Three Things to Unlearn from School

Bill Bullard, the former Dean of Faculty at my old high school, was scheduled to deliver the commencement address for this year’s graduating class. Last minute food poisoning prevented him from appearing in the flesh, but the text of his speech has been posted online (pdf). It’s classic Bill: intellectual and serious, eminently wise. If you’re like me and enjoy reading commencement speeches, it’s worth a print and read. He closes the speech by identifying three things students should unlearn from school:

  • The importance of opinion. "Schools, especially good ones…that so emphasize student voice, teach us to value opinion. This is a great deception. Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge; it requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge, according to George Eliot, is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world. It requires profound, purpose‐larger‐than‐the‐self kind of understanding."
  • The importance of solving given problems. "Schools teach us to be clever, great problem solvers, but not to include ourselves in the problem that’s being solved. This is a great delusion. It makes us arrogant and complacent and teaches us to look at the world as a problem outside of us. As in Oedipus, public problems – the plague on Thebes or our own pestilences, war or global warming – are private problems. The plague is only lifted when each person sees his responsibility not in analyzing the problem, not in solving the riddle, but in changing our actions to address a public need. Oedipus destroyed the two things that had deceived him – his eyes and his power – and in so doing saved his city."
  • The importance of earning the approval of others. "Schools teach students to seek the approval of their teachers. Indeed, for all of our differences, this is one area that parents and teachers share; we are wired or we are hired to believe in you, to approve you, to prevent or mitigate the experiences of disappointment…Try to correct this in two ways. First seek people, work for people who don’t have to like you, people who can easily disapprove of you, people that you can’t easily please.  Their skepticism or indifference will define you. Second, if you don’t how to do so already, begin working for yourself, and let the teachers be damned. But they won’t be – they’ll just be all the more approving because that kind of integrity can only command respect. After all, most of the work we devise is devised for students who are not working for themselves, so those that do surpass our expectations and teach us things that we’ve never thought of."

Bill had a big impact on me as a student. I vividly recall sitting in an English class in which we were reading Shakespeare. Bill was substituting that day. In a mere 45 minutes he delivered a stunning analysis of the text at hand and ended the class with three really provocative questions for us to chew on. I remember turning to the person next to me — neither of us said anything, but we were thinking the same thing: "That was fucking brilliant." From that moment forward I committed to trying to absorb through osmosis as much of his intellectual intensity and perspective as possible.

Teachers. It’s trite I know, but they are highly under-apprreciated in society.

14 Responses to Three Things to Unlearn from School

  1. Chris says:

    Good teachers are absolutely appreciated in society but the vast majority of teachers I’ve had have been the same stereotypical crap that is the norm.

    You’re lucky to have someone like Bill. I had 2 – 3 teachers that were really awesome through my experience in public school. One was actually my 4th grade teacher who I’m still in touch with at age 20.

    As for college professors, I’ve thus far had 2 fabulous ones.

  2. Ben, good post, although I don’t know that I agree with all of Bill’s advice. I think that figuring out how you can solve existing problems is actually a cornerstone of succeeding in the real world. And in terms of earning approval, while you shouldn’t allow your self-esteem to be defined by this, it certainly helps to learn how to persuade others to your point of view, and to be respected and valued in your field.

    The thing that I would suggest students “unlearn” from school is the direct relationship between individual effort and results. Hard work on your part won’t necessarily guarantee you the best outcome because in the real world, there are a lot more factors at play, including the relationships you establish with others and the confines of the system you find yourself operating in.

    Best,
    Alexandra Levit
    Author, They Don’t Teach Corporate in College
    Blogger, Water Cooler Wisdom

  3. Ryan Kellett says:

    I had Bill for freshman English. Wow, everyday I was entirely captivated. The class was tough, I didn’t do well. But dang, was it an experience…

    Can’t agree more with these three points. And surely, I need a reminder especially about not needing to earn the approval of others. When you go to class everyday, it’s hard to get away from that mindset which is such an ingrained part of the school system, even in college where “independence” rules.

  4. I believe we can learn by osmosis, if not by the actual presence of a teacher, then by his writings.

    You know you’re on track when you realize that you’ve learned more than you knew you did.

  5. Krishna says:

    Brilliant…

    To be honest, I had never bothered ranking the takeaways from formal education. Now I realize, where `opinions’ stand and why `empathy’ is so high in that order…

  6. Shefaly says:

    “In a mere 45 minutes he delivered a stunning analysis of the text at hand and ended the class with three really provocative questions for us to chew on.”

    So he gives you an opinion and 3 pre-formed, pre-packaged problems to consider. Then his speech says that you should unlearn these behaviours..

    Further, while Alexandra raises the point re solving problems, I think Bill’s point about unlearning ‘the importance of solving given problems’ may have more to do with the fact that the problem itself should sometimes be questioned. That is how unforeseen perspectives are discovered..

    If nobody questioned the given early premises that ‘slow metabolism makes people fat’ or ‘over-eating makes people fat’, many advances in genetics and the overall complex formulation of obesity may have never come to pass (sorry, an example from a topic close to my heart and the focus on my PhD thesis).

  7. Abel says:

    That shows how we still stick to something even though we know it’s not working. Another thing to unlearn is the impression that everybody is the same. Teachers expect that if one student can do it, you must be able to do it too.

  8. Nivi says:

    Peter Drucker has an interesting approach to opinions: there are no facts, only opinions (hypotheses) to be tested.

  9. Daniel says:

    Ben,

    Great post. I get the spirit of what you are saying even if I do not agree with all the specific points. It can only come from an entrepreneur! You’re fortunate to have been shaped by great teachers and I applaud the courage to dismiss the BS.

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  11. Oliver says:

    Very interesting. Many thanks for posting this.

    The link to the full speech is broken. May I ask you provide a new link for it ? I’d love the opportunity to read it.

    many thanks,

    Oliver

  12. That was f&*$#@! brilliant!

  13. C.K. says:

    Geez…and I thought my English teacher was crazy for saying that we would never be allowed to voice our opinions when answering questions in her class. But she is also obsessed with her pet wiener dog, so I’m not sure where to go with this…

  14. harit124 says:

    Another thing to unlearn from schools and colleges – In the real world, we all have different roles to play and are afforded different means to discharge them effectively. But, we will all be judged alike. Very unlike in school, where the whole class is given the same problem and graded by the same metrics.

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