Thursday, August 12, 2010

A So-Called Schooling Success

If you were to hold my story up next to Sarah's horrendous schooling experience, then I am undeniably a schooling success. My institutional learning began in 1987, at the tender age of four and did not stop (not even for a holiday "gap year" at any point) until I was 24, in 2007. I've completed kindergarten, primary school, and high school (with grades putting me in the top 20% of students in the state for that year). I was accepted into one of the most prestigious universities in the country, completed a three year undergraduate degree with grades good enough for me to be accepted into the one year honours program.

Then I completed a 12,000 word thesis, for which I received first class honours (or an high distinction). The grades I received throughout my honours year were enough to be accepted into the PhD program and win me a government scholarship valued at around $20, 000 a year, for three to four years. A little over half-way through my PhD I discovered I was pregnant and was delighted to have a wonderful, life-changing reason to finally become a drop-out (see Sarah, I'm a drop-out too, I just did it 12 years after you LOL).

Schooling provided me with some incredible opportunities. First it was the method I used to escape an abusive household. Later, I got to travel overseas to speak at a conference. I became a published author in fully-refereed journals and an editor of another journal. I met some incredible individuals, many whom I continue to call my dearest friends. And I developed my research and non-fiction writing skills. for all the good it did me, there was also a lot of harm.

Feeling Smart?

One might assume from reading the accomplishments listed above that I am an intelligent person. But you could not convince me of that until after I left uni!

I believed I wasn't smart because throughout school I was not one of the "smart kids" in class. I remember the first time I got 100% on a test and being thrilled that I might finally get some recognition from my peers and teacher. But the two "smart girls" in class added extra information not asked of students on the test so they got 32/30 for their tests. Even when I did everything right, it still wasn't enough!

Once I was at uni I felt even less intelligent. I was now a little fish in a huge pond, and found it near impossible to get average or above average marks, for the first few years of uni.

Then the PhD experience was a death defying ride in which you never knew if you were going to finish the day curled up in the foetal position under a desk (the bad days). Or passed out drunk in the pub across the road (the good days). Or if you were not going to end your day at all because you had yet to earn sleep on account of working on the world's biggest piece of shit dissertation (most days).

I remember conversations with fellow academics in which we all agreed that being an academic was a never ending battle of "fear and self-loathing". Crying over research was not uncommon, nor was substance abuse. The ability to cope with the pressure was a massive issue and may have something to do with the fact that 70% of people who start PhDs never submit them.

One afternoon I left my supervisor's office and it finally hit me: nothing I did would ever be good enough! The entire system was set up to improve upon what you had in front of you. And once that was improved upon you would have to improve it further. It was never going to end! I looked back and realised I had wasted twenty years of my life waiting for the moment when something I did would be good enough and I would finally feel satisfied with my work!


From my experience the socialising that goes on within school boundaries is completely unhealthy and isolating. The fact that many people see bullying as an important rite of passage speaks volumes on this issue. Just because something happens a lot, doesn't make it okay. You know what else happens a lot: murder, rape, domestic violence, poverty, suicide etc. but few of us would tell our children murder is "character building".

The socialisation I experienced at school taught me that people are inherently nasty and you can't trust anybody. I still struggle to engage in small talk or meet new people because of the negative lessons I took from schoolyard socialisation.

Schoolyard socialisation taught me that to make myself worthy I would have to make myself beautiful (cue dieting and cosmetic surgery), or athletic (cue unhealthy attempts to "improve fitness"), or smart (cue a superiority complex and obsession with ladder climbing). Just being Sazz was not enough.

As for socialisation in class, I was constantly getting in trouble for that. Every report card I have says I do well, but would do better if I could refrain from talking. Socialisation was only permitted from 10:30-11am during recess and 1pm-1:45pm during lunchtime. Never again was socialising so regimented and inhuman as it was at school.

You Can't!

The underlying messages of institutionalised learning are damaging and they're untrue!
  • You can't be trusted to learn in your own time, without threat of punishment.
  • You can't teach yourself new skills, without paying a teacher to tell you how.
  • You can't manage your time wisely, unless we give you a schedule.
  • You can't have a career, unless you do what we tell you.
  • You can't have a happy future, unless you toe the line.
Then there are the "you can'ts" of the grading scale:
  • A maths test comes back with something below a "B": you can't do maths well.
  • You don't win a ribbon at the end of the cross country run: you can't run well.
  • Your textile's teacher has no patience for you: you can't sew.
  • You don't get selected to be in the college musical: you can't sing.
  • You never win an award at speech night: you can't do anything!
I think more than anything else it's the "you can'ts" that hurt, and take the longest to un-do. It's the "you can'ts" that have my heart racing whenever I try my hand at a new skill and my thoughts drift to failure.

