During my formative years I didn’t understand the historical underpinnings of our educational system, nor did I have a sense of the factory education that I was about to receive. I had a worldview that was highly influenced by my socialization and my own ambition. I believed that formal education was the answer. I believed that our schooling system was designed for my (and others) benefit – to make us smart. I believed that if I became smart (which school would make me) then I would have a life of fulfillment, and economic prosperity. I knew that there were certain power structures in place in life. In my home it was my parents. They set the rules. If I complied with those rules then I would be rewarded. If I subverted them I would be sanctioned. In sports, my coach set the rules, gave the rewards and laid out the punishments. In school it was the teachers. If I wanted something, in any forum, I just had to comply with the rules. I also believed that it was the teacher’s role to make me “smart”. If I did what the teachers told me, if I learned the lessons they taught me, I would be smart. If I was smart then my life would go the way I wanted it to.
My paradigm dramatically shifted when I got to university. It was there where I first started to wonder what the purpose was in the educational system, and whether its structure was as altruistic as I has naively believed. As a young man I was very intellectually curious. I loved to explore, to read the encyclopedia and to learn new things about the world. If a subject matter interested me I would dive into it. University was a new world for me. I was constantly learning new things that I wasn’t previously aware of. It was exciting and engaging. Plus, the internet significantly magnified my intellectual curiosity.
I distinctly recall the day, the class I was in, and the professor, where the first cracks in my worldview surfaced. It was my sophomore year as an undergraduate student. I was taking an introductory macroeconomics class, a subject that in high school I had not previously studied. I was entranced with the question of whether government policy actually had an influence on the economy. I was reading widely outside of the normal class outline on the appropriate level of government stimulus and intervention. In my readings it was clear to me that this question wasn’t settled. In fact, there wasn’t really a right answer.
This was a new discovery for me. I had thought that school was simply memorizing what was in the books and then regurgitating it up at test time. I had trusted this process and believed that it was the path to making me smart and helping me to obtain the things in life I wanted. I had that process mastered (and my grades reflected it). But now I had the scary epiphany that there wasn’t always a right answer. This was unsettling to me because it introduced a variable in a game that I had thought I had mastered. The variable was a dangerous one because I couldn’t control it. What if I my interpretation of a particular problem was different from that of my teachers? What would this mean for my system? What happened when my own mind put me at odds with my teachers? What if I was right on certain issues? Or worse than that, what if there was no right answer, but the teacher controlled the grade? How was I to act then?
On that poignant day, in my macroeconomics class, my teacher started to discuss a concept that I had read widely in. This class characterized the unfortunate reality of many undergraduate classes: a distant teacher who had very little interest in the students, and the rudimentary nature of the course content; and distant students who had very little interest in the teacher and the course (other than getting the requisite credits to apply to their degree program). Each class was delivered in formal lecture format. Participation was not mandated or even encouraged. The Socratic method was far from employed in that class. The professor addressed his students like a preacher addressing his congregation, or a king his servants. His words were the factual truth, and all we needed to know about this particular subject matter.
I was different, or so I thought, from the other students. Despite the teacher’s mode of delivery, I found his lectures engaging. I was engaged because I had an interest in the topic. I actually cared about what he was teaching. I was reading outside of the material. Not because I had to, but because it was interesting to me. So on that formative day, early in the semester, after a particularly interesting lecture (at least to me), I summoned my enthusiasm and decided that I would go and introduce myself to the teacher. I wanted him to see me as a keen student, but more importantly I wanted to discuss the topic of the day’s lecture because I had actually read something that disputed what he was saying, and I thought that what he had said made less sense (practically) than was I had read.
His interaction with me was perhaps the defining moment of my formal educational experience (even though I continued my post-secondary education for many years after). This professor summarily dismissed me. He stated that my position was wrong. He didn’t engage, he didn’t inquire as to where I gained my contradictory information; he didn’t encourage me to further inquire. He flatly indicated that he was right and that I was wrong, and there was nothing further to discuss.
I left that encounter feeling confused and dejected. I didn’t have the contradictory references with me, so I couldn’t pull out support to refute him. But I just knew that the issue wasn’t this black and white. Looking back, the exchange happened quite quickly – a student with enthusiasm tries to engage a disinterested professor. The professor interprets the exchange as a student trying to challenge his intellectual domain. The professor uses the power structure to maintain order. There it was for me. That was my new epiphany. This wasn’t about becoming smart. This was a game. I had to learn to master the rules if I was to succeed and get what I wanted. Before I always believed that my teachers acted in my best interest – the interest in making me smart, helping me to learn. Now I knew that subjection was possible, and that there wasn’t always a right answer. I discovered that being smart wasn’t my teacher’s responsibility, it was mine. However the teacher still controlled my grade, and thereby my future (or so I thought). A future that I believed at the time needed a factory endorsement in order to thrive. Given this new variable I now had to adapt in order to survive.