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Nobel Prize Winners Hate School.
January 14, 2004 6:29 AM   Subscribe

Nobel Prize Winners Hate School. Not that it takes a genius to figure out that 'school is a lot like prison but worse' (George Bernard Shaw) or that it "smothers every truly scientific impulse" (Einstein)....
posted by limitedpie (49 comments total)

 
there's nothing like education to ruin a genuine interest in a subject...
posted by slhack3r at 6:38 AM on January 14, 2004


"Nobel Prize Winners Hate School. "

A few selected quotes fail to prove this statement. What percentage of Nobel winners hate school? 100%. That's what the statement implies. What's the real answer.
posted by Outlawyr at 6:43 AM on January 14, 2004


As far as I'm concerned, all schools should be burned. On the other hand, what do you do with the great mass of humanity between the ages of 4 and nineteen years old, most of whom are not creative, especially intelligent, nor eager to learn? They call schools "warehouses for children," but what else are you supposed to do with non-gifted children? You can't have them running around loose, and they need to be socialized somehow, and kept from bothering the gifted children -- who should be separated into their own compounds and trained for leadership.
posted by Faze at 6:48 AM on January 14, 2004


Outlawyr: The title, which I took from the web site itself-- and probably should have used quotes around to have properly cited-- could imply some sort of survey or statistical analysis of the views of the set of prize winners. And, further, I don't know the "real answer." But I still think the consistency of the critique and the cross section of winners (in discipline and time) to be suggestive.
posted by limitedpie at 6:55 AM on January 14, 2004


The discipline and structure that most people learn in school is probably for the good of society as a whole. That the occasional creative genius feels inconvenienced by his homework does not justify eradicating the socialization of the vast majority of dullards who otherwise wouldn't internalize logical thinking, wouldn't consider alternatives to superstition, wouldn't develop formal abstract operations, etc. So you cant get rid of school. The other option is to create free hippy schools where everyone can sort of do as they please... society would crumble. Civilization is propped up by the ability of men and women to do what they don't exactly feel like doing.
posted by mert at 7:04 AM on January 14, 2004


The problem of course is that teachers tend not to be particularly clever or knowledgeable, and can't meet the needs of more intelligent students. Schools are a necessity for teaching the basics but don't (and likely can't) cater to the truly gifted.
posted by biffa at 7:06 AM on January 14, 2004


Summerhill School in Suffolk is progressive (i.e. freedom-oriented, democratic) education in action. As a school, it seems to be pretty successful in terms of its 'product'.
posted by plep at 7:10 AM on January 14, 2004


We dont have the incentives in place to have the most intelligent or capable people doing our teaching. Our society seems to reward people who make money, and teachers don't make a lot of money, so the bulk of people teaching do so because they love to teach, or they like children, or a myriad of other reasons not having to do with a big paycheck.
posted by gen at 7:12 AM on January 14, 2004


Shaw makes a good point about textbooks ("school books") being "written by men who cannot write" and thus turning kids off to books in general.

In defense of today's schools: These comments were mostly written long ago, when schools were more likely to be assembly-like factories of memorization and regurgitation than today's schools, which, in America, at least, include quite a few schools for the gifted (and not enough good schools for the kids who will end up laying pipe and brick and so forth.)

(BTW, according to The Daily Bleed - I start my classes with this - on this day in 1914, Henry Ford started the first assembly line, capable of putting together a Model T in ninety minutes. He was inspired by a Chicago slaghterhouse, which killed and processed 90,000 hogs a day.)
posted by kozad at 7:23 AM on January 14, 2004


The discipline and structure that most people learn in school is probably for the good of society as a whole.

What about the pack mentality, exclusionary attitudes, succeed-at-any cost attitudes, and mindless conformity they learn in school. That forthe good of society, too?
posted by jonmc at 7:29 AM on January 14, 2004


Yeah, if people didnt get mandatory schooling the world would be more like Appalachia.
posted by mert at 7:40 AM on January 14, 2004


What about the pack mentality, exclusionary attitudes, succeed-at-any cost attitudes, and mindless conformity they learn in school.

