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How the Education System Destroys Social Networks – Article by Jeffrey A. Tucker

How the Education System Destroys Social Networks – Article by Jeffrey A. Tucker

The New Renaissance HatJeffrey A. Tucker

I was at a restaurant for lunch and had time to visit with the waitress, who turns out to be a college graduate from a good institution. She has a degree in European languages. Here she is waiting tables with nondegreed people, some five years her junior, some 10 years her elder.

She is making good money, but so are her co-workers. You have to wonder: given her position, what was the professional advantage to her of those four hard years in school and the $100K spent on them? What were the opportunity costs?

This is not another article to disparage the value of a college degree. I would like to raise a more fundamental question. It concerns the strange way in which our education system has overly segmented our lives into a series of episodic upheavals, each of which has little to do with the other, the value of one accomplishment being oddly disconnected from the next stage, and none of them directly connecting to our professional goals except in the unusual case.

From the earliest age until adulthood, we’ve been hurled from institution to institution in a way that eventually sets young people back from developing continuity of plans and a social support system to realize their goals. At the end of it all, people find themselves back where they started: figuring out their market worth and trying to find a buyer for their services.

Instead of drawing down on accumulated capital, they end up starting fresh at age 22. Even after years of building social capital, they are drawing down on a nearly empty account.

There is something seriously wrong with this system. Shouldn’t our investments in our friendship networks extend across and beyond the stages of our development to make more of a difference in our lives?

The post-graduation diaspora

In a couple of months, for example, many millions of high school students will graduate. Celebration! Sort of. It’s great to finish school. But what’s next?

Many students find themselves devastated to lose the only social group and friendship network they’ve ever known. They worked for years to cultivate it, and in an instant, it is blown apart. They are left with a piece of paper, a yearbook of memories, a transcript, and, perhaps a few recommendation letters from teachers — recommendations that do them little good in the marketplace.

“Don’t ever change,” they write in each other’s yearbooks. The sentiment expresses a normal longing to hold on to the investment the students make in each other’s lives, even as everything about the system tries to take that investment from them.

Is this the way it should be?

Then, the same group, or at least many among them, look forward to college, where they are mostly, again, starting from scratch in a social sense. It can be very scary. College students begin their new experience isolated. They work for another four years to develop a network — a robust social group — to find their footing and to establish both a reputation and sense of self. This is the only world they’ve known for years, and they have invested their hearts and souls into the experience.

The social fabric ends up rich and wonderful, with intense friendships based on shared lives.

Finally, after four years, the graduation march plays, the tassel is moved from one side of the cap to the other, and the whole social apparatus goes up in smoke — again. Then, another diaspora.

Once again, students find themselves nearly alone, with few hooks into the world of commerce and employment. They have a degree but few opportunities to monetize it. Their social network is of limited use to them. All they have, yet again, is a piece of paper. Plus they have recommendation letters from professors that still do them little good in the marketplace.

This not always the case. There are workarounds, and digital networking is helping. People join fraternities and social clubs, and those can be useful going forward. But it might take years for these connections to yield results. The more immediate question is this: What do I do now? Lacking a broad sense of the way the world works, and missing any influential hooks into prevailing networks, a college grad can often find herself feeling isolated once again, starting over for the third time.

The failure of the central plan

This is the system that the civic culture has created for us. For the years from the ages of 14 through 22, students’ primary focus of personal investment and social capital building is centered on their peers. But their peers are just the same as they are: hoping for a good future but having few means to get from here to there.

Why does this keep happening? Looking at the big picture, you can start to see a serious problem with the educational system politicians have built for us. It is keeping people “on track” — but is it a track that prepares people for the future?

A core principle of the education system, as owned and controlled by government, is Stay in school and stay with your class. This is the emphasis from the earliest grades all the way through the end of college. The accidents of birth determine your peer group, your primary social influences, and the gang you rely on for social support.

To be “held back” is considered disgraceful, and to be pushed forward a grade is considered dangerous for personal development. Your class rank is your world, the definition of who you are — and it stays with you for decades. Everyone is on a track as defined by a ruling class: here is what you should and must know when. All your peers are with you.

Many factors entrench this reality. The public school system is organized on the assumption of homogeneity, a central plan imposed from the top down. It didn’t happen all at once. It came about slowly over the course of 100-plus years, from the universalization of compulsory schooling, to the prohibition of youth work, to the gradual nationalization of curricula.

