A few days ago, John (of Sinosplice) sent me a link to an article titled, “How public education cripples our kids, and why“. Interestingly, it was written by John Taylor Gatto, former New York State and New York City teacher of the year. He goes into a long explanation about how public schooling is used more as a tool for promoting social conformity than as means to an education. Quite a bit of the article rang true in my ears. Indeed, I’ve found a very large disconnect between schooling and education in my own life.

From my experiences in first grade onward, it has been clear to me that learning as much as possible was rarely a goal in school. The point was driven home over the years as I endured being forced to do hours of boring coloring worksheets as a young child, being told to take high school math and science courses after having already completed three courses in calculus, one in linear algebra as well as various other engineering coursework, and having to take zealously left-wing courses in which dissenting political views were barely tolerated when I went back to college. Truth be told, there have been periods spanning for years in which I have felt an aversion towards education, just because I associated it so strongly with schooling.

The cold unyielding truth of the matter is that the biggest benefit most people receive from their schooling isn’t the education, it’s the diploma. People in virtually every field have attained excellent levels of education outside the traditional school system. Unfortunately, many people seem unaware of the ample evidence of this fact and tend to feel that a person isn’t “qualified” to do things without the appropriate academic credentials. Before I’m misinterpreted, I should say that professional certifications really are necessary in fields in which unpredictabilities must be minimized, such as medicine, or structural engineering. However, I’ve seen many, many cases in which companies, human resource departments, and even governments are so blinded by academic qualifications that they forget what the qualifications have to do with the job at hand.

Living in Taiwan, I’ve met many people in the ESL world who feel that those without education degrees cannot teach. Interestingly, none of the most effective teachers I’ve seen hold them. Most new TESL and BA Education guys I see come here are woefully unprepared to teach at a Taiwanese school. Due to a lack of Chinese skills, 99% would be incapable of working at a school such a my own. Before, when I was in the software industry, I encountered many a manager who felt that they were better programmers, or “developers” as they like to style themselves, than other people just because they had M.S. degrees in computer science. Once again, the truth is that in the real world, some top programmers have M.S. degrees in computer science, some have music degrees, and others have none at all. Worst of all is the idea that a candidate just needs to have “any degree”. I’ve seen companies pass up potential employees with exactly what they need due to such narrow-minded thinking. In fact, I myself was unable to take a job offered to me by EA Games in Vancouver due to being denied a Canadian work visa. I had just the skills they needed, but they couldn’t hire me. Now, years later, my skills aren’t as relevant to EA Games. I could get a work visa, though, thanks to my degree… in Japanese literature. Before deciding that the 75% of Americans who don’t have degrees just couldn’t amount to much, consider these examples from Mr. Gatto’s article:

Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what? Don’t hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale, because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification to rest. Even if they hadn’t, a considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was ever “graduated” from a secondary school. Throughout most of American history, kids generally didn’t go to high school, yet the unschooled rose to be admirals, like Farragut; inventors, like Edison; captains of industry, like Carnegie and Rockefeller; writers, like Melville and Twain and Conrad; and even scholars, like Margaret Mead. In fact, until pretty recently people who reached the age of thirteen weren’t looked upon as children at all. Ariel Durant, who co-wrote an enormous, and very good, multivolume history of the world with her husband, Will, was happily married at fifteen, and who could reasonably claim that Ariel Durant was an uneducated person? Unschooled, perhaps, but not uneducated.

One person I’m surprised was not included, was Einstein. He had completed a college degree (after having dropped out of secondary school at Luitpold Gymnasium, failing his entrance to get into Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule the first time, returning to secondary school and trying again). However, during his amazing Annus Mirabilis, in which he wrote four papers that laid the foundations for relativity, quantum mechanics, and modern physics itself, he could sign his name as nothing other than “Mr. Einstein”. Considering this, it’s nothing short of amazing how elitist so many people in academia are about who has a P.H.D. and who doesn’t.

At the higher levels, I do see some advantages in attending formal schools, however I don’t think the “university system” is what makes them valuable. What makes them valuable is that they tend to concentrate people with similar abilities and interests. In other words, going to MIT really would be great for a budding young bio-tech engineer. It probably wouldn’t be a great as working next to Craig Venter at Google, though. At least in my own humble opinion, education is one of the most important things in life. Schooling isn’t.