My friend and I were the black sheep of our program. While most of our peers spent their time and energy arduously answering questions posed by professors, we spent ours posing different, and what in our opinion were much more important and germane questions (though most might disagree). Long past the time they’d answered scripted questions with equally scripted answers, we continued to endeavor to answer our own, touting their importance and damning the fact that others dismissed them so flippantly. While those around us were proud of the education they were receiving and the work they were slaving over, we viewed our program as manualized, sterile, and top down. We deemed it a necessary hoop through which we needed to jump to finally access the freedom to think for ourselves, the credentials we needed to serve suffering individuals in a manner not taught or even touched upon by our APA-accredited program, and the ability to work outside of a broken, biased, and profit-driven system.
We aren’t geniuses and I’m certainly not suggesting we were smarter or any better than those around us. On the contrary, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time wondering if I am and will be less effective as a result of the constant resistance I feel and the inherent misgivings I have towards most systems. It seems the differences between our classmates and us laid in our expectations regarding the purpose of education and the disappointment we felt that it isn’t at all what we’d hoped.
There is a transformative power in education – not in our educational system – but in education. It’s my opinion that most formal education in the United States does more to facilitate and ensure conformity, compliance and the status quo than it does to elevate and empower any one individual, let alone any disadvantaged segment of our population. The further one pursues formal education in the United States, and the higher the degree one seeks to obtain, the narrower he or she is encouraged to be, in the name of expertise, specialization, and essentially, brandability. Our formal educational system wasn’t purposed for, nor has it ever been purely altruistic. It doesn’t function as a system through which people learn to recognize and challenge the signs of social injustice, identify and address the root of an issue or fight for the freedom to decide where their true interests lie. Its primary task has never been to give individuals the ability to connect knowledge, social responsibility and democracy, or give them the means to transform their selves and their world. Education can do this, but not our educational system.
There are strains of empowerment within our institutions to be sure – really good people doing really good work in spite of the stifling nature and ivory towers of academia. And of course there are individuals who are able to overcome great obstacles thanks in part to the education our system afforded them. I would argue however that their success is more likely a function of something within them than the education they received, as on the whole, our system strives harder for a profit and to feed an economic system than it does to spur human progress. As a result of its archaic, economic underpinnings, and though in many ways it might do so unwittingly, the U.S. educational system props up existing economic and social structures, and thwarts creativity, diversity, and curiosity by doling out a pale and vapid representation of real education.
And so, when I say there is a transformative power in education, I don’t mean in our public schooling or in the majority of our universities. I don’t mean that transformation is inherent in the acquisition of any particular bachelors, masters or doctoral degree. I mean that there is a transformative power in learning, in learning to learn, and in forging your own education despite the one provided you. There’s a transformative power in taking responsibility for what it is we learn from the information handed to us, and in deciding to think critically about the world, the ways we think, our assumptions, the questions people tell us need to be answered, and the answers they provide. A real education, in my opinion, is revolutionary. It nurtures the entire person and inspires. It values their inherent skills, abilities, and ideas. It encourages the learner to think and to see in a qualitatively different manner and allows the individual at long last to recognize the water they’ve been swimming in.
Real education depends upon what we choose and refuse to attend to, to read, the breadth, depth and variety of the things we think and talk about, and how willing and able we are to thoughtfully consider ideas that contradict our own and that which is considered common knowledge. It depends upon our ability to pan out beyond the details, to choose a broader view in order that we might recognize the flawed and narrow nature of the forced choices and realities we are presented, and the egocentric assumptions upon which much of what we “know” is based. And finally, it depends upon how willing we are to ask and answer our own questions and to remain focused on them despite our culture’s tireless efforts to lure us into answering theirs.
It should be said that pursuing this type of education will inevitably lead you down a path upon which you will become a black sheep, a prodigal son or daughter, and a threat to the existing state of affairs. But despite the struggles you will encounter, the experience is invaluable and transformative, and can assist in turning a lackluster life into something inspired. And though I’ve complained for the entire six years I’ve spent earning it, I will be immensely proud of the Ph.D. I’m awarded later this year – not as a result of the education I was given, but because through navigating and weathering its shortcomings, I was able to find and forge my own.
“I wouldn’t trust schooling for an education any more than I’d trust schooling for learning” … and … “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
– Mark Twain