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The School to More School Pipeline: Thoughts on education, 'adulting', risk, and competence

haksayngAug 1, 2018, 10:15:03 PM

You may have heard of the school-to-prison pipeline, a terrible state of affairs in the US. Today, I turn to the less obviously harmful, though perhaps more culturally damaging School to More School Pipeline

Note: Here, I am mainly sharing anecdotes, talking about feelings, and thinking out loud (out... hypertext?). There will be no numeric data/graphs/etc. in what is to follow. Read no further if this displeases you!

The Go To School Risk Management Strategy

A couple years ago, I really began to crave practical knowledge (the only kind of knowledge, some people would argue). I had been a student for most of my life, going down the school-to-more-school pipeline from public school, to a four year university, and finally to graduate school. 

Yet I continued to feel very unprepared for the "real world"; wasn't all the formal education I had done so far supposed to make me more, not less prepared for that shadowy valley, the "real world"? Did I take a wrong step somewhere?

The Denial of Risk and Reality

Condensing much of the transmitted inter-generational wisdom I have received to a single statement, I get something like:

Manage risk by minimizing or avoiding it and work hard from a place of stability

It follows that one ought to wear a bicycle helmet, not throw all of one's life savings into Cryptocurrency, and develop a distaste for unnecessary dice rolling. Similar strategies can be applied to all domains of life. Consider Pascal's Wager: God exists or not, but if you bet that God doesn't exist and you're wrong, then you're screwed. So you should bet that God does exist.

This train of thought runs deeper. Going out into the world is risky, even in the absence of any significant threats of physical danger. Your emotions are always at stake as well. Not only is there violence in the world, there are mean people, hurt feelings, and... ughhhhhh I don't even want to think about it. I'd rather read the dictionary. Halp!

Fleeing from the unknown

A combination of certain personality traits (conscientiousness, agreeableness) and naivety is a recipe for putting up with a whole lot of inefficiency, study for the sake of study, and "work" that doesn't do much of anything besides keeping you busy. I hesitate to write "busy work" because this sort of work does not need to be mindless; one can spend a lot of time doing an intellectually challenging activity (e.g. playing a complex video game), but not actually "do much".

For those that are not familiar with risk, risk may be the scariest thing ever. "Fear of the unknown", as they say.

For many students, school is the familiar. And everything outside of school is the unfamiliar. For the student that has practiced classical music for hours every day growing up, continuing to do that constitutes the familiar. While prospects for getting a job in an orchestra (or as a soloist) may seem far and few, surrendering familiar is scary.

Rather than asking tough questions, the conscientiousness and agreeableness within us, combined with the inertia of routine suggests: stay the current course; hard work will set you free. Good drones grow wings.

Conscientious, agreeable worker drone types, understanding some activity as "productive" in the sense of somehow vaguely contributing to a "better future" or "employment" or something else hazy in the distance, fall into line. 

Falling into line

This preference towards minimizing or avoiding risk has been handed to many people in my generation (millennial). Call it "care," "privilege," or whatever you wish. I believe this preference is at the center of much of the pushing of the School to More School pipeline agenda.

The people around me, for the most part, were believers in the School to More School pipeline. For the my parent's generation and those before them, particularly if they had chosen a professional path (e.g. doctor, engineer, lawyer), I could see how the straight and narrow path of all A's in school after school looked like a tough, but ultimately rewarding route. With that straight and narrow road they had followed, however, often came a straight and narrow perspective.

This perspective is to push the "Manage risk by minimizing or avoiding it and work hard from a place of stability" strategy.

Often then, the "received wisdom" of many Millenials is to go to more school, to close one's eyes to costs and to try to avoid risk by choosing the "stable" option of more education. Sure, you'll have a place to go for some time and a label to give yourself (i.e. "student"). But, then what?

We turn to our textbooks. 🙉 La la la la la la! I can't hear you, common sense. I'm studying phenomenology.

I'm fortunate enough to not have gotten myself into student debt trouble because my parents paid for my school. I had a good time there and learned a lot, but I didn't earn a particularly useful degree. I probably could have had a good time and learned a lot in a lot of other places, making shekels along the way. But instead, I received something like a "grant" from the "government" called family.

What lesson did this teach me? I am of course, grateful that I didn't get student debt which is a terrible thing. But by not "paying" for my own choices and not having to justify why I was doing what I was doing in order to get tuition money, I may have been deprived of some valuable lessons in how to be a competent adult.


Proceeding into adulthood, many of Millennials have come to a peculiar understanding of "adulting" or "being an adult". This means: paying taxes, paying car insurance, paying life insurance, pay pay pay pay pay. And the way one is able to pay is to get a stable, high (enough) paying job. Or so the story is often told. "Adulting" is the journey and the final destination of the approach of managing risk by minimizing or avoiding it, and working hard from a place of stability.

Other implicit lessons that are often told include: the ends justify the means ("fake it till you make it"), if it's somebody else's money go crazy (why parents should really consider what paying for their children's college really means even if they are fairly well-off), and dress for success (even if you are asked to wear a suit in 100+ degrees weather).

"Adulting" does not necessarily reflect on the part of the worker: negotiation skills, emotional intelligence, risk tolerance, etc. You can do a single, very narrowly defined task, be well-compensated for it, and succeed at "adulting".

