Back to School

Let’s go back to school. Not because technology is changing society so quickly that many jobs are disappearing, and new jobs must be learned or re-learned. Not because “life-long learning” is trendy. And not because one needs more and more qualifications and certifications to climb the career ladder. This may all be true. But “let’s go back to school” means let’s go back and think about school, about what it means to go to school, about what education really is. This may not be a pleasant task. Many do not have the best memories of their time in school. Why is this so? What’s the problem with school?

To begin with, education seems to be built on a paradox, if not a downright contradiction. On the one hand we are told that is it for us, that is, for me, the individual. Education is supposed to bring forth the best in human beings, help them realize their true potential, to become who they can, and should, become. Education, according to this view, is dedicated to perfecting the individual. We go into school thinking that it’s about us personally and individually. Once there, however, we quickly discover that education operates on the principle that one size fits all. Curricula, tests, grades, everything is aimed to make us into that which society expects us to be. These expectations are not aimed at individuals, but at classes, groups, demographic categories, anything but individuals. If you want to be an individual in school, you find out immediately that no one asks you what you want to learn or how, it is not about you at all, but about some typical persona that society prescribes for you, demands that you conform to, that is, if you want good grades, if you want to be “accepted,” to “get ahead,” to be “certified” and get a good job, or any job at all. And getting ahead, as everyone knows, is not the same as being a person of good character or what the ancient Greeks called a “virtuous” person. Virtue and social success, as the Sophists well knew, are two different things. Education, it turns out, is about society and not about you as an individual. Education is “socialization” and not “individualization.” But this is never openly admitted and laid out on the table to take it or leave it. The one hand is never allowed to know what the other hand is doing. Like a magician’s trick in the theater, we are so confused and psychologically numbed by what is going on in school that we repress the schizophrenic experience and try to move on, deeply disturbed about who we are and traumatically confused about how the struggle for self-realization is compatible with conforming to social expectations.

This is why most of us don’t want to go back to school. We want to learn, but not in school, not the way that the educational system defines learning and attempts to make learning happen. Many studies have confirmed that most of what we learn to get by in life we learn by doing, on the job, trying things out, praxis. Indeed, this amounts to about 70% of everything we know. 20% we learn by asking people to help us, to show us how to do things, to explain how things work. The remaining 10% is what is left of our time in school, or of the formal training that comes after school, at work, etc. The 70-20-10 rule is well known and generally accepted but remarkably has in no way affected, challenged, questioned, or disrupted the educational system that goes on unperturbed with business as usual. Why is this so?

It could be argued that the paradox mentioned above, the individual on the one hand and society on the other, both of which at once needing and denying each other, is more deeply rooted and universal than it might seem at first glance. It could be that what we experience in school is nothing but a reflection of modern society. When we get out of school, we merely jump from the frying pan into the fire. The confusion and schizophrenia learned in school, may well be the characteristic mode of existence of modern life and not something peculiar to the educational system. Modern society tells us we are autonomous, rational subjects, free individuals, with fundamental rights to pretty much do and say whatever we wish. On the other hand, it is only under the law, as Kant pointed out, that is, only within social constraints that we are free. The myth of the social contract claims that it is our freedom that establishes and legitimates the law, but only after the law has been established can we be free. It’s the problem of the chicken and the egg. Which comes first. Free individuals or society? Caught inescapably in this dilemma, we struggle futilely for authenticity and self-realization against the forces of social conformity, or what Heidegger called “das Man.” It is demanded that we be individuals, unique, creative, innovative, and authentic, while being socially sanctioned precisely for this whenever we dare do it. This is a lose/lose situation. Perhaps this is the tragedy of modern existence, a tragedy we have inherited from the Greeks, who attempted to maintain a veneer of dignity in the face of the antics of crazy gods, a situation only worsened by the completely nonsensical attempt of God Himself to save us by sacrificing His only Son, and finally culminating in the appearance of the autonomous rational subject, who heroically attempts to take his (gender!) destiny into his own hands and lift himself up by his rational bootstraps.

Instead of going back to school in order to gain a perspective on this sorry situation, let us look into the future. What will the AIs, that is the socio-technical networks which will constitute our existence, say about all this in two hundred years? What will be their judgement on the autonomous rational subject? Will they not wonder what a “struggle for self-realization” could possibly mean, and ask themselves, based on their networked existence, how anyone could be an “individual”? Finally, what would school mean to them, what would education look like for beings who exist as networks in a world of information which is constantly flowing freely through uncountable channels? Maybe instead of going “back” to school, we should finally move forward toward a school for the 21st Century.