The inspiration for this writing came when I saw a post on social media captioned: “Education changes lives.” Understand that education can be formal - i.e. school, or informal - i.e. mentorship. For the purpose of this essay, whenever the word “education” appears, I am referring to schooling.
Before we examine this profoundly, let’s get a few things out of the way. In case you’ve been living under a rock - I hope not - you must have noticed that the system of education all around the world is broken. Yes, America and England are also included on the list. Why? Because this so-called system has no significant innovation in the last one hundred and fifty years. This system is leaving students behind because of nothing more than bureaucracy and stagnation. This is a system that treats students like products in a factory. A system that, if a group of rebels had the power, could fix with their brilliant vision and ambition.
People have been debating about education system for thousands of years. Whether in ancient China or modern America, everybody had his or her personal method, and apparently, fiercely opposed to all alternatives. Yet, so far, everybody still agreed on one thing: in order to improve education, we need to change the schools.
The problem is, of course, the people who are currently in charge don’t know anything about the problem. They’re too entrenched, too old-school, they can’t think in terms of disruption.
Education is impossible to optimize. It has to be fixed at the local and individual level because each schools face different problems. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. You can’t reinvent the traditional industrial system because, ultimately, you need a great number of highly skilled employees - genuine teachers - who are not bounded by the old education system. Teachers who possess a lot of mental flexibility and emotional balance.
Good teachers are expensive and no one is going to disrupt their jobs. Teaching is the most difficult of all current jobs for an AI to manage. If you don’t believe that, then you’ve never truly taught.
So, is education a waste of time and money?
Let’s go back in time and ask: “Why were schools invented?”
Weren’t they invented during times when books and knowledge were rare? Back then, people were uneducated. In fact, they were peasants, so I would agree that our uneducated ancestors needed the skills to think and be creative in order to attain and master specific on-the-job-skills.
But after years of innovation, mankind has evolved. Our brains have evolved. Our inventions are multitudes, and there are no signs of stopping. We have made a giant leap from industrialization to technological disruption. We are collectively more intelligent as a species than our previous ancestors.
The internet, mediating mediocrity and opportunity, has transformed many young people to do things very few of the world’s adult population are capable of doing. For the most striking example, there are many thirteen-year-olds without a high school diploma, who possess various attributes to create and alter AI programs. These autodidact and talented prodigies are start-up founders and independent contractors working with global IT firms, generating millions of dollars in annual income, and did I mention, they haven’t even graduated - yet.
And I thought: hmmm...they must be doing something right at home.
Where is the problem?
One teacher - not even a professor - said, “I'm going to teach you how to be a successful entrepreneur. Everything you need to know.”
Out of curiosity, I looked him up. It turned out, he'd never left the university his whole life.
This is one reason why education fails. Much of what we learn in school is utterly useless. In his #1 bestseller “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism,” economist Ha-Joon Chang writes:
“There are many subjects that have no impact, even indirectly on most workers’ productivity - literature, history, philosophy and music, for example. From a strictly economic point of view, teaching these subjects is a waste of time … Moreover, even subjects like mathematics or sciences, which are supposed to be important for raising productivity, are not relevant for most workers. … The importance of apprenticeship and on-the-job training in many professions testifies to [this]…”
Take English literature for example. How is it going to be beneficial in life? Will Shakespeare really play a part in your future life? I really hope not! Do you really think people want to sit and talk about Shakespeare conveying his thoughts and emotions? Is there a point in learning about things that had happened 400 years ago and is fictional? Nowadays, children are wasting their time reciting some bloody play they will only perform once in a lifetime. And I would guess there is a similar irrelevancy amongst students reciting ancient Chinese literature.
Another particular example is mathematics. I can’t think of a single instance within the last ten years where I’ve used any mathematical concepts such as what x and y equals to, or how to calculate the volume of a cone. What’s sad, we tell children these calculations are important, when we ourselves know the simple truth: they are irrelevant in real life. There’s more.
Did you learn a second language, or even a third, perhaps? I took four years of German in high school. What do I remember? Nichts. But then how important is learning a new language? As you can see, for the past seven years, I’ve been residing and making a living in Shanghai with minimal Mandarin proficiency. A learner once asked, “William, why aren’t you learning Mandarin?”
“Because I don’t need to speak Mandarin to communicate with you,” I responded.
Lastly, how’s your world history? When did King Tutankhamen ruled the Egyptian empire? What started the Zhou dynasty lineage during feudal China? You know, the main reason we study history is not to memorize important dates or events, but to be liberated from them.
The bottom line: if you don’t use the knowledge, it’s useless. Absorb only what is useful.
Of course, many parts of a basic education, like numeracy and literacy, are incredibly valuable for childhood development. And there’s no doubt that some parts of a university education do provide real on-the-job skills.
Let’s move on to my favorite part of this essay.
