Saturday, July 29, 2006

T-Shirt #4

JT in MLPS -

My cousin Travis is a pretty smart guy. Though he doesn't come across as brilliant at first, his mechanical aptitude must be off the charts. When I see the elaborate and useful contraptions he's built from the ground up (even when he was a kid), I'm impressed. Everybody is impressed. What's even more impressive is that nobody taught him how to do this stuff. He just knows it, or has picked it up a little at a time through trial and error. But Travis had some real challenges getting through high school. Now he has steady work, but it's mind-numbing labor, far below his real ability, and pays accordingly. I think the only thing that stands between him and real employment success is that he simply doesn't know what is out there for people with his unique skill-set. And his earlier difficulties in school has undoubtedly shaken his self-confidence and made him fearful of leaving the type of low-end employment that he has known all his life.

I spent 11 years in college and graduate school before I decided I should quit being a coward and get into something real (within the last 2-3 years, I came to believe I was going the wrong way in life). That's when I dropped out and opened my own business, a business which is completely unrelated to my education, where nobody cares what initials I have after my name. I don’t know if I’ll make more money along this career path, but, five months in, a decent income is not out of the question. More important than the actual dollar value (or cost) of this decision is that I'll be earning on my own terms, on my own schedule, rather than working for someone else.

I learned a lot of math, physics, and natural science in my 11 years of college, but I'll probably forget most of it, since I'll never use it. I don't exactly regret my education. But sometimes I think I'd have been better off taking my tuition payments* and other educational expenses to travel the country/continent/world, experimenting in real life instead of in a science lab. I probably would have learned more useful information that way, and I'd be no less prepared for my current occupation. I'd also likely be more interesting to talk to. I tried working in my field once. It was a 6-month gig that my employer called an "internship", but it was really an extended interview process, wherein they could get some work out of me before committing to actually hire me for a real position (my duties were commensurate with my education, rather than those of a low-level intern). Despite that this job was in my field, my educational attainment wasn't of much use. Sure, school gave me a certain fluency in the subject of the work, but most of what I learned in school was theoretical and beyond what I needed on the job. Most of what I needed on the job, I learned in my first month of work. My schooling isn't necessary in my unrelated business venture, and it wasn't necessary in my totally related "internship".

Formal education, or the school system that provides it to most of us, exists only to justify itself. Tests show that our 8th grade kids haven’t yet attained a sufficient mastery of diagramming sentences. So the education system sets about emphasizing the process of diagramming sentences. Test scores improve in this area, and everybody pats themselves on the back for a job well done. Now a new generation of future 8th grade English teachers can proceed, knowing how to torment yet unborn 8th grade students with diagramming sentences. Nobody needs to know how to diagram a sentence, nobody needs to be able to divide 1047.4 into 367,896,528 by hand, and nobody needs to memorize the chief exports of Ghana. But that’s the kind of crap I learned as a young student, and I suppose I believed it was going to be important someday.
The trivia I learned in more advanced courses in college and graduate school was even less useful.

I’m not saying a formal education is a bad thing. It isn’t. I'm just saying that it isn't as important as it is billed to be. At its best, it’s training for a career. At its worst, it’s mindless, time-killing, redundant, self-serving rote memorization of trivia. Usually, it's some mix of those two.

*My tuition was actually covered by a scholarship in college and by assistantships in grad school, but, to make a general point, I'm writing as if that wasn't the case.

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