The Whole Damn Point of Learning
And what it specifically isn’t
By MARTIN REZNY
Dismal sentiments like these always make me think about where that silly education thing got so wrong. If an alien landed on our planet today and conducted a study of our educational institutions in order to figure out what the hell they’re for, it might conclude on the basis of observation that the primary purpose of schools is to make everyone involved miserable.
For the most part, students, bored out of their minds, spend time at school wishing to be elsewhere and stressing out over meaningless trials and tribulations, while teachers, hating their students and school administrations equally for their presumed stupidity and lack of effort, spend their time teaching something else than they would like to teach, forced to do it in an ineffective way for meager pay in between a ton of kafkaesque paperwork.
Meanwhile, people with the most interesting and advanced things to teach that do not have any immediate commercial application aren’t allowed to teach at all, despairing over the silence and indifference that they’re met with every time they try to communicate something intelligent (because everyone is otherwise occupied learning mandatory nonsense ineffectively).
Literally the most frequent reason given to me by students as to why they can’t spend time learning critical thinking or speech is because they’re too busy at school, where they apparently never learn that. Later, they’re too busy at work, definitely never learning to think there. Unfortunately, rethinking that course of action would require them thinking skills. Oh well.
What Is Our Children Learning, Anyway?
And that’s the crux of the problem — living under the assumption that education is supposed to be a direct line to a job doing something commercially viable. While it is completely unproblematic as long as only some of the people treat education this way, it becomes a real nightmare scenario when the efficient modern state makes all of education like this.
First of all, the problem begins with the mentality that this approach instills in people — focus on personal gain above everything else, competitiveness instead of community, and the idea that successful people in the position of authority are right by definition and should serve as role models, independently of how shitty they have been and are to other human beings.
Unsurprisingly, this “upgrade” is the work of 19th century Prussians, A.K.A. Germans, and that by itself explains why it tends to be so organized for the sake of Ordnung itself and generally anti-individual, anti-free, and anti-fun. As Foucault notes, it’s essentially a one-size-fits-all solution for schools, jobs, prisons, hospitals, and mental institutions. In short, as Colbert’s alien Zeep Xanflorp points out on Rick and Morty, school is not a place for smart people.
The final key feature of this model of education is its classification of topics into fixed subjects, as if anything in the world can be completely walled off from everything else. This breeds hyper-specialization which essentially produces crippled personalities that tend to either lack social skills, empathy, and grace, or have paralyzing fear of mathematics and all things technology.
How About the Novel Concept of Choice
None of that is necessary, of course. Everything that needs to get done has pretty much always been done by people with any kind of education, including street smarts, personal tutoring, home schooling by parents, something highly alternative like Montessori schools, traditional apprenticeship, or broadly theoretical highly bureaucratized modern mass education. What changes are the social consequences beyond employment.
Depending on specific cultural context, different education options becoming mainstream interact differently with how traditional or progressive, material or spiritual, communal or competitive, sophisticated or lowbrow, etc., the society becomes. Since the society is comprised of, you know, people, all of whom except for feral children have undergone some form of complex human learning. No one is in it just for themselves, not in the overall effect.
For example, unless you teach who the great authors of the past were, there shall be none. If you focus on practical money-making skills, people will know nothing of things like philosophy or poetry and will not be able to do or appreciate them. If you let parents home school, you’ll empower their influence over their children’s beliefs greatly, probably reinforcing traditions. If there always are winners and losers or segregation in your education system, people will form cliques early on and stick to them indefinitely. Etc.
In short, the schooling’s main end result is socialization and creating a foundation for things like culture, nationality, ideology, or stigmatization, not learning. These structures imposed on people are actually limits on learning, things you must or cannot think, which are incredibly difficult to unlearn. Learning, I’d argue, is what only individuals can do, what they’ll do on their own or with the help of their friends if they’re motivated, or won’t do if further discouraged. What everyone is taught is what everyone knows, and how everyone is taught determines how they believe all should be taught.
The Lonely Pursuit of Learning
To be clear, I don’t believe there ever was any “golden age” when everything was dandy, especially not in terms of education. As notable anarchists like Noam Chomsky or David Graeber agree, intellectuals who truly tried to figure things out had almost always rocked the boat by doing so and therefore faced something between marginalization and persecution. For the better part of human history, education was also only affordable to the elites.
Mass availability of education is definitely the main modern bit of progress in this field, though it has largely happened at a cost of twisting its content and purpose — no state truly wants the masses to become enlightened rational free thinkers, the true point of true learning. Most authorities find that sort of thing somewhere between wildly impractical and positively dangerous. Consequently, mass availability of education has not come to mean what it should have meant, individuals being given resources to learn their own way.
It’s true that there are places on Earth where the state education systems do lean in the way of personal empowerment to think freely, like Finland, but only lean, not leap. If a genius polymath free thinker who’s physically fit, charismatic, manually skilled, technically adept, empathetic, and sociable is the ideal goal of what learning can theoretically lead to, the apex of human ability, then you’ll find that people who approach that ideal mostly feel frustration with even benevolent and enlightened education *systems*.
If real learning is one’s ambition, then standards are downgrades, while grades are either indicators of how much one’s liked by their teachers, or arbitrary random numbers generated by dumb machines. For free thought, structures like subjects, curricula, or schedules are obstacles like hoops, narrow corridors, or locked doors, and any form of test that presumes to judge the student’s intelligence is instead a measure of authorities’ prejudice.
Therefore, learning to think freely in a rational way is almost always an exercise in rejection of society’s nonsense by the student and of the student by the society for reasons that are nonsense. Objectively nonsense, unless one defers to some kind of God, authority, ideology, or sophistry-based redefinition of reality and logic practiced by people who haven’t ever learned and/or whose job it is to oppose people’s ability to truly learn to truly think.
By which I don’t mean to say that teaching practical skills that the society needs isn’t important, but it is inevitably secondary in the context of learning in the sense of personal growth and empowerment. The most important skill is no particular skill that one can learn, it is the ability to figure out which skill one should or should not learn in the first place, and this ability comes with the mastery of free rational thought, which is the ultimate freedom — freedom from others being able to decide your beliefs and actions for you.
Or do you believe that the point of learning is to become more dominated?