Why We Learn

Meats aren’t the point

It’s uncontroversial to suggest that the process we use to educate people is broken. Many brilliant people from a variety of disciplines have laid out the arguments. It’s worth an afternoon to sift through them, if only to develop your own perspective.

Driving towards a solution is difficult because even if we agree on the foundational problem, we each have different perceptions of the value and intention of education.

There’s a first-order way of thinking about solutions, which is generating a list of subjects which we should teach. For example, it’s popular these days for people to advocate a stronger emphasis on STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math. The argument, broadly, is that economies have moved from agrarian to industrial to informational, while our education has not kept pace. Critics argue that STEM is not enough, that we must include the arts into a STEAM education in order to produce fully rounded and empathetic adults. Why they call it STEAM and not MEATS, I cannot say. Or TEAMS. Or MATES. Also, I like the ring of SMATE. Please don’t put me in charge of words.

The second-order way of thinking about education is focusing on intention rather than subject matter. The thinking goes, unless we shift our perspective of what education is supposed to do, switching up the subjects will not have the effect we seek. Seth Godin argues that the current system was constructed with the intent of creating a pool of factory workers. The main trait we distill through 12-16+ years of education is obedience. Instead, he proposes, education should be rebuilt with the goal of instilling risk-taking and creative confidence. Along similar lines, Peter Thiel argues that higher education stamps entrepreneurship out of students, which is why he’s offered $100,000 to students willing to drop out to build a company.

These perspectives address a fundamental flaw in the STEM vs. STEAM debate, which is that the tools and tactics (in the form of subject matter) are secondary to goals and strategy. What we learn is less important than why we learn and how we are taught to use that knowledge.

You can know a lot of dance moves, and still not know how to dance.

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