society, advancing knowledge, and inventing modern culture are in the top 1 percent in intellectual ability”. Wai also makes a point that a lack of education is considered glamorous saying “America undervalues math and spatial skills — it is socially acceptable to be bad at math”.

This is a phrase which is heard just as often in the UK.

Steve Jobs at the iPad announcement 2010, photo by Jon Snyder/Wired.com under Creative Commons license

Those “Top Ten Dropouts” lists that you see around every internet corner fail to mention that whilst Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg all failed to finish their respective educations, they all fall into that top 1 percent of intellectual ability.

What Wai says is that the lack of funding in America for those that fall into the one percent, means that they are leaving education not fully supported to reach their true potential. Or that nobody is valuing what an education can bring to society.

If we value education and stop seeing it as an unnecessary luxury, we are able to challenge the simplicity of saying “I’m building a wall”. Education teaches us to ask “Why?” and “How?”, and with that it exposes the dangerous undercurrent of clever people presenting seemingly uncomplicated ideas.

The austerity agenda has been blamed for a number of painful cuts to a bloated public service, but removing financial aid for education is unforgivable.

This year, part-time postgraduate students have seen £6.5m of financial support removed, and decisions like this push us further and further away from an upwardly mobile society.

Unless you understand the context of life on the breadline, it is pretty difficult to realise how much of a threat this reduction in funding is for people looking to develop themselves to contribute more to the economy.

In late September, the Money Advice Service revealed that in the UK, more than 16m people have less than £100 available in savings at any moment. In Wales, that equates to more than 50% of the population.

Just try to process that, one in every two people are desperately awaiting the next payday, and hoping to god that a disaster doesn’t happen in the meantime.

For those people, there isn’t any sense in investing in education, as there is no guarantee of a job to show for the risk. I’m telling you this as someone who has been there, looking around my flat for things I can sell to survive the month.

The financial aid provided to allow people to refocus and reassess when they feel they need to explore new opportunities is hugely important for those who can’t afford to leave their current situation, but also beneficial for the economy.

But maybe there’s another option. Platforms like edX, Treehouse, Lynda, and Udemy are making it super easy for anyone to access educational programmes designed and led by thought leaders from all over the world. It’s why we developed Boma Camp, to bring people together regardless of whether you would otherwise meet them in day-to-day life.

“What’s the catch?” I hear you cry…

If we can’t, as a society, take advantage of the fact that we collectively know more now than ever before, and show clearly the incentives of investing time and energy into being better informed, more financially secure, and satisfied with the return on investment, then we have major, major problems.

And if that is already the case, with people actively avoiding education because it isn’t worth the hassle, then maybe we will be able to convince those that have fallen out of love with learning to give it another chance.

Though many people would say they are motivated by financial gain, what most of us are really looking for is safety, security and fulfilment. Therefore, it is vital that our economy is set up to provide these rewards to those who work the hardest, who are most open-minded, most understanding of others and who are having a visibly positive effect on the world. Our economy needs to make these people the shining examples who youngsters aspire to be.

If our society does not accept its inherent responsibility to keep learning in order to enhance and advance our lives, then at best, standards of living will plateau, and at worst…well, that doesn’t bear thinking about.

So let’s stop thinking of lifelong learning as being a formal process with a clear start and end, but something that we all do to be better citizens.

That’s a terribly middle-class way to end an article, sorry.

As always, let me know if you have any thoughts or comments,

With love, from Gareth

Further reading: