It’s been about three years since I graduated college with a degree in biochemistry and decided that I would likely never go back to school or pursue a “regular job” as I once envisioned.
A large part of my decision to abstain from a traditional path has to do with how I’ve thought about my story leading up to this point, and specifically how this process of “becoming educated” has influenced me as a person.
Looking back, it seems as if the whole U.S. education system is a pressure cooking pipeline. Once classtime stops being about learning the ABCs and completing fun activity books, it turns into a non-stop race towards a final destination — your future job.
It is funny to me that as a member of a cooperative species that survives based on its ability to communicate and work together to solve problems, the school system chooses to assess and evaluate individuals based on how well they perform in total isolation.
During our time in school, we are free to talk and make friends, of course, and to join all manner of extracurricular activities that promote bonding and healthy competitiveness.
But when it comes to how we actually determine a person’s value, the emphasis is placed largely on their ability to sit down alone, for sixty minutes or whatever, and fill in exam answers gauging their “understanding” of the subject material.
In effect, we take a creature that is meant to find success in relation to other members of its species, and force it to adhere to a system that ascribes worth based on how well it can summon answers to questions while completely isolated.
Most professionals worth their salt will tell you that healthy, innovative, fully-functioning business environments are those in which people are empowered to make the most out of teamwork and to feel like communication is easy.
Yet the situation we see in our schools is precisely the opposite. Students may study together, yes, but the entire grading system is predicated upon separating the students from one another, forcing them to sit down in a completely stressful environment, and demanding that they perform, and that furthermore, their performance determines their potential in life.
Think about that. That is how we treat our kids.
That is not how a healthy work environment, regardless of industry, is operated. So why do we tolerate it in our school systems?
I have thought a lot about this in part because after graduating from college, I fell into a mental health rut, lived out of my truck for a few months, and have spent the better part of three years trying to both recover and make sense out of what happened to me.
Upon reflection, the symptoms of being brought up in an environment that emphasizes individual contribution and success over how well we interact with others seems to have contributed a bit to my experiences. I don’t wish to blame the system entirely, but it is hard to overlook the psychology that might develop as the result of never feeling like it would be okay to fail for fear that I would have to live with the consequences for the rest of my life.
It seems to me that we are made to feel, as the result of such a stressful school environment, that failure is a direct result of individual inadequacy. At least that is how I have made sense of things. It is almost as if the adult-world functions off of the de facto rules of dodgeball — leave out the weakest link because their “stats” don’t paint a rosy enough picture of their performance.
It is hard for me to separate this sort of school system from the image of big business that survives off of worker exploitation. The goal is to get people into cubicles so that they can continue running a massively inefficient bureaucracy of middle-position paperwork traps that easily constitutes the majority of bullshit jobs that most of us are forced into.
Choosing to see things from this angle makes it abundantly clear why the school system strangles the life out of students as soon as possible. When short-term profits are the end-goal of the entire economic machine, the resulting school system isn’t going to be one that gives each individual time to flower as a unique personality, to search for their talents organically, and to learn how to relate with others in a healthy way.
No, the goal is going to be to squeeze them as hard as possible. Sit’em down in a chair and force them to check boxes. Separate out the good box-tickers from the bad, so that the good ones can end up in the paperwork labyrinth while the bad ones settle on minimum wage for the rest of their lives.
This was the system that I was squeezed through, like everyone else. Fortunately, for reasons still unknown to me, I was one of the good box-tickers. I had opportunities because I could manage to pull decent grades.
Having spent three years in a total hiatus from the “real world,” I think I’ve finally seen past this monumental lie of “performance success.”
At no point during my educational experience do I ever remember being told, “You know, it’s okay if you don’t go to college right away, so that you can take a time-out and think about what it is you want to do or learn more about where your natural talents might reside.”
It was always a constant panic-rush towards the next phase of life. This persisted even in college. When senior year rolled around, I found myself spamming graduate school applications for fear that there was no other option for me.
Yet here I sit, writing this piece, three years after graduating, happier than I’ve ever been. Why?
Because I haven’t had to take a fucking exam in three years.
The feelings of shame and inadequacy that resulted from not feeling up to snuff with my peers are now just a bitter memory. I’m reading things I want to read, writing posts I want to write, and have realized just how infinite the possibilities are when it comes to what to actually do with oneself in this life.
It is easy, when still within the pipeline squeeze of the U.S. education system, to have one’s focus restricted. To not see any possibilities beyond the path that you are currently on. To feel like every failure is one that will sting you for the rest of your life. To feel like you will always have to be strong alone because that’s just the way things work.
It’s a lie, and we need to call it such. Having come to terms with all of that, it’s like having a smog cleared from my mental vision. When I reflect back on the best moments I had in the system, they aren’t staring back at good grades. They are the moments in which I bonded with fellow human beings, people who became lifelong friends, people who I still feel like I can call on when times are rough, people I can root for and who root for me.
I no longer feel like I am being squeezed. Sure, I had to confront a tremendous amount of fear to get over the reality that no one is really going to tell me what to do with myself or hold me to any standards from this point on. I have to do all of that.
Beyond that fear, however, is a little tease of a feeling that I’m hoping is something like liberty.
Life isn’t a pipeline. We don’t have to rocket ourselves toward some end destination where life will finally “begin,” only for real this time. Reaching that imaginary destination isn’t predicated upon how well we performed in school. That kind of image was a sham, and I think more people are waking up to it.
I think more of us need to have the courage to take time-outs with ourselves. To stop running on the treadmill and really sit with ourselves. Learn what is going on up here in this skull-noggin. Reflect on our experiences and learn from them before rushing further along the pipeline.
That may be the only way any of us become capable of changing a culture that enables an education system that grinds the inherent creativity and curiosity out of human beings.
By having the courage to look at society in the face and say, “You failed me as an individual,” while standing our ground on our own self-defined paths, we may just yet find within ourselves the ability to make a difference in each other’s lives.
At least, that’s this fool’s hope.