The Problem with Formal Education
Do the math: eight years of elementary education, four years of high school, and four more for an undergraduate degree. That is a minimum of sixteen years of schooling.
Sixteen years where you sit in class and listen attentively to someone teaching you to know something. At the end of the course, you take an exam for the teachers to verify how much you know.
If you fail the exam, it means you are ignorant. And if you fail too many classes you fail the year and must repeat the grade. There is a stigma attached; there are costs involved. So you better know. And you better pass. And you better pass with good grades—the better the grades, the better the job is expected.
It all sounds so innocent and acceptable, right? This is common sense, right?
I believe there are hidden costs to this system and some collateral damage that should not be ignored.
For sixteen years, for probably over hundreds of exams, you get conditioned not to admit that you do not know. You must know, or you fail. And failing is no fun.
So, the more educated a person is (especially those with “Piled High and Deep” degrees, i.e. PhD’s), he or she cannot say, “I do not know.” They must know as if their life depends on it. They were conditioned for more than twenty years to claim to know.
But today we live in a world with such a high rate of change that to not know is the rule—not the exception. But it is difficult to admit, is it not?
How many times have you accepted an argument not because you agreed to it, but because you were ashamed to admit that you did not understand what the person was telling you? So you nodded your head in agreement without knowing what the hell you were agreeing to, and then, when you were challenged about why you agreed to it, you became defensive and tried to prove that you did understand. You could not claim ignorance for the life of you.
Oh, the benefit of ignorance: you are open to learning. It is the curse of knowledge that stops you from learning something new.
Our education requirements are getting longer and longer. It used to be that having a high school diploma was enough to get a job! Not anymore. Now an undergraduate degree is a standard minimum requirement, and often even that is not enough. A Master’s degree is expected for higher positions and higher salaries. Soon we are all going to need a PhD if we hope to make a good living.
Why the prolonged education? More and more knowledge is being accumulated and needs to be shared. Our outdated system is geared to making people know, and they need to know more and more, so education requirements increase.
I suggest a revolution in education is needed.
We must be taught not to know, but how to learn. We must nourish people with the passion to continually learn from everything they encounter in life—not just from textbooks. We should teach people to be open-minded and not to be ashamed to claim ignorance, thus encouraging a greater willingness to learn more and more.
Exams should not test what facts we have learned from books but should ask what we think about what we have read. We should be encouraged to create our own theories—to think and have no fear of sharing what we think. To think does not mean to find out what it is that you know; you should be thinking about what it is that you want to know more about. The more we know, the more we should know how much we do not know. The more educated we are, the more ignorant we should feel.
At the Adizes Graduate School that I established years ago, the diploma does not say that the student completed his or her studies. No, it says that the person is permitted to continue his or her education.
I would say that one of my strengths as a consultant is that I often tell my clients, without fear, “I do not know. I do not have the answers. I have the questions.” If I have succeeded in my career as a consultant it is not because of my education, but in spite of it (I do have a PhD).
In my travels and consulting around the world, I have experienced different cultures and political systems. Those experiences eroded my convictions about which system is right and which is wrong. I am not absolutely sure of anything anymore. My travel experiences made me think. Everything I thought I knew was challenged, and I am proud of how ignorant I am.
Ichak Kalderon Adizes