Thursday, September 1, 2011

Questioning "Education"

I think I spend most of my time in boxes. Unfortunately, most of those boxes are not boxes that I choose or have any control over. Most of my life is spent in other people's boxes. You may say, "Well, quit living up to other's expectations, do your own thing, break free, live a little." And you may be right in one way. But in another way the very people most likely to break out these sort of platitudes tend to be perpetuating the very boxes they tell me to break out of. After all, breaking out of a box because "that's what my generation does" is a box of it's own.

The Great Big Box that I struggle against is the box of "education." I use quotation marks around the word education because anyone who actually knows me knows that education is one thing I have in abundance. What, then, is the problem? My education is not one that is written down on a piece of paper. It isn't entered into a computer somewhere, or hanging on the wall of my office. It's not an education I acquired in a room full of people, or in a series of lectures. I am one of a growing group of self-educators.

There is a growing movement of self-educators in the U.S. that call themselves "unschoolers." This is partly to distance themselves from homeschoolers who basically just take a traditional school curriculum and schedule and apply it in the home. Unschoolers, unlike their structured counterpart, do not even tell their children what they need to learn or should be working on. They simply cultivate an environment that encourages and helps children to teach themselves anything and everything they are interested in learning.

While my homeschool experience was somewhere in between these two (I was the oldest of six and my parents didn't catch on to the unschooling thing until I had graduated), the unschooling principles are ideals that I had already begun to apply in my own life, most notably during my free time and over summer breaks. My Dad was always an avid reader, and he made available to us a wide variety of books, and over the summers my parents rewarded us for reading a large volume of classic and non-fiction books (at the end of the summer we'd get to go to a waterpark). Since I already loved to read, this was not hard for me, and I find that now I still prefer to read classics and non-fiction over many other types of literature.

And, honestly, if one of the former president's of our country is looked up to for being so intelligent because he taught himself from books, it doesn't make sense that my experience should be discounted as learning because it is harder to measure or verify. But that is unfortunately the way things are for now. And this may sound ironic, but I find myself facing a pressure to give up my self-educating in favor of "higher-education" so that I can actually do something to change the system. Apparently you have to be well-versed in the system to have any say in how it's not working.

And I am really struggling with the idea of completing a course of "higher-education." On the one hand, I would love to finally get some recognition for what's inside of my cranium. On the other hand, it feels a little like selling out to get a degree just so people will listen to me. That doesn't mean it would be wrong, but I don't think it would be authentically me either. I would love to be able to meet people more intelligent than me, to pick their brains and debate things with them. It would be amazing to have conversations about things that matter most to me with people who know tons more than I do; imagine how much I could learn! But I freeze up every time I think about going back to college. I've attended three different colleges now, and every time I get burned out on our "education" system somewhere between the first and second semester.

Am I just spoiled by all of the years of enjoying self-education at my pace? Am I forgetting some key value to "higher-education" that would make it worthwhile to me? And the biggest question, one that has been haunting me continuously; do I really have to have a Ph.D. to change the world?

On the one hand, it is good for the someone to regulate certain spheres of education. I wouldn't want an uneducated doctor or nurse or dentist working on me. I'd move out if I found out the engineer of my building had no training. But do I really trust the work of an artist more if they have a BA? Do I find a writer's character's more believable because of their graduate degree? Are the arguments of a philosopher or theologian or social advocate more compelling because of their doctorate? Now, I'll admit sometimes detractors will try to tear down their opponent's credibility on the lack of these things, and that is something that I would have to fight against were I to try to change the world on the basis of my self-education.

But is it worth it? Is it worth it to fight these things for the right to be myself in the world? Is it really easier to sacrifice my sense of self simply to gain the recognition and respect of society? Can something potentially soul-killing be considered "easier" or safer? Where is the boundary between giving up your preferences and giving up your personhood?