The education system has failed to teach students what the truth means and why it matters.
As an analogy for this failure, imagine a student entering college, Sarah, who has previously been under the watchful eyes of her over-protective parents. Throughout her life, Sarah was a victim to her parents‘ strict regime; any sort of revolt would lead to a series of punishments and looks-of-disappointment. In college, newly endowed with freedom, she breaks all the rules. Drugs, theft and unprotected sex are common occurrences in this formerly innocent square – sound familiar?
We’ve all heard this story before, but haven’t really analyzed why it’s so recurrent.
The problem is in the way Sarah’s parents taught her the rules; they created a disassociation between the rules and its rationale. By placing unrelated consequences to each broken rule, the parents trained Sarah to believe that the only rationale behind following the rules is to not get punished. Therefore, whenever she isn’t caught by her parents, in her eyes, nothing wrong happened. She never developed the ability to reason by herself why it’s in her best interest to follow certain rules.
Similar to Sarah’s parents, the schools threaten students to retain information with unrelated punishments. The consequence of not memorizing the atomic structure of boron is a few less points on the exam. Of course, scientists who memorize boron’s atomic structure do so for a completely different reason. Similar to Sarah, most students never learn how to reason on their own the rationale behind the information they are learning. As long as knowing the information leads them to higher scores, they don’t care to acknowledge why they’re learning what they’re learning.
Schools try to teach students the most accurate models of reality known to date; the most accurate models are conventionally described as “true.” The accuracy i.e. truth of a model is determined by how well it makes predictions relative to other models.
For example, consider two models that we can posit to explain why people get sick: Demons and germs. Say, demons run around in your body punching your organs and that’s why people get sick. Germs, on the other hand, have no supernatural properties and explain why people get sick with a causal description. We can choose to believe either demons or germs, but why do most of us choose germs?
When we adopt the model of germs, we can not only explain why people get sick, but can also predict the sickness‘ duration, future symptoms, possible cures, contagiousness, etc. The demon model, however, can’t predict any of those things; for that matter, it can’t predict anything at all. Even if demons really do cause sickness, even if all of life is one big illusion, the germ model is still the most useful for now.
In short, the most accurate models of reality do more for you than stop your curiosity or comfort your mind.
Unfortunately, most people aren’t able to grasp how profound and useful accurate models are. Because of school’s constant decoupling between a model and its accuracy, students are trained to memorize accurate models only long enough to get a passing grade. And for the models they do believe in, accuracy is not a prerequisite. Not only does this create the tendency for students to have false models, but it stops them from questioning the accuracy of models they currently believe in. Students may never question the validity of what they are being taught. Worse, they may reject everything they are taught that conflicts with their prior beliefs.
Schools should give tests that force students to come up with their own models of reality. A good grade on these tests will depend on the predictive power i.e. accuracy of their models. For example, students can be told about a phenomenon like water boils faster in higher elevations. Then, without memorizing the question beforehand, they’d have to write the best possible explanation for why the phenomenon is true. They probably won’t get the right answer, but will learn why some answers are better than others.
LIOR GOTESMAN hopes your education doesn’t stop when class is over because school is overrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.