In the end, we find the lives of young people strictly segmented by stages that are strangely discontinuous. Where are the professional contacts that result? Where are the friends who can smooth your way into the world of professional work? They aren’t among your former classmates. Your peers are all in the same position you are in.

Laws that lock people out

The workplace might help to mitigate this problem, but it’s incredibly difficult for young people to get a regular job thanks to “child labor” laws that exclude teens from the workforce. For this reason, only one in four high school kids has any real experience outside their peer group. They miss all the opportunities to learn and grow that come from the workplace — learning from examples of personal initiative, responsibility, independence, and accountability.

There are extremely narrow conditions under which a 14-year-old can find legal employment, but few businesses want to bother with the necessary documentation and restrictions. A 16-year-old has a few more opportunities, but, even here, these young people can’t work in kitchens or serve alcohol. The full freedom to engage a larger community outside the segmented class structure doesn’t come until after you graduate high school.

By the time the opportunity comes around to do authentic remunerative work, a student’s life is filled with other interests, mostly social, but also extracurricular. Instead of working a job, people are doing a thousand other things, and there seems to be no time left. It’s not uncommon for people to graduate with no professional experiences whatsoever to draw on. Their peers are their only asset, their only really valuable relationships, but these relationships have little commercial value.

How natural is any of this?

If you look at the social structure of homeschooling co-ops, for example, younger kids and older kids mix it up in integrated social environments, and they learn from each other. Parents of all ages are well integrated too, and it creates a complex social environment. The parents know all the kids and, together, they form a diverse microsociety of mutual interests. This is one reason that homeschooled kids can seem remarkably precocious and poised around people of all ages. They are not being artificially pegged into slots and held there against their will.

A better way

When you read about the experiences of successful people in the late 19th century, they talk of their exciting and broad experiences in life, working in odd jobs, meeting strange people of all ages and classes, performing tasks outside their comfort zone, encountering adult situations in business that taught them important lessons. They didn’t learn these things from sitting in a desk, listening to a teacher, repeating facts on tests, and staying with their class. They discovered the world through mixing it up, having fabulous and sometimes weird experiences, being with people who are not in their age cohort. They drew on these experiences for years following.

The system to which we have become accustomed is not of our choosing, and it certainly isn’t organic to the social order. It has been inflicted on us, one piece of legislation at a time. It is the result of an imposed, rather than evolved, order. Why wait until age 22 to get serious about your life?  Why stick with only one career choice in the course of your appointed 40 years in professional life? Why retire at the young age of 65, just because the federal government wants you to do so?

Think about this the next time you attend a graduation. Are the students shedding only tears of joy? Or, in the sudden mixture of emotions, is there also the dawning realization that they are witnessing the destruction of a social order they worked so hard to cultivate? Are they also overwhelmed with the knowledge that, in short order, they will have to recreate something entirely new again? Where is the continuity? Where is the evidence of an evolved and developing order of improved opportunities?

The most important question is this: What are the alternatives?

Bring back apprenticeships. Bring back remunerative work for the young. Look beyond the central plan, and don’t get trapped. Rethink the claim that staying in school is an unmitigated good. Find other ways to prevent your heavy investments in others from dissipating; ensure instead that they will pay more immediate returns. Our friends should remain in our lives — and yield a lifetime of returns.

Jeffrey Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Content for the Foundation for Economic Education and CLO of the startup Author of five books, and many thousands of articles, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World.  Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook. Email

This article was originally published on Read the original article.

How to Study for a Test: Principles from a Successful Test-Taker (2007) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

How to Study for a Test: Principles from a Successful Test-Taker (2007) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
July 19, 2014
Note from the Author: This essay was originally published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007.  I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time.  
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 19, 2014
Perhaps you are looking to ace a standardized test. Or you want to get an A in an Advanced Placement (AP) high-school course or a challenging upper-level college course. Getting a high score on any test can be considered a skill in itself – apart from knowledge of the subject matter being tested. In fact, many people who are otherwise great learners and know a subject in detail tend not to score as well on tests as they could. If you are one of those people, here are some helpful suggestions as to how to improve your performance. These principles have helped me – among other things – to obtain an SAT score of 1580 (under the old system), an ACT score of 35, straight A grades throughout Advanced Placement courses and other classes in high school, as well as straight A grades in undergraduate college courses. I do not mention this to boast of my talents, as I do not consider myself to possess any exceptional abilities inaccessible to anyone reading this article. You can do what I did – honestly and genuinely – if you follow the proper techniques.

