Rethinking our views on education and success

Occupy Wall Street is getting a lot of press in New York and across the country.   Today I was reading through some (many) of the testimonials  on the web site We Are the 99 Percent.   What struck me like a brick between the eyes was that the majority of the people writing on the website have massive amounts of debts from student loans.   They took student loans because of course they were told they needed a college degree in order to have a successful life.   Now they have the degree, the debt, and no job – or a job that doesn’t pay enough to cover their expenses.

I am all for the Occupy Wall Street protesters.    It has been too long since Americans took to the streets for their beliefs and their rights.   A little revolution now and then is a good thing, to paraphrase the infinitely quotable Thomas Jefferson.

Where I get a little fuzzy is when we start talking purpose.  Occupy Wall Street says that, “…we vow to end the monied corruption of our democracy.”    Will camping out on Wall Street really help to bring about this change?   Wall Street (contrary to what some may think) is not the seat of our democracy.   The people there who have made millions while their companies foundered may be good symbols of the corruption that “Occupy” is talking about, but even if they are ousted, the system that created them remains.   In addition, vowing to ‘end the monied corruption of our democracy’ is kind of a general goal, and if you asked 100 people you’d probably get 100 different ideas about what it means in practice.

What I would like to do, then, is focus on one (I believe vital) part of this so-called ‘monied corruption’, and that is our view as a nation about what defines education and success.   It’s a view that began to gather steam at about the time compulsory education began to be enforced (not a coincidence), and has been carefully nurtured ever since.    It is also a view that needs to change, and the only way to change it is from the ground up, one person, one family at at time.

What would you say is our nation’s definition of education and success?   I would say it is that a person who is educated holds a degree or degrees (the more the better) from an accredited college or university.   And that a successful person is one who makes a lot of money.   Period.    So kids are taught to get the most ‘education’ they can and that will result in a career and ‘success’ = making a lot of money.

Yesterday I quoted from A.S. Neill’s book Summerhill School.  I’m going to repeat that quote, because it is relevant to this discussion.  “…A school that makes active children sit at desks studying mostly useless subjects is a bad school.   It is a good school only for those who believe in such a school, for those uncreative citizens who want docile, uncreative children who will fit into a civilization whose standard of success is money.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?   As such it makes sense that almost everyone on the “We Are the 99%”  website talks about their student loan debt and their inability to get a good job in the field for which they are trained.   The formula for success with which they were raised and in which they believed has not worked for them.   One woman wrote that she had pursued a career in a particular field because it was supposedly in demand in the marketplace.  Now she can’t find work.     There was a noticeable absence of anyone talking about finding meaningful work or pursuing a passion.   It was all about not being able to pay off student loans, not getting good jobs, having no health care, etc.    I am not blaming the people posting.   They spent their lives doing exactly as they were told to do, and it backfired on them.   They were brought up to believe they needed to get good grades in school so they could go to college in order to get a good job and be successful.   And so that is what they did.   No talk of passion or love of your work.   Only talk about possible salary and opportunity for promotion.

Here is A.S. Neill again.  “The world is full of jobs that hold no interest or pleasure.  We seem to be adapting our schools to this dullness in life.  By compelling our students’ attention to subjects which hold no interest for them, we, in effect, condition them for jobs they will not enjoy.   People are always saying to me, ‘But how will your free children ever adapt themselves to the drudgery of life?’  I wish that these free children could be pioneers in abolishing the drudgery of life.”

That is what I wish as well.   Neill’s ‘free children’ are todays’ unschoolers and life learners.   Only by demonstrating that a life’s work can be one chosen because of a passion for it rather than an expected annual income can we begin to change our nation’s very faulty ideas about what constitutes education and success.   I believe the 50,000 or so unschoolers in the country today can lead the way in this regard.  But it will take time.   There is no quick fix to the situation in which so much of the country now finds itself.  It was over 100 years in the making and it won’t change overnight.  How do you convince someone, or a nation, that bringing down Wall Street, while it might give us all some temporary satisfaction, will not solve anything, really?   That voting in a new President won’t magically give everyone jobs and make everyone successful?    That the change that needs to happen has to come from within us?    It is difficult to look back and realize that most of what you’ve learned is useless garbage and that you might need to start over.   But I believe that the determination that has led people to camp out on Wall Street means that it can be done.

Suggested reading along those lines:   Summerhill School by A.S. Neill,  How Children Fail and Teach Your Own by John Holt, Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto, and Made by Hand by Mark Frauenfelder

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