Educating Myself Out of Education

I’m a fast climber, but why should it matter?
MAY 2019
Nicolas
M.
Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology

I’m not going to lie to you, I don’t always tell the truth. 

When people ask me about MIT, I tend to oversell it. After all, it is one of the best, if not the best, university on the planet, nestled at the top of all international rankings. Once up here, everyone simply expects you to be proud of what you’ve accomplished. And it doesn’t stop there. I have been lucky enough, over the past few years, to attend several renowned institutions, both in Europe and in the US, including MIT. Dropping the names of those places in casual conversations would inevitably earn me flattering remarks, likely accompanied by uneasy looks and awkward admiration. Quite frankly, I’ve always felt I don’t deserve being looked up to for being a smart one. I believe there is a profound misconception about higher education, from which others and I happen to benefit, but through which a majority is being unjustly robbed of their own merit. It meant a great deal to me to lay it on the table once and for all.

Let me start by busting a preconceived idea, the very idea that misplaces higher education as we know it at the center of our modern society. We tend to worship prestigious institutions for hosting the most intelligent minds of our times. Intelligence, however, is a profoundly discolored and tarnished notion. It is all too often equated with mathematical savvy or literacy, and I could not disagree more with this drifting mentality. The idea that you somehow need to know how to use a computer, to know the tenth decimal of Pi, or to have heard of quantum physics to be considered as an accomplished young person, is simply nonsense. There are so many forms of intelligence, from the house builder who puts a roof over your head, to the farmer who makes the soil healthy and bountiful. We are surrounded by geniuses. Intelligence is certainly not the prerogative of degree-holders.

This misconception, I believe, has its roots in how we educate children. Early on, we are taught that there is only one way up the ladder, that there has to be a first and a last of the class. Nobody wants to be last, of course. But the fastest at climbing the ladder isn’t necessarily the smartest, simply the fastest at climbing the ladder. A macaque would probably beat us to it. And for such hierarchical structure to hold, teachers have to come up with metrics to compare kids against one another. As a result, more emphasis is put on skills that can easily be measured, such as math and other quantitative standards. Ultimately, those who excel according to these metrics – the fast climbers – are highly praised and naturally drawn to prestigious colleges and universities. The logic behind this was not necessarily ill-intentioned, but it has since misled us into believing education is about knowledge and success, while it really should be about passion and failure. 

We have put prestigious institutions onto a pedestal and, consequently, higher education has slowly become an end in itself. This idea beautifully transpires in a movie that is dear to my heart, Good Will Hunting. Matt Damon plays a “common man” who happens to have a gift for mathematics, but would rather work on construction sites among people he can truly connect with. We discover a young man passionate about numbers and algebraic proofs, who nevertheless refuses to deal with the academic world, which appears to own his passion. What could at first be seen as arrogance is, in fact, a reflection of his distrust toward a system that tricks young people into running blindly after knowledge simply for the sake of success, and not of learning or loving. I may have read between the lines and overinterpreted the hidden dimensions of this movie; it has nonetheless greatly influenced my thoughts on the disproportionate place of higher education in our society. 

I realize the irony. Higher education is for the most part responsible for making me the free thinker that I am today. So perhaps I should not be so critical about it, and simply be humbled by the chance I have been given, the chance to be on the right end of the ladder. But it seems to me that patting myself on the back is not serving anyone. I do suffer from knowing that others were not as lucky as I was, and I would rather see the system that has helped me shine collapse than continue to witness this insidious segregation artificially drawn between slow and fast climbers. I wish we, as individuals, would stop encouraging young people to pursue higher education so frantically for the sole purpose of securing a future. Let us look beyond PhDs and summa cum laudes, and start recognizing the virtue of manual labor, artistic careers, and social work. This, to me, would be the first step toward a truly educated society.