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We Should Spend Less Time In School

What an institution it is, the school. Its roots reach back millennia, to the gymnasia of the Greeks, and perhaps still further than that — I wouldn’t know, for I never studied antiquity. Disappointingly, one commonality of all schools — be they ancient Greek or modern British — is that they are exclusive. Not only in terms of their curricula, but in terms of whom they allow to enter and how they teach them. In the modern day, we still have schools in the UK and Europe that exclude based on wealth and social class, as well as on religious grounds. Education in Northern Ireland is still not systemically integrated between the two communities who cohabit the province, and in England the desire to get one’s child into a Church of England school is all too well documented.

Rather than reflecting on these fundamental limitations, which ultimately exclude not only certain people, but also certain knowledge from the school boundaries, we choose to subscribe to a very modern dogma. This dogma proposes that we don’t need to reflect on such issues. At least, we don’t have to if we can just build more schools, and put more kids in them, for longer periods of time. Victor Hugo famously said (in what, for him, is a relatively succinct citation), “he who opens a school door, closes a prison.” But more and more frequently, I am beginning to question such wisdom. Of course, I agree entirely that more education is typically very important for the creation of a more harmonious society with fewer crimes. History and experience tell us so. But there is an enormous difference between education and school, and I fear that the latter is beginning to resemble a prison more so than its antithesis.

This claim may seem bizarre at first, but I implore you now to consider the main tenets of schooling today. It’s a timetable, it’s a curriculum, it’s a memory game. In this way, it’s actually quite an invasive and rigid system. It demands your time, tells you what you have to study, and refuses to reward you if you dare absorb any knowledge that falls outside the strict boundaries of its arbitrary decision. Some students excel in such a system, including most of the students here at St Andrews, I would imagine. Yet the deep roots that this system lays have a profound effect on our mentality towards education.

Given the fixed timings, answers, and subjects forced upon students in school, a clear temporal divide is quickly formed: on the one hand, we have the order and rigour of time spent in school, and on the other, the time of relaxation and recollection that is begun once at home. I know that homework muddies the waters here, but for the sake of the article — and because it is true — one should consider homework to fall under time spent in school, as the institution follows you home and invades your personal life those few hours further.

The crux of my argument is centred around the fact that this divide in fact prevents students from discovering their own passions and delving into them wholeheartedly. This divide has developed a mentality in which to be out of school means, for many, to be without the obligation to learn something new. There may be exceptions, I concede, but I find it rarer and rarer that students, outside the classroom, become independently obsessed over a unique topic — something that gives them a niche in the market — and intellectually pursue it to the ends of the Earth. One simply doesn’t have the freedom to do so anymore. Current infatuations such as cryptocurrency and NFTs don’t count, by the way, given that these equate to no more than glorified gambling. The fact of the matter remains that one is typically not going to pour themselves into the study of a book, a past thinker, a language, or a subject, on which they are not going to be tested. And what a shame that is.

Hence why less school and more education, hence why a system that rewards pupils for personal endeavour and intrigue, would be a good thing. I foresee rebuttals that shall be made to such an idea: firstly, on teachers, and secondly, on the important social aspect of school. I’ll approach the social aspect first, which is in fact total poppycock. I very much enjoyed the social aspect of school, as I’m sure many others did. But the idea that it serves everybody well is nonsense. We’ve all seen the heinous bullying that can take place, and the awful social circles into which naïve victims can fall. Furthermore, how does the uncomfortable forced interaction of school teach anybody anything about the social skills required in the outside world, where the rules of interaction change completely? Put simply, they don’t!

The rebuttal on teachers may barely be worth addressing, since a significant proportion cannot stand their job. Forbes reported in 2021 that a “record one in six teachers in England quit after just a year in the classroom.” This needn’t surprise you, given that their profession has utterly transformed from what it used to be. Unfortunately, more and more common is the case of the teacher-social worker hybrid, who spends just as much time managing the personal problems of their troubled students as they do explaining rhetorical techniques or mathematical equations.

In conclusion, I want these to be shared goals: more education, less schooling; more idiosyncrasy, less coercion; more zeal, less timetabling. My mind has changed on pedagogy, and perhaps yours shall also. Perhaps it depends on which school you went to, and what it chose forcibly to teach you.

Image: Unsplash, Museums Victoria

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