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The Purpose of School

I have completed my undergraduate education. After three years of preschool, thirteen years of K-12 education, and four years of college, I am finally entering the labor force.

Looking back at the twenty years of hard work that now lay behind me, I am able to reflect on my accomplishments and the enormous progress that I have made in my personal development. However, I can’t help but realize that many of the assignments I completed have been meaningless. Even while in school, particularly in the latter years of my education, I started to open my eyes to how many of the day-to-day academic tasks I performed had very little tangible value. I found that these realizations hampered my motivation and morale, and I was not alone in feeling this way.

I will make the case for the real value of school. What follows is not a defense of the American education system. In fact, I believe there are a number of actions that could be taken to make the years that children and young adults are vested in the education system more valuable and effective. I also don’t believe that a college education is a necessary or advisable step for everyone, given that so many jobs and career pathways benefit more from hands on experience than from experience in the classroom. However, there are certain educational experiences that extend beyond academics that can only be achieved in the bubble of a school rather than in the real world.

Scroll to view the rest of the graphic. Credit: U.S. Career Institute

Using video game terminology, school can be thought of as life on 'sandbox mode'. The video game is analogous to life in this metaphor, and its objective is essentially unchanged: collecting wisdom and capital to provide for the most comfortable life possible for oneself and one’s family. The student still faces most of the limitations that exist outside of school, such as a finite amount of time and money that can be used to invest in personal interests and development. However, the actions taken by the student have a very limited effect on his or her long-term reputation. The same way that a gamer’s lifetime statistics are not affected by play in sandbox mode, students don’t get the same reputational benefit for completing a task or reputational harm for failing at an academic task or social situation as someone who is outside the bubble of school. This is the core tenant of my argument, and it deserves a more detailed look.

We are not born with an understanding of the rules of business, the rules of social interaction, the rules of ethics and morality. However, these are all essential if someone is to find success in the world that we all share. School is required to bridge the gap between naivety and functional adulthood. Of course, parents have a tremendously important role to play in this process. The family is the primary institution that instills values, ethics, and morals into the youth. However, hands on experience is necessary for children to learn how to apply the teachings they receive at home to the world around them. It is important that children be placed in an environment where they are surrounded by peers so that they can test the virtues they learn at home and practice them until they become habit. This, in my opinion, is the primary benefit of school.

School also serves an important secondary purpose. Students spend many hours working on academic tasks, growing their human capital, and learning how to be productive members of society. Schools have the impossible task of providing sufficient breadth in education to support a student down a very wide range of career paths that the student might choose. You might never use trigonometry after school, but the classmate who will become a mechanical engineer will. You might never need to identify a past participle in a paragraph, but the classmate that becomes a translator will. The narrower a student’s education, the less flexibility the student will have down the road. It is a grand question of optimization: a student’s experience needs to give them all the broad knowledge that is necessary to engage in commerce and civic duties and also provide a sufficient foundation to launch a specialized career.

While fulfilling the secondary purpose of schooling, students are required to complete assignments and projects. Let us revisit the idea of school being life on sandbox mode. These tasks that students are asked to complete as part of their education are hopefully effective learning tools, but they have very little intrinsic value. For example, my 8th grade English teacher will forever be the only one to read the essay I wrote about Sequoyah and the Cherokee language, which contains information that I have never once used since. However, in researching for that essay, I built the foundation for the research skills that I applied when optimizing additive usage on a paper machine at my last internship. Students spend years laboring away, and yet they produce almost nothing of material value and thus receive no compensation. Their lifetime productivity and earnings statistics do not change. Instead, they learn how to be productive; they learn how to work. Through practice, students learn diligence, which again falls under the umbrella of the primary goal of schooling. Thus, the two functions of schooling are complementary.

Although students are sparsely rewarded for productivity during their many years of labor, it is not unfair to the student, for it poses a great advantage. School is a forgiving environment for the error-prone youth. Unethical behavior, an inappropriate comment, or starting a fight could ruin a person’s career or result in criminal charges in the outside world. In school, such transgressions have no lasting consequences except for the most severe cases. This is an extraordinary asset of schooling.

Humans, particularly the youth, are inherently error-prone, and we must learn through practice how to avoid making mistakes and mitigate the damages of the ones we fail to prevent. We do so by making mistakes and learning from them, and school provides a regulated and generally safe environment for this process to unfold.

With these purposes in mind, I have several pieces of advice for students who wish to capitalize on everything school has to offer:

1) Seek out challenges.

The most valuable learning experiences are the ones that take extra effort to gain access to. What will make you stand out when you finish school is not completing or even excelling at the tasks that everyone was charged with performing. It is the unique experiences that you sought out independently that will leave you with rare skills and situational knowledge that very few people have. In aggregate, these experiences lead to wisdom, which is sought and rewarded outside the bubble of school. Always be in pursuit of an interest or a passion. Invest yourself in that activity; the more you commit yourself to making an impact in the community built around the activity, the more exclusive and valuable your experience will be. Succeed in your classes, become the president of your organization, and be the champion of your passion. Once you have achieved greatness once, you will find it easier to do so again and again in other aspects of your life.

2) Take chances.

You will rarely be punished in school for failing to deliver on a task so long as you have put forth great effort. In the real world, failure to bring value to shareholders or failure to produce to your mandate could mean losing funding for a project or even your job. However, in school, the primary product of the time and monetary investment of students, teachers, and parents is not an item of tangible value. The goal is to grow your human capital through developing new skills, knowledge, and comfort with specific tasks. Take the investment provided by your teachers, your school, and those around you and use it to its fullest extent. You are not expected to repay that investment as a student; you will repay that investment by applying yourself to your work after leaving school, paying taxes on your productivity, and investing in your children’s education. Thus, you should seek to spend the resources provided to you by putting yourself in unfamiliar environments and growing your human capital as much as possible. Pursue a unique and challenging science fair project, seek out internships, and reap the rewards of the resources which you are offered with no strings attached.

3) Be forgiving.

Students are inherently young and inexperienced. Teachers hopefully know this of their students. However, it can be harder for students to understand this about each other. After all, students are each other’s peers. Their interactions are often interpreted as personal by one another because students do not see themselves as a group of subjects in a larger training program. Students inevitably make mistakes. At some point, you have probably told a lie, cheated on an assignment, made a rude comment, or taken an unethical action of some form – in other words, you have made mistakes. It is natural, but you must see your errors and do better in the future.

Not everyone is deserving of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not for those who do not recognize their errors or for those who are not seeking to grow and improve themselves without stepping on others. Forgiveness must be earned. Mistakes can be the best teachers, but if someone chooses not to learn from their mistakes, then they will repeat their mistakes. People must be held accountable when they make mistakes. If they do not hold themselves accountable, then you have no obligation to excuse the mistake. Not only should you be forgiving of others, but you should be forgiving of yourself. You must hold yourself accountable and earn your own forgiveness and that of others because it is inevitable that you will make mistakes. While there is value in reflecting and learning from your mistakes, it is also necessary to forgive yourself, establish trust in your ability to do better in the future, and move on.

For the students reading this, I hope my words have given you a new appreciation for the long and sometimes unrewarding process you are going through. It is not perfect, but its value is potentially limitless if you seize the opportunities presented to you. For the entire audience, I hope that I have shed light on one of the most important functions of our society, one that ensures the continuity of our civilization and allows it to grow. Even when we finish our formal education, school never ceases to be important. Those who join us in the ranks of adulthood will either push our communities up or pull them down, depending on the efficacy of their schooling at meeting its objective. //

Josh Polevoy


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