Why School? Part 1: Asking the Question

My Dear Students,

I would be surprised if sometime in your school career you had not asked the question, Why do I have to go to school?

I think that my younger self–who very often spoke those words–did not ask them because I actually wanted an answer. Instead, I used them as a tidy little rhetorical device whose true meaning was no greater than “Going to school is pointless.”  They were a part of my carefully gathered Collection of Complaints, and I used them as such with frequency.

I do not think I asked the question in sincerity until much later–and then wished that I had asked it sooner instead of using it to complain.

If you are one who makes frequent–or even occasional–use of those words why do I have to go to school, I wonder if you would be willing to set aside complaints (which, by the way, may not be unfounded–school is often very terrible!) momentarily and look to see if there might actually be some purpose for your daily suffering at the hands of the institution called School?

I do not rule out the possibility that you may have already asked the question in sincerity and have already received excellent answers. If so, I am duly impressed. (On the flip side, if you think you know the answers, I would encourage you to read on anyway, because there are a lot of not-so-great answers floating around out there.)

Neither do I rule out the possibility that you actually enjoy school (what?) and therefore have not found a need to ask the question either in complaint or in seriousness. Perhaps I have much to learn from you. 

For the rest of us, who ask or have asked the question frequently, I will press the point a bit. You could go about the rest of your school career unhappy with school and complaining about it, or you could try to understand why school might be worth your time and then go about the rest of your school career perhaps unhappy but at least understanding what the point of it all is.

No one can make that choice for you, but I can say that it seems irrational to me to choose the first option. Since the schooling is compulsory either way, why wouldn’t you at least want to know if it is worth your time?

Ah, but you say you already know it is not! I disagree, but I cannot change your mind here. I do urge you to reconsider and at least listen to what I (and others) have to say.

My dear students, I think that there are some very excellent answers as to why you should go to school, but you will never be able to hear those answers if you do not first let yourself be open to the question. That is why I have begun this series of posts with the intent of impressing upon you the importance of asking the question why do I have to go to school–which you may have asked many times before–from a position of genuine inquiry.

I will also add this: Just because I believe that there are excellent reasons why education is important does not mean that I think that all–or even most–schools actually offer the sort of education which is worthwhile. I do not say this as a cynic or as a critic, but actually as a form of encouragement: if you see the value in the answers I will offer, but feel frustrated that you do not actually see these things playing out in your own school, I encourage you not to let that frustration lead you to discard the answers as insufficient. Modern education is often far short of what it should be, and you are not alone in your frustration. I hope, actually, that some of the answers I will try to give you might help you understand on a deeper level why school is so frustrating for you (unless of course school is a delight for you–but alas, to that I cannot relate!). 

In my next post, I will begin to make a case in favor of excellent education and why we have to go to school.*

*I should note that I am using “going to school” in a general sense to include participation in formal schooling, including homeschooling.