Generic Iconoclasm vs. Some Sensible Things You Were Taught in School

Forbes runs this item:

Nine Dangerous Things You Were Taught In School

Be aware of the insidious and unspoken lessons you learned as a child. To thrive in the world outside the classroom, you’re going to have to unlearn them.

Dangerous things you were taught in school:

1. The people in charge have all the answers. That’s why they are so wealthy and happy and healthy and powerful — ask any teacher.

2. Learning ends when you leave the classroom. Your fort building, trail forging, frog catching, friend making, game playing, and drawing won’t earn you any extra credit. Just watch TV.

3. The best and brightest follow the rules. You will be rewarded for your subordination, just not as much as your superiors, who, of course, have their own rules.

4. What the books say is always true. Now go read your creationism chapter. There will be a test.

5. There is a very clear, single path to success. It’s called college. Everyone can join the top 1% if they do well enough in school and ignore the basic math problem inherent in that idea.

6. Behaving yourself is as important as getting good marks. Whistle-blowing, questioning the status quo, and thinking your own thoughts are no-nos. Be quiet and get back on the assembly line.

7. Standardized tests measure your value. By value, I’m talking about future earning potential, not anything else that might have other kinds of value.

8. Days off are always more fun than sitting in the classroom. You are trained from a young age to base your life around dribbles of allocated vacation. Be grateful for them.

9. The purpose of your education is your future career. And so you will be taught to be a good worker. You have to teach yourself how to be something more.

I’ve always been quite skeptical of this sort of generic iconoclasm, for three related reasons: (1) It debunks categorical assertions that the debunkees actually rarely make in that categorical a way, and that in case are obviously wrong if made so categorically. (2) This debunking is rarely useful, because just as “always” assertions are rarely right where practical matters are involved, “not always” assertions are rarely useful. (3) The things being debunked are actually often pretty good rules of thumb for daily life, which are right more often than not; friendly amendments pointing out the exceptions can be helpful (especially if they are specific rather than generic), but categorical attempts at debunking miss the general wisdom in the rules.

For instance, behaving yourself is often more important than getting good marks. Sometimes even knowing when to question the status quo and when to follow it is important, as is knowing when to at least temporarily follow conventional wisdom (especially in an environment where error can cause a lot of damage) instead of coming up with your own approaches. But beyond that, “behaving yourself” in the sense of learning how to operate productively within an organization of two or more people, in a way that maximizes results while minimizing needless friction with your colleagues, superiors, and subordinates, and needless pushback from people who see you as misbehaving is a tremendously important life skill in a vast range of occupations. Even geniuses need it, and ordinary people who will have to work closely with others and will rarely have the “he’s rude and a pain in the neck, but he’s brilliant” excuse need it even more.

As to the purpose of education, schools rarely teach that the only purpose of your education is your future career (especially since many literature and history teachers realize that such an argument will go only so far with their students). But throughout your life you’ll want access to goods and services, and unless you try to force people to give them to you, you’ll need to offer something in return; in our society, many of the things you offer require specialized knowledge, which a good education will help give you. And while college is certainly not a very clear, single path to success, and it won’t get you to “the top 1%,” for many people it’s a pretty important part of the path to careers that are both more financially and intellectually rewarding.

Likewise, the best and brightest follow the rules the great majority of the time, and we take it for granted because it’s “just following the rules.” They follow rules about how to do good science, how to write well, how to craft effective arguments, how to operate within organizations, how to deal with other people’s understandings of what is their property or institutional bailiwick, and so on. Of course, they realize that to succeed in really big and innovative ways they need to do more than follow the rules. “Always follow the rules, and nothing more” would be lousy advice. But “learn the rules well, because they are the repository of important wisdom accumulated through the efforts of many smart people, and then think creatively about how to go beyond the rules or even break some rules” is good advice.

What’s true of the rules is also true of the books and of the messages passed along by people in authority. What the books say isn’t always true, but they have a lot of truth in them, and 99% of what we need to know we learn from the books (especially if we learn how to find the right books). Similarly, the people in charge often have some pretty important answers — again, answers that are so important and foundational that we take them for granted (once we learned them from people in charge).

That’s true of specific knowledge about particular academic subject matters; teachers are hardly perfect, but they know some important information that most students need to learn to succeed. It’s also true of “answers” in the sense of character traits that are conducive to success: Answers to questions such as, “Should I work hard?,” “Should I invest for the future?,” “Should I work well with others?,” and so on; and these answers do tend to make people more “wealthy and happy and healthy and powerful,” though of course they are not perfectly correlated with success.

Finally, while learning doesn’t end when you leave the classroom, standardized tests don’t measure your entire value, and days off aren’t always more fun than sitting in the classroom, few schools seek to try to teach that, and my sense is that few students actually learn this. Rather, classroom learning — if done right — is an important part of your learning, being able to demonstrate your abilities even in the imperfect way that tests capture is important in a society where employers and universities have to sort through thousands of applications, and classroom learning even at a good institution can involve kinds of work that aren’t as fun as what you can do on your own but are still important.

So if the Forbes column is merely saying “remember that the practical rules for life that you’re taught in school are true only most of the time, and always think about whether some occasion is an exception to the rule,” then it’s correct but banal to the point of uselessness. And if it’s trying to say that those rules really are things that you have to outright “unlearn,” to the point of actually rejecting them much of the time, then it seems to me to be generally wrong.