Nicholson Baker is one of the first writers who blew my mind in the minimalism department. His first novel, The Mezzanine, was about a guy who went up an escalator. That’s it. His next book, Vox, was about one single phone call. (Though to be clear, it was phone sex. I was a bookstore clerk when the book came out, and it was at the top of our most stolen book list for months because people were too embarrassed to buy it.
People who hate reading Nicholson Baker say he’s claustrophobic and monotonous and boring. So it’s ironic that he wrote a piece in the New York Times about his stint as a substitute teacher and how the classroom is claustrophobic and monotonous and boring. It’s called Fortress of Tedium. Isn’t that a great title?
There is such a widespread cultural understanding that kids hate school, that The Onion turns it into satire. And along with the hatred of school is the parent refrain that kids need to learn to do things they hate to do.
We keep talking about how we are about to revolutionize the education system.
1920s: Movies will revolutionize education. (Even Thomas Edison believed this.)
1960s: Television will revolutionize education
1990s: CDs will revolutionize education.
It never happens. And the reason it never happens is that parents have already convinced themselves that it’s fine for kids to hate school. Real education reform cannot happen because parents are too invested in the status quo. Even when schools attempt to get rid of homework – because a heap of research says there should not be homework in grade school – the parents are still up in arms. Parents don’t want fixing school to mess up their own lives.
Kids learn best when they are ready to learn. So they should choose when and what they learn. Otherwise, it makes kids hate learning. And it also trains kids to think doing things they don’t like makes sense.
This is a great thing to teach kids if you think they will grow up to be factory workers. Which we already know is how schools were set up. But today we train kids to expect to do work they like. We tell them, do well in school, work hard, get good grades and you’ll get a job you like.
But if you’ll get a job you’ll like, then why do you need to learn to do things you don’t like?
Here’s another way to look at work: You can get other people to do things you don’t like to do. For me, the worst part of doing a startup is the paperwork. but there is a place called Your Company Formations that can do all that for you. And I don’t like payroll. But I can have ADP do that. I could order out pizza so I don’t have to go out for lunch. I mean, the world is set up so you can pay to avoid stuff you don’t like to do. And we respect people who construct a life focusing on what they do want to do. So why teach kids otherwise?
I look at how my family operates and we each try to do only what we want to do. I cook because I want to have nice family meals and I want the kids to feel cared for. I don’t have to cook. But I like to.
Even when I don’t like to, I like that in theory I am doing it, just not at that moment.
My son walks his goats every day. He doesn’t love walking the goats, but I gave him the choice of getting rid of the goats and he chose to walk them. He loves his goats and he does what he needs to do for them to have a nice life.
My point here is that we don’t do stuff we don’t want to do. Instead, we decide what we want and then take pleasure in doing what needs to be done in order to get what we want. The disconnect with school is that kids do not need to do school to get what they want. Nearly 90% of what kids do in school is not necessary in order for kids to meet their goals.
Kids need to learn how to determine what is worth doing. And then kids need to take responsibility for learning how to set their life up in a way that prioritizes whatever they decide is worth doing. Because that’s what we need to transition into successful adults. And school does not teach that.