Friday, June 14, 2013

What I Wish I Had Learned in School

School for me was not really a pleasant experience. Oh, sure, it had its moments, but it was a struggle. On the one hand, we had the typical high school curriculum, which was about as exciting as paste, and on the other hand, we had the Darwinian social environment red in metaphorical tooth and claw. I didn't fit in either academically or socially, and when I got out of there, it was like a great weight had been lifted from me.

So it's hard to know exactly how to respond to this request: "The idea is pretty simple, we think that as the world becomes more complex, the formal education system is having a harder and harder time keeping up. Plenty of people are spending plenty of cycles looking for answers, but what we really want to do is ask a more fundamental question, 'What do you wish you had learned in school?' We think that by collecting people's personal stories, we can start to develop useful insights and perhaps even come to a few conclusions."

I guess my first, cynical, response the the question would be, "I wish I had learned how to escape."

I read today about things like Class Afloat, which is a high school taught on a tall ship,or the Bronx High School of Science, a so-called magnet school dedicated to (not surprisingly) science, or the Perpich Center for Arts Education, and so on and on and on, and I wonder, why couldn't I have been afforded any of those opportunities. But that's not what happens when you grow up in a small farming community in rural Ontario.

Certainly, I tried to make the most of my high school education, doing things like Reach for the Top and model parliament (where I was the leader (and only member) of the Fascism Reform Party) and band and drama and all the rest of it. I reveled in projects I could design for myself; the teachers gave me quite a bit of latitude, and I would write to embassies and government departments and such for raw materials.

What would I have done in an environment where I could program computers and build robots and write blogs and fly quadrocopters?  Or maybe my school would have been one of those where all this was tantalizingly out of reach, my internet access a small-town trickle of connectivity, the movie-making and the podcasting and robot-fighting something that people at Gloucester and Nepean and Lisgar did, not us out in the country at Osgoode Township (though now Metcalfe is an increasingly-nice suburb of Ottawa, and we might not have been able to afford to live there).

So anyhow, would I have liked to have learned all those things? Well, in the 70s, definitely yes - coming out of high school in 1979 already knowing to program a computer or build a robot would have been a huge advantage. Today, though, it might seem more like vocational education, kind of the 21st century analogue to the courses where the industrial arts kids learned to work on electrical circuits and car motors (you know - the advanced tech of the 1930s).

If I were in school today I'd probably be wanting to learn about carbon fibres and nanotubes and capacitors, genetic creation and manipulation, bioengineering, and all that sort of stuff. I'm not sure - I only know that some of this stuff exists, I'm not sure exactly where it's at and what you can build (or grow) in a high school science lab, but it would be fun to be 15 again and exploring these frontiers. Except that... I hated being 15, and I could wait to get out of there.

I wish we had had a track team at high school. We didn't have individual sports; we had only teams - football, soccer, hockey - and you had to make the team, which meant being able to get in the practice, which didn't work well for people like me, partially because I delivered papers every day and didn't have time for that, and partially because I really didn't like these other people very much (especially in places like soccer fields and locker rooms). But I could run, especially long distances - I once clocked a mile in less than five minutes (4:45 to be precise). But there was only soccer, and I rarely got to play.

Maybe "what I wish I had learned in high school" should have a category for stuff I actually learned, but wish I hadn't. Like the survival skills I needed to get through classes and after-school activities, for example, the reptilian flight-or-flight response that follows me to this day, the alternating thick and thin skin needed to ignore remarks but be keenly aware of when they might escalate into some sort of physical attack.

Maybe what I wish I had learned in high school would be those smooth social skills that the best of us in society display. Watching DARPA's Kathleen Fisher on video last week, for example, I was struck by her geniality and the comfortable manner in which she worked the room and traversed some difficult material. I'm sure we all know those people, they are the ones who always seem to be at ease, comfortable with themselves, able to reach out and really communicate with other people. But you don't see that a whole lot in the smaller and less well-off communities; it feels like the sort of thing you have to be in a position of advantage to be able to develop. But maybe I'm wrong about that.

I don't think people understand the difference between growing up on the inside and growing up on the outside; certainly people who are on the inside don't see it at all, and the people on the outside sometimes sense it, but what can they do?

Take smoking, for example. That's another thing I guess I wish I hadn't learned in high school (though to be quite honest, I guess I actually learned it working at the racetrack in grades 11 and 12, serving drinks in the box lounge). Smoking is a poor person's disease. The people on the inside, for whatever reason, grew up in an environment where you just didn't smoke, but all the working people smoked. You pretty much had to. That was in the 70s and 80s, of course; I'm sure that's all changed now. But there are plenty of other examples like that.

I don't regret not being born into a home where I always knew I would be going to Yale and teaching at MIT or maybe Stanford. I would have become a different person. It was enough my parents gave me the expectation that I would go to university, and the tools that would help me succeed. And I've always known since those days that what distinguished me from them was not some aspect of my education, nor my innate intelligence, nor my work ethic nor my compassion and dedication, no, none of that, nothing but simple facts of birth and social standing.

Yes, I sometimes wish I had learned to escape - but if I had ever gotten that wish, I would never have seen life on the outside, and never sensed the urgency of doing something once I got through university and was in a position to do some good in the world. So I guess that's not what I wish for.

I guess I wish I had learned integral calculus. Yeah, that would have made all the difference.