They learn that in school? That's news to me.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 8:01 AM on January 14, 2004


It doesn't seem to me that this should be an "either / or" construction. It is not as if the suggestion that: "schools fail at the mission of inspiring and encouraging (a love of) learning" entails the simultaneous proposition that: "schools should be eliminated entirely" (giving us Appalachia, as per mert.) I think plep (above) is on to an answer that might be embraced by the Nobel Prize winners-- our institutional framework for education has plenty of room to be re-thought, making it less like prison and more like, well, like a great place to learn.
posted by limitedpie at 8:04 AM on January 14, 2004


They learn that in school? That's news to me.

That's where we spend most of our time between ages 5 and 18. And that's where we're socialized with other kids. Where else would we learn it?
posted by jonmc at 8:08 AM on January 14, 2004


Where else would we learn it?

Why do you assume that such behavior has to be learned? It seems to me that people from many cultures and backgrounds, including those that lack compulsory education, exhibit the same kinds of behavior. Compulsory education is a relatively new phenomenon; "pack mentality, exclusionary attitudes, succeed-at-any cost attitudes, and mindless conformity" are generally not.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 8:37 AM on January 14, 2004


Surely if you pitched all your lessons at people of superintelligence they would fall flat!
Blaming teachers is a cheap shot, as they have a responsibility to make sure that as many children as possible can read and write. Attempting to facilitate a genius with lessons that would stimulate and interest them is a bridge too far, when some other guy in the class can't spell his name.
It is easy to blame school for all sorts of failings, but people should take responsibility for their own (or their childrens) development. Parents seem to send the kids to school and act like their children's education is out of their hands, when it is not.
posted by kenaman at 8:46 AM on January 14, 2004


"I still think the consistency of the critique and the cross section of winners (in discipline and time) to be suggestive." The consistency of the critique is the direct result of cherry picking quotes that support the hypothesis. There is nothing "suggestive" about that other than the bias of the person choosing the quotes. One could do the same with any topic, say for example to "prove" that nobel winners are all christians, or all atheists, or all love school, or all love potato bread.

Mmmmmm, potato bread. Yum.
posted by Outlawyr at 8:48 AM on January 14, 2004


If anything, the laureates understate the case. The current school system in the U.S. is an inexcusable blight.

The discipline and structure that most people learn in school is probably for the good of society as a whole.

Well, it's probably good for corporate America, with its endless appetite for unthinking orders-following drudges. Other than that, it is a DISASTER for society, and the direct cause of virtually every one of the problems we are now suffering.

but people should take responsibility for their own (or their childrens) development

Of course they should, and that includes not sending their children into this destructive school system, which is a failure and teaches nothing of importance and much that is dangerous or counterproductive.
posted by rushmc at 8:53 AM on January 14, 2004


Enough of your school bashing! If it weren't for school, you wouldn't even be able to write these rants. If it weren't for school, there wouldn't be an internet. If it weren't for school, there wouldn't be a Breakfast Club, or a Dazed And Confused.

Bah! Detentions for all of you!
posted by hammurderer at 8:57 AM on January 14, 2004


I made my comments about parental responsibility as a former teacher and I invite anyone who has not tried it to sit 30 kids down and teach them anything at all , never mind cater to 30 individual attention spans, levels of intelligence, interests etc.. all at the same time and make it the rich educational experience you all seem to feel is deserved.

disclaimer (30 kids not included)
posted by kenaman at 9:01 AM on January 14, 2004


kenaman: I don't think the criticism is of teachers, but rather of a system that endorses the delusion that you could actually "sit 30 kids down and teach them anything at all" especially noting (as you do) the wide disparity in aptitudes and interests. Why for example do we insist on age segregation of classes? I am not an professional educator, but it seems pretty common sense to me that all the good readers could be put together and all the struggling readers could be put together and both groups would find it far more enriching. For that matter, why put 30 kids together at all! Maybe with better priorities we'd put 5 or 8 together.
posted by limitedpie at 9:18 AM on January 14, 2004


A wiser man than I said all that needs to be said...
posted by jonmc at 9:25 AM on January 14, 2004


Why for example do we insist on age segregation of classes?

