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November 25, 2011 / theslowblitz

The Purpose of School

When kids tell themselves that they’re not good at math, that they are simply not the ‘math’ type of person, they stop working hard at math. Why work hard when I, by my character, will never achieve as much as my peers? But math, like all other subjects, requires effort to learn and master. In effect, these children are locking themselves out of a good grade, and perhaps a good future. What I have read on the matter, and it makes good sense, suggests teaching children that it is effort which matter, not innate intelligence.

But is that truly the case? While agree that anyone, with effort, can become good at math, I find it hard to believe that some people are not innately better at math. Isn’t it better then, to let some people knock themselves out of the running? This way, they may better use their unique talents, while raising the productivity of society as a whole. After all, we only need so many engineers. I suspect for this reason evolution has equipped us to identity ourselves by our relative strengths. This may be observed in the Big Fish, Small Pond effect: I feel smart when I am smarter than everyone around me, even if I know that compared to the rest of society, I may not be all that.

Yet school mandates that every student be good in every subject. This, disregarding our human nature. I can imagine two reasons for this. Firstly, schools may be operating on the rationale that the more knowledge you have, the better, since this equips you to choose whatever path you want. But this explanation doesn’t hold water; the aim of society shouldn’t be to maximize choices, but to maximize efficient allocation of resources. There is no point in everybody learning maths, science and literature at a low level when with greater specialization the same people could learn advanced math, particle physics and Romantic interpretations of Shakespeare.  

Another possible reason is that the society might deem school curricula important, yet incentives outside of school are insufficient to motivate students into studying them. I imagine most people would find physics quite boring, preferring instead to spend their time some other way, but society needs its engineers and inventors. Hence it creates structural incentives to graduate from school – no school, no jobs. Due to the skewed incentives, society may then add whatever it pleases, never mind that most people forget what they learn. As long as they pass through the system, first lured by structural incentives, and then incentivized to prefer those subjects through the praise and condemnation of well-defined authorities.

…This is not necessarily a bad thing. I would rather live in a society where schools conditioned people to become scientists and engineers than in a society where people are allowed to be as inefficient as they pleased. Yet, I resent the control placed over me. It is not something I can fight; the incentives are too great. In such a situation, it would be normal to adapt, to simply acknowledge school as an inescapable fact of life. But the myth that learning is a glorious human endeavour, good for its own sake, has been seared into me.

If only the myth were given up I might better adapt. It has been acknowledged before – countless arguments for school attest to its conditioning benefit to character. But the teachers themselves love to claim we are there for the sake of learning – for our own sakes, and not the societies. I suspect the myth will continue to propagate –  no one in their right mind would admit to the ones controlled that they are being controlled. 

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