A Defense of Education… to a 12-year-old — Why it’s OK that learning sucks

I have an almost-twelve-year-old Nephew.

Being a kid, he pretty much hates school. He thinks it sucks, that his teachers are mean and they suck the fun out of everything, that kids shouldn’t be required to go to school, and that you don’t need school to learn.

I disagree with some points, and on others I agree wholly.

Are his teachers mean? Possibly. I think everyone has a story from their educational years of a teacher who was bad at their job, particularly terrible at dealing with other human beings, or straight up mean (5th grade teacher Ms. Miller, I’m looking at you. I’m scowling, actually). As a peer of a school-hating child, it’s tough to determine whether their hate is based on their dislike of other students, difficult subjects, resistance to learning, bullies, evil teachers, or any other reasons. All this takes is a conversation to figure out what’s causing them angst. A serious problem, or typical I Hate School-itis.

Do teachers suck the fun out of everything?

To this I answer: sometimes, but you can deal with it. Some teachers can engage their students all the time. Some teachers can’t. Some subjects are difficult, and sometimes it’s just a question of bearing down and getting through the worst. Yes, kids have to go to school and yes, it sometimes sucks. Is it a teacher’s job to keep kids amused? No. It’s their job to teach. And they are in the unfortunate position where it’s their job to teach a bunch of kids who might, by the very nature of learning, accuse them of being fun-suckers. Sure, I think that teachers should try to make learning an engaging and entertaining process, but at the end of the day, sometimes it comes down to the decision of having fun or learning how to read proficiently.

Should kids be required to go to school? What’s the alternative? If you don’t have an education system—if you don’t go to school—you can only learn from the people around you. You are geographically, economically, and socially limited. Back in the day, during the time period before the internet and mandated education (you know, dinosaurs and stuff), people learn from the people around them. Farmers learn to be farmers. Industrial workers learn to be industrial workers. Royals and those of higher class learn art and politics and business. Back then, people were limited by social class, geography, and the people around them.

Why do you have to learn about things that don’t interest you?

We now live in an age where we expose kids to every subject!

  • We give them History so they can know what came before us and how we got here.
  • We give them English to teach them to communicate (read and write) and to access the information the rest of the world has to offer.
  • We give them Mathematics to teach them to communicate, construct, cooperate in exchange, and be able to understand how to think about life.
  • We give them Science to teach them how the world works and how to discover and observe the world.
  • We give them Music to teach them about how math, invention, creation, and physicality can influence us in expressive and powerful ways.
  • We give them Physical Education to teach them how to keep their bodies healthy and strong.

With old geographical limitations, we only learned what the people around us knew. Our lives and futures and jobs and fates were outlined by the lives, jobs, and fates of those that came before us. Your parents worked, lived, and died as farmers? Guess what you’re doing with your life? Farming.

It’s OK that you don’t like every subject. It’s probably uncommon to have an affinity for everything you’re exposed to (though what a fun life that would be!). Yeah, that means you might have to suffer through twelve years of mathematics or a crushing amount of historical facts and figures. But that’s a small cost when you compare it to the benefit of getting exposed to all of those things!

With school and education, EVERYONE has the opportunity to be ANYTHING.

When I was a kid, my mom didn’t work, my dad was a bartender/financial consultant. Me? I went to school, went to college, and now I’m a technical writing intern who writes books in her free time. I couldn’t have done that without school. I would never have been exposed to the beauty of poetry and chemistry, the intellectual challenge of literature and piece-wise differential equations. I learned the comprehensible and fascinating ideas of quantum mechanics and the precise analysis of syntactical structure.

I couldn’t have done that without an education. Without an education, we would lead lives where our days are dictated by circumstance instead of choice.

The fact that our civilization, that humans as a whole, try to structure our societies in such a way that anyone can find their way to any future… well that’s just beautiful.

Do we need school to learn? The easy answer to this is “no.” You don’t need a school to learn. You do, however, need to be taught. There are different ways to learn, of course.

  • Observational learning is the acquisition of knowledge through observing the actions of other people/situations.
  • Associative learning is the acquisition of knowledge by trial/error (associating two stimuli or response/consequence).

