Between curiosity and mandatory schooling

Jennie Siat Bev, San Fransisco | Opinion | Sat, September 08 2012, 1:45 PM

Paper Edition | Page: 7

Our parents taught us early on that we needed to go to school so we could get a good job and live a decent life. In other words, education is the ticket which enables us to climb the social and economic ladder, despite our current class.

Yet the “mainstream” school system worldwide favors conformity, intellectual intelligence and competitiveness — the things that are required in typical, profit-making workplaces.

As Astra Taylor in Unschooling wrote, at school she experienced greed, envy, fear and conformity, all of which overpowered the desirable attributes of childhood: compassion, curiosity, imagination and playfulness.

In Indonesia and the United States, schools have been fashion runways for rich kids, while those who have less must accept that their parents cannot afford to provide them with everything they may want — usually the things they see other kids have.

We call friendships fostered at school, and experiences with bullies: “learning to interact socially.” It may be true that a school is a “miniature society”, yet it is not realistic.

The natural state of learning that occurs when an individual uses his or her own independent thoughts and internal focus of control rarely occurs at school.

Most activities are led by teachers, teacher’s aides, coaches and other students.

Every type of higher education, for instance, is designed to create a specific breed of graduates. Trade schools create low-class rank-and-file workers, research universities with strong scientific programs create upper-class professionals and educators, and liberal arts schools create free and independent thinkers with fancy degrees — hence “classless”.

The subjects studied in any of those schools may not even be connected to each other.

These schools are logical choices for those who graduated from “mainstream” schooling, even though the liberal arts path is likely to be “less prestigious” in a modern and materialistic society like the United States, where engineers in Silicon Valley are earning a good living while those who graduated with “liberal arts” degrees, such as those in philosophy or the fine arts, will likely have a hard time getting by.

We often forget that even homeschooled children aren’t completely free to explore their minds and hearts, as oftentimes homeschool programs are nothing more than structured classes completed in the convenience, safety and seclusion of the home.

While conventional schooling is apparently the most preferred type of schooling, we should keep in mind that learning occurs throughout our lifetime, from the day we are born.

While it feels prestigious to get into top schools and universities, we are actually conforming to the edifices of other’s past experiences.

Of course, it is relatively more efficient to understand things and discover truths using proven methods, but to a certain extent, it reduces our independent intuitive thinking.

The challenge is, of course, finding a mentor who can help with independent thinking even when our schooling forbids us from exploring this deliberately. Or, we can rely on ourselves to find the beauty in our own thinking skills.

Edward DeBono in his book How to Have a Beautiful Mind states that higher education teaches us how to debate and demonstrate superiority through disagreement. Though it might be a useful method to find a consensus among scholars, it is quite irritating in everyday life. Habitual debating isn’t only a turnoff, it also provides for a useless ego-based battle to occur.

According to DeBono, a “beautiful mind” lies in between agreements and disagreements. He said, “You do not have to agree with everything. You should not disagree with everything.”

What we need to foster independent thinkers is a liberal education. This is an approach that empowers learners by preparing them to face the complex world with a specific purpose or cause, through creating an ambience where social responsibility, compassion and problem-solving skills can flourish.

In the end, every individual must make peace with him or herself and realise that the world doesn’t revolve around us, but we revolve around the world.

And what we have learned today might not be useful tomorrow. Only through a continuous state of learning, unlearning and relearning, can we prepare to face a tumultuous world.

Curiosity, thus, is probably the best tool we have. Mandatory conventional schooling may be a better alternative than no schooling, but the so-called “unschooling” schooling is an important alternative for those who believe in independent thinking and living a fruitful life, unbounded by conventional notions and other people’s past experiences.

The writer is an author and columnist based in northern California.

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