The Outlier’s Guide to Education — Part 1

What is the purpose of education?

  1. To get good grades?
  2. To get into the best universities?
  3. To get the best jobs?

Actually, it is none of these. The purpose of education is to inspire action to better the world and lead us to personal fulfillment. Yet you wouldn’t know it by looking at our education system today.

1. Our Current Education System Trains Us to Value Status Over Impact

The education system as it is today trains us from an early age to value grades for what it deems to be “requirements.” If we do well in class, teachers bestow us with an A. If we do poorly, we get an F. Year after year of this convinces young people that success is an A. This type of success changes our thinking. Instead of viewing success as an actual improvement to the world, the education system teaches us that success is achieving a certain status relative to our peers.

What university did you get into?
Ha, mine is better!

What’s your GPA?
Okay, we’re the same, but my major is more difficult.

What consulting firm are you working for?
Oh, not the big three?

You make how much?
Wow, I’m way further along!

This is education’s cardinal sin. An unfortunate side effect is that talented, hardworking kids grow up thinking that they are failures because of their bad grades.

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.
— Albert Einstein

But grades aren’t the only indication of success.

Successful investor, wine expert, and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk is outspoken about his terrible academic performance. He attributes a great deal of his success to his mother for encouraging his other talents outside of academics. Maybe she was on to something.

Then there is Tony Robbins—successful businessman, motivational speaker, and adviser. He even has his own Netflix special.

Robbins turned his life around from being completely broke at 17 to being a multimillionaire today. It began when he gave his last $17 to a young boy for lunch. He attributes that moment to turning his life around. Robbins now helps thousands turn their lives around financially, spiritually, and personally. It’s important to note that the educational system doesn’t focus enough on these three areas. Maybe that’s why there is such a large audience for his seminars.

The above two men are outliers, as are Tim Ferriss, Richard Branson, this kid from Ohio, and countless others. They didn’t excel in school but have made immense impacts. An education is not simply information. Education is a mindset and work ethic of trial and error exercised over the course of a whole life. We will never become “educated.” We only can work to become a little better than we were the day, week, month, or year before. Sure, it takes a work ethic to learn and remember rote facts, but that’s training us to work hard for work’s own sake, not for the purpose of bettering the world or enjoying life. They don’t always teach us that in school.

2. Our Education System Places Too Much Value on the Wrong Things

It’s funny, really, that companies want to hire creative problem-solvers. People who can think for themselves and come up with outside-the-box solutions. And yet the vast majority of classes students take while growing up serve to beat the creativity out of them. This animated short does a good job of illustrating that.

We aren’t rewarded for imagination and understanding — say, writing a rap about the U.S. founders inspired by the musical Hamilton. Rather, we are rewarded for memorization — say, reciting the names of the presidents in order. Who would you want to hire, let alone be friends with: the guy who can memorize 45 names, or the woman who coherently combines rhythm with knowledge in a fun, informative way? This Atlantic article does a wonderful job of exploring one teacher’s perspective on the limitations of memorization.

This is not a one-size-fits-all critique. There are some amazing teachers who encourage students to develop deep, meaningful connections with the material. However, this is more the exception than the rule. To quote the author:

Overreliance on memorization is like most problems in education: systemic. One teacher can’t topple the tyrant’s statue alone. But she can begin to chip away at the base. — Ben Orlin, “When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning”

Maybe rote learning was beneficial before the internet, but in today’s world, what is the value of memorizing something when we can just Google it?

An Anecdote from My High School Experience

I distinctly remember a moment during my senior year in high school. In my religion class, we had a test consisting of more than 100 fill-in-the-blank spaces within a long text. No word bank; it was pure memorization. No thought, just regurgitating words in order. The teacher informed the class that the fastest this test had ever been completed was seven minutes. Taking that as a challenge, I studied until I could finish in under seven minutes. On test day, I finished in six minutes. A month later, I couldn’t have told you what the text said, let alone what it meant on a deeper level. I only “learned” it to have the status of finishing it the fastest. There was no practical impact, no higher purpose for studying. What good came of it?

3. The Failure in Education Cripples Us Financially

The New York Fed estimates that one in three college graduates are in jobs that do not require a college education. While the Pew Research Center claims that the median borrower with a bachelor’s degree owes $25,000 in debt. And if the unthinkable happens, only 0.1 percent of people going through bankruptcy even attempt to get their student loans forgiven. This is largely because of the public perception and confusion around the “undue hardship” clause in bankruptcy code. Nerdwallet explains this well in plain English. The point is that higher education promises to prepare us for a world after school. For that promise, students voluntarily go into debt. For many, the education they received was not enough, because they find themselves underemployed. Regardless of how well a school educates, its students carry around the same amount of debt. This tension is explored in a later post in this series.

Education Has Failed on 3 Counts

  1. Schools are teaching us to value status over impact.
  2. Schools teach us to memorize, not learn.
  3. Schools are saddling many of us with debt.

Reimagining Education Through Doing

The goal of education is to encourage students to create a better world for themselves and others, while equipping them with the skills to do so. Learning by doing is one of the most effective learning strategies. We are wired to learn from our mistakes, not to go through life without ever making any mistakes. Educators should teach students processes for success, not teaching to tests. Understanding that learning (and life) is a process of trying, failing, learning, and failing better breaks us out of the institutionalized fear that we can’t screw up. We need to screw up. This will help get rid of the distinction between school and “the real world.”

The point is that we need to transition from a system of regimented, outdated schooling to one that inspires action and a lifelong interest in learning. Memorizing the names of states and capitals is not going to get us there.