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The Purpose of The System: An Education in Three Parts

The moon appears in six stages, from full to crescent
Six Moons in One | Original Photo by Mark Tegethof, courtesy of Unsplash

1: Education


In a dimly lit parking garage, a young man leaps into a stranger’s car and strikes him several times about the head and upper body with an assortment of power tools—not lethally, but obnoxiously—before fleeing the scene.


In an old-world town square, a gray babushka in a ragged trench coat rushes out of nowhere, body-slams a skinny American tourist to the ground, then hurries off across the cobblestones.


In a conference room, a young woman in a catsuit bursts through the door, interrupts a suit’s presentation, screams in his face, leaps onto the table, performs an obliquely erotic victory dance, then departs as suddenly as she came.


Just before exiting, each of these perpetrators screams the same words at their victims: “There! Now you’re educated!”


Emerging blearily from this dream, I realize at once what has happened. Last night, while browsing YouTube, I scrolled past a series of videos, all titled in much the same manner:


“So-and-so EDUCATES so-and-so on workplace diversity!”


“So-and-so EDUCATES so-and-so on mainstream media corruption!”


“So-and-so EDUCATES so-and-so on Israel-Palestine!”


That was the last thing I’d offered my brain before taking the plunge into REM. What did I expect?


Educational content of this sort abounds on YouTube and frequently makes its way into my feed. Perhaps I clicked on something once, a dozen years ago, and now, no matter what I search, these titles keep appearing. With them come videos proudly showcasing the fruits of the American public school system—as if YouTube executives had decided, behind closed doors, to eat still further into the education sector by taking the knees out from under the competition.


Thanks, perhaps, to this hypothetical turf war, I recently stumbled on this gem, in which young Americans repeatedly fail to answer tricky questions such as, “How many moons does the earth have?”, “What language do people speak in Idaho?”, and “When was the War of 1812?”


You see? the algorithm seems to be saying. You can’t possibly do worse than this. Why not try our curriculum?


Though four years of teaching—or attempting to teach—college English have rendered me distinctly vulnerable to these videos’ morbid charms, one thing about them does rub me the wrong way. This clip, for instance, presents itself as an indictment of Gen Z writ large, as if Gen Z were a uniform constituency, and also as if Gen Z’s pathological ignorance could be separated, somehow, from the pathological ignorance of preceding generations. In this way, it’s equivalent to the clips in which Democrats casually dismiss the importance of the Bill of Rights because it is “too old,” as opposed to the vital young whippersnapper whom they recently voted into office, or Republicans express disapproval of the separation of church and state, only to become confused upon learning of its instantiation in their sacred constitution. Such content promises to dose you with dopamine if you happen to dislike the group in question while the faithful algorithm quietly whirs away behind the scenes, warding off videos in which members of your group respond to equivalent questions.


This algorithm, in my opinion, has a lot to answer for, but I’ll try not to make the same mistake here that I did while teaching freshman composition in the spring of 2017, the semester that decisively tanked my “Rate My Professor” score. That semester, according to one of my students, I said the word “algorithm” far too often.


Another word that I said too often, allegedly, was, “How?”, as in, “How does this sentence work?”, “How do this author’s rhetorical choices reveal her assumptions about her audience?”, and “How can we distinguish assertion from presupposition?”


Definitions of all these words appeared in the assigned readings, but still, they went over the students’ heads, rendering my use of them not only cryptic, but also—evidently—offensive.


It probably didn’t help that my students and I came from completely different worlds. They’d all passed through the American public school system, whereas I’d homeschooled until the age of 16, then went straight to community college of my own volition. The antagonistic malaise that had already infused their entire 18-year relationship with the education system had, for me, only just started at the graduate level, when I’d moved to Arkansas and learned that the true purpose of my being there was not, as I’d naively imagined, to become a better writer or a more well-rounded thinker, but rather to provide the university with four years’ of cheap labor and keep its undergraduates occupied until OpenAI put the finishing touches on its own now-notorious algorithm.


I know this was the purpose because, for the next four years, I taught two classes per semester without receiving anything remotely resembling adequate training, and each year, my writing—and my mental health with it—grew steadily less cogent, more muddled, worse.


