Life is not a conveyor belt

8 July 2013

I think a major failing of the education system is that it gives kids an expectation that life is a series of levels. All you have to do is succeed at the current level, and then you’ll be moved along to the next one.

In the UK, school is divided up into “Key Stages”, with two or three school years per Key Stage. It’s a similar structure to a game like Sonic the Hedgehog - complete all the levels in a stage, and face Doctor Robotnik, in the form of a timed exam.

I’m not saying I have a better idea for structuring mass education - there are a lot of children that all need to go through school (while their parents are busy doing other things to earn money). Perhaps inevitably the system must share features with the factory, the farm or the army boot camp.

But what kind of mindset can this create? I’ve met people who seem to retain an idea that life is a sequence of stages that you go through, even though they have long left school. After graduating from university, they measure their success by how far they have progressed through what they perceive as the necessary next levels - in employment, work your way up the career ladder. In your spare time, get married, buy a house, have children.

I tell them my thoughts on marriage, for example. “Oh, you won’t feel like that when you get to my age”, they say. “Not when you get to my stage in life” - like I simply haven’t scored enough points yet, but maybe there is hope for me some day. “Now, look at this lovely kitchen we’re having installed.”

Once you’ve achieved all these levels, presumably you will find happiness. Eventually, you can retire, and later, when you’re too ill to feed yourself, you will be looked after by your children and grandchildren, and the equity released from your house. You can die happy, knowing that you got through the last 80 or so years without fucking anything up too much. Well done you.

Not everybody is like this, and I’m not quite there yet with my model for how all of society should be living. But this does seem like a rather boring way of life, indicating an absence of imagination. More worryingly, there is an implicit trust in this view, that the lifestyles of our parents and grandparents, cultivated in the 200 or so years since the industrial revolution, are somehow correct and permanent. This is the way things are. This is the way things should be. This is the way things will always be. This is how you succeed in life.

If you just fit in, follow instructions, act like everybody else and don’t ask questions, you will be fine.

But although it may be comforting to believe that our way of life is pretty stable, we humans have a pretty poor track record keeping anything constant for any length of time at all. Blindness and assumptions lead to all kinds of groupthink and bubbles.

I would love for all of those years of school to teach kids these lessons instead: Don’t follow orders, don’t blindly copy what others are doing, and always keep your wits about you.

Difficult to test these things under exam conditions though.


Once again, some interesting comments on this over at Hacker News