A Confession: Reading Fiction Hurts

Labor Day represents the end of summer and the beginning of the new school year for millions of children. Kids are going back to school with their freshly purchased school supplies and a whirling set of emotions-ranging from excitement to dread. I always hated the first day of school. Summer was the best time in my life because I got to sleep in, watch TV all day, and eat carbs whenever I wanted. I always felt a tinge of PTSD whenever “Back to School” commercials began to inundate the airways. Why did I hate school so much? I always loathed the pointless homework and the assignments that supposedly stimulated our creativity. “Alright class, we are going to learn about George Washington…everyone go home and make a poster-board collage with magazine cutouts that remind you of our first president.” These types of assignments are present in every grade and I even see tinges of them in my wife’s doctorate program. In addition to pointless busy work, we had to read famous literature like Mark Twain, Of Mice and Men, A Tale of Two Cities, The Old Man and the Sea, etc. I was good at reading but I struggled to see the appeal in these books. Sure, I did enjoy some parts of these works but the process of reading fiction was usually tedious. Fiction for me made books unappealing and I saw no point in reading during my free time because movies and TV were so much more entertaining. It wasn’t until I was 24 that I realized nonfiction books were interesting and I could read over 50 of them a year without a ounce of misery.

Fast forward a couple years and I have read close to 100 nonfiction books that have taught me more information than my entire K-12 experience. With my newfound love for reading, I figured I should give fiction another shot. My old roommate loves John Steinbeck so I picked up some of his books-these were doable. My friend from high school loves Ernest Hemingway so I borrowed For Whom the Bell Tolls. I labored through this book like a fat guy running his first mile. In the end, I had to SparkNote the last chapters (sorry Megan) because the overall story line was driving me crazy. This experience has taught me an important lesson about myself and about people in general. Everyone is stimulated differently and likes to learn in their own unique way. It’s okay if you never pick up a 700 page book about George Washington and instead make a collage from magazine cutouts. It’s okay if you haven’t read Charles Dickens and instead you prefer to watch The Muppet Christmas Carol. It’s okay if you love classic literature but can’t stand to pick up a National Geographic magazine. In today’s world there is way too much information out there for us to absorb everything. Read and watch the things that you enjoy because life is too short; with that said, Breaking Bad can be just as academic as classic literature. The only thing I think is important is that you stimulate your brain by discussing things with others. Whether it is a book, TV show, movie, or magazine discuss it with someone else. This way we all learn from each other even though we all have very different tastes. Are my days of fiction over? Not completely. I think with a little more effort and discussion, I will find the books that make that fat-man mile a little easier.

The Khan of Education

Let me preface this post with the fact that I hated every single year of my schooling. I was a fat frick who felt homework was pointless, teachers were lazy, and getting laughs in class was more important than paying attention to boring lectures. The best part of my school day was when I got to eat lunch or when a girl walked past me who was not adhering to the dress code. Fast forward to my 24 year old self who reads and writes for fun-just finishing The One World School House: Education Reimagined by Salman Khan. Salman Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, a free educational-video resource that is revolutionizing the way people learn. Basically, he creates 10-15 minute long videos that cover a subject with test questions which are answered until complete comprehension is reached. Simple idea, but it has blown up the educational world and is now used by millions of people of all ages. Khan is all about revolutionizing our current archaic system of education which originated in eighteen-century Prussia (think Germany but bigger). Prussia designed the K-12 system with the goal of indoctrinating children and inhibiting independent thinking to produce average-laborers for advancement of the empire. Dividing schools into subjects, grades, units, and periods was all done to mitigate deep thinking, big-picture connections, and abstract thought. The class period itself, was designed to prevent self motivated learning by implementing ceaseless interruptions of bells ringing. Breaking up thought and conversation was an important tool of control and stifling creativity. What the Frick! Today’s schools are structured in the same way and although they may not have the goals of Prussians they still result in the same type of educational dystopia. 

Learning in schools is not based on the variable of mastery, but the variable of time. The teacher must get through a certain number of units so that the students are prepared to take a standardized test. This focus on time, and not mastery, creates the problem of kids having limited comprehension that compounds as subjects get more and more advanced. This causes some kids to be tracked into advanced classes, mediocre classes, or special needs classes. In the end, this tracking limits a child’s potential and pigeonholes their entire future self image (I am smart or I am stupid so this is the best career for me). Schools are not designed to create the smartest student but the most tractable and average student possible. What is truly abhorrent about the whole system is that on average, each classroom receives 250,000-300,000 dollars of funding each school year (10,000 per student). Come on schools! Teachers get paid crap so where is this money going? To pompous administrators that spend most their days eating donuts at board meetings? Or to the brand new football stadium where kids can get concussions and decrease their IQ even more? We need to radically change the system so learning is self-motivated, fluid, and not a boring lecture. 

Khan is a smart dude and has several thoughts on how children should be taught. First off, no more units, subjects, or time based curriculum. Each student is in charge of their own learning pace through video lessons on the computer. Some kids will breeze through a subject and others will advance to new topics. Kids will not be divided by age but placed in a classroom with 75-100 students of similar comprehension levels-three to four teachers would provide guidance and help. 20% of the students can work on video lessons while other students work on stimulating projects like robotics, strategy games, literary conversation, etc. Khan does not want kids to stare at a computer screen all day but only posits that short videos can replace boring lectures and leave more time for stimulating real-world learning. This would mean far less homework, kids who are confident in connecting subject materials, and a sense of educational exploration that is currently discouraged in our Prussian school structure. In the current system, why would a kid advance in a subject when it won’t be covered on the next test? We need to partially remove ourselves from the almighty test because it is only are a snapshot of what was learned and it says nothing of the potential of a student to learn. In today’s increasingly creative world, GPA and standardized test scores are poor at predicting a successful employee. Projects, internships, personal references, and social competences are becoming more and more important in the workforce. I am such a strong supporter of self motivated learning because I am its poster child. As soon as I was able to control what I wanted to learn I became the most motivated student ever. The current system is broken and hopefully Khan’s ideas will change the world we live in. I think, Pink Floyd said it best, “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control.”