Because the older kids would beat up the younger kids.
posted by Jart at 9:26 AM on January 14, 2004


As far as I'm concerned, all schools should be burned.

Didn't they try that in China in the 60s? I don't think that worked out too well for them....
posted by mr_roboto at 9:36 AM on January 14, 2004


And that's where we're socialized with other kids.

Therein lies the problem. Kids are, by definition, immature. Left to their own devices, they form harsh, intolerant societies.

If it weren't for school, you wouldn't even be able to write these rants.

I would, actually; I never went to school.
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:45 AM on January 14, 2004


Well as anybody that wasn't "schooled" too much has noticed this isn't but a list of Appeals to Authority ; ask anybody and most of them will say "school somehow sucked" but that's always a retrospective evaluation one can make after discovering what was wrong with the schools they attended. Big deal.

I'd rather ask the Nobels what would they do to make more schools reach their objective of disseminating knowledge and encouraging tought without at the same time imposing evaluation methods that repress innovative thinking neither overvalue it just because of its innovative (?) connotation.

On a tangent: great geniuses are not necessarily great teachers.
posted by elpapacito at 9:49 AM on January 14, 2004


rushmc, as a teacher I am the first to point out the flaws in our national education system. But a disaster? I don't think so. There is still more good done in schools every day than there is bad. Society wants school to be the panacea for its ills, and teachers can only do so much. Don't for a second think that 20 minutes at home or in the neighborhood streets doesn't have more impact on a kid than 6 hours of school.

Teaching effectively is unbelievably difficult. It's an art form, and the rewards don't come through money or fame but in the microcosms of the classroom where that one student who improved his life by 10% is a reward.

Unfortunately, a lot of schools are still trying to teach the way that they taught 50 years ago, and our kids are different than they were then because society is different and has therefore socialized its children differently. But there are some very cool and exciting things happening in schools that have vision and understand that they have to meet the kids on their level before they can begin to teach them.
posted by archimago at 9:51 AM on January 14, 2004


ask anybody and most of them will say "school somehow sucked" but that's always a retrospective evaluation one can make

Bah. It was painfully evident what was wrong with each of the schools I attended at the time, no retrospection required.
posted by rushmc at 9:53 AM on January 14, 2004


Despite my familiarity with all the subtleties of education do to my job "in the industry", I still think it is more of a sledgehammer problem than a jeweler's chisel problem. Just as the existence of sewers has done vastly more for public health than any of the efforts of modern medicine, I believe that reducing classroom size can do way more for improving education than any of the complex techniques that researchers have come up with over the years. So much else falls out once you reduce classroom size - the "marching in lockstep" mentality goes away, the "teacher as perpetual babysitter problem" is reduced, and the independent thinkers are more free to do their thing while still receving support. Once we reduce classroom size, then it's worthwhile to pursue the subtle stuff.

That's where we spend most of our time between ages 5 and 18. And that's where we're socialized with other kids.

So, we need to isolate children from each other in order to prevent bad social habits?
posted by badstone at 10:11 AM on January 14, 2004


I am a little surprised the conversation has gone on this long without somebody tossing John Gatto out there.

I have come >< this close to homeschooling more than once.
posted by ilsa at 10:16 AM on January 14, 2004


Of course school's boring and mildly unpleasant. It should be. It's really just there to keep kids off the streets and give them direction. As for learning, that's mostly done by yourself until you get to college.

Think about what most Americans learn over the course of K-12. Myself, I really learned NOTHING except basic math until high school and I learned a bit more math, and basic chemistry and biology in HS. I also read some very good books. But I certainly didn't need 13 years to take away what I did. In fact, I had to unlearn most of the history and social studies that I took away because it was either a gross, gross oversimplification or a pointed lie. (Particularly the stuff about the Soviet Union and all of the wars featuring American involvement.)

Learning comes from reading and listening on your own time. School is there to keep you from becoming a commie, give you less time to huff paint thinner and learn to function in society. We should just admit that and allow that the social learning of a school environment is valuable and then remove the ideological conditioning to make it even better.