In Diagnosing the System for Organizations (1995), British cyberneticist and systems theorist Stafford Beer posits the following:


“A good observer will impute the purpose of the system from its actions and thus from the resultant state.


Hence the key aphorism:


The purpose of a system is what it does.


There is, after all, no point in claiming that the purpose of a system is to do what it consistently fails to do.”


Using this heuristic, one probably will not conclude that the purpose of the American education system is to help young people cultivate critical thinking skills or to inform them accurately about the world. Nor is it to empower them to successfully enter the workforce. Nor is it to keep them safe, even. Young people, even those whom we call privileged and sheltered, are not safe from anything: not from drugs, not from unwanted pregnancies, not from YouTubers mining their ignorance for personal gain, not from each other, and not from themselves.


The true purpose of the American public school system, it seems to me, is to keep young people occupied—though even at this humble task, it fails. This leaves a sizable subpopulation of young people to occupy themselves with methamphetamines and automatic weapons. All things considered, the college kids who simply do not know what language people speak in Idaho are doing fairly well.



2: Shibboleths



Once, in architecture school, my mother designed a building without any walls and thought it was pretty groovy until my father asked her what would hold up the ceiling.


He may have been thinking of ceilings because he’d recently taken LSD, then driven himself and two other people home from the campsite where they’d been partying, believing that the world had literally flipped upside down so that the interstate ran along the underbelly of the sky.


These two people convinced themselves—and not without reason—that they could do a better job of educating me than the North Carolina public schools, and so, for 16 years straight, I was homeschooled.


“But how will he learn social skills?” my aunts and uncles wanted to know, to which I can only imagine that my parents retorted with something like, “Well, you went to public school…where are your social skills?”


Fortunately, my aunts and uncles’ concerns proved unfounded. I had many opportunities to learn social skills: from other homeschoolers in the community, though I didn’t start meeting them until I was 13; from the martial artists with whom I started training at the age of 10, one of whom almost lost his job at Belk because he liked to carry a hammer around the salesfloor and hit himself with it in the presence of customers in order to “condition” his body; from my one and only friend, the next-door neighbor whom I met when I was seven, and who moved away when I was 12; from my aunt, who spent a few months living in our trailer and later committed suicide; and, of course, from my parents themselves.


Sadly, even with this abundance of role models, I turned out a little neurotic. Yet even this outcome helped to confirm what my parents, in their infinite wisdom, had known all along. When they asked me—I must’ve been around eight or nine—if I’d like to go to public school, I told them no, having already concluded that I preferred books and plastic dinosaurs to people, and from that moment on, their decision to homeschool me was remembered, in our household, as one in which I’d played an active role.


Not until I got to college did I begin to grasp just how deficient my upbringing had been. For the first time in my life, I became aware that I had been deprived: not social interaction, as it turned out, or the discipline that public school supposedly provides, or even functional role models. No. The essential nutrient that I had grown up without had been—bring in the drumroll, please—yes, yes, that’s it, you guessed it:


Disney movies.


Never having seen a Disney movie, I could not name any of the major characters, recount any of the famous plotlines, or sing any of the catchy songs—three capabilities that, together, serve as the pillars of cultural competence.


For four years straight, I heard about nothing but Disney movies. Even one-on-one, when nobody else was around, my peers only seemed able to talk about Disney movies—not quite a ringing endorsement of public school’s power to teach social skills, but not an indictment of public school’s social utility, either. Common points of reference, after all, are necessary preconditions for social cohesion, reciprocal cooperation, and even basic communication, and I shared no points of reference with my fellow American millennials, as it turned out. None at all.


Memes make excellent cultural reference points, and also excellent shibboleths: linguistic or cultural lines in the sand that separate us from them—though in my case, there was no us, only me. Lacking not only the cultural knowledge transmitted through Disney movies (which can be acquired), but also the nostalgic associations (which cannot), I found myself moving through life as an outsider in my own country. This may help to explain why I get along so much better, on the whole, with immigrants and foreigners than with my fellow born Americans—though even most immigrants, it must be pointed out, have also seen the Disney movies.