The Elephant and the Flea
People are really good at storytelling. Hitherto, the standard story of education goes like this: more education (and more education spending) is a good thing.
But do you know what is the most successful story ever told? Money.
We’ve been taught that economic growth depends on a psychological behavior known as consumerism.
We’ve been led to believe that bliss and nirvana can be achieved by simply buying more stuff.
More often than not we forget that money is only a means, a useful tool, an implement. It has no explicit nature. As with any instrument, it has certain purposes, but it will not do everything. For sure, it does not buy happiness.
The moment people stop believing in the story of money, the world economic system would collapse, country by country like a domino effect. Without a working economic machine, governments and corporations would not exist.
Let’s take a look at the chart below.
After examining the chart some people may say, “As you can see, there’s a strong relationship between education and economic prosperity. Clearly, economic prosperity goes up with more education. Therefore, we should invest more in education to raise our country’s prosperity.”
However, Lant Pritchett, a Harvard economist who worked at the World Bank for quite a long period, concluded in an article that “there is very little evidence to support the view that increased education leads to higher economic growth.” Indeed, correlation is not the absolute causation.
Alas, it seems the education system today is built around the story of money. From an economic perspective, school is nothing but a business entity; a franchise, so to speak. Trust me, if the purpose of school is to serve the welfare of worldwide education, we would have already eradicated children without educational privilege.
On the flip side, young people are promised that their degree is worth something in today's economy. But it turns out, they got flushed out by people with decades of experience competing for entry level work. They spent all that money for a credential to start in a field they're supposedly qualified for, but can't. I don't know about you, but I call that a scam. More on this later.
Here’s another graph:
This graph clearly shows that people with bigger degrees get paid more.
What’s more, this is not random - “well-educated” people tend to perform better and keep their jobs longer.
So here’s the paradox:
Education doesn’t do a good job of providing on-the-job skills. Yet, educated people are better on the job.
This means even if what a student learns in school is utterly useless, employers would gladly pay extra if their scholastic record provides information about their productivity. Suppose a financial firm is looking for a new associate. An MBA graduate with a Ph.D. in economics from Stanford applies. As an employer, what do you infer? The candidate is probably brilliant, diligent, and able to tolerate serious boredom. If you're looking for that kind of worker - and which employer isn't? - you'd make a very generous offer.
For a four-year graduate of Stanford, this means that you’d spend roughly US$200,000 (plus four years of lost salary) on showing employers you have qualities that you already had.
What’s going on here?
The Infinite Game Theory
Let’s say that you have a daughter who wants to go to Harvard. The school accepts a limited number of students each year. The game theory applies when people are competing for a limited number of resources, in this case, the number of seats.
Most people are unaware that in order to be even considered by the Harvard admissions staff, applicants must possess not only excellent academic background, but also play sports, and usually, they play very well. So if you’re hoping that your children will go to Harvard one day, then have them start playing sports.
In other words, education works like a game, which separates students into different players with different levels, skills, and attributes. A game is a form of activity in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through rewards (grade) in the pursuit of a goal (to be in the top of class). As with all games, there must be other defining traits: rules, a feedback system, and participation. On top of that, people who go to top colleges are required to play the game well.
Of course, the next big hurdle comes when all applicants possess the same qualities. What do you do? Well, there is another trick that seems to be overlooked, that is, to get a recommendation from the Physics Department. Because of its rarity, a prospective student who is willing to sit in a few classes, get to know the professor, and perhaps, start communicating - and admiring - about the lecturer’s work, could possibly get a letter of recommendation from the department, and perhaps, catch attention at the admissions department.
But the game doesn’t stop there.
To make it through a four-year college, you need a certain degree of qualities - general intelligence, conformity, and diligence. The stronger your academic record, the greater employers’ confidence over you having the whole package of desirable strength. And people at the top of their class usually possess the trifecta: intelligent, conscientious, and conformist.
One more thing: can you keep up after you graduate? Because a lot of your classmates may brag about their awesome achievements, and you may feel you’ve fallen behind from everybody else in the club.
“I’m a Project Manager at Google,” says one classmate.
“I’m a start-up founder and CEO,” says the other.
What will you do? This brings us to another huge problem.
“I’m going back to school for a Ph.D. because everyone else has a bachelors.”
What happens when everyone in the world goes to college?
Going back to Chang’s work, he writes:
“Once the proportion of people going to university goes over a critical threshold, people have to go to university in order to get a decent job. When, say, fifty percent of the population goes to university, not going to university is implicitly declaring that you are in the bottom half of the ability distribution. So, people go to university, fully knowing that they will ‘waste time’ studying things that they will never need for their work.”
Imagine I’m standing up in the front row of a stage concert, the person behind me will have to stand, too. This creates a chain reaction, and soon, everybody is standing up. Yet, nobody has a better view.
