In my last Friday Night Fragments, I devoted a large chunk of words to the topic of the public educational system. I finished it off by saying that though I should have been either broken or assimilated, I wasn’t (though I’m more likely than not at a level of capability less than I potentially could have achieved).
I posited a suggestion or two as to how I managed to make it out (mostly) unscathed. I would like to expand on this now. Some of this was no doubt due to chance, but was chance the only cause of my intellectual survival? I don’t think so, and in the interest of those who might derive some benefit from knowing how to make it out of the mind-grinder, I feel compelled to put this post together.
First off, I would be absolutely remiss if I did not state right off the bat that my situation was not nearly as dire as in some of the most troublesome spots in this country. The public school system in my area was of a much higher quality than most places in the United States (and with a student body to match), and so the education itself was not totally useless.
That in mind, my official education was not anywhere near a major source of knowledge and insight for me. Rather, my own independent studies and natural curiosity drove me to learn most of the things I did over the course of my upbringing.
I read. I read everything. I tackled books on philosophy, physics, chemistry, history, mathematics, biology, and anything else that could teach me something. I devoured fiction the way fire devours wood. I tore through magazines and newspapers like my life depended on it. I burned with an insatiable desire to read and to learn, and in feeding this hunger I strengthened it. This vicious cycle that instilled in me both a natural curiosity and a raging desire to learn.
Curiosity and a love of learning. Cultivating both of these traits is absolutely essential for surviving public education, because in tandem they completely remove your reliance on your education for your body of knowledge.
Education is trivial when you don’t need to be taught to learn. Learn how to learn on your own, and you already are halfway beyond the ability of the system to harm you.
Mental independence. The price of this is boredom. You will not only find that class is a much more inefficient way of learning things than self-directed learning, but you will always frequently know what your “teachers” are going to be teaching you before they’ve ‘taught” it.
Second, cultivate hobbies and interest outside of school that can ground you and give you a sense of purpose. Anything that will get you out of the house and doing something is good. Something physical is better, especially if you’re smart, because then you’ll already be gravitating to intellectual pursuits and it becomes of more importance to balance yourself.
I started doing Taekwondo when I was eight. Eight. I’ll be 22 in a few months. I’ll have been doing martial arts for 14 years this summer. That’s quite a lot of time, and I credit this habit with giving me the perspective that education is not the end-all and be-all of a young person’s existence (a concept that many children, especially smart children, embrace…something which I would argue is to their detriment).
Side note: I would say I’ve been a “fighter” for considerably less time, of course, because Taekwondo is more of a sport than a combat style, but the speed and agility carried over pretty well to my Muay Thai and my Silat (plus the wicked flexibility is a great tool to surprise people and catch them off guard sometimes).
Self-taught. Self-directed. Pursuing your own interests.
If you’re all of those things, you’re doing all right, but you can still optimize further. Man is not a solitary animal, no matter how hard he might try to be (looking at you here, INTJs). One thing that public school does a fantastic job of is giving you the opportunity to learn how to navigate large numbers of people. You would be remiss if you did not take advantage of this.
Some people are good at dealing with large crowds. Others may prefer the calm, quiet of a more intimate group. Figuring out how to make yourself happy and taking what you socially want out of the available resources is one of those most basic skills in life that cannot be learned anywhere else. This is more true the more skill you wish to acquire with large groups.
Allow me to make this a little more concrete. In my high school it was even high-status to take hard classes, if for no other reason than that many of the students who had high social status were also smart and hard-working kids who were also leaders in athletic, artistic, and/or political organizations (looking back, this really was kind of a chicken-and-egg thing…I can’t quite tease out which factor lead to the other). During my senior year, I was in a class that contained the class president, the homecoming king, the future valedictorian AND salutatorian, and several of the top athletes (mostly track and field, but also football and baseball). As a one of the leading students in my school’s theater organization (on top of rumors that I was one of the smartest students in my graduating class…a suggestion that was spread with renewed conviction when it was discovered I earned the highest score on the SAT of anyone in my year), I was allowed — and somewhat encouraged — to associate with this popular and gifted crowd of students.
I ended up rather friendly with many of these people, and having kept in touch with a good number of them (to this day I still attend an annual Christmas party every year with several of them), I can tell you that they are going on to things like medical school, graduate degrees in STEM fields from Top-25 universities, and high-status professions such as Wall Street banking jobs.
Many people say that life isn’t really like high school. I am not quite sure what they are talking about. The same principles that govern high school social life are the same principles that govern how the real world operates. People will form tribes, status hierarchies will emerge, and you’ll do better for yourself if can get in with the popular and/or cool and/or successful and.or rich people.
Learn that, and figure out how to apply it and do it, and you will actually start to get an education out of your education.
At the end of the day, be in the system but not of it. It’s a joke, but ride out the punchline. Think of Camus’s laughing Sisyphus, if you will, or whatever ideal that you prefer.
Public education is fundamentally incapable of dealing with someone that doesn’t fall into the category of “average”. If this is you, do not despair. That is exactly what you are expected to do. Do not give up. Do not give in. Do not make the choice to let yourself be broken, for that choice fundamentally IS a choice.
Teachers are not exactly the cream of the crop of the American white-collar class. If you ever get the feeling that you might be smarter than your teachers, you probably are. The good ones make themselves known. You will recognize them. As for the rest? They are not your mentors, but soulless bureaucrats who serve only to perpetuate your submission.
If you are the kind of person who is not taught to in public education, then the chains that they would invite you to accept are not yours. They are not your fate. Defy them at all costs. Pretend to take them on while acting as you will, doing as you will, and cultivating that inner fire that you know will one day devour all those who stand against you.
Learn how to be a saboteur of sorts, or perhaps a ghost if that metaphor pleases you. You want to prove that you’re smarter than your babysitters? Prove it to yourself. This is how you do it.
Public education exists to perpetuate slave morality and public education exists to perpetuate slavery.
Outright rebellion will be crushed, but if you can run circles around them and give fuel to the inner fire, there is nothing they can do to stop you.
Unbowed. Unbroken. Unstoppable.
The alternative is to become just like everybody else. I do not favor this approach.
I recommend defiance.