As for blaming teachers, there's no need. They're irrelevant as far as learning goes. The only bad teachers are the ones who absolutely can't maintain a semblance of order or structure.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:16 AM on January 14, 2004


There's a lot of misconceptions surrounding this subject, which are apparent in this thread. First of all, most people seem to equate "school" with "centralized, bureaucratic, hierarchical, age-stratified, authoritarian, state-managed-and-financed compulsory school" - just because this is the only kind of school most of us have experienced. And by corollory, we also assume that "schooling" is necessary for "learning" or that they are indeed the same thing. But consider, do children need to go to school to learn to walk, or talk? How is it that this miracle occurs without state intervention? Because we're amazingly well evolved (or designed, if you insist) to learn - humans are insatiably curious, inventive, and always trying to "find out".

Read former NY State "teacher of the year" John Taylor Gatto on the History of American Education - or for a slightly punchier read, check out his classic Dumbing Us Down.

The reference to Summerhill is also instructive - it's been in operation since the 1920's and has produced doctors, lawyers and so on. Closer to home, Daniel Greenberg's Sudbury Valley School has been carrying on a succesful experiment in democratic schooling for almost 40 years. The kids there actually get to vote for next year's staff at the end of each year. The point is, how do we expect kids to learn to be politically active and aware members of society if we raise them under conditions of absolute powerlessness - how do we expect them to respect others if they are shown no respect themselves? Read Greenberg's Free At Last for a great quick intro to the apparently heretical concept that if kids are given some control over their own education, they actually respond positively. Particularly instructive is the anecdote about the group of kids who wanted to learn math:

Sitting before me were a dozen boys and girls, aged nine to twelve. A week earlier, they had asked me to teach them arithmetic. They wanted to learn to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and all the rest.
posted by dinsdale at 10:42 AM on January 14, 2004


(not sure why this got chopped off...)

the result:

In twenty weeks, after twenty contact hours, they had covered it all. Six years' worth. Every one of them knew the material cold.

And since that time this episode has been repeated at dozens of 'democratic schools' across America and around the world - 20 hours of instuction is about how long it takes an interested 9-12 year old, of average intelligence, to learn all the math they would learn in a regular school in 6 years ("...long division. Fractions. Decimals. Percentages. Square roots." etc.) The key word being "interested" - think back to your public school career, what do you *actually remember* from what you were taught - isn't it the small subset of things that actually caught your interest, that lit a fire of some kind inside you and made you *want to learn it* - shouldn't this be the actual goal of education? - "give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach him to fish and he'll feed himself for the rest of his life" and all that.

The point is not some either-or choice between *exactly the system we have now* and some terrible anarchy of "hippie free schools" or "chinese cultural revolution" scenarios. For start, we should have a much broader range of educational strategies, under more local control, in which parents and the community at large are included. There are many many parents and educators working toward this, but the habits and assumptions of compulsory state-monopoly schools are going to be very hard to overcome...
posted by dinsdale at 10:55 AM on January 14, 2004


dinsdale, you got my vote for the school board! (In the meantime, I plan on homeschooling...)
posted by limitedpie at 11:04 AM on January 14, 2004


Mayor Curley, with all due repsect, you only think you didn't learn anything until you were in high school. Your perception of the development of a child's mind is skewed. A lot of what we learn as children is how to learn and how to teach ourselves things later in life. You may not have needed 13 years, but the process takes a long time. The human brain just isn't capable of certain things until we reach a certain age and our powers of reasoning and logic are developed, based on biology. None of us are born with knowledge. It's a system that builds from itself. You don't just one day wake up and know that the history you were taught in school was oversimplified, you come to that realization over time as you process new information, and it's the way you were taught in school that gives you the ability to process new information.