First, remember that every instructor and testing organization has certain patterns or modes of functioning that you can expect and anticipate. Sometimes the teacher or organization might not even be aware of these modes of functioning. They are just the ways of doing things that seem natural to the teacher or the people in the organization: ways that fall in line with their habits, general personality, expectations of students, and evaluation of what is important in the subject matter. Nonetheless, these modes of functioning manifest themselves quite systematically, and they affect the tests designed by that instructor or organization.

There is no a prior way to know what these tendencies are; you will simply have to watch the teacher or organization for patterns. If you are dealing with a large institution that puts out standardized tests, you will have a substantial body of prior exams to analyze for patterns. Ask yourself: what kinds of questions tend to occur most often? What is the prevalent format of the questions? What are the skills that tend to be tested most frequently? Unless large departures from prior procedure are explicitly announced and publicized by the testing organization, you can be sure that future tests will be extremely similar to past tests. Having examined past tests sufficiently, you can be sure to have a vast pool of data at your fingertips, hinting to you what you should concentrate on most in your preparation.

If you are studying for a test from an instructor you know, you have other helpful indicators to guide you along in your studying. If the instructor emphasized certain topics in class repeatedly, you can be sure that they will be tested. If the instructor states that the test will be over a certain section of a book-but he did not cover all the material in that section – focus on the material that he did cover; he likely considers that material to be more relevant than the material he omitted. If in doubt, ask the instructor for additional clarification; you might not always get an answer, but you will be surprised at how receptive most teachers and professors are to clarifying what you will need to study.

Take detailed notes during the class lectures; do not rely on your memory alone to understand the class material. You can be following the instructor perfectly in class and forget everything he said a few days later. Having notes on everything he said will give you a reliable study aid for the exam-one of the most important aids you can get. The notes will help you recall anything you forget later; they are also an excellent way of figuring out what is likely to be tested. The night before the exam, review all the notes so that the material is fresh in your mind. In the meantime, try to develop a technique for taking notes more efficiently, so that you can record all the essential things an instructor says and writes on the board, at the rate at which he says and writes them. Learning a system of shorthand or developing your own will assist you greatly in obtaining accurate transcripts of classroom lectures.

Use your time efficiently; remember that it is possible for you to work really hard at learning interesting material that has little relevance to the exam. If you enjoy learning for learning’s sake, more power to you. I, too, like to accumulate knowledge for pleasure. However, do not consider time spent in this fashion as studying for the exam in question. The primary purpose of studying for a test is not to expand your knowledge base – though that may be a secondary consequence. It is, rather, to give you the highly limited and specific ability of answering the fairly narrow range of questions a given test might contain. If approached properly, this can be a far narrower task than the accumulation of general knowledge about anything; thus, it can be a task that can be accomplished in several hours as opposed to several months. Becoming more knowledgeable is not something you can effectively do the night before an exam; you should have been doing it since the beginning of the course or several months in advance of a standardized test. The purpose of intensive studying is much more immediate; it is to get you ready to face the specific challenges with which the test presents you. You probably already know a lot more about the subject being tested than you imagine. The key to success on the test is to be able to express your knowledge in the proper format.

In general, you will be well on your way to success if you approach at studying for the test not as a body of knowledge to be learned, but as a task to be completed. To understand this better, consider an analogy. Learning all you can about tables and actually making a table are two quite distinct endeavors. Studying for a test is more like making a table. If you do it right, you can not only be sure that you are spending your study time in a manner that will actually help you; you will eventually be able to accurately determine when you have studied enough and are prepared to take the exam – just like if you were making at table, you would know it if you were finished. Then you will be able to approach the exam confidently and rationally, knowing that you are well equipped to earn some of the highest grades possible.