The School to More School Pipeline promises a path to "adulting". Formal education is nearly always taken with the end product, the degree, in mind. Otherwise you could learn what you needed to know from a job, a book or YouTube (with the exception of certain professional paths). More school may be very expensive, but if you have a scholarship (if it's somebody else's money), then go crazy. Schools have been the sites of some of the most absurd censorship in modern memory; dress and speak for success. 

Am I being a cockroach?

Asking yourself if you are being a cockroach is a challenging thing to do. This is particularly difficult to do if you have not been an especially excellent cockroach. 

A B-average student majoring in biology that never went onto a career in the health sciences? An English major that no longer reads books, despite getting all A's through university? Heaven forbid, a graduate student that finds more satisfaction writing blogs than academic papers (and thus isn't doing a particularly good job advancing an academic career)?!

What's to be done? If I can't be a good cockroach, what should I become?

One big problem with the School to More School Pipeline many of us have found ourselves passing through, is that we do not learn to (1) claim our own agency in deciding things, (2) assess ourselves honestly, and (3) negotiate. In other words, the School to More School Pipeline does not teach how to be entrepreneurial and succeed in (relatively) free markets, and so those of us who have been in the School to More School Pipeline for quite some time may lack these muscles we have not be exercising.

A combination of cultivating virtue and competence, I believe, is the only way out. For the sheltered Millennials, particularly those that chose "impractical" degrees in college, we additionally need to learn to wake up to the errors of our ways, falling into line in the School to More School pipeline. We need to confront what we have(n't) learned in our time pondering abstract structure. Finally, we need to learn how to negotiate, which includes taking risk and assuming responsibility.

Platitudes like "I'm following my passion" offer no comfort when you are lying to yourself.

Getting knowledge

Half a decade or so ago, I took up the habit of reading books that looked interesting to me. Chatting with friends, I begin to realize that most of the interesting and useful things I knew came primarily from outside the walls of formal education. Many things I have learned from inside school I have had to unlearn while many of the things I learned from outside school left me wondering, "why didn't anybody ever teach me this?" Or rather, "how did I get by so far without knowing this?"

For instance, I wanted to learn some more about money and living simply, so I purchased Early Retirement Extreme (2010) by Jacob Lund Fisker is subtitled "A Philosophical and practical guide to financial independence". One bite of wisdom from this book (worth a read!) went something like this:

It is much easier to cut your spending in half than to double your salary.

Naturally, cutting your spending may involve having to develop many skills you might otherwise pay for. This made sense to me (unlike continental philosophy): you may start with something simple like trying to make your own coffee instead of going out for it. 

These were much different perspectives than the "make use of all the grant resources you have available to you" or, "your parents are paying for college so just go" perspectives that I had already been familiar with. Taking the time to assess the prices for the things I pay for (whether directly, or using somebody else's money) and the products that are actually delivered is a valuable skill, but one that the School to More School pipeline didn't teach me. Fisker's book got me thinking about what it means to assess valuemanage scarce resources, and apply knowledge rather than uncritically shuffling down the School to More School Pipeline.

Soon after reading Fisker's book, I cancelled my enrollment in an (expensive) summer class and instead bought a nice guitar for less than the price of that class. I enjoyed many hours playing that guitar and I can re-sell it if I like. I also went to learn much of the content on my own for the course I had been signed up for.

This felt really strange because on one hand, I had just got rid of my answer to the "what are you doing this summer?" question. I previously had an easy, hand-wavy one word answer: "class". Society would accept that and we could go on shuffling about in our cockroachy ways. Instead, I felt a soaring sense of independence for taking a risk by becoming a temporary NEET (Not Educated Employed or in Training), at least on paper, and in doing so getting a decent deal out of it compared to what I would have paid for going the "conventional" route. Later that year, Bitcoin would pay for that guitar too, vindicating my spiritual journey 😄

The bad egg(head) blindly consumes resources without consideration of cost (not just financially, but in forgone opportunities, health, social life, etc.)

Offering value and virtue

Here, I offered an analysis of why I have made some of the choices I have made (going to a lot of school) and how the choices I have made have landed me into a "pipeline". Where is my tunnel-vision coming from?

Character flaws come to mind. I was cowardly and fell into line, rather than being courageous and responsible.  I used other people's resources (to go to school) in ways I wouldn't use my own shekels. I chose to put off asking hard questions (why am I studying five different languages at the same time in my early 20s?) to answer easier ones (which is the best Chinese dictionary?).

To many people around me, what I was doing was "cool" or "following (my) passion", or something handwavy like that. Fair enough, it has taken a lot of work and has been pretty fun. But has the value it has produced matched the price tag? Or, is it a subsidized, inefficient, "government" program?

The School to More School pipeline takes economic and ethical considerations out of students' decision making. I believe training ourselves on less abstractions and on more practical problems of pursing virtue, avoiding vice, and exchanging value for value is where the real education is. Insofar as formal education insulates us from questions of ethics and economics, we are dealing with the devil. 

More things to watch and read

For a general overview of some big problems concerning higher education in the West, I recommend checking out the "Is College Worth it?", a conversation between Tom Woods and Stefan Molyneux. For the strong of stomach, there is no shortage of horror stories about student loans all over the Internet, if that is your (bitter) cup of tea. My recommended reading for anything related to risk is anything by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Current events: Project Veritas on public education.