Often what we understand “by default” isn’t the real reason behind a lot of everyday activities. Hidden motivations are lurking beneath the superficial reasoning. This is what I want to illustrate in this post.
Let’s start with a thought experiment. Say, you could get free education from any elite university in the world, provided you are willing to skip the official transcript and degree, would you take the deal?
If you have a hard time saying yes, then we can agree that you don’t go to school only to learn, but also to get a degree. In other words, the value of education isn’t just about learning, it’s also about credentialing.
Credentials are important to parents when kids are young. A good student is a trophy for a parent. Credentials become important to students themselves when they are old enough for college. More than learning, it’s a failsafe. It guarantees a job. If they don’t get a job, at least they can say they tried everything.
Peter Thiel has a famous quote that sums up this ethos. “Looking back at my ambition to become a lawyer, it looks less like a plan for the future and more like an alibi for the present. It was a way to explain to anyone who would ask—to my parents, to my peers and most of all to myself—that there was no need to worry. I was perfectly on track.”
In conclusion, students go to college and want a degree so that they can get a job. Interestingly, employers prefer students with degrees not for their learning, but for entirely different reasons. You see, having a degree (in any subject) signals a hidden quality in students—future work productivity. This is one quality which employers cannot observe by giving job applicants a simple test.
If you look around, the best employees have a whole bundle of attributes apart from intelligence—such as ownership, attention to detail, work ethic, willingness to conform to expectations, etc. These qualities are just as useful in blue-collar jobs (warehouses and factories) as they are in white-collar jobs (studios and startups).
Unlike IQ—which can be measured with a simple 30-minute test—most of these other qualities can only be demonstrated by consistent performance over long periods of time. Therefore, school performance is a good proxy for this.
This works because students who do well in schools tend to have greater work potential. It’s not a perfect correlation (and there are many exceptions) but school performance predicts future work performance (and future earnings) by and large.
This also explains why no one is bothered if school curriculum is completely unrelated to the actual job they do (or when students forget what they learnt). The knowledge of the subject isn’t as important as the signalling that they have the ability to stick around long enough to study enough to clear exams and get a degree.
Apart from parents, students, and employers, the state has a separate agenda altogether, which has its roots in propaganda. Schooling is a good way to raise citizens who are proud of their heritage, and hence loyal. We can see this function in history curriculum, which tends to be always biased.
For example, the two great wars are taught differently in countries depending on whether they won or lost. In Indian history lessons, the Brits were painted as evil rulers. It wasn’t until I read White Mughals that I learnt about the other side of them.
Not only that, it’s observed historically that countries make large investments in state primary education systems when they face military rivals or threats from their neighbours.
Just as powerful governments have sought to control mass media outlets like newspapers and TV stations, they have similarly sought state control over schools. In fact, the governments that most need to indoctrinate their citizens invest more in schools. For example, totalitarian regimes tend to control and fund more schools—but not more hospitals. See the point?
Apart from the state, societies have a slightly different motive to send kids to schools—to make them less violent, to cultivate good manners, and to foster cooperation. In other words, to create civilised people.
To achieve this, teachers reward discipline that is often unrelated to learning, and in ways that deter student creativity. They reward children for being docile and punish them for “acting out,” that is, for acting as their own masters. Children are expected to sit still for hours, control their impulses, focus on boring, repetitive tasks, move from place to place when a bell rings, and even ask permission before going to the loo. Think about that for a second.
Children are also trained to accept being measured, graded, and ranked publicly. This enterprise, which typically lasts well over a decade, serves as a systematic exercise in human domestication and makes us loyal employees.
In conclusion, it’s a mixed bag. Even though I’ve had fairly great school and college life (where I made the best of friendships), it’s a good exercise to look closer and think deeper nonetheless (about everything)—especially the hidden motives of all stakeholders. As with everything, what we superficially understand isn’t often the full story. The real reasons are hidden and needs deeper consideration to reveal themselves.
The goal of this exercise (of thinking deeply about how things work) isn’t to critique a system only as an intellectual activity. Every system has its flaws, and no system is completely wonderful or downright ugly. The goal is to study how systems work and question why things work a certain way—so that we can understand them one level deeper than others. This introspection makes us good thinkers.
The sign of a good thinker, after all, is one who knows both the sides of the story (despite one’s biases) and makes sure to weigh them against each other before making a decision.