April 1, 2012

Unlearning School

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The last few weeks have seen us go into our usual oh-my-god-I-have-so-much-work-to-do, can-I-please-just-unload-all-my-stress-onto-you? modes. I am, of course, a regular and willing participant in the self-inflicted student sufferfest also known as prelim season. I mean, what’s a little stress now if it pays off later as relief and satisfaction at  having survived and perhaps, if lucky, passed a few of my courses? The suffer-now enjoy-later strategy is definitely an appealing one. Stress, sleep-deprivation, caffeine addictions, bad hair and “eh, I’ll just use deodorant” days are ultimately all temporary. And though some may have pretty serious long term side-effects, I’ll still take them if they produce a high enough grade for graduate school or a job at Google or wherever my dream job might be. Who wouldn’t? But as I bombarded a friend of mine with my freshest round of complaints the other day, I realized that this round of prelims and papers may be one of the last times I have someone tell me an exact time and date on which I will be evaluated and what I will be evaluated on. The seemingly quite normal and rationalized worrying about exams that I have come to embrace all of a sudden didn’t seem so helpful. For 22 years, students are taught that the way to succeed is to do as the teacher or the syllabus tells you. When there’s a test, study; when there’s an exam, study harder; when there’s a paper, go to the library, do some thinking and report back with a clear and organized version of that thinking. Oh, and while you’re at it, be sure not to make mistakes –– too many will result in an F, even a few will ruin your GPA. Students, then, learn to be extrinsically motivated, failure-avoiding machines. And they develop mental habits suited to such a system. Upon entering the “real-world” (adult speak for the post-college world where you look back on your time in college with cloudy-eyed nostalgia) the “stress now and relax when I have no more tests” approach becomes problematic. Two reasons: First, jobs tend to evaluate employees on a daily basis, in which case using the “stress when I have a test” approach transforms itself into a permanent nightmare. Second, it is increasingly the case that those who lead successful careers never stop learning new skills, testing out new ideas and taking calculated risks. In other words, they continue to learn and grow even if nobody is telling them to. So, after 22 years society pulls the good ‘ole bait and switch: Instead of rewarding extrinsically motivated conformists, it starts to reward intrinsically motivated, creative people. People with original ideas and the ability to find creative ways to implement them, people who are willing to fail, people who don’t always conform, people who think for themselves and not because someone told them to: they are ultimately the winners. Forget the class valedictorian, bring on the kid who started his own company. You might think that I’ve overstated the importance of having a more entrepreneurial approach to life. And perhaps I am guilty of drinking some of the Silicon Valley kool-aid. I have, after all, been reading The Start-Up of You by Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn — a book which promotes the idea of keeping your life in “permanent beta” as if it were some type of consumer product and constantly evaluating downside risk as if you were a company starting on a new venture. Are those really the mental habits and ways of thinking we need after graduation?   There is something to be said, you might argue, for being a loyal employee, for the lessons that school teaches you about how to study and learn even if you’re not passionate about the subject. And in many professions there is still value placed on responding to external factors of motivation. There are fields in which doing what you’re told and working your way slowly up the ranks are the paths to success — medicine, law and even academia might qualify in this respect. Still, with company and employee loyalty in decline, with the new information economy changing as rapidly as it does and with the barrier to entry for new ideas as low it’s ever been, the ability to follow orders is in less demand. Extrinsically motivated people are at risk of being left behind, questioning where it is they went wrong after doing everything their teachers and professors asked of them. Maybe that’s what we should be stressing over.

Harry DiFrancesco is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at hdifrancesco@cornellsun.com. Stirring the Pot appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Harry DiFrancesco

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