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What are we in school for?

January 31, 2009

Seth Godin has a new post up on his blog right now with a “starter list” of reasons we are in school, whether that be grade school, high school , college or postgrad. Here’s his complete list:

  1. Become an informed citizen
  2. Be able to read for pleasure
  3. Be trained in the rudimentary skills necessary for employment
  4. Do well on standardized tests
  5. Homogenize society, at least a bit
  6. Pasteurize out the dangerous ideas
  7. Give kids something to do while parents work
  8. Teach future citizens how to conform
  9. Teach future consumers how to desire
  10. Build a social fabric
  11. Create leaders who help us compete on a world stage
  12. Generate future scientists who will advance medicine and technology
  13. Learn for the sake of learning
  14. Help people become interesting and productive
  15. Defang the proletariat
  16. Establish a floor below which a typical person is unlikely to fall
  17. Find and celebrate prodigies, geniuses and the gifted
  18. Make sure kids learn to exercise, eat right and avoid common health problems
  19. Teach future citizens to obey authority
  20. Teach future employees to do the same
  21. Increase appreciation for art and culture
  22. Teach creativity and problem solving
  23. Minimize public spelling mistakes
  24. Increase emotional intelligence
  25. Decrease crime by teaching civics and ethics
  26. Increase understanding of a life well lived
  27. Make sure the sports teams have enough players

I agree to an extent with the vast majority of these, and I’m not so sure I outright disagree with any of them. But I do have issues with a few that will require further clarification.

6. Pasteurize out the dangerous ideas: I’m not so sure what exactly his definition of “dangerous ideas” is, but it would probably shed some light on just what he means here. If this dangerous idea is something like Nazism or cannibalism, then yes, school should exist to “pasteurize” these ideas out. Granted. But the real danger comes when we try to define what constitutes a dangerous idea, what is protected in our right to free speech and (as a corollary) to free expression and what is beneficial to society as a counterpoint or revolution. I would challenge you to find a revolution that was successful and warranted that did not involve some “dangerous idea.” And I’d further challenge you to find a link to education and schooling in these revolutions. The Boston Tea Party was dangerous to the British.

8. Teach future citizens how to conform: Again, this could be a matter of clarification, but I don’t believe real school nowadays is meant to necessarily conform students or mold them into a cookie-cutter citizen. College students are some of the most vocal political protesters. We are the reason for and the source of some of the most world-changing ideas in existence. And neither of these comes from anyone’s desire to conform. And it doesn’t come because we’re encouraged to conform. College should be about freedom, expression, thinking, individuality and personality. Whether or not that’s true, I would be disgusted if conformity was a stated goal for any institution. (I do realize that we need to conform to some structures of society, such as the political election system and traffic laws, but conformity broadly should be neither a goal nor a desire.)

9. Teach future consumers how to desire: I don’t think we need to actually teach anyone to do this. It’s natural. It’s American. For better or for worse.

27. Make sure the sports teams have enough players: Whenever I hear/read something of this nature, it always sounds sardonic and smug to me. I don’t know why. But when you go to a D1-A school where the social culture largely revolves around major college sports (read: football, gymnastics and occasionally basketball), you realize that there is a certain beauty in “making sure the sports teams have enough players.” Americans are generally a very competitive society. We are a society that latches onto things and considers them our own. Our emotions and actions rise and fall along with these objects of affection. And so it is with sports. Nothing quite stirs the soul of a Southern man like the sound of a cleat striking leather at the opening kickoff. Right or wrong, the beauty is that it brings people together. It gives us common bonds, common friends and common enemies. It gives us dreams and passions, and sweat and damn good tailgating food. And at the end of the day, it’s the overarching respect that ties everyone together. I say let’s make sure the sports teams have enough players forever. And let’s celebrate it.

A final word: like I said above, I wholeheartedly agree with the vast majority of Seth’s points. I just wanted to clarify or respectfully disagree on a small few.

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