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.

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