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Monday, October 23, 2017

Why Today’s Students Are Unable to Extract Meaning from the World

There is no single way to solve a problem or find meaning in life, so why do we spend most of a child's life educating them that there is?

There are practically as many philosophies of education as there are schools in the United States. There are the Prusso-American schools of Horace Mann’s age, the public schools of the No Child Left Behind era, and the parochial schools of various denominations. There are different types of military, boarding, and prep schools. There are Montessori, Waldorf, and Classical schools, and there are even major differences in the philosophy of education for styles of homeschooling.

What, then, goes into a philosophy of education? What are the values and motivating thoughts behind questions like, “how are pupils to be educated?”, “to what ends are they educated?”, “who even are the pupils in this case?”, “how is the school to be governed?” and others?

I argue that education ought to provide young people with these two foundations for living well:

  • Practical understanding of problem-solving
  • Freedom to craft individual meaning from the world

One of these requires the acceptance of ignorance over the world, while the other requires the acceptance of ownership.

Practical Understanding of Problem-Solving

By “practical understanding of problem-solving,” I don’t mean that education should equip young people with abstract “problem-solving skills” that test designers and liberal arts professors always applaud as the goal of their respective programs. Rather, I mean to make a deeper point.

The world is a complex and multifaceted place with many moving parts and no real central design. Even designed systems have spontaneous orders developing within them, and they are oftentimes the result of many systems that themselves have come together to influence the planner beyond her own knowledge.

The world has problems to be solved, that much is true. There’s no surefire way to teach “problem-solving” because problems are themselves not centrally designed in the way that courses, exams, and assignments are. In fact, teaching young people that there are only one or two “right” and “wrong” answers to most questions and that those specific answers must be arrived at in a certain way (as many standardized tests do) only reinforces this mindset that problems are solved by following a formula.

Twelve straight years of learning-to-the-test lead people to view the world in a different way than those who interact with its multifaceted nature on a daily basis. Add into that equation being at some form of school programs from 6 AM until 6 PM, then going home to do homework until 7 or 8 PM, and young people are forced to view the world in a very different, very structured way.

The world is not designed in the way of a classroom and classrooms cannot be designed to be like the world. To create a classroom that has all the complexity and ever-moving parts of real-world markets, norms, and relationships would require tearing down the schoolhouse completely.

The economist F.A. Hayek warned against this planning mindset, what he called “constructivism,” in his trio Law, Legislation, and Liberty. Hayek’s commentary, while focusing on constitutional design and order, can be applied to education.

“Constructivism,” or the belief that most or all institutions (including informal institutions like language, mores, and mindsets) should be or were “deliberately constructed by somebody,” permeates the schooled mindset. Young people, who spend 12 or more years in an environment that is very much “deliberately constructed by somebody,” have a difficult time adjusting to a real world that has very little deliberate construction. What they face after school is a series of overlapping and interdependent spontaneous orders, designed by no one person but reinforced, acted upon, and acting upon all who operate in the world.

While Hayek is explicitly arguing against central planners who believe they can design and control different aspects of the marketplace, the humility he preaches is applicable to what young people ought to internalize in education. The world has problems to be solved, that much is true. How to solve them, by whom, and in what ways are much more complicated questions than traditional education gives justice to.

Freedom to Craft Individual Meaning from the World

Crafting meaning from the world should be the primary priority of any person. As I noted the other day, being free to discover what gives one’s own life meaning in the world is the most important aspect of living a fulfilling life. Becoming a successful, globally-renowned artist is an achievement for anybody, but it is only existentially fulfilling for some.

Traditional models of education incentivize young people to compete for the most prestigious/highest-paying/cushiest college educations and jobs, with the hope that they will figure out what they find fulfilling along the way (this goes beyond schooling, and is actually a consequence of our mindset around childhood altogether).

This gets things backwards.

Young people aren’t training to become successful adults if the “successful adults” they then grow into are footed with the bill asking them what it actually means to be successful.

Crafting meaning from the world should be the primary priority of any person, and the longer we force people to put this off and push it to the mental backburner — all while they get entrenched in schools, debt, careers, families, and more — the bigger injustice we do them.

French Algerian philosopher Albert Camus is best known for his writing on absurdism. In short, Camus says that life is devoid of inherent meaning. It is the job of every person to go out into the world and craft meaning for themselves from the host of options they have available. For some people, this may mean engaging in what others view as menial tasks. Camus goes as far as to say that we must even “imagine Sisyphus happy,” as he rolls a boulder up a hill for eternity.

We can learn something from Camus’s absurdism in the way we view meaning in childhood. A successful life means different things to different people, but figuring out what that is should be the goal of education at any point in life. A person formulates an idea of what success, greatness, or happiness means to her, then acquires the skills and experience necessary to experience that. While these two things may happen simultaneously, it’s important that scarce time not be spent on acquiring skills and knowledge totally irrelevant to what the individual thinks will lead to fulfillment.

When young people spend thousands of hours over many years in a highly structured environment — and when this environment is further regulated to demand excellent test scores as the primary measure of success — it is no surprise that they find themselves with quarter-life crises, asking what they really want to do with the decades ahead of them. Worse yet, they may find themselves with mid-life crises, wondering what they have just spent so many decades attempting to build.

Ignorance and Ownership

What we need is a system of freer education that allows people to see firsthand how complex the world is. To extract the most value from a life-well-lived, we have to move away from a dominant education model which not only teaches young people that the world is a series of problems to be solved according to formulaic thought and action but also deprives them of the power to create meaning in their lives. Life is full of both unrecognized ignorance of the world’s complexity and unclaimed ownership over the individual’s sphere of influence.

By depriving them of these two foundations, the dominant forms of education do an injustice to young people, the adults they grow into, and the parents looking to raise them into fulfilled maturity.

What we need is a system of freer education that allows people to see firsthand how complex the world is by tearing down the walls of the classroom and putting young people in the real world. We need a way of learning that allows them to take ownership over their lives without the permission of those older than them — to begin crafting their meaning early on.

What we need is something better.

Reprinted from The Mission

  • Zak Slayback is a venture capital and private equity professional and a small business owner. He is the author of How to Get Ahead (McGraw-Hill, 2019) and wrote the foreword to John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down (New Society Publishers, 2017). He lives in the United States and writes at He is a Eugene S. Thorpe Fellow and FEE alum.