Open Badges and Proficiency-Based Education: A Path to a New Age of Enlightenment – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Open Badges and Proficiency-Based Education: A Path to a New Age of Enlightenment – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
March 9, 2013

A major and tremendously promising opportunity has emerged to achieve a new Age of Enlightenment through technology and to enable large numbers of people to desire, seek out, and enjoy learning. Open Badges are an initiative spearheaded by Mozilla but made available to virtually any organization in an open-source, non-restrictive manner. Open Badges can make learning appealing to many by rewarding concrete and discrete achievements – whether it be mastering a skill, performing a specific task, participating in an event, meeting a certain set of standards, or possessing a valuable combination of “soft skills” that might otherwise go unrecognized.  But even beyond this, Open Badges allow for the portability of skill recognition in a manner that far outperforms the compartmentalization present in many of today’s formal institutions of schooling, accreditation, and employment. Individuals would no longer need to “prove themselves” anew every time they interact with a new institution.

Open Badges are still in their infancy, but you can begin participating in this exciting movement and earning your badges today. Based on the economic understanding of network effects, the more people actively use Open Badges, the more opportunities will become available through the system. An introduction to open badges (along with the opportunity to try out the system and earn several badges) can be found at For a more detailed discussion, Dave Walter’s paper “Open Badges: Portable rewards for learner achievements” is recommended. (This paper, too, will enable you to earn a badge.)

Various organizations already issue badges. To immerse yourself in the earning of Open Badges, you will be able to find several introductory badges on the Badge Bingo page from Codery. For badges that can demonstrate some basic skills, the Mozilla Webmaker series enables earners to validate their basic HTML coding knowledge. For individuals and organizations seeking to issue their own badges, sites such as Credly offer an easy way to create and grant these awards.

Mozilla Backpack can currently be used to host and share the badges, though other compatible systems also exist or are in development. Mozilla Backpack gives you the option to accept, reject, and classify badges into various “collections”. For instance, you can see a collection of all the Open Badges I have earned so far here, and a more skill-specific subset – all of my Mozilla Webmaker Badges – here. In a future world where badges will exist for a wide variety of competencies, one could imagine linking a prospective employer, business partner, educator, or online discussion partner to a page that documents one’s skills and knowledge relevant to the exchange being contemplated. Unlike a resume, whose value is unfortunately diminished by those dishonest enough to present falsehoods about their past, Open Badges are more robust, because they include metadata linking back to the issuer and containing a brief description of the criteria for earning the badge. Moreover, Mozilla Backpack offers you complete control over which badges you allow to be publicly visible, so you remain in control over what you emphasize and how.

Open Badges make possible a development I had anticipated and hoped to partake in for years: proficiency-based education. I have only known about Open Badges for less than a week at the time of writing this article. Serendipitously, I learned of their existence while reading “Ubiquity U: The Rise of Disruptive Learning” by Mark Frazier, and I was so intrigued that I embarked that same day on intensive research regarding Open Badges and the current status of their implementation. In the next several days, I strove to discover as many issuers of Open Badges as I could and to earn as many badges as I could feasibly obtain within a short timeframe.

However, my earlier writings have looked forward to the availability of this type of innovation. As a futurist, I take pride in having been able to accurately describe the future in this respect.

In February 2013, in “The Modularization of Activity” (here, here, and here), I wrote that “Education could be greatly improved by decoupling it from classrooms, stiff metal chair-desks, dormitories, bullies, enforced conformity, and one-size-fits-all instruction aimed at the lowest common denominator. The Internet has already begun to break down the ‘traditional’ model of schooling, a dysfunctional morass that our culture inherited from the theological universities of the Middle Ages, with some tweaks made during the mid-nineteenth century in order to train obedient soldiers and factory workers for the then-emerging nation-states. The complete breakdown of the classroom model cannot come too soon. Even more urgent is the breakdown of the paradigm of overpriced hard-copy textbooks, which thrive on rent-seeking arrangements with formal educational institutions. Traditional schooling should be replaced by a flexible model of certifications that could be attained through a variety of means: online study, apprenticeship, tutoring, and completion of projects with real-world impact. A further major breakthrough might be the replacement of protracted degree programs with more targeted ‘competency’ training in particular skills – which could be combined in any way a person deems fit. Instead of attaining a degree in mathematics, a person could instead choose to earn any combination of competencies in various techniques of integration, differential equations, abstract algebra, combinatorics, topology, or a number of other sub-fields. These competencies – perhaps hundreds of them in mathematics alone – could be mixed with any number of competencies from other broadly defined fields. A single person could become a certified expert in integration by parts, Baroque composition, the economic law of comparative advantage, and the history of France during the Napoleonic Wars, among several hundreds of relatively compact other areas of focus. Reputable online databases could keep track of individuals’ competencies and render them available for viewing by anyone with whom the individual shares them – from employers to casual acquaintances. This would be a much more realistic way of signaling one’s genuine skills and knowledge. Today, a four-year degree in X does not tell prospective employers, business partners, or other associates much, except perhaps that a person is sufficiently competent at reading, writing, and following directions as to not be expelled from a college or university.”