We'd all like to think that we were born as the geniuses we are all so sure we are, but we weren't.

great links, dinsdale!!
posted by archimago at 11:05 AM on January 14, 2004 [1 favorite]


School is there to keep you from becoming a commie

:::rolls eyes:::

Your entire comment is an acknowledgement that school is a waste of time, yet you utterly fail to justify the waste of time, though you would retain it.
posted by rushmc at 11:14 AM on January 14, 2004


archimago- you're right that there is lots of skill building in the younger years. I should have acknowledged that. But I still think that you're better off getting the hard facts from your folks, their bookshelf and the local library.

rush- rolls your eyes all you want, but where I went to school we were forced to pledge alliegance to a flag and taught from a young age that our system of government was a perfect democracy where everyone had an equal voice. If that wasn't just make us say "no!" to leftist elements, then why did my teachers bother?

And I didn't say that school is a waste of time. I said that it was there to take up our time, as in "idle hands" and what the Devil will do with them. It's there to keep you busy, and to force you to socialize, and think that those are good things-- without mandatory schooling, we'd have a lot more petty criminals and creepy loners. Some folks would even be a combination who put "lawn ornament thief/serial killer" on their tax returns. So I would retain schools because the alternative for kids is a lot of TV and vandalism.
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:40 AM on January 14, 2004


Curley, I understand what you are saying about information being sanitized, and I guess it depends on the age we are talking about. Young kids would have a hard time processing and understanding the disparity between the ideal and the real, and had I kids I would want them to learn in school the ideal of a free democracy because then they will know enough, when they get older and start to pay more attention to the world beyond their arms' reach, to question when we fall short of that ideal and why. I think you are being a bit harsh on what schools teach kids though. It's important for kids to feel safe and secure and that all is right with the world. There will be plenty of time for reality when they get old enough to handle it, and a well-developed and happy child may one day change the world.

And I agree with you about hard facts. That is typically the information that children put the wall up against. The only things that I remember as facts are the things I am interested in or for some reason have just stuck in my brain all these years (like singing Jingle Bells in Latin). Kids will remember information as they become interested in it. The real value of an educated child is that the child can educate him/herself when his/her brain is ready for that. The sad reality is that many parents don't have the time to do this for their own children, let alone the patience for properly educating their children.
posted by archimago at 11:52 AM on January 14, 2004


You make perfect sense, archimago! Thanks for illustrating it that way.

(The funny thing is that my girlfriend designs early childhood curricula (I swear!) and has been trying to get me to understand the same thing for months. Something that you wrote made it click suddenly.)
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:04 PM on January 14, 2004


Unfortunately, you can't wait for kids to become interested. The sad truth is that kids have short attention spans and while they're curious, they don't want to put in the work that would let them develop certain skills. This is also the time at which they absorb information most easily though. It sort of *doesn't matter* whether they remember specific facts explicitly later. Language, math concepts, spatial reasoning, and basic music NEED to be taught before age 15 for kids to really be able to exploit those skills later on. And the easiest, cheapest, most infallible ways to teach them are often the most boring. If you wait for them to be interested, you may find that their curiousity happens too late - they might learn something, but not as much as they would have had they had the initial seeds earlier in life. (Anyone tried learning Chinese as an adult?)

I'm not saying that schools are great. I hated several aspects of grade school, particularly the sheer amount of make-work. But they do ensure that everyone has a shot at engaging their best abilities if they ever do get curious about anything . . . .
posted by synapse at 12:12 PM on January 14, 2004


So I would retain schools because the alternative for kids is a lot of TV and vandalism.

But this is the part of your argument that doesn't at all follow. There are an infinite number of alternatives to school other than these two. Can you really not imagine them?
posted by rushmc at 12:23 PM on January 14, 2004


rushmc:
Bah. It was painfully evident what was wrong with each of the schools I attended at the time, no retrospection required

Well so you were brilliant enough to understand something was wrong even when you were a kid. Good for you. Damn I don't have any Nobel prize left for you, better luck next time :)

Would you like to enlighten us on what was wrong with the schools you attended ?
posted by elpapacito at 12:26 PM on January 14, 2004


synapse, in a roundabout way you are elaborating on what I stated earlier about teaching being an art form. The really good teachers, if they can't get the students interested in the subject, get the students interested in them as a person. If you can hold the attention of the students, then that is half the battle. I joke with my fellow teachers that I get kids to learn hard and fast grammar (boring, groan, sigh) by tricking them into learning it. But essentially, that is what I do. I teach them without them realizing that I am trying to teach them something. And for the most part, and certainly not universally, once they see that it doesn't have to be boring, then they start to become interested in it. This style of teaching requires a lot of energy, and if I didn't love it so much, I would be completely burnt out at the end of every day!!

