Real education means “why” in addition to “how”

Students spend years doing nothing that’s useful to anyone at all, in the hope that one day they will be useful


Please excuse me while I share some law student angst. I consider this one of the privileges of writing something called a “blog.” One day I get to write about college ad campaigns with all the reputability of real news, and the next I’m free to offer my own experiences dressed up as insight.

When you’re a student, exam time is like New Year’s Eve. It’s the end of a year and invites deep questions like “what have I accomplished?” and “where am I going?” Sometimes, like many students out there, I just don’t have a damn clue of the answers. Of course I do know, in general terms, what I’d like to do with my life. Maybe I can even see how this year that’s ending gets me closer to some of my goals. But it’s very hard to relate what I’m actually learning to anything that’s useful, or productive, or good. That makes it difficult to follow through with.

At times like these I really regret the loss of the apprenticeship tradition. Not because it’s more practical as training (though it may well be) but simply because it’s more real, and more satisfying. An apprentice carpenter doesn’t sit in a classroom all day – he uses his skills, however developed they may be, to build a house for someone. A chef-in-training can still feed people with her efforts. And believe me, I’ve lived with chefs. Their mistakes are a hell of a lot better than my concentrated attempts at real cooking. But in so many professions and trades we’ve fire-walled the students off from the world so that they spend years and years doing nothing that’s useful to anyone at all, in the hope and expectation that one day they will be useful. And I’m sure in most cases people get there eventually. But it isn’t a very satisfying journey.

In many ways I’ve been fortunate, so I shouldn’t complain. Throughout my English degree I found and created opportunities to write real things that were read by real people. I ended up with publishing a book. In law school I volunteer at a legal clinic, and it’s certainly the most satisfying part of my week. Still, the vast majority of the time what I do has no meaning to anyone other than myself, and no consequences outside my grade point average. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? It’s no surprise that young adults live in a kind of protracted adolescence under these conditions. Responsibility can’t be learned as an abstract concept, and responsibility to oneself is only a part of the puzzle. Real responsibility is what happens when other people need us for something, and when what we do has meaning to the folks around us.

I should be studying, right now, but instead I’m writing this blog because I have the idea that someone, somewhere, might read what I’m writing and relate to it. What I’m doing right now has more immediate relevance than the exam I’ll write next week. Of course that’s a short-term view, and presumably I’ll be useful to people as a lawyer, but we can’t always live in the future. It’s unnatural and unhealthy to do that all the time.

I don’t have a magic bullet to solve this problem, but if anyone feels similarly and finds their studies to be hollow, I can only recommend you find ways to apply what you know and what you can do outside the classroom. We all have skills that can benefit the people around us. Sometimes it can be hard to find a concrete opportunity to do that, but I think it’s a critical aspect of education. You can learn the how of many things in a classroom, but you can’t learn the why. Formal education has all but abdicated this ground. I think that’s wrong. I can only advise people who feel similarly to find their own solutions, because I don’t think the system is going to reverse course on this any time soon.

Filed under:

Real education means “why” in addition to “how”

  1. Wow! I feel exactly the same way, but could never have expressed it so clearly. I’m really having trouble connecting what I’m learning and studying now with any real purpose. I have trouble with motivation to do my best in school because it has no consequence beyond me. Group work is somewhat better because at least other people’s marks are on the line. I will try taking your advice and applying what I’m learning to something worthwhile. Thanks for your insights!

  2. Interesting link: take a look at An-Najah University’s requisite volunteer credits, which they’ve instituted as part of their undergraduate program. There’s some pretty cool stuff happening in Palestine despite critically difficult circumstances. See http://www.mcgill.ca/mmep/partners to find the link, or google An-Najah + Community Development Centre.

    Here’s a question I’m currently considering: What does it take for people to get behind a program like this, behind the ‘why’ of study? Many professors, reseachers and practitioners I’ve spoken to feel, for a variety of reasons, that only the dire straits akin to those currently afflicting Palestine can instill such a strong reaction from a university.

Sign in to comment.