Schools Don’t Support Personal Development, They Distort It

Education and the myth of finite learning

After they get their first job, many people go, “Finally, I can stop reading. I can stop learning.”

In our society, it’s a truism everyone first needs years of schooling before they can start contributing to society. When we’ve reached this performance-phase, we quit learning.

Your diploma was an entry ticket to the real world. It signals that you’re ready to participate. To play with the big boys.

As psychologist Anders Ericsson puts it in Peak:

We only learn until we feel like we’ve hit a “good enough” point. As soon as we feel like we’re good enough (subconsciously or consciously) we stop improving.

When we exit campus (or whatever), we disembark from the ship of personal growth.

When you think about it, that’s strange.

It’s not your fault

In his TedTalk, researcher Eduardo Briceño provides empirical support for Ericsson’s assertion, showing that their entry ticket in hand, having earned the right to, many folks really do stop evolving:

Research shows that after the first couple of years working in a profession, performance usually plateaus. This has been shown to be true in teaching, general medicine, nursing and other fields, and it happens because once we think we have become good enough, adequate, then we stop spending time [learning].”

After going through school, we end up with a pre-packaged set of beliefs about how everything gets done. Following these rules seems to get us paid, and we don’t want to be in uncertainty, so we stick to it.

The way we’ve organized education — around continuous ‘ending points’ such as tests to pass, which cumulate into graduation and then you’re ‘done’ — normalizes the “good enough” attitude Eriksson describes.

We all know someone who’s been at the office for 30 years and claims to have 30 years of experience, but actually has one year repeated 30 times.

But don’t blame yourself. Blame ‘the system’. (No, really.)

The problem with tests

The larger issue here is how the strict separation of learning and participating is ingrained into how we, on societal level, have set up a division between education and working.

This ‘only-learn-as-necessary’ attitude gets transmitted to us by the system itself because the ‘school-as-entry-ticket’ model makes learning out to have an instrumental function.

These days, if it will not be on the test, we don’t study the chapter. If our job doesn’t require it, we don’t learn the skill.

This is what happens when you make learning about competition, scores, metrics and targets.

When it comes to personal development, tests have a counterproductive effect.

They make studying primarily about checking a box. About reproduction instead of independent thinking. Learning is something annoying but I can be done with this stupid subject forever as soon as I manage to get enough multiple choice questions right.

What the tests do is suggest that there are learning paths you can ‘complete’. After an exam, you have achieved something and then you can stop. After a graduation, you’re done.

A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. … Schools are a form of finite game, to the degree that they give ranked awards to those who win degrees from them. Those awards qualify graduates for competition in still higher games, like prestigious colleges, and then professional schools beyond that, with a continuing sequence of higher games in each profession, and so forth. — James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

What do we learn in school?

While this dichotomy between ‘learning’ and ‘doing what you’ve learned’ is fundamental for the way we organize schools, it doesn’t make any sense.

What is it we really pick up in the classroom?

As a college graduate, your only acquired skill is you have mastered how to reproduce unusable information at a pre-determined time — you can make tests. That’s about it.

In today’s school system, there is an exaggerated focus on abstract, contextless knowledge. All these multiple choice exams I aced on personality psychology, group psychology, clinical psychology — that was 95% of my psych undergraduate but hardly provided the skillset I needed to be a psychologist out there in the real world.

The modern obsession with theoretical knowledge is, in many fields, a farce.

For example, the idea that you’re suited to run a bank or country in virtue of being “highly educated”, and you having acquired all sorts of tricks to “lead” from the textbooks you studied, without this being accompanied by a certain personal development, is bullshit.

How did we ever think that management theories, communication theories, and behavioral science theories are more important for the interaction between people than empathy and (self-)understanding?

The beauty of learning

Okay, so we’ve taken a brief look at (a) how we’ve drawn up this unnatural division between [education before participation] and [stop growing when good enough], and (b) what skill we actually learn in school.

Our system encourages an instrumentalist mindset about the value of learning. So we (i) focus too much on theoretical, propositional knowledge and (ii), accordingly, stop ingesting ourselves with boring textbooks once we’ve passed the course or got the job and don’t do it all if there won’t be a test in the first place.

When you think about this, it’s really weird, right? But here is the part that truly makes me sad.

Our knowledge society has made education into a product you can acquire without becoming a wiser person. We mistakenly confuse intelligence with having a theory, a theory you can store in libraries, that you can buy and sell, display and market in the shop window, which you can offer young people in management training, or in lecture halls.

Sadly, they then think that, with such a theory in hand, they’ve grown. While, in fact, we sold them nothing but a bunch of hollow words, a certificate for the wall.

And in having done so, heartbreakingly, we have also made them believe that learning is not about personal development.

But that is what it is all about!

There is a pure joy, a sweet, childlike delight, that comes from just learning and trying to get better. Looking back, you will find that the best years of, say, coding or drawing or scuba-diving or belly-dancing were those you spent on the learning curve, when there was exaltation in the mere act of doing.

The joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, is in learning to start something we can’t finish. — James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

A pill or the process?

If I could push a button that would get me 10K Medium followers and all the intellectual development for free, right now, I would not push it.

This might sound counter-intuitive, but think about it for a second.

Imagine your greatest goal — whatever it is. Now imagine instantaneously achieving it.

Would you be happy? Perhaps in the beginning, but not for long.

Now consider school. If your child could take a pill to get him the cognitive and physical progress instantaneously, straight off to the labor market, would you want her to take it?

The right answer, in case you were wondering, is No.

That, I believe, reveals something deep about human nature. It shows that the means-ends mindset regarding learning that we’ve incorporated in our society is out of tune with why we value development.

Self-improvement is an essential component of the good life.

Learning is not only valuable because you can pass tests at the end of it. Humans are creatures with intrinsic inquisitiveness. Schooling, ideally, enables you to exercise your capacity for understanding, facilitating and encouraging continuous (self-)discovery. Now, it does the opposite: it restricts curiosity and creativity.

If people continue to learn until they die, then education can’t be preparation for entering society, and our entire approach is completely wrongheaded.

Education leads toward a continuing self-discovery; training leads toward a final self-definition.— James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games