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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Answering: “what should I go to school for?”

These days one can easily find out how people get to one’s website. My outrage column is often found via the question "what should I go to school for?" This question drives the answer seeker to my column on “why little girls shouldn’t go to school,” which is certainly not what they were looking for. (Of course, I don’t think little boys should go to school either, in case you were wondering.)

So, I thought I would attempt to answer their question since people keep asking it. The problem is that the question is ambiguous. They could be asking why go to school at all and they could be asking what should I study in school? As I have no idea which meaning predominates, I will take a shot at answering both questions. I will make the assumption that the people asking these questions are in high school and perhaps thinking about going to college

Why go to school at all?

In a society other than the one in which we live, this is a very good question. I think school, as it exists today, is a very bad idea. Still, I would be remiss in answering this question by saying drop out. Drop outs are viewed badly in our society. School is stupid, but dropping out is stupider. Why? Because, as one travels through life one accumulates a set of accomplishments. Quitting, no matter what you quit, is never a great accomplishment. Unless, of course, you quit for something better. If have a good plan that will net you something better and enable you to say I quit to start Microsoft or the equivalent, by all means quit. One learns very little of value in high school. Still the credential entitles you to a minimal amount of respect that you may need at some point. So stick it out if you can.

Now to the more important question. What should you study in high school, or more importantly, because there are more choices, in college? Let’s start with what you shouldn’t study. Study no academic subject. Do not study English, History, Math, Physics, Biology, or any of the other standard subjects that one always starts with in high school. Whoa! Did I really say that? Heresy. So, why not then?

It is important to realize that there are many myths in our society and that these myths are usually offered by people who stand to gain if people believe in them. The you must drink 8 glasses of water a day myth, for example, is offered up by companies that sell bottled water. In school the significance of studying literature, or mathematics, or history, or science, is offered up by those who teach those subjects, those who make a living testing those subjects, and more importantly by book publishers and others who have serious vested interests in selling things related to those subjects. In addition, the educated elite, having been educated in those subjects, can pooh pooh anyone who doesn’t know them and keep the high ground for themselves. If you don’t know what they know you can’t be much. This attitude has always been with us, in every society, but the subjects change. Sometimes the subject is religion, sometimes astrology, sometimes some secret knowledge that only the village elders have. These days it is literature, which certainly won’t last, mathematics, which makes hardly any sense at all in the age of computers, and history, which never made any sense since history is written by those who come out bets in the telling . Science seems to be making a big move these days. When I was young science was for geeks and those who knew it were looked down upon by the people who knew important stuff. Things change.

There is, not surprisingly, a serious lack of employment possibilities in those areas of study. So many people have been pushed to study those subjects that there is a serious oversupply of job seekers who were English majors, for example. It should not be possible to be an English major, but tell that to English professors.

So what should you go to school for? This is really an easy question to answer. First ask yourself what you really like to do in life, what you think about on a regular basis, whom you admire, and whom you wish to be? Only you can answer those questions. When you come up with answers, ask if there are jobs in that area. Be creative. Make up a job if you don’t think one exists. Ask what you need to learn to do in order to become a person who thinks about or does all day whatever it is you like to think about and do all day. Extrapolate up. If you like working on your car, maybe you would like working on airplanes or ships for example. If you like hanging out and talking, ask yourself who gets paid to do that (salesmen?). Find out where those who do what seems to be fun learned to do it. Often the answer is “on the job.” If that is the answer ask yourself how you can get a low level job in that area and work your way up. People learn by doing. Ask how you can start doing.

If you do need training to start doing what you want, find a community college that offers that kind of training. Most of all do not go to school if you have no inkling at all about what you think you would like to learn to do. Work for a while and start finding out more about the world, then ask the above questions again.

In the U.S. most people go to college immediately after high school. My experience as a professor was that those students who did something else, who went into the army, the Peace Corps, traveled around, worked for a while and such, made much better students in college. They knew why they were there. Do not go to school if the only reason you are there is to get a degree. Wrong reason. Know yourself first, then learn what you need to know that will make you become a person who you would respect.


Unknown said...

