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Institutions don’t educate you; you educate yourself

A troubled young man came to see me recently. He had just completed his first year at a world-famous college, and was sorely disappointed.

He recounted his many disappointments. Crowded lectures attended by many hundreds of students for the flagship courses. Classes also too big to provide any meaningful interactions. Aloof teachers paying little attention to the effectiveness of their pedagogy. Vicious, opaque marking of exams with little explanation.

All that for eye-popping fees and a very burdensome cost of living in one of the world’s major capital cities.

The young man had come to me because the university he was referring to was my alma mater, too. He is an earnest, hard-working chap with a bright future ahead of him. He puts in the work, and could not understand why a renowned institution would offer such a weak teaching experience. I commiserated, and told him I was sad things had become as bad as he described.

But my sympathy ended there. For the next hour, I opened his eyes to see the real game before him. No one has ever been educated by an institution. You educate yourself. Education happens in your own head, not in lecture halls, crowded or not. You have to take charge of your own education and use all the opportunities and materials laid out before you. Some are given remarkable privilege and squander it; others are given very little and use it to the hilt.

Institutions do, of course, matter. They can help you educate yourself better than you can achieve on your own. But they will not deliver your education to you; they can only create the conditions that help you educate yourself more meaningfully. And that is all.

My young friend is right to rail against the lack of value for money, nonetheless. Modern education is just a money and status game masquerading as a noble cause. Elite institutions attract rich students by creating exclusivity. They offer their reputations as a ticket to ride: get this piece of paper from us, kid, and many difficult doors will open for you in your life. That’s what they’re selling – tickets to some exclusive events later in your life, stamps on your future résumé. Not education.

On the buy side, most students are also not procuring education. They (and their parents) are buying the ticket to their futures, and they know it. ‘Education’ is the thing they must endure and withstand in order to obtain the ticket at the end. My young friend is one of the increasingly few who actually joined this game in order to learn things of meaning. Hence his shock.

The reality of many a modern elite university is this: pack in as many rich offspring as you can; hire star professors who actually teach very little; use graduate students to do much of the teaching; focus on being high in the elite rankings and on reputation amongst the high and mighty. Be arrogant – but be exclusive.

This system is not sustainable. It will crumble. More on that another day.

So what should the diligent youngster do? Let me share the advice I gave him.

Start by taking charge of your own education. An institution, no matter how good, is only a small part of the overall education that will happen to you in your life. Just how proportionately small depends on you. Make the rest of the equation bigger. Be curious; be open to inquiry; read widely; question deeply. Most of what we need to know in our lives has already been taught, and is already on the record. The giants have already walked this earth and left their mark. Seek them out, make them your teachers, become one of them and teach others.

If tickets in the form of the right degrees with the right crests are given to you, take them and make the most of them – but don’t stop there. If they are not, get ahead anyway. True education comes from the close observation of life, and interaction with its intricacies. It comes from the capacity to reflect and think for oneself. Education happens over the whole of your life, not just in your years of ‘study.’ It’s a frame of mind, not a gown you wear. Education also occurs in the ditches of despair, not just in the corridors of academia.

Meanwhile, here’s how to tell if you ever received a proper education. Suppose someone asks you where and when you were educated. If you answer that question quickly, easily and specifically, then I’m afraid you missed out.

(Sunday Nation, 18 August 2019)

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