Even earlier, in 2008, I offered, as a starting point for discussion, an outline of my idea of proficiency-based education to PRAXIS, the Hillsdale College student society for political economy and economics. Below is my (very slightly expanded) outline. It pleases me greatly that the infrastructure to support my idea now exists, and I hope to contribute to its widespread implementation in the coming years.

Proficiency-Based Education: A Spontaneous-Order Approach to Learning

Outline by Gennady Stolyarov II from September 2008

The Status Quo

– Shortcomings of classroom-based education – “one size fits all”

– Shortcomings of course-based education – difficulty accommodating individual skills, interests, and learning pace. Grades lead to stigma of failure instead of iterative learning.

– Information problem of communicating one’s qualifications

– Negative cultural effects of segregating people by age and by generation – i.e., the “teen culture” generation gap

– Factory-based education system versus meaningful individualized education

Proficiency-Based Education

– Proficiencies replace courses.

– Proficiency levels replace grades.

– Proficiencies are easily visible and communicable to employers.

– Proficiencies are transferable by those who have them, up to their level of proficiency.

Emergence of Proficiency-Based Education

Can be done privately by individuals or firms

– Can be done in person or on the Internet

– Can be done within and outside the university system

– Can be done for pay or for free

– People with proficiencies can pass the proficiencies on to their children/relatives/friends

– Incentives exist to restrict transfer of proficiencies to qualified persons.

– Networks of providers of Proficiency-Based Education can form. It will not be a centrally planned or directed system.

Advantages of Proficiency-Based Education

– Faster learning

– More individually tailored learning

– Ease of displaying one’s exact set of skills

– More hiring will be based on merit, since merit will be easier to see and verify.

– Indoctrination in politically or socially favored but objectively absurd notions will be much more difficult.

– The “teen culture” will disappear. Young people will be better integrated into adult society and will assume meaningful rights and responsibilities sooner.

– Proficiency-Based Education takes full advantage of all existing technologies, leading to a more technologically literate population with greater ability to control and improve the world.

– Greater integration of theory and practice and market selection of ideas that tend to bring about useful practical results


Open Badges provide the mechanism to coordinate the many thousands of competency-based or proficiency-based certifications and other achievements that I envision. While the processes leading to the demonstration of competency or accomplishment can be undertaken in any way that is convenient – online or in person – it is essential to have a universally usable digital system documenting and affirming the achievement. The system should be compatible with most websites and organizations and should not be locked down by “proprietary” protections. Proficiency-based education can only work if the educational platform is not inextricably attached to any particular provider of certifications, or else the very use of the proficiency system will remain compartmentalized and inapplicable to vast areas of human endeavor.

The free, open-source, and user-driven design of Open Badges provides exactly these desirable characteristics. At the same time, while Open Badges are free to create and issue, individual badges can be designed and offered by organizations that offer paid instruction – so that even traditional classes could be revolutionized by the introduction of competency-based elements, perhaps as a replacement for grades or, in the interim, as a mechanism for earning a grade. With the latter method, to get an “A” in a course or on a project, one would not need to pass a timed exam where every wrong answer constitutes a permanent reduction of one’s grade. Rather, one would need to earn certain kinds of badges demonstrating the completion of course objectives.

The motivational aspect of Open Badges stems from the immense engagement that is possible as a result of visible, incremental progress. This same motivating tendency explains the tremendous popularity of computer games. (Indeed, one initiative, 3D Game Lab, is developing an explicit educational computer game that will allow integration with coursework and Open Badges.) By enabling the earning of granular achievements (similar to “achievement” in a computer game), Open Badges keep learners focused on honing their skill sets and pursuing concrete objectives. At the same time, Open Badges facilitate creative approaches to learning and recognize the diversity of optimal individualized learning paths by leaving the choice of activities and their sequence entirely up to individual badge earners.

