The Illusion of Education

Education is not the filling of the bucket but the lighting of a fire.” –W.B. Yeats

I have always been interested in education. 15 years of school and then college is enough for anyone, but I’m talking about the education here, not the school. Having spent most of my life in school, sometimes I do wonder if it’s going to be worth it in the end. Everybody dreams of being successful in their selected careers, living an easy and comfortable life, and this is the reason why most of the people go to school, and then college, in the first place. But is the formal education provided in the schools really helpful for us to live our dreams or is there something else we need to do in order to live like we do in our imaginations?


Let’s jump to the very basic question about education. Why do schools exist? As Sir Ken Robinson suggested in his TED talk, the whole system of schools and the formal education was invented for a reason. There were no public systems of education really before the 19th century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. Now industrialism, as we all know, is the technical part of the society that runs the world nowadays. Also, we have one more thing common in every part of the world besides industrialism. That is the hierarchy of the education system. Whether you are in America or Asia, this thing will strike you for sure. Every education system on Earth has the same hierarchy of the subjects, and I’m telling you this by my own experience. It does not matter where you go. At the top are mathematics, sciences and the languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts. Further classification is done by Ken Robinson, who believes that Art and Music are given higher status in schools than drama and dance in the field of arts. So is this a coincidence that we have two things, industrialism and education system, that are similar in every part of the world? Of course not.

Remember as I mentioned before, the public system of education came into existence to meet the needs of the industrialism. So the hierarchy here of the education around the world is rooted on two ideas. Number one is that the most important subjects are on top. And the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. So it can be understood that people who dream of becoming a professional industrialists in their lives are getting a good help from the education system we have nowadays. But what about the others who have different dreams? Do they really get any kind of help from the formal education?

That’s the way to go

Paul Pogre and Ines Aguerrondo, the guest editors for the Education Portal of the Americas, were really concerned when they expressed their views about the condition of the current education system. Mostly focused on the ability to understand things, they explained it as the “ability to establish relationships between concepts, which in turn, indicate understanding of each of the concept involved.” For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them. “It is impossible to understand simply by receiving information, although clearly basic information is necessary. Learning for understanding implies committing oneself through reflective action, with actions that build understanding.” The views expressed by the two authors deals with the technical aspect of the basic human understanding, and what schools are really missing out nowadays. But when you look at not-so-technical aspect of the basic human understanding, you find out these schools are doing something really bad.

If the current education system is good enough for people to be successful in their careers, then we should not have:

->42% of visual and performing arts students saying college didn’t prep them for employment.

->Six times as many graduates work as waiters, salespeople, instead of working in retail or hospitality as originally planned, because it’s the only work they could find.

->284,000 of college graduates (37,000 of those who have advanced degrees) working minimum wage jobs.

->75% of people saying they are not living up to their creative potential.

And just to be sure of these stats, the report was published by a renowned consulting firm, McKinsey and Company, with Forbes.

So where is the problem? I think Scott Dinsmore was correct when he wrote in his research that “on top of that, the whole system, from when we are eleven years old, is designed in a way that kills creativity.” And if we stop for a moment here, and just focus on the last line, I think he is right. When I look back at my childhood, all I did was focus on rote memorization and test taking. I can’t think of anyone who went through the stages of the education and never did that. And to make time for that, we almost entirely lose focus on building and creating things. It was just whatever is taught is taught to us is right. No questions. Somewhere in the middle of the process, “we stop learning by doing – the only learning that really tends to work” (Scott Dinsmore). And let’s be honest, because creativity is a lot harder to test on a Scantron multiple choice. This carries on for entire life – first school, then college, and on and on.

I remember reading a book this summer called “A Little Prince”. It’s a really short novel written in 1943 and the most famous work of the French aristocrat, poet, writer and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The reason I’m mentioning this here is because I came across a little story in that novel which made me really think about the current education. There was a child in the novel that drew a bag like thing and asked everyone what that was. Every grown up around him answered what they saw, a bag! But the child was really disappointed by everybody’s answer. Why? Because what he drew was a sleeping snake with a little elephant inside his stomach, not a bag. Now what struck me was not that none of them were unable to guess what it was, but they all answered it the same way. They didn’t use their imagination and just went with the simplest answer possible. And like Picasso once said, “All children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up”, it’s really concerning to see the formal education killing the creativity of the humans.

There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way they teach them mathematics. Why? Why not? As Ken Robinson suggests, “This is rather important. Math is very important, but so is dance. Children dance all the time if they’re allowed to.” As he focuses on the importance of other things in the education, he continues to go deep in the question. “What happens is, as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side.”

The unpredictability of the education system is extraordinary. Children starting school now are going to get retire in around 2070, and since we have no idea what the world will look like in 5 years, preparing these kids for this long time is extraordinary. Let’s come back to the hierarchy of the education system and the two rooted ideas of it. Number one, the useful subjects are at the top. “So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician; don’t do art, you won’t be an artist. Benign advice – now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution.” Ken Robinson describes the second idea also, just like the first one. “The whole education system around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.” This is actually true as these people can’t realize their true potential, hence falling into the wrong hands of the formal education system.

If the current scenario of education is like this, should a person go to a college then? After reading this about the state of the education and stats in the same field, it’s normal for this question to arise in the mind. This is the big question. The system is flawed and “will not provide answers to some of life’s most important questions” (Scott Dinsmore). He suggests further to take the proactive approach to building the practical education that one needs. He believes that you have to stay motivated to piece it together on your own. Either way a lot of work is required if you want to actually learn to fish and get the results you want and deserve. And as the saying goes, “Get a fish, eat for a day. Learn to fish, feast forever.” He focuses on being creative and always open. Ken Robinson also thinks the same way, and he suggests taking a chance for being creative. “Children are not frightened of being wrong. If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with something original” (Ken Robinson). When writing on why schools exist, the JacksonHerald Today concluded that “While schools tend to focus on language and math skills, that don’t seem to be working. Take a look at the terrible grammar and spelling by those who put comments on any of the various websites — the inability to communicate clearly is obvious. And while some students do conquer math, many high school graduates can’t compute simple math formulas. Maybe it’s time for school systems to focus less on developing worker-widgets and more on developing well-rounded citizens.”

After reading the views of the people who are really passionate about education and the change they want to bring, I couldn’t agree more with Eric Hoffer, who says,

The central task of education is to implant a will and a facility for learning; it should produce not learned, but learning people. In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future.”