Trends in education these days are leaning toward what you are saying about not waiting for kids to get interested in something but rather working with what you already know they are interested in. It's more of a diversified classroom approach where the students are broken down into subsets and there are multiple things going on in the classroom at once. The old chalk and talk really doesn't work anymore, not for students in any grade. Again, it's almost like tricking them into learning. Find something that gets their attention and by god milk it for as long as you can and in as many forms as you can!!
posted by archimago at 12:37 PM on January 14, 2004


archimago, I definitely hope I get someone like you to teach my kids. I do some volunteer work where we go out to local schools and talk about the brain. We definitely use as many "tricks" as we can to get them interested (fortunately it's pretty easy since we bring preserved brains with us.) Even with these novelties, we're lucky if we can keep them for a couple of hours. One day of volunteering is enough to wipe me out, so I have nothing but respect for teachers.

If they're lucky, kids get great teachers. But any kid that goes to school gets a shot at exposure to things that might later allow them to pursue their interests. And sometimes their only option is to learn that stuff the boring way. Your brain learns things best in your early years, so it's imperative to engage it then, even if your personality hasn't decided what's important yet.
posted by synapse at 1:03 PM on January 14, 2004


Well so you were brilliant enough to understand something was wrong even when you were a kid.

You missed my point, which was that it required NO brilliance whatsoever, it was so blatantly apparent.
posted by rushmc at 1:43 PM on January 14, 2004


This has been one of my favorite pages for a long time (simplistic argument from authority though it is). In addition to John Gatto and the Sudbury Valley School, Grace Llewellyn writes interesting stuff on the topic, particularly her case studies of kids who don't go to school. One of the few things I'm thankful for is getting out of school as early as I did.

As is often the case, Frank Zappa said it best: "If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library." I don't understand how anyone can claim that school teaches kids to learn for themselves; learning for myself taught me to learn for myself.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 7:21 PM on January 14, 2004


School is like a 12 step brainwash camp
They make you think if you drop out you aint got a chance
To advance in life, they try to make you pull your pants up
Students fight the teachers and get took away in handcuffs
And if that wasn't enough, then they expel y'all
Your peoples understand it but to them, you a failure
Observation and participation, my favorite teachers
When they beat us in the head with them books, it don't reach us
Whether you breakdance or rock suede adidas
Or be in the bathroom with your clique, smokin reefer
Then you know they math class aint important 'less you addin up cash
In multiples, unemployment aint rewardin
They may as well teach us extortion
You either get paid or locked up, the pricipal is like a warden
In a four year sentence, mad *nobel prize winnas* never finish
But that doesn't mean I couldn't be a doctor or a dentist
posted by ejoey at 7:32 PM on January 14, 2004


I don't understand how anyone can claim that school teaches kids to learn for themselves; learning for myself taught me to learn for myself.

You can say this in retrospect because you have had the benefit of an education, either formal and structured in a school system or at home via your parents.

I'm just a teacher who has spent many years studying my craft and studying the psychology of my craft and the way that human children learn, so I guess I have no idea what I am talking about. Sorry that all my evidence comes from books and not Web sites to link to so I guess everything I say is anecdotal.

Ishmael, before you go into the world and use reason and logic, you have to learn how to use reason and logic. Something like mathematics and/or science trains your brain to think in this way. The occasional genius is born with that gift, but most of us have to be taught how to think that way either by a teacher or a parent.
posted by archimago at 6:17 AM on January 15, 2004


before you go into the world and use reason and logic, you have to learn how to use reason and logic.

Precisely. And the majority of "product" produced by our education system is severely deficient in this regard.
posted by rushmc at 9:05 AM on January 15, 2004


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