If billions of humans could become “addicted” to learning in the same way that some are said to be “addicted” to computer games, our civilization would experience a rapid transformation in a mere few years. Technological progress, institutional innovation, and the general level of human decency and morality would soar to unprecedented levels, at an ever-accelerating pace. Age-old menaces to our civilization, arising from pervasive human failings and institutional flaws, could finally be eradicated through vastly enhanced knowledge and a voluntary, enticing channeling of many people’s desires and enjoyments into highly productive paths that produce “positive externalities” (to use the jargon of economists). Open Badges, proficiency-based education, and the addition of game-based learning elements (up to and including full-fledged games, like the Mars Curiosity Activity from Starlite Digital Badges – just a hint of what is to come) can enable humankind to make decisive strides in its efforts to build up our civilization and beat back the forces of death, decay, and ruin.

Iterative Learning versus the Student-Debt Trap – Video by G. Stolyarov II

Iterative Learning versus the Student-Debt Trap – Video by G. Stolyarov II

Mr. Stolyarov explains why the structure of formal schooling does not teach the ways in which real achievements are attained. The worst obstacle to true, iterative learning is student debt that locks people into a particular path for most of their lives.

– “Iterative Learning versus the Student-Debt Trap” – Essay by G. Stolyarov II – The Rational Argumentator. This essay was originally published on the as a guest post on the “Education Bubble and Scam Report” website.
– “Reasons Not to Pursue a PhD” – Video by G. Stolyarov II
– “Advice for Most Recent High-School and College Graduates” – Video by G. Stolyarov II
– “Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Education” – Video by G. Stolyarov II

