A few ways school messed me up

Now that I’m a few years in “the real world”, it’s interesting to think about how my 18 years in the American school system affected me and how I learn.

There’s no doubt I learned a great deal. But, I think the way subjects like Math, Science, History, and English were taught delayed my appreciation for them. Only after graduating college did I learn to enjoy some of these subjects and I wish I discovered these feelings earlier.

Math

Up until college, I was “good at math”: memorize the formula, plug in the variables, write down the answer. Rinse. Repeat.

Then, I took advanced multivariable calculus and experienced the rude awakening of being terrible at math. There was no simple formula to plug variables into. Math was 90% wandering for insight and 10% computation. I lacked creativity. I lacked patience. Math was hard.

The irony was I began to enjoy math only after I became “bad at math”. I relished the joy of discovering solutions after slaving away on problem sets with friends. A hard challenge made for a sweet-tasting victory.

Science

I loved science as a kid. Sure, science class required a bunch of memorization, but the stuff I learned opened my eyes to why the natural world worked the way it did. That was satisfying for a kid constantly asking “why”. Between teachers and science textbooks, I got a solid answer.

Only in high school did I sense that science doesn’t always have a solid answer. Scientists disagree all the time. Academia is suffering a reproducibility crisis, and career pressure wildly distorts what questions get asked and how they get answered.

Thanks to some remarkable teachers and mentors later in life, I learned to appreciate that science is as much about questioning what we think we know as it is about definitively explaining the natural world. I learned to stop worshipping the elementary school science textbooks, as they were only caricatures of a complex world.

History

History was my least favorite subject. I couldn’t get all the people and dates and events in my head. I didn’t care for the essay prompts. History papers were devoid of emotion for me: research, hit the page count, submit paper, earn a grade.

Everything changed when I discovered my favorite TV show, Mad Men, during my senior year of college. The period piece follows advertising executives and their families in mid-20th Century New York City. (Sounds boring, but I swear it’s a great show.)

Yes, it’s dramatized for the screen. Hardly anyone’s lives were as interesting as they are in the show. But what caught my attention were the depictions of real world events like the JFK assassination and Apollo 11 moon landing. In the context of the show– alongside these characters I was so invested in– history was suddenly full of emotion. It wasn’t just part of a story. It was the story.

So, I started to see history as a story. I sought out documentaries about 20th Century America. I read more about the parts that surprised me. The freedom to explore the parts of history I found interesting– rather than what a teacher assigned– liberated me.

English

In English classes, I did a lot of reading and writing. Generally, I enjoyed the reading, but I didn’t enjoy the writing because the prompts were almost always “literary analyses”.

The few times I enjoyed writing were when the teacher asked for personal essays. One of my high school teachers required that we share personal essays (about anything!) with the class every two weeks. Not only did I get a chance to write about something I cared about, but also I experienced the impact that writing can have on other people. The work put into writing those essays felt like work well spent. It wasn’t just for a grade. It was to communicate ideas.

Writing felt like a chore through most of school. Only later, I discovered that writing can feel good, even cathartic.

Grades, etc.

I think the pursuit of good grades often got in the way of learning. After exams, I forgot everything because I didn’t find emotion in what I had learned. In those times, I wasn’t learning. I was playing a game called school.

Nowadays, I’m liberated from the pressure of grades and have come to enjoy learning for the sake of learning. It feels wonderful. I miss the dedicated time I had in school, but also appreciate the freedom I have to explore whatever topics interest me most.


January 2018