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On Learning: An open letter to my children

February 21, 2014

Hey guys,

I’ve been thinking about learning and education pretty much my whole life. First, I was subject to it. Then I chose to continue it. Now I continue learning – on purpose! – both because it helps my job, and because it interests me.

I figured out early that the downside of organized schooling is that “learning” quickly becomes a swear word to children. Having finally achieved a place in my life where there is far more to learning – more fun and more interest and far more value – I’d like to do what I can to combat the side effects of what we consider normal education.

Not to say that school is worthless, because it certainly isn’t. A great deal of the formal education you pick up at school is very worthwhile, as is the set of life skills that goes along with it: for example, putting up with what seemed to be ridiculous orders, and grunt work, and the society of people you wouldn’t ordinarily choose to hang around.  And of course the organizational and other non-obvious skills that go along with years of taking orders and following instructions and writing things down.

But as I say, a rigorous and long-term curriculum of formalized education can really suck the fun out of learning anything new. I should know, having gone through it myself and also having watched three of my own children go through the same system (to varying stages and ages, at this point).

I learned a few things, I want you to know them too. I want each other very well.

Knowledge is fluid: First, knowledge is not as concrete as one would expect. Authorities are only kind of authorities. Teachers, publishers, authors, and even on-the-ground historians get things wrong. They get things wrong very badly sometimes, and consistently over decades and centuries. While I wouldn’t want you to get in the habit of thinking that everything that everyone says is complete bullshit, it’s a good idea to develop a healthy skepticism for everything you hear, read, and absorb through societal assumptions.  Columbus wasn’t a hero; he was a (rather literally) cutthroat businessman. We know far less about Shakespeare than high school English would have you believe. Women and minorities are badly overlooked in history classes…throughout history in general as a matter of fact. As a result of all this, it’s a good idea to keep that helped us get a sense of skepticism, and to read out from multiple sources. You’re really interested in the topic, look into primary source material. For history that would be journals notebooks and letters, for science I suppose it would be talking to scientists and peers, or reviewing their publications.

Yes of course this sounds like a lot of work. I’m not saying you should spend your life triple checking everything that’s taught to you. But if you have the real understanding that knowledge is not concrete, it will go along way toward curing you of hero worship, ignorance, and mental laziness.

Stuff is way more interesting than it sounds: Second, I have found that school tends to suck the richness and texture out of almost any given topic, most of the time. I doubt that’s on purpose…it’s a result of a number of factors, including but not limited to the resistance of students, the oversight of school boards, the amount of knowledge one has to cram into kids heads for standardized testing, and so forth. Not to mention the expectations of parents, colleges, and future employers.

But the dry topics you’re looking into really aren’t that dry. Science is the study of how reality works, and reality is phenomenally, astoundingly, thrillingly fucked up. Similarly, history is the study of why shit went down. The books I had (through all of school and college) all made it sound like shit went down because it was fated, or something. There were never any real reasons attached to events and dates. “World War I started because this guy was assassinated.” That kind of bland summary sucks all the interest out of a real actual murder.  These days, people make action movies out of that sort of thing. Why does the murder of an Archduke have to be to be so boring? Somebody wanted this guy dead, for reasons of greed, or lust, jealousy, or religious hatred, or I don’t even know what, because they never taught me.

Getting the inside scoop from some other source that doesn’t come from school can make things a lot more interesting. Watch a movie about this stuff. Or a documentary, or a Bill Bryson book. Yes, it sounds like more work. But this is really in the interests of not only making your education more entertaining, but make it stick with you better and actually making it mean something. Education can be useful…who knew?

Maybe you don’t like reading. There’s only so much I can help you with that, but my best advice is to find something to do like, even if it’s Calvin and Hobbes comics, and read that. Reading exercises your brain and expands your vocabulary in ways that will make high school and college especially far easier.

If you don’t like what your classes reading right now, again, your best bet is to get extra material on it. Studying Shakespeare? Watch the modern-day production of Othello (or whatever you’re reading). If nothing else, it would give you  people to picture and a context for what the story is sort of about, while you’re reading the stuff in class and picking apart every little syllable for meaning.

Check out real life: Finally – and this never occurred to me when I was in school – talk to people. If you don’t understand the math, talk to the teacher, a mathy, or find a video on Khan Academy or YouTube. If geography is boring as hell, get on Reddit or Twitter and find somebody from Poland to talk to you about what life is really like there. Hit up the zoo for the animal handlers that take care of the critters are studying biology. When you connect education to real life, it becomes real, and actually interesting.

Basically, school eventually becomes a process of “do this”, followed by “Do I have to?”  I get that, and I get that you don’t want to do more on top of it. I really encourage you to find the stuff that might interest you at all: the movies, the dirt on people centuries dead, that kind of thing.  If you get two pages into a book you picked up and find it dry as hell, put it back down!

The joy of self-education is, you get to pick and choose what you spend your time on.

Love you guys.

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