Nephew doesn’t like being told what to do (by teachers, his mother, authority figures, or nagging-Aunt-Becky). He thinks everything can and should be learned by trial and error.

My counterargument: If you’re walking toward a road, and you don’t know what cars are (or self-preservation for that matter), you have one of the following options:

  1. Walk out in to the street and find out that walking into streets is a bad idea (trial and error)
  2. Or obey the Authority’s command to don’t go into the street!

He didn’t really have a good answer except that maybe you could learn by watching someone else make the same mistake. Messy outcome aside, he understood on some level that there is indeed wisdom with age. This brought up the essential fact of education:

School and learning are important because it’s the best way to obtain knowledge.

And knowledge can be passed on, migrating from human to human via the beautiful evolutionary miracle of communication. No one needs to actually go into the street for us to know that it’s dangerous. Isn’t that WONDERFUL?!

We get to circumvent the tired process of relearning everything that our predecessors figure out.

That’s why we have the evolution of civilization. Sure, that means that most of us don’t know how to build fires and generate electricity from scratch. As a civilization, we accomplish more than any one person can accomplish in any one lifetime. Again, I say, HOW WONDERFUL!

Kids don’t always have a sense of the macro-scale of life. That’s to be expected. We only understand what we’re exposed to. In an autological fashion, the migration of knowledge is what allows us to understand the migration of knowledge. What we learn in school allows us to glimpse that impossible, insubstantial system of evolution. We’ve developed our own lives and civilization to the point that we have a database of knowledge we can share with each other. We’re constantly and rapidly expanding our own horizons by sharing our knowledge in every way we can: scratching translations on the Rosetta Stone, painting on cave walls, uploading blogs and vlogs and wikipedia articles on the internet, teaching our children to read, putting up signs and warnings, creating new words to describe new things, and handwriting entire volumes of text.

School doesn’t just teach you facts, it teaches you how to learn.

In addition to knowledge, school also provides us with tools to learn. We learn how to learn. From silly word problems in math class to an analysis of The Great Gatsby, an education educates us in the process of learning. Are tests and cramming multiple choice answers a good way to learn? Probably not. But tests, contradictory to popular belief, aren’t what’s important in school. Tests are designed as a benchmark to check in to see if school is doing it’s job. There are some flaws in the system, but the point of it all is to get that exposure and to learn how to learn. Whether we observe others making mistakes, or we associate practice and hard work with success, or we do as we’re told, we learn how to deal whatever we meet.

So, Nephew, it might suck. I know you might hate it. I know you might dislike your teachers, your classmates, or the subjects you’re forced to learn. I’ll help you out where I can. So will your teachers and your mother and your family. I know you disagree with me, but I really believe that someday you’ll look back and appreciate the awesome privilege and insane fortune of being required to have an education.

I’ll try not to point you at other cultures where kids don’t have ANY education, or tell you the tragedies of your ancestors, because I don’t want you to observe your life with guilt. I want you to learn the context of your history, of the amazing migration of knowledge, of the evolutionary development of education and civilization.

Someday, you’ll face the rest of the world, you’ll see the awful disparities, and you’ll look back and realize the wonderful experience you were required to have.

And, if education has done its job, you’ll understand, appreciate, and teach your own kids about the values and benefits of an education.

An educational aside: here’s an awesome depiction of Pythagorean Theorem:

How. Freakin’. Awesome.


3 thoughts on “A Defense of Education… to a 12-year-old — Why it’s OK that learning sucks

  1. Pingback: Education is Important | words — and other things
  2. Hello, and thank you for an excellent post on the importance of school and education. I teach at the college level, and sometimes, I see the same issues there. This is an excellent defense of education. By the way, have you ever read Montaigne’s essay, “Of the Education of Children”? You might find it interesting.

    • Thanks! I always heard my friends when I was in college complaining about (or skipping) classes, and I would just look at them and say, “You know you’re paying 40,000 a year for this, right?”

      I haven’t read Montaigne before, but I’d love to! Is his work available in a historical archive? I’m sure Google will have the answers! 🙂

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