Musing on Formal Education

Description Duke University graduation, May 2011. Date 15 May 2011, 09:55 Source A face in the crowd Uploaded by russavia Author Carine06 from UK


My wife and I attended her niece’s graduation from Grinnell College the other day. She’s a bright, charming, intelligent young woman who’s already been to China to teach English and is going back later this year for an 11-month stint teaching middle school-aged children.

Whenever I attend a graduation ceremony, whether from high school or college, I pause to think about my education, both formal (public school and land grant university), and informal (all the conferences, seminars, webinars, and other classes; plus all the reading, studying, traveling, talking, listening, and experiencing I’ve done either alone or with friends or family). I went through what I thought at the time was a quality K-12 education system, did well grade-wise, and thought I came out well-prepared to tackle college.

College was a different story. Because of my rather naïve world view and not understanding that competition would be much stiffer among college students, I was unprepared for the harsh realities of the music program my freshman year at a top of the line jazz studies program in far off Florida. Other than a fantastic History of Western Civilization class, the best things I learned had to do with how I handled failure (not in class, just in competition with the other students in the performance arena), what I learned about myself with regard to self-discipline, independence, battling loneliness, and dealing with true love and a romantic relationship. I hit the wall trying to practice twice as long in order to make up for all the years I hadn’t lived and breathed performing music, and I decided not to return to that prestigious program.

After a much-needed year off from school spent driving a cab for a summer then working retail for the balance, I finished off my degree at the local mega-university with an adjusted major in music education instead of jazz studies. Once again, I felt prepared for the real world and threw myself into my first teaching job with the unbridled enthusiasm of youth.

Six years later I realized that I had not been well prepared for teaching music to teenagers,  handling a classroom, dealing with principals, superintendents, school boards, parents, other teachers, and the public perception of educators and their value to society. I was also unprepared for the economic realities of working in a field that consisted of highly unionized public institutions and therefore negotiated contracts that were always in conflict with budgets and the public’s perception that teachers only “worked” nine months of the year but “expected” to be paid a “full-time salary.”  A pretty severe contrast to my feeling that teachers and nurses are the two most underpaid, under-appreciated, but most noble of professions.

Currently in the early stages of my sixth career (out of the seven careers that some eggheads figured was average for a middle-class American baby boomer), I’ve depended on independent learning to learn what I wanted to learn on my own time and at my own pace. That’s one of the great secrets of a successful life: learning because one is interested in a subject.

The key to a Neo Renaissance life is constant learning. Doesn’t matter where, how, or from whom. Any new situation is a chance to learn. Meeting new people is a chance to learn. Challenging oneself to do better in any way is a chance to learn. Learn by listening. Learn by seeing. Learn by doing. Learn by communicating. Learn by reading. Learn by writing. Learn by singing, dancing, playing, thinking about old ideas in new ways and new ideas in newer ways.

And there’s no public or private brick-and-mortar building staffed with traditional teachers in traditional classrooms that can teach you as much as you can teach yourself through living and adventurous, curious, wondering life. All those wizened institutional instructors taught me was how to survive in their generation, not mine.


My question: How are you challenging yourself to learn something new; or to learn something more about yourself?

0 thoughts on “Musing on Formal Education”

  1. I just saw an interesting documentary by Morgan Spurlock where he actually went to Finland and learned about their school and teaching system. I find it fascinating that the Fins score higher on standardized tests than any other population and yet spend fewer hours in school or on coursework at home. I think you make a good point that formal education isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

  2. Thanks, Tara. You raised a good point about education in other parts of the world. Our public education has evolved over time and it can change–for the better, I hope–if there is a clear reason and motive to do so, which I think there is.


  3. Excellent post. I feel identified with you!
    I love learning. Learning makes life exciting. Learning and creating.
    We learn all the time and you said it all!.
    Thank you.

  4. Thanks, Julia. I think writers appreciate learning more than the average person because writing stories itself is a learning process. We learn about ourselves by what we write, as well as learning by doing research for stories, and constantly brushing up on grammar, syntax, word choices (similes, metaphors, etc.) and spelling.


  5. My sister is a teacher, and I’m always amazed to see the long hours she keeps. She teaches at a public school, and is typically expected to help with “bus duty” in the morning, making sure the kids get off the busses safely and into the school building. That starts around 7 a.m., then she teaches all day, then helps to coach volleyball, and she’s in charge of the prom–meaning that she helps with fundraisers throughout the year, giving up nights and weekends for that. Again, these activities are sort of expected of the teachers. They truly do 12 months worth of work in 9 months of time. I agree with you that it’s an underpaid and under- appreciated career, but one, like nursing, that is so very important. -Jody

  6. Well said, Jody. One of the saddest things I hear about today’s teachers is that so many feel compelled out of compassion to spend their own money to buy simple school necessities like pencils and paper for their students because the schools’ budgets have been cut so severely.


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