Iterative Learning versus the Student-Debt Trap – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Iterative Learning versus the Student-Debt Trap – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
December 18, 2012
This article was originally published as a guest post on the “Education Bubble and Scam Report” website.
Contemporary formal schooling inculcates a counterproductive and often stressful fallacy into millions of young people – particularly the best and brightest. The fallacy, which undermines the lives of many, is that, when it comes to learning, productivity, and achievement, you have to get it absolutely right the first time. Consider how grades are assigned in school. You complete an assignment or sit for a test – and if your work product is deficient in the teacher’s eyes, or you answer some questions incorrectly, your grade suffers. It does not matter if you learn from your mistakes afterward; the grade cannot be undone. The best you can do is hope that, on future assignments and tests, you do well enough that your average grade will remain sufficiently high. If it does not – if it takes you longer than usual to learn the material – then a poor grade will be a permanent blot on your academic record, if you care about such records. If you are below the age of majority and prohibited from owning substantial property or working for a living, grades may be a major measure of achievement in your eyes. Too many hits to your grades might discourage you or lead you to think that your future prospects are not as bright as you would wish.
But this is not how the real world works. This is not how learning works. This is not how great achievements are attained. It took me years to figure this out. I was one of those students who insisted on always attaining the highest grades in everything. I graduated first in my class in high school (while taking honors and Advanced Placement courses whenever they were offered) and second in college – with three majors. In high school especially, I sometimes found the grading criteria to be rather arbitrary and subjective, but I spent considerable time preparing my work and myself to meet them. While I did engage in prolific learning during my high-school years, the majority of that learning occurred outside the scope of my classes and was the result of self-study using books and the Internet. Unfortunately, my autonomous learning endeavors needed to be crammed into the precious little free time I had, because most of my time was occupied by attempting to conform my schoolwork to the demanding and often unforgiving expectations that needed to be met in order to earn the highest grades. I succeeded at that – but only through living by a regimen that would have been unsustainable in the long term: little sleep, little leisure, constant tension, and apprehension about the possibility of a single academic misstep. Yet now I realize that, whether I had succeeded or failed at the game of perfect grades, my post-academic achievements would have probably been unaffected.
How does real learning occur? It is not an all-or-nothing game. It is not about trying some task once and advancing if you succeed, or being shamed and despondent if you do not. Real learning is an iterative process. By a multitude of repetitions and attempts – each aiming to master the subject or make progress on a goal – one gradually learns what works and what does not, what is true and what is false. In many areas of life, the first principles are not immediately apparent or even known by anybody. The solution to a problem in those areas, instead of emerging by a straightforward (if sometimes time-consuming) deductive process from those first principles, can only be arrived at by induction, trial and error, and periodic adjustment to changing circumstances. Failure is an expected part of learning how to approach these areas, and no learning would occur in them if every failure were punished with either material deprivation or social condemnation.
Of course, not all failures are of the same sort. A failure to solve a math problem, while heavily penalized in school, is not at all detrimental in the real world. If you need to solve the problem, you just try, try again – as long as you recognize the difference between success and failure and have the free time and material comfort to make the attempts. On the other hand, a failure to yield to oncoming traffic when making a left turn could be irreversible and devastating. The key in approaching failure is to distinguish between safe failure and dangerous failure. A safe failure is one that allows numerous other iterations to get to the correct answer, behavior, or goal. A dangerous failure is one that closes doors, removes opportunities, and – worst of all – damages life. Learning occurs best when you can fail hundreds, even thousands, of times in rapid succession – at no harm or minimal harm to yourself and others. In such situations, failure is to be welcomed as a step along the way to success. On the other hand, if a failure can take away years of your life – either by shortening your life or wasting colossal amounts of time – then the very approach that might result in the failure should be avoided, unless there is no other way to achieve comparable goals. As a general principle, it is not the possibility of success or failure one should evaluate when choosing one’s pursuits, but rather the consequences of failure if it occurs.
Many contemporary societal institutions, unfortunately, are structured in a manner hostile to iterative learning. They rather encourage “all-in” investment into one or a few lines of endeavor – with uncertain success and devastating material and emotional consequences of failure. These institutions do not give second chances, except at considerable cost, and sometimes do not even give first chances because of protectionist barriers to entry. Higher education especially is pervaded by this problem.
At a cost of tens of thousands of dollars per year, college is an enormous bet. Many think that, by choosing the right major and the right courses of study within it, they could greatly increase their future earning potential. For some, this works out – though they are a diminishing fraction of college students. If a major turns out not to be remunerative, there may be some satisfaction from having learned the material, and this may be fine – as long as it is understood that this is a costly satisfaction indeed. Some will switch majors during their time in college, but this is often in itself an extremely expensive decision, as it prolongs the time over which one must pay tuition. For those who can afford either non-remunerative or serial college majors out of pocket, there is the opportunity cost of their time – but that is not the worst that can happen.
The worst fate certainly befalls those who finance their college education through student debt. This was a fate I happily avoided. I graduated college without having undertaken a penny of debt – ever – largely as a result of merit scholarships (and my choice of an institution that gave merit scholarships – a rarity these days). Millions of my contemporaries, however, are not so fortunate. For years hereafter, they will bear a recurring financial burden that will restrict their opportunities and push them along certain often stressful and unsustainable paths in life.
Student debt is the great disruptor of iterative learning. Such debt is assumed on the basis of the tremendously failure-prone expectation of a certain future monetary return capable of paying off the debt. Especially in post-2008 Western economies, this expectation is unfounded – no matter who one is or how knowledgeable, accomplished, or productive one might be. Well-paying jobs are hard to come by; well-paying jobs in one’s own field of study are even scarcer. The field narrows further when one considers that employment should not only be remunerative, but also accompanied by decent working conditions and compatible with a comfortable standard of living that reflects one’s values and goals.