3: The Meta-Purpose of the Meta-System



And so, it seems, we’ve come full circle. I can be the subject of the clip, or you can. The algorithm can show your video to me, or mine to you, and each of us can shiver with illicit schadenfreude at the spectacle made of the Other. Each of us can crouch uneasily upon our private moral islands, marveling at the stunning fact that anyone could be so ignorant, and show their ignorance so boldly to the world, and then each of us can shamble off to bed and slip into a sleep disturbed by murky, incoherent confrontations.


Deep down, at the level of the dream, each of us dimly perceives that all too often, “education” means precisely what YouTubers seem to think it means: not the transmission of knowledge, nor even the transmission of the means of acquiring knowledge, but instead the transmission of oblique sociocultural pathologies that depend, for their widespread acceptance, not so much on internal coherence as on subtle but relentless coercion.


Perhaps the most insidious form of “education” is the shibboleth: the simplistic premise, or story, or meme that tells us nothing deep and true about the structure of the world, disproves no hypotheses, reveals no first principles, only marks usoff from them. A Disney song can be a shibboleth, but so can the question of how many moons. Certainly, some cannot live without counting the celestial spheres, but others forge perfectly meaningful lives here on earth without once giving the moon a moment’s notice. Why, then, should lack of this knowledge amount to the indictment that educated people like myself are inclined to believe it amounts to?


Let’s take a step back. Let’s examine the rift between us from a different angle.


In public school, I’d like to posit, students get exposed to whichever sociocultural pathologies happen to be circulating at the time. At present, this includes an especially virulent strain of anti-intellectualism, which somehow tacked a silent letter onto “how” and rendered it not just dull, but downright obscene. This impulse insists on the binary nature of things: black and white, yes and no, us and them, right and wrong, smart and dumb. In one breath, it denies the possibility that any value might derive from finding out what language people speak in Idaho, and in the next, it denies the possibility that any value might derive from finding out what this person, so completely ignorant of Idaho, does know, much less how she came to know it, or what forces shape her world.


As virulent as some of these sociocultural pathologies certainly are, their superabundance in the public schools creates, ironically, an opportunity. It establishes the conditions, if not for conscious choice, then at least for instinctive selection. The wise kids, the ones who really know themselves, may take onboard the pathologies least detrimental to their overall wellbeing. Other pathologies may compete for control over the host’s nervous system, but the one that’s chosen by the host will have a leg up, and will probably outcompete the others through more frequent behavioral manifestations. Without ever consciously thinking in such Jungian terms, the wise kids will instinctively embrace the particular shadows that they stand the best chance of productively integrating into themselves.


Educated at home, I never had access to the full array of possible shadows from which to choose. I had only two options—my father’s anger, or my mother’s meek and pitiable self-sabotage—supplemented by occasional supporting characters who would shuffle onstage for a few minutes, long enough to draw my attention and raise unanswerable questions, only to go shuffling swiftly off again. In the end, I took after my mother, possibly because her way of being seemed less toxic to my child’s mind, but probably just because she was the one who cared for me during my early years while my father flailed around in the job market, doing his best to support us financially.


My parents must’ve felt constrained by limited options, too. Between themselves and the public schools, they chose themselves—perhaps because they did sincerely fear that immersion in so many sociocultural pathologies might simply wreck my nervous system, as it’s wrecked so many young people’s, or perhaps because they sensed that if I’d had more choices, more distinct configurations of strengths and weaknesses to weigh against their own, I might’ve chosen to grow a different way.


The purpose of a system is what it does. Having been homeschooled, I had the time and space in which to cultivate my curiosity, pursue my interests, and develop my critical thinking skills. Having been homeschooled, I failed to realize until much too recently just how much my own neuroticism flows from the people who raised me and the conditions in which I was raised, not from unforgivable flaws within my soul. The purpose of a system is what it does.


The problem that we face as a society, I think, is one of clarity. We have not yet collectively—or even, in most cases, individually—stepped back and taken honest stock of what it is that we are doing, to each other and to ourselves, in the name of education.


We must do this before we do anything else—even before we start to hash out what we should be doing.


Conveniently, we need not wait for anyone to start this process. Each of us may independently begin at any moment. The only place that such a process can begin, in fact, is in the space between synapses not yet formed, the recesses and hollows of each of our minds. That is where we may begin, and that is where we must begin.




Now you’re educated.


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