Unintended Lessons

YMS door

“What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.” 
–Henry David Thoreau

By sixth grade, I had learned a few things about school, about learning and about my relationship to both. I don’t think these were really the things my teachers wanted me to learn, but the “outside-in” approach to teaching that they seemed locked into had resulted in a real split between who I was (as a human being) and what it seemed I was supposed to do (as a human doing). The doing focus of school said, essentially, that what was most important either lay behind me (test scores and grades I needed to live up to or overcome) or lay ahead of me (how I would do on the next test or assignment). Very little of this tapped into who I was or what mattered to me right then and there.

I had learned…

  • They will make you do boring stuff that seems to be pointless
  • Because it’s pointless and boring, it’s good for you
  • They will sometimes offer you special prizes to do the stuff
  • They will create special punishments for those who don’t do the stuff
  • They will construct the whole school in ways that make it really difficult NOT to do the stuff
  • They will give you an occasional break from doing the boring stuff—like offering “mini courses” between quarters that are fun, but have nothing really to do with school or learning
  • Whatever you care about, keep it to yourself… they might use it against you
  • Be away from school as much as you can (we used to PRAY for snow days), live for summer break, Christmas break, spring break, LIVE in the gaps between “learning”
  • And most importantly, for me personally, EVEN WHEN they show you or tell you something interesting in class… something you read, some science experiment, or some tale from history… don’t let them know you care about it, and for heaven’s sake, don’t do any hard work on a project or a paper… they’ll only begin to expect that kind of work from you ALL THE TIME

So by the time I arrived at middle school, the excitement I had for music, for writing, for drawing, for recording and performing, for make-believe, for watching ants or climbing trees and studying leaves… none of that fit into the compartment in my brain that was labeled “learning” or “school.” And because school had taught me that “learning” was always a painful thing, something that wouldn’t come naturally or have its own built-in rewards, something that came from the outside authority who was offering prizes or punishments to keep me going, I felt a bit guilty over whatever I was passionate about. As much as I loved these things, they were really “just stupid.”

So at some level, I thought, so was I—just stupid.


What unintended lessons did your early schooling teach you about the learning process? About yourself?

Have you managed to Unlearn the unhelpful ones? If so, how?


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