“No particular concentration or area of study is inherently a better ticket to security, leadership, or personal satisfaction than another. Students should be encouraged to follow their passions and interests, not what they guess (or what others tell them) will lead to a supposedly more marketable set of skills.” ~ James Engell
A good education comes from real learning, and real learning comes not through a system, memorization of facts, or a wealth of knowledge. It comes from the desire to expand one’s ability in something, it comes from genuine curiosity, and it comes from asking questions.
All throughout my life I have worked at something. My parents owned a small business, they owned several actually, and that was how our family survived. Those businesses were not always impressive or very profitable, sometimes in fact, they were quite the opposite. That was life though, and with it came the reality that as soon as we were able my siblings and I were to be contributing in some meaningful way.
My parents decided that starting with their youngest son (myself) they would home school any children they had henceforth. In deciding this they unknowingly added a second full time job to their schedules, a full time job that they did not know how to do, or care to learn about… or have any time for. So my education was an interesting enough experience right from its inception.
The process went something like this: My father ignored everything about it, except for piping in occasionally to comment about how much better it had to be than any other option. My mother would get a newsletter from some much more organized home schooling group, at which point she would order several books across a variety of subjects that seemed appropriate to her. I think at one point she looked at the basic requirements for an elementary education and high school diploma, and started tailoring the books she handed me to those standards.
After we received the books, she would hand them to me and tell me when they had to be finished, usually at the same time she handed me a new list of chores that my Dad had come up with. I define “finished” vaguely on purpose, as “finished” is all that I was told. My supervision consisted mostly of how much time I was spending head down and looking through one of those books at the kitchen table. Whether or not I was actually absorbing information was, from what I could tell, irrelevant.
Something happened after a very short time which should not shock anyone: I got really bored. I did not enjoy reading math books, or solving the problems in those books. I did not enjoy reading about the ground, and I did not enjoy reading about history.
Certainly I wanted to shout my frustration, probably hoping to echo the statement of Mike Rose when he said: “There is nothing in the standard talk about schooling -and this has been true for decades- that leads us to consider how school is perceived by those who attend it.” I’m not sure that I would have managed to put it quite as eloquently as Mr. Rose, but I understood the emotion behind the idea. I felt indifference at the best of times, and frustration all the rest. I felt it keenly, unhappily, and continually.
All the while, I was working. Either at my list of chores or, at quite an early age, at the businesses my parents owned. Because of work and all the seemingly pointless reading that everyone called “school”, I didn’t have much time for play during the daylight hours. I took up playing video games throughout the night instead.
I loved video games so much, I almost never wanted to stop playing them. It’s what kept me working happily, knowing that I could earn ownership of a game after sweeping floors or helping to clean appliances. I loved playing games enough that I started to resent everything else I did, but I knew that I had to keep doing those things because if I didn’t, the games would stop.
So I started asking questions: How many hours did I need to work to buy a game? How much was a game worth? How much was an hour worth? Were certain tasks worth more than others?
I realized that all the logic and numbers involved in those questions could be applied inside the games themselves. How many items of a certain kind did I need to improve my character? How long did it take to get them? Which enemies dropped them? How often did they drop them?
Then another revelation: my math book contained the methods for answering all the questions I had involving numbers. I began playing games with my math book open next to me, looking up the formulas I needed to start getting things done faster. I started designing spreadsheets before anyone told me what a spreadsheet was. They made the most sense for compiling and referencing the information that I needed.
There were a lot of times that I couldn’t understand the words in the game, so I started to play games with a dictionary on hand as well. Then came times where the dictionary wasn’t enough; I understood the word but I didn’t understand what was being talked about. I started reading my history and science books with a hunger, and then I read every other book I could get my hands on. I had a reason for gathering up as much knowledge as I could: so that I could understand what I cared about. As Mike Rose said, “A good education helps us make sense of the world and find our way in it.” And suddenly there I was, getting a good education. It just hadn’t started until I had some reason for it.
My friends played a lot of the games that I played too, but they often got stuck or couldn’t keep up with me. I started writing guides for them, and when they complained that they didn’t understand what I was saying, I would sit in front of the game with my notebook, dictionary, and grammar book all laying in front of me, so I could be sure that what I was writing made sense.
By the time I was 13, I was fairly well known for being the guy with all the answers, and honestly I did have a lot of information swimming around in my head by then. But I was also quite forgetful. Fortunately by then, we had a home computer, and the internet was a real thing.
So now instead of textbooks sitting next to me while I played games, I ran back and forth to the computer. I quote again from Mike Rose who says, “Our education can be as formal as a lesson or as informal as a lesson learned.” and one of the lessons I had already learned was that it was the best idea to simply reference the greatest source of information I had available to answer the questions I was asking. At one point that had been books, now it was a computer and the internet. When I couldn’t find something on the internet I figured it out myself, and then I found some way to put it up there so my friends could see it.
This entire time I was of course working my job, but now instead of cleaning appliances I was writing and designing our advertisements, pointing out flaws in the budget, and training new hires twenty years older than me. I was no longer figuring out how many hours I needed to work to purchase my next game, but budgeting out my money three months at a time based on average expenses and assumed incomes.
I was not a prodigy, I was not super smart, and I was not mature ahead of my time. I was a totally normal child who was given a standard system, and then accidentally handed the freedom to completely disregard it. I hated learning when it felt like there was no purpose, and during the time that I was absorbing all of the knowledge that would make up my ‘education’ I was bored, tired, and often angry.
It was when the information available became useful for me personally that I grew a hunger for it. Until that point I was being handed solutions with no problems. It would be like someone being given a new rain coat every day, but they never leave the house. Sure, they are very well prepared for some eventual possibility, but the greatest likelihood is that they’ll throw the lot of them away before they ever end up needing one.
I use a lot of quotes from Mike Rose, because I think whether intentionally or not, he is almost perfectly echoing my sentiments. Almost all of the positive feedback quotes Rose uses in his “Finding our way” chapter point to some individual making a statement about having found something personal in their education to make its acquisition worthwhile.
Even Rose himself allows that his great interest in the humanities came from a personal desire to find escape, and that is what initially spurred him to delve deep into a certain subject matter and become actually proficient in it. It should be pointed out that Rose himself never speaks fondly of mathematics or biology, and indeed the closest thing to excitement he musters about them is to say that humankind naturally grows some level of appreciation for the things they know about.
A good education is something that you will get when you learn for real, something you will do based on a few absolutely necessary bits: curiosity, thinking, and wanting. Your good education will stem from those things, and if you’re especially lucky one of the raincoats forced on you in between your birth and your good education will end up being somewhat useful, instead of in the rubbish bin.
Rose, Mike. Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us. New York: New, 2009 Print.
Engell, James. “On the Value of a Liberal Arts Education.” Harvard.Edu. Harvard University, n.d. Web. Sept.-Oct. 2013.