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Real Education

Published on Apr 7, 2023.

How did we become soulless cogs, dancing to the beat of the corporate machine? What went wrong?

The indoctrination begins early. It begins as soon as we are old enough to read. In some cases, it begins even earlier. It happens in a place that we take for granted as a formative part of our youth, that we accept as a part of life and never question.

The indoctrination begins in school.

Taken at face value, the purpose of school is noble. It is to educate young minds, to hand down to them the skills and knowledge of past generations, so they can start off at an advantage instead of reinventing it all from scratch.

The purposes we attribute to education, however, is empirically not the effect it has on the minds and lives of the people who excel at its games. They do not come away as profoundly well-developed individuals. They do not emerge with even greater mastery and agency in their lives. They somehow all end up the same, doing the same things, living the same kind of conformist lives.

Intended or not, the output of education is a class of super performers who are incredibly good at specific things. These things are not the abstractions usually applied to education. They are not things like “critical thinking” or “innovation”. They are much more mundane, yet just as powerful.

It is the ability to follow directions and perform a cognitive task repetitively, under different circumstances, but with a high efficiency of performance. It is the ability to break down a problem into known sub-problems, the ability to solve those sub-problems with known techniques, the ability to maintain and expand a library of said techniques.

These are very useful, powerful skills, to be sure, but they are not personal. They do not depend on the character of the person conducting them, and they do not express their personality in any unique way. In fact, personality is removed entirely from the equation. You are measured by how well you execute on these known techniques, by how well the results match an external set of expectations.

That is what this class, this output of our systems of education, is so good at: matching patterns given to them. Suppressing individual personality. Deploying what they have learned for the purposes of their corporate masters. Nothing less, and nothing more.

Children are not like this when they enter school. They are so different from one another. Their likes and dislikes so readily apparent, their inclinations to some types of activities obvious and different than their peers.

So how then do we end up in a world where the most motivated, the hardest-working, the best performing all end up working in finance and tech, in jobs they themselves describe as “soulless”?

When I think of my school years now, what once seemed like a journey of intellectual exploration has a dark side to it now. A shadow that I didn’t realize then, but still felt. I felt it as resistance to the things I had to do. I didn’t want to do homework, but I had to. Time and time again, I had to suppress my natural interests and my natural curiosity to the altar of “doing what I was told.”

Eventually I didn’t want to do anything. But still, I had to rouse myself from a sullen stubbornness, sit down at a desk with books I didn’t want to see, and go through them. They called this “discipline”, and they called that sullen desire to not do anything “laziness”. Being lazy was the natural human state. Apparently, left to our own devices, we would just lie in some vegetative state, in front of our consumerist toys, watching television and eating candy, until he day we die.

Laziness is the Original Sin of the modern, industrial religion. It is the antithesis of the productive human beings we are supposed to be. We are taught that we must fight our inherent laziness if we are to ever reach our Heaven of Success, that it is only through the Rituals of Productivity that we can overcome our inherent vice.

The idea of sin is a powerful part of any religion. It explains the gap between who we are, and who we think we should be. Our imagination paints an image of a life dramatically different than the one we have right now, and we can’t help but ask: “Why do we not have it? Where did we fall short?”

Christianity says our sin comes from our susceptibility to the devil’s tempting whispers, first heard by Adam and Eve. Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism point to material attachment. Judaism has perhaps the purest form of sin – the difficulty of maintaining faith itself in the face of adversity.

The modern religion is no different. It also blames an inherent human shortcoming for our unsatisfactory lives. It blames laziness.

By the time we are adults, we accept this accusation blindly. Of course we are lazy, we think. That’s why we have to force ourselves to do things that we don’t want to, but that are good for us. It’s why we don’t want to go to work but have to, don’t want to go to the gym, don’t want to eat our greens. Left to our own devices, we would just indulge our inner couch potato, we know.

But this wasn’t always the case. Children aren’t inherently lazy. They are inquisitive, curious, playful, creative. They are full of energy and life. They only become lazy when we make them do things they don’t want to do, like homework and school.

School is not a journey of intellectual exploration, the teaching of conformity and hierarchy. It is the slow death of childhood and our natural creativity. In its place comes the foundation of a human being ready to participate in the grind of modern existence. Ready to hold down a job they don’t want to do, ready to take orders, ready to execute on them more like a piece of machinery than a unique individual.

What schools teach us is the basis of our hidden religion. At their disposal are the twin tools of tests and grades. These make the judgements wrought on you real, measurable, tangible. In a letter or a number, you can see how you are doing. This becomes the measure of your worth.

Those letters and numbers would be meaningless if no one cared about them. Tests and grades only have value because they are backed by social recognition. Our teachers and our parents value those letters and numbers immensely. We know this as soon as we start being told them. Does anyone remember the grades they got in kindergarten? Few do – but by 1st grade most of us remember getting some kind of feedback on our performance. Maybe not a number yet, but a sticker or a star. And we knew that some marks were special. We knew the told stars were better than the blue ones, because of how our teachers and parents responded to them. We could sense intuitively, at the age of 5, which kids got more recognition than others.

Even at that age, we are at the mercy of our primate brains. And one thing our primate brains love to do is calculate social hierarchy. We have a knack for it – a biologist would even call it an instinct. And our best way to gauge someone’s place in the social hierarchy is by the recognition they receive.

Even as children, we crave recognition. We want the gold star because the gold stars get the attention. And so we are indoctrinated into a kind of social order, spelling the beginning of our real education.