Why School Won’t Help You

I will admit, in as non-negotiable terms as I possibly can, that I learned how to do math in school, and nowhere else but school.

Neither my parents nor my environment were much help in the acquisition of mathematical acumen. Without school, I would not know anything of numbers.

Likewise, I learned most of what I know about science in school. Without such intervention, I would be unable to explain the difference between a proton and a pancreas.

For these reasons, I am inclined to espouse the position that people—generally—ought to be schooled, and that certain subjects and certifications require rigorous enforcement through schooling.

However…

This is not to say that I am entirely happy with the current state of schooling in my home country or the world at large. I will not suggest that everything school teaches is strictly necessary, nor that it is the best environment for teaching every subject.

School, it turns out, is a terminal patient. Parts of it are alive and functional, but certain limbs have lost all circulation. These frostbitten extremities are not alive, and are fit for little else than serving as firewood.

And I am afraid one subject which school fails to serve is the one most dear to my heart. Though experts on this subject surely exist, and knowledge of it can be obtained, formal schooling cannot, will not, and has not been of use to anyone in its acquisition. Yet that has not stopped schools from pretending to teach it.

I refer to the subject of writing.

Schools Don’t Produce Writers

Many an engineer is the product of his schooling. As is many a scientist, lawyer, and statesman.

But a writer is not created by his school. He may be in the possession of a diploma or a degree—perhaps even one that claims he completed a writing course or major. Yet his school in no way taught him how to produce his body of work.

Trinity College did not teach Oscar Wilde how to write The Importance of Being Earnest.

The College of William and Mary did not teach Thomas Jefferson how to write the Declaration of Independence.

Columbia University did not teach Ruth Westheimer how to write Dr. Ruth’s Guide to Good Sex.

No, those were all produced from their writers’ experiences with life. And with reading. And, in Dr. Ruth’s case, a certain number of smooth-talking suitors.

What schools do produce, in relation to writers, is people who can earn a living while learning how to write through extracurricular means. School makes the day job possible. If the graduate is a person who can become a writer, then that day job will shield them as they begin building their repertoire.

But for all those hoping that schooling can qualify them as a writer, I must tell you that you are living a delusion. You are going to get hurt.

The Thing that Does Produce Writers

Do not despair. There is an institution that will give you the skill, knowledge, and wit of a writer. It is older than school, and is much more pleasant, comfortable, and permanent in its benefit.

That institution is reading.

But not the kind of reading you do in school or for school. And I must stress this point, because every writer you admire, every writer who has excelled, every writer who has made an impact in the world, has done the bulk of their reading outside of the academy.

It is also impossible to perform the kind of reading that teaches writing when it is done at the direction of a formal curriculum. For this kind of reading to work, the authors of the books you read are your teachers. They’re the ones who write the exams and hand out the grades. Those exams are the books you are reading, and the grade is determined by how your own writing measures up to theirs. Any third party standing between you and these authors interrupts their lessons. You must liberate yourself from such distractions.

This is necessary because the most powerful aspects of writing are ineffable. You learn these powers when you wordlessly feel the soul of a written work, and the world behind the words resists entry from people burdened with assignments. People concerned with circling all the nouns or listing the themes of a book will find only what they are looking for. But those who come to the book without knowing what to look for for will find answers to questions they never could have asked.

Proof

For those seeking more concrete evidence that schools cannot teach writing, consider the state of modern employment.

Do you know what is the number one most sought after skill by employers? The answer is writing. Employers want people who can whip up memorable memos, compose concise reports, and not embarrass themselves in the permanent medium of the written word. And, naturally, such skill is rare, hence why it is so valuable.

Now, normally, when a skill is rare and valuable, the educational landscape will shift to produce more of that skill. When computers stared to become lucrative, schools started churning out more computer engineers until they became commonplace. The same holds true whenever there is a shortage of pilots, nurses, accountants, interpreters, or bioinformaticians. This accelerated throughput will end the shortage and render each skill less valuable.

Yet the demand for competent writers continues year after year, decade after decade. This coveted skill has not lost its luster. Its rarity persists.

If schools were capable of teaching this skill, would they not respond to the shortage by supplying their graduates with it? Why doesn’t the supply rise to meet the demand?

The Farce Must End

The only writing schools can teach is penmanship (or typing). As penmanship loses relevance, schools should drop the charade and make no pretense of teaching writing. Without the burden of writing classes, they can make requirements out of other vital subjects, such as formalized logic or Stoicism.

As a corollary, schools should relabel what they call “reading”. Schools teach students how to parse books, not how to read them. But since parsing is at least a practical skill, it should still be taught.

And to the eager student hoping to acquire the skill of writing, these words of comfort can be given:

Writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned.

JOSEPH EPSTEIN

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