How School Works

We’re here to help each other get through this thing. Whatever it is.

Mark Vonnegut

Schools serve a limited but important purpose. In addition to the knowledge they impart and the skills they inculcate, they put us in contact with our peers. In the beginning, this just means other people our own age, but, as time goes on and we begin to choose what and where we will study, our “academic” community becomes increasingly defined by shared aptitudes and attitudes, a competence in and a curiosity about similar things. We begin to study our subjects among like-minded people.

This, of course, also involves a measure of competition as we meet our equals, our betters and, unavoidably, our inferiors. Part of the function of school is to show us whether we’re likely to be among the best at what we do if we pursue a particular course. I agree strongly with Frederik deBoer that we have to stop thinking of academic success as the only thing that matters for young people, but it is very definitely one kind of success.

Because school brings a lot of people together at roughly the same stage of development it helps us decide whether we’re remarkably intelligent, or athletic, or beautiful, or ambitious. We also get some measure of our confidence and our cowardice, our love and our hate, our empathy and our contempt. Some of us find out that we’re nicer than most people, and others, that they’re cleverer. Some learn to be kind while others discover that they live among suckers.

I don’t presume to know who is right, and I don’t think it really makes sense to try. I think that both virtue and talent are distributed unevenly in the population and, importantly, that they develop differently in individuals. I don’t think schools can do much about either of these facts, except to give each cohort of students the experience needed to take their own measure. I think that is mainly what school is for.

If it was just about learning things, I think there are more efficient ways to do it. But if it’s about participating in the “ongoing conversation of mankind” (a notion, you’ll note, that is so ancient that it is gendered) we need a social context in which to learn, not just the truth, but what everyone else thinks is true. Schools provide us with this community.

While we begin as conscripts, we ideally finish our education in a school we have freely chosen. In Denmark, this ideal can be seen in the choices young people have to make already after grade nine, between “academic” and “technical” high schools. And some just go straight into apprenticeships. Most societies still presume, at least at some level, that university is a free choice. But it’s distressing how many professors now think of their students as unwilling conscripts who must be constantly “motivated” to learn what their courses offer.

I generally side with those who believe that there are too many students at university these days, too many people who don’t actually belong there but who have been coerced into it, and this also means that there are too many professors, too many academic careers. The university has simply become too big to do what it originally emerged to do. But there’s no use complaining a lot about that; after all, humanity evolved to live on the Savannah, right? Our brains are just too damned big!

Like I say, I don’t think we can turn back the process of growth, but I do think we can recenter ourselves a little by noticing what universities, understood as schools of higher learning, provide: a community of roughly like-minded peers. With my interest in academic writing, this means constantly reminding people that their readers are their intellectual equals; they are writing for their classmates (not their examiners) if they’re students, their colleagues (not their reviewers) if they’re professors. As you can imagine, I’m not always successful.

What schools still do well is to make you aware of your relative mastery of your subject. A good school will always indicate the better school you could be attending if you’re too good for this one. You may make the transition between semesters, if that’s feasible, or, more likely, when you apply for grad school. But please remember that it’s not just about talent and ability. You’re also learning what you’re interested in and who you’d like to discuss it with. If you don’t like talking to academics that may not be their fault, or even yours. It’s just that you’ve decided that this field, or even all of academia, isn’t for you. There are lots of other ways to succeed.

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