Money is ultimately a means to life, not an end for its own sake. To pursue work that requires constant privation in other areas of life is not optimal, to say the least – but debt leaves one with no choice. There is no escape from student debt. Bankruptcy cannot annul it. One must keep paying it, to avoid being overwhelmed by the accumulated interest. Paying it off takes years for most, decades for some. By the time it is paid off (if it is), a lot of youth, energy, and vitality are lost. It follows some to the grave. If one pays it off as fast as possible, then one might still enjoy a sliver of that precious time window between formal education and senescence – but the intense rush and effort needed to achieve this goal limits one’s options for experimenting with how to solve problems, engage in creative achievement, and explore diverse avenues for material gain.
If you are in heavy debt, you take what income you can get, and you do not complain; you put all of your energy into one career path, one field, one narrow facet of existence – in the hope that the immediate returns are enough to get by and the long-term returns will be greater. If you wish to practice law or medicine, or obtain a PhD, your reliance on this mode of living and its hoped-for ultimate consequences is even greater. You may defer the payoff of the debt for a bit, but the ultimate burden will be even greater. Many lawyers do not start to have positive financial net worth until their thirties; many doctors do not reach this condition until their forties – and this is the reality for those who graduated before the financial crisis and its widespread unemployment fallout. The prospects of today’s young people are even dimmer, and perhaps the very expectation of long-term financial reward arising from educational debt (or any years-long expensive formal education) is no longer realistic. This mode of life is not only stressful and uncertain; it comes at the expense of family relationships, material comfort, leisure time, and experimentation with diverse income streams. Moreover, any serious illness, accident, or other life crisis can derail the expectation of a steady income and therefore render the debt a true destroyer of life. Failure is costly indeed on this conventional track of post-undergraduate formal schooling.
It may be difficult for many to understand that the conventionally perceived pathway to success is in fact one that exposes a person to the most dangerous sorts of failure. The best way forward is one of sustainable iterative work – a way that offers incremental benefits in the present without relying on huge payoffs in the future, all the while allowing enough time and comfort to experiment with life-improving possibilities at one’s discretion. Diversification is the natural companion of iteration. The more you try, the more you experiment, the more you learn and the more you can apply in a variety of contexts.
Having avoided the student-debt trap, I can personally attest to how liberating the experience of post-academic learning can be. Instead of pursuing graduate or professional school, I decided to take actuarial and other insurance-related examinations, where the cost of each exam is modest compared to a semester of college – and one can always try again if one fails. In the 3.5 years after graduating from college, I was able to obtain seven professional insurance designations, at a net profit to myself. I have ample time to try for more designations still. My employment offers me the opportunity to engage in creative work in a variety of capacities, and I focus on maximizing my rate of productivity on the job so as to achieve the benefits of iterative learning and avoid the stress of an accumulated workload. I could choose where I wanted to live, and had the resources to purchase a house with a sizable down payment. Other than a mortgage, which I am paying ahead of schedule, I have no debt of any sort. Even the mortgage makes me somewhat uncomfortable – hence my desire to pay it off as rapidly as possible – but every payment gets me closer to fully owning a large, tangible asset that I use every day. In the meantime, I already have a decent amount of time for leisure, exercise, independent study, intellectual activism, and family interactions.
My life, no doubt, has its own challenges and stresses; anyone’s situation could be better, and I can certainly conceive of improvements for my own – but I have the discretionary time needed to plan for and pursue such improvements. Moreover, the way of iterative learning is not fully realizable in all aspects of today’s world. Comparatively, I have fewer vulnerabilities than debt-ridden post-undergraduate students of my age, but I am not immune to the ubiquitous stressors of contemporary life. We continue to be surrounded by dangers and tasks where it is truly necessary not to fail the first time. As technology advances and we come to life in a safer, healthier world, the sources for life-threatening failure will diminish, and the realm of beneficial trial-and-error failure will broaden. The key in the meantime is to keep the failure points in one’s own life to a minimum. Yes, automobile accidents, crime, and serious illnesses always have a non-zero probability of damaging one’s life – but even that probability can be diminished through vigilance, care, and technology. To avoid introducing vulnerability into one’s life, one should always live within one’s present means – not expectations of future income – and leave oneself with a margin of time and flexibility for the achievement of any goal, financial or not. Productivity, efficiency, and skill are all welcome assets, if they are used to prevent, rather than invite, stress, anxiety, and physical discomfort.
Learning absolutely anything of interest and value is desirable, as long as the cost in time and money – including the opportunity cost – is known and can be absorbed using present resources. This principle applies to any kind of formal schooling – or to the purchase of cars, major articles of furniture, and electronic equipment. If you enjoy it, can afford it out of pocket, and can think of no better way to use your time and money – then by all means pursue it with a clear conscience. If you cannot afford it, or you need the money for something more important, then wait until you have the means, and find other ways to use and enjoy your time in the interim. With the Internet, it is possible to learn many skills and concepts at no monetary cost at all. It is also possible to pursue relatively low-cost professional designation programs in fields where sitting in a classroom is not a requirement for entry.
Remember that success is attained through many iterations of a variety of endeavors. Try to make each iteration as inexpensive as possible in terms of time and money. Except in times of acute crisis where there are no other options, avoid all forms of debt – with the possible exception of a mortgage, since it is preferable to the alternative of renting and giving all of the rent away to another party. Do not put all of your time and energy into a single field, a single path, a single expectation. You are a multifaceted human being, and your job in life is to develop a functional approach to the totality of existence – not just one sub-specialty therein. Remember, above all, never to lose your individuality, favored way of living, and constructive relationships with others in the pursuit of any educational or career path. You should be the master of your work and learning – not the other way around.