It seems education may well be stuck in this kind of vicious cycle. In order to be competitive, people need to get higher degrees. But what happens when everyone in the world has a brawny degree? People need to get even brawnier.
Before we realize it, everybody will be in school for the rest of their lives.
This raises a rather interesting question: “If the purpose of education is to raise the bar (like standing up in a concert), then in theory, could we lower the bar - i.e. by having people go to school for four years fewer - and get similar results?”
A friend of mine, who is a very successful attorney, had decided not to put his son into a US law school. Why? Because it would take four years longer. Instead, he chose to put him into a law school in London. Of course, he’d graduate with a Bachelors of Law, instead of a Juris Doctor degree. If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you’d understand that the latter is just a more meatier version than the former to cope with bureaucracies in the US and Canada.
If you’re planning to practice law within the US or Canada, then yes, you’d need to spend the extra four years of tuition and school time. Otherwise, go for the shorter term and get yourself a good mentor.
What to do?
What does this mean for the general population? What should mediocre people do?
Well, if you’re looking for employability, nothing changes. You keep playing the game. You go to school and get a good degree, because that’s what employers demand. But seriously, would you spend all of your finite resources (time and energy) so that you may work for someone else?
According to a recent survey, about half-a-million Chinese students who studied abroad went back to China in 2016. Many of them had found it tough to land a job in the mainland. The survey also mentioned about 45 percent of returning students earn less than 6,000 CNY as their starting monthly salary.
After completing a master’s degree in digital media in the UK, Yang Liujinya came back home to China, but said that she didn’t have many opportunities in Beijing or Shanghai.
“Unless I studied in Oxford or Cambridge, employers didn’t care whether I studied in the top 10 or top 30 universities in the UK,” Yang said.
Yang found a TV job in Beijing, but her 3,000 CNY monthly salary barely covers her living cost. She did feel frustated at the time she had studied media because she really liked it, but she end up working as an English training teacher. Yang felt that she had wasted a lot of time and money by working in a totally different field she had studied. Remember the scam I mentioned earlier? Sure you do.
That said, if you care about society, these ideas let us ask interesting questions. Is education as valuable and important as we thought it was? Should we consider alternatives - personalized education, perhaps? If people with certain “qualities” are more employable, what should people who don’t have certain qualities do? What about vocational school? Have you heard of mentorship? Your author had written briefly about it (click here).
Does Education Change Your Life?
“Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” — J.K. Rowling
I get confused whenever I read statements which bluntly connect the words education and life. What is life? Is it spending two decades in school and working at a job the rest? Is life about accumulating money and then spending it on big houses, lavish cars, and expensive vacations? Or is life about discovering what you are good at and use that to help build a better society?
I like to tell a story to my learners about humans and pigs. Let’s say we’ve just discovered two new habitable planets. If we put one hundred people on one planet, and one hundred pigs on the other, what would happen in twenty years? If you had to guess, you’d probably think the planet inhabited by pigs would be infested with more pigs. Since their only concern is to search for food and water, pigs have no other purpose but to procreate and make more copies of themselves. That is the only thing pigs are good at.
But what would happen to the other planet inhabited by people? Or, for argument’s sake, what would happen if we put one hundred people and one hundred fresh pigs on a planet, together?
Compared to pigs, the human being is the creative animal. It is always constantly learning. It has deep curiosity, emotions, and - to some extent - consciousness. These attributes give us unlimited potential, and they separate us from the other animals.
You can educate pigs, but they’ll never be smarter. You can educate people, and indeed, they’ll be smarter. But what good is the knowledge when it has no application in life?
On that note, does education really change lives?
Here’s what I think:
When you’re growing up, you tend to get told the world is the way it is, and your life is just to live inside the world: go to school, try not to make too many mistakes, start a family, save some money, and maybe get a good house and car.
For me, that is a very deficient life. Life can be much more abundant. Once you’ve discovered one simple fact, that is, everything around you which you call life is made up by people who are no smarter than you - and you can change it for the better. You can influence it. You can start something that would help build a better society. You have the power to mold your destiny.
The most important thing to realize is to remove the fallacy that life is there, and you’re just gonna have to live in it, versus change it, embrace it, improve it, make your mark upon it. However you learn that - and once you’ve learned it - you’ll want to change your life, make it better. And you’ll never be the same again.
Nowadays, education has very little value. It cannot be relied upon to precondition us into reality. School is an excuse for daycare while your parents are doing whatever they’re doing. It consists merely of countless sessions of lectures and test taking modules with graduation as its climax. In the end, what you get is a piece of paper. If that’s what you want, then you’re selling yourself short. Perhaps, we should learn to shake-off this erroneous notion that a piece of paper can change our lives. And even though everybody else is going to school for the same reason, we shouldn’t blithely trust the system and disregard other alternatives.
Remember: only you can change your life.