The Purpose of School – Unpopular Opinions

Note: too lazy to edit. Read at own risk.

Most parents will do anything to give their children a better start in life. With recent reports of Chinese billionaires and Hollywood celebrities paying bribes to get their children into prominent universities, it’s clear that a misguided approach can ruin the best of intentions – that we want our children to be better than us and enjoy what we may not have been afforded, be it material or educational.

One of the biggest choices parents encounter in Dongguan is school choice. Faced with a variety of options ranging from local Chinese schools, bilingual schools, to international schools and even homeschooling, parents fret endlessly over what to choose, and often double guess their eventual choices. Adding to the anxiety are the intense peer pressure of seeing everyone else sending their kids to class after extracurricular class, and the occasional twinge of guilt that maybe, in some way, one is failing as a parent by doing too little, or too much. Before we get caught up in the nuances of different school systems, perhaps we should take a big step back and think about the ultimate purpose of school.

For the students and parents, school is about preparing for a life and career in the adult world. For employers, it’s about equipping a future workforce with the right skill set. For society, it’s about instilling an informed generation with a forward-looking mindset and attitude. For the bureaucracy (government and school administration), it’s about demonstrating tax dollar effectiveness, using academic standardized test results as a proxy. These goals overlap somewhat but diverge significantly in many aspects, as one would expect.

If aliens from an advanced civilization were to visit Earth and observe our schooling system, they would undoubtedly be quite baffled. Cramming a bunch of kids in a giant concrete box and forcing them to sit through mind-numbing lectures repeatedly, learning material that will neither be remembered or used, seems like a strange way to prepare people for adult life. Yet it makes sense in a twisted way – with school caring for the kids during the workday, the adults are freed to sit quietly in a giant concrete box and perform mind-numbing tasks all day, generating memos and reports that will neither be remembered nor used. As the crow flies.

What about knowledge? Isn’t that what school should be all about? Of course, the basic curriculum is important, especially in lower education (reading/writing/basic math); yet aside from the fewthat go into academia or highly technical fields, most of the material we learn in higher education is obsolete or irrelevant in the real world, and quickly forgotten after the exam.

School is about far more than knowledge. It teaches the kids to conform to society’s rules, whether or not they make sense, are fair, or even apply to everyone. The kids are conditioned to not only accept being measured and ranked amongst their peers, but also being done so publicly. They learn, often the hard way, that life is not fair, intentions are not always pure, and good guys rarely finish first; that sometimes no good deed goes unpunished, and yet sometimes kindness comes from unexpected places. They make friends and foes, and realize that friends can hurt much more deeply than foes. They learn that teachers have the same shortcomings as everyone else; that power reveals and amplifies personal traits, good and bad. They learn to adapt and collaborate, develop interests and relationships, experience joy and sorrow, triumph and defeat. Indeed, they learn far more from each other than their parents or teachers – an uncomfortable fact that challenges our perceived self-importance. Yet it is hard to deny when you see kids speaking with an accent not of their parents’ or teacher’s, but of their peers.

When measured by what is retained from the years of school, academic knowledge comes in dead last. Yet everyone retains their friends and contacts. We keep our street-smart cynicism, and the realization that the world is mostly run by bureaucracies and hypocrisies (and predatory capitalism, usually realized when it’s too late). We remember our favorite teachers, flings and crushes, salient experiences, closet skeletons, even the meaningless conflicts and pettiness. That’s what we retain, what we revisit in our dreams, what we take to the grave.

If school is not primarily about obtaining knowledge, then what is it for? Surely, we can’t be so cynical as to think that the point of school is to have kids jump through hoop after pointless hoop, hoping that this process would magically generate a well-prepared citizen for the 21st century? No, but I think the truth is not far off. It has an important societal purpose – signaling.

Most employers don’t care about what a college graduate has learned, as the real training is done on the job. In their eyes, the real difference between a graduate and a dropout, is that one has the aptitude (and to a certain extent, the resources) to complete all the tedious requirements and earn the degree, and one does not. A diploma signals to society that this is the type of person who has a good chance of being successful on the job, through demonstration of a willingness to do what is required. Yes, it seems wasteful; but purposely wasteful, to separate the wheat from the chaff. In that sense, a higher education diploma serves more as a stamp of certification than an indication of knowledge and mastery.

For most of us, school is not really about acquiring knowledge. For if it were so, one could just take Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) that most prominent universities offer, without spending a dime. You could even go one step further and physically sit in on classes in a public university – most professors I’ve asked told me they couldn’t care less as long as you’re respectful, and many would much prefer an refreshingly eager learner over a reluctant student trudging through the bare minimum for the course credit . You could get all the knowledge you want without the massive financial burden, and get most of the college experience and its benefits, from networks and connections to friendships and social life, even a wide potential mate choice. Few people do so, because in the real world, actual knowledge is not valued nor recognized unless accompanied by a piece of paper certifying so.

According to a recent study, few are happy with our current school system. Teachers are stressed and frustrated, students aren’t learning the right skills, parents are worried their kids are unhappy, and employers find graduates inadequate. Given the universal sentiment, why haven’t we made any changes? The main reason is that bureaucracy moves at a slow pace, and education is the biggest bureaucracy of them all. With most qualities of education being intangible and difficult to quantify, the measure of success defaults to standardized academic tests, which suits bureaucracy just fine.

