No, it’s not where you think it might be…

Went to a talk in Cork the other night, on a topic I used to teach. More wonderful than the subject matter was the audience. The room was full of people who knew and cared more about the topic than I did.

Don’t know about you, but when I go where I’m new and don’t know anyone, I tend to be a bit quiet until I get the lay of the land. In this case it was a joy. I learned new things – and where their stories didn’t match my recollection of things that were second nature to me so many years ago, I simply let it slide. Why make an enemy over a detail that’s really unimportant to their story – and which may be clouded in my memory after so many years away from research libraries and classrooms.

It was fun watching and listening to people’s joy in learning new things, of re-discovering old things. I remembered my thrills finding the undiscovered or misinterpreted while wearing white gloves in an archive. It’s a feeling quite a few of these explorers still enjoy. I’d stepped into an environment I didn’t know I’d missed. Years ago I loved the tangible atmosphere of a university campus, full of inquiry, freedom to question, and freedom in general.

Then I started teaching. And learned that a campus was still a great place. Except for the students and what was being done to them.

They weren’t bad kids. They were just kids, interested more in learning to live in the world than in understanding how or why it came to be. Sure, every now and then I’d encounter the odd one on a mission. They’d been bitten by a learning bug and were a joy to work with. Most of the rest? More interested in learning how to deal with the system surrounding them, even if it didn’t really embrace them. You know what? I was that way when I was their age, too. Lost somewhere in the freedom of a social whirl away from home, job responsibilities and class requirements were the concepts of learning and understanding. Understanding not just how to but why, why not, should we, what if, and similar questions.

I’d found a system demanding answers to the wrong questions. Far from being an educational system, it was a training one. It trained our youth to be unquestioning lab rats on the economy’s treadmill of life. It was – and still is – a shame. As the oft-quoted line reminds us, “never let your schooling get in the way of your education.”

There’s a place for drones in society. But social expectations demand we put our best and brightest youth into an ivy-walled mold. Once you’ve emerged, castrated of curiosity, you’re ready to take your place as a productive cog in society.

Is it only as we get older, after we’ve navigated society’s expectations, that we take our freedom to learn and question back? The other night I joined people who appear to have taken back their lives. [That’s assuming they surrendered them in the first place.] How many more people have been used up and disposed of to collapse in front of their televisions at night?

I’m reminded of a World War II general who, when asked to describe the best infantryman, said, “a comic book reader with his brains beat out.”

Does our educational system create infantrymen for the world economy?