I agree! I took a semester off after high school. Even with knowing that I did not want to work in a fancy toy store for the rest of my life, I returned to college to get a degree. I come from a family of highly educated people. The pressure was on to accomplish, to earn a degree, and to define myself in the academic world.
I became a teacher and loved it for the first decade. I now struggle with being a teacher as my role is now dictated by those the furthest from my classroom (politicians and administrators). My daily schedule is dictated by the intervention programs for our at-risk kids. My classroom is scheduled down to the 20 minute window.
Fitting in innovative ideas, giving room to invent, discover, and become excited about learning has taken a back seat to getting students to pass the test under NCLB.

I completely agree with the idea of taking a break after high school and discovering life before going back to school to earn a higher degree. I would love to see colleges change their educational focus and move away from test-based assessments and the continuation of the 19th Century teaching pedagogy.

Please keep writing- it gives me motivation to keep teaching. I need some encouragement in the face of such a discouraging situation.


Andy Hanson said...

Two reasons to go to school:
1. So that you don't put words like "stupider" in your anti-education blog
2. So that you know better than to end sentences with prepositions, such as in this statement from your blog; "...go to school for?"

Oh, and then there are all of the overwhelmingly supported facts that show you just can't make any money as a dropout. Add to that the fact that, unless the United States out-teaches other nations, countries like India have more honors students than we have total students! But, don't listen to me, I'm just a dumb educator who will still have a job when all others have been outsourced to those countries...

David Price said...

Oh dear, Andy. I think it might be a mistake to take the Prof to task over grammatical niceties - there's a difference between ignorance and intention.
We need people like Roger to challenge our tacit understanding of what knowledge is, and how we best make use of it.

I'm sure you're not a dumb educator, but it would be a dumb idea to kid ourselves that we (I include England in this as that's the educational context I work in) can 'out-teach' India, or even that we can survive on what we know. It's what we do that matters - in 10 years time knowledge will find us, always on tap, always just in time.

We're having these debates in the UK too, and I blogged about this recently here:

Unless we only see education's purpose as creating university professors of the future (which ultimately our system points to) then we have to worry less about knowledge and more about skills.

Roger Schank said...

Let me add that I suspect the kids who type that "ungrammatical" question into google have, in fact, been going to school. Amazingly they failed to learn that they should never use a preposition to end a sentence with.

Unknown said...

I agree with many things you have written. After taking a few years off, after high school, I am ready to begin studying again. Now, I want to pursue further education, not to fit into the social standard of "educated people" but rather to really learn and grow. To stretch my mind and to work to do well. Had I gone to college directly after high school, I would have taken it as lightly as I took high school. I am now ready to take school seriously, thrive to do well and to learn.
I used to want to be a teacher until my father went back to school so that he could teach, and then I found out the horror of what the education system has become.

Cassie said...

.. High school was pointless.. I graduated and I dont really know shit to be frank.. Its to easy.. and..on top of that.. I havent really used one damn tthing they tried to teach me. My teachers sucked.. I skipped most of it.. Yet I sstill graduated.. Prally because my school couldent bare to look any worse with the huge number of kids who realized that highschool was a bunch of crap and joined the skills center instead.. To learn something they were interested in. wish they would have given me that oppertunity. Ha and whats really funny is that they wanted me to come back to school and finish my work after they had given me my diploma. Im sick of being a puppet to keep people I dont know happy or in other words impressed.. This is my world and I dont appreciate invaders.

Cassie said...

I graduated and barley learned shit.. And they tried to make me come back after I received my diploma because I didnt quite meet standards.. Prally becauae they didnt want to look any worse with the huge amount of kids who dropped out. Im tired of being a puppet to please a crowd of people I dont know. And im defanatly not going to be their lab rat either.. This is my life and I dont like invaders trin to come to my world and scramble everything up.. Still tryin to pick up the peices from my last invasion. Its not right to try to place someone vased on there wasle test scores. the wasle is a big waste of money and time that could be spent on developing skills rather then highschool status. So what.. Im a little off track. Ill find my way and when I do.. Ill be happy I took my time. Lifes to short to be stressin on crap like how long is the shadow of this tree.. Or how much water can this can hold... It doesent frekin matter seriously.. So frusterating.