Another reason is that most parents draw from their own school experience, without considering that their own education was likely outdated even then, not to mention wholly inadequate for the information age. All too often it is our own hubris and illusion of competence that impede us – although it rarely feels that way, since bias is a flaw other people have, by definition.

Let me share an example. At an unnamed international school in Dongguan, the Chinese material chosen for the youngest kids to memorize and recite was “弟子规”. This particular text was cobbled together (content stolen almost verbatim from at least 3 books) in the Qing dynasty and is supposedly a guide for moral and proper behavior. It contains relevant, timeless nuggets of wisdom such as how to treat slaves/servants and handmaids (待婢僕), and how one should shut up and accept domestic violence (撻無怨). The text is about 1000 characters, grouped in 3-word segments in Ye Olde Chinese, incomprehensible even for a native Chinese speaker. Why choose this text? A charitable guess is that the Chinese teacher, a native mandarin speaker, drew from her own personal experience and decided that if it worked for her, it should work for them – and shockingly nobody objected. Never mind that this is an international school with non-native speakers, the text is abstruse and outdated, little practical language improvement can be expected, and we no longer live in the 17th Century. This is the epitome of what is known as the curse of knowledge.

Technology has driven change faster than any time in history, and it seems clear to me that our schools are ill-equipped to prepare the next generation for the fast-changing world ahead. Information technology has fundamentally changed the way we acquire knowledge. In the past, knowledge came mainly from curated sources like textbooks, which although biased and outdated, was generally vetted and of acceptable quality. Today any 3rd grader can Google anything, anywhere, anytime, with conflicting results supporting virtually any crazy position imaginable. There is no longer a dearth of information – the new challenge is differentiating reliable information from garbage, a skill set few possess and rarely taught.

To be fair, modern schools (mostly international schools) have started to focus on the 4 C’s: Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity. In addition to teaching material (what to learn), they are starting to teach metacognition (how to learn). This will undoubtedly come in handy in a rapidly evolving workplace, where the pace of innovation requires lifelong learning and relearning, and people will likely have several changes of career.

Machines have already taken over hard labor (manual work), clerical jobs (organizing work), logistics/analysis jobs (thinking work), state-sponsored remote killing (military work), surveillance (security work), and soon will take over fields like driving (real time life-critical work). In a world where machines will know more, analyze better, and be far cheaper than humans, it is hard to imagine what the best skill sets will be – even fields like art and music are not immune to the effects, as AI paintings and music compositions have already been shown to be comparable to human endeavors.

Nobody knows for sure what the new workplace will look like in 15 years – all I know is that it will be very different from today’s, and the skills required in the future will likely not be what is being taught in schools now. A diploma, once a certified stamp of approval, no longer offers a foot in the door, as technology enables employers to evaluate candidates with far more insight. Google, one of the leaders in innovation, used to have first pick from top graduates of elite universities. Yet today, a Computer Science degree isn’t even required for a software engineer or product manager position. In fact, 15% of new hires don’t even have a college degree. Why? Your GitHub code base tells Google far more about your coding proficiency than any degree or resume could. 

Technology will make more jobs obsolete, and our kids will have to be far more flexible switching careers – something our generation is loath to do as we age. Indeed, coping with change seems to be another essential skill that needs to be taught, yet those most adept and comfortable with change are rarely in our education system. The Sergey Brins and Elon Musks of the world are more likely gaining accolades and wealth by innovating and transforming the world, rather than being in an massive education bureaucracy thanklessly fighting for change. George Bernard Shaw once said, “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”. Disparaging as it may sound, I believe it says more about how we undervalue teachers in our society than the intentions and abilities of those who teach.

Perhaps more alarming than the dearth of innovation in schools, is the unwillingness to acknowledge the inadequacy of current education policy, much less muster the political will to reform it. The saving grace is that globally speaking, nobody is really rethinking and reforming their education system, so everybody is equally unprepared. Although one might argue that this can be said of most generations, the difference is that the stakes are higher now, since many career paths will no longer exist even though our system pretends that they will.

It’s been said that our generation questions tradition, the next generation knows no tradition, and the previous generation knows no question. This gross exaggeration contains nuggets of truth, as I think that all generations held this sentiment at some point. Yet, muttering about “kids these days” and caricaturing them as snowflakes who have never seen typewriters or even TV static, is living in the past. It seems that the best way to give our next generation what we were not afforded, is to properly prepare them for life in the 21st Century instead of the 17th. It requires us to set aside our personal experiences, and carefully examine what we are trying to achieve for them, even if it means reluctantly admitting that our own journeys may not be useful, adequate, or relevant. Questioning tradition can be uncomfortable (especially if we’re part of it), but that’s how progress is made. Our next generation needs to be comfortable being uncomfortable, to embrace the change that technology will undoubtedly bring. Facing these changes ahead we can no longer afford to make progress the traditional way, namely, funeral by funeral. Of course, someone else’s funeral, by definition.

The opinions expressed above are undoubtedly unpopular, as they should make any parent, already anxious, uncertain, and uneasy, even more uncomfortable. After all, parenting is a touchy subject. The mere suggestion that we could be, even collectively, on the wrong track, can be taken personally. To make things worse, questioning the value of past personal experiences in today’s world could be easily misconstrued as me discounting those cherished personal journeys, although that is neither the substance nor the intention. Context matters. Similarly, much like how our past experiences may not work well today, our past actions shouldn’t be viewed through today’s moral lens. Because when looking back, even seemingly imperceptible progress can accumulate enough to surprise us.