Creativity & Failure

Some people claim that school is all about preparing children "for the real world". Uni students are often asked when they're going to join "the real world" and some people believe that home schoolers can't survive "in the real world". So what exactly is the real world, then, if children, uni students/academics and homeschoolers aren't in it?! I really loathe this attitude because it implies that living and learning are not the same thing.

I remember feeling like I was waiting for my life to start, and my decision to keep going to uni was based on the desire to buy more time to figure out what I was going to do with myself when I finally did "join the real world." Meanwhile my life was passing me by.

I spent my "hay day" obsessing over grades, not realising that I was a wonderful, gorgeous, fit and healthy young woman who could do anything any day she chose! I grew up fearing my own autonomy, convinced I couldn't be happy/succeed (coz those are one and the same in the schooling model of life) without rigid structure and an authority looking down upon me.

Creativity is fundamentally important to humanity. I found schooling to be a process of beating creativity out of individuals. It starts with a thoughtless art teacher who tells a young child she's doing it wrong. It progresses to detention for wearing a multi-coloured scarf in your hair instead of the school-approved, uniform-coloured scrunchies. And finally ends with a woman who used to compulsively write fiction for fun, but can no longer bring herself to sketch out the bones of a plot for fear of failure. *sigh*

The Gaps

There are important life skills I am struggling to learn as an adult that were barely (if at all) mentioned throughout my two decades of schooling. Household management is a big one: budgeting, intelligent consuming, balancing domestic duties, paying bills etc. I learned how to pay bills by watching my younger sister, who dropped out of school in year 10, take care of these matters in her own life, years before I had a clue what I was doing.

How to have empathetic and respectful relationships with others is another important topic school skipped. As is almost everything about parenting (aside from the basic lesson "don't get knocked up 'til after graduation"), despite the fact that parenting is the most important job any student will ever have.

The most amusing gap in my education is my lack of understanding when it comes to spelling and grammar (remember I'm a published academic!). I finally figured out the difference between an adjective, verb and noun at the age of 26. I didn't learn it from a text book. I learned it from the following t-shirt:
Honestly, The Oatmeal has done more for my grammatical skills than institutional schooling ever did! When I started uni, I discovered that high school had done very little in preparing me. I couldn't research, I couldn't write an essay, I couldn't reference and I sure as shit didn't know what should be referenced. Years later I was disheartened to learn that this was completely normal and got to see it from a totally new angle as the one doing the marking.

Social justice is a super important topic, one that the future of humanity depends upon. But issues of social justice are glossed over at best in primary and high school. If you go to uni and if you take some arts electives you may learn how to think critically and engage with these issues on a more meaningful level. Then there's also the issue of what issues of social justice make it onto the schooling menu. It still baffles me that the majority of adult women can't tell you what feminism is, and people try to claim that Australia is a classless society where racism is a distant memory *shudder*

But back to the gaps in my education. I can't drive a car (fuck, I still haven't earned my pen licence let alone a drivers licence!). Reading instruction manuals and recipes feels much like learning to read did, minus the excitement of a developing plot! My "cooking" leaves a lot to be desired. And I'm about as useful at assembling and repairing household items as Homer Simpson. But for what it's worth I can tell you, from year 9 physics that: a body at rest wants to stay at rest. And from year 12 English: The Riders is a shithouse book.

Something else I sure didn't learn in school was how to write a succinct blog post ;) I've all but given up on that dream!

What Is Success?

I question whether my journey can really be classed as a schooling success? Ultimately it comes down to your definition of success. If you believe the purpose of schooling is to prepare students for "the real world" then no, mine was not a story of success. If you believe the purpose of schooling is to prepare students for a fulfilling career, then no, mine was not a story of success.

Mine, is only a story of success if you believe that the purpose of schooling is to enable students to continue on to do further schooling. But, if like me, you believe success is:
  • Finding a way to be happy within yourself
  • Finding a balance between independence and interconnectedness and
  • Surviving the everyday realities of life
Then schooling has very little to do with success.

ETA (17/08/10): Big thanks to Majikfaerie for sharing the following image on the Liberated Learning forums. I enjoyed a relevant giggle:


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