Cultivating a culture of education

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Cultivating a culture of education

When disillusioned Americans take a glance at our school system and see it for the steaming pile of crap that it is, they are quick to offer advice — advice that each believes more original, insightful, and ingenious than the last. To many, the solution seems both simple and obvious.

Democrats want to throw money at public schools. Republicans support charter schools and voucher programs, and want to destroy teachers unions. Both offer mostly useless ideas as to how to encourage healthy competition, provide schools with adequate resources, ensure the effectiveness of teachers and give parents options when it comes to picking a school for their child. But despite the continual debate between the parties and a pretty significant increase in education spending over the last 40 years, schools have hardly improved and overall graduation rates have barely increased.

In recent years, policymakers have repeatedly looked into the secrets behind the effectiveness of the education systems in Finland and South Korea, which rank number one and two respectively in education in the world. But in all likelihood, any attempt to emulate either system would end in failure. First of all, each country has achieved success with entirely different, if not polar opposite systems.

For example, in Finland, education is free from a young age, and low-income college students are offered monthly stipends to attend university. That’s right. Some students are paid to go to college. In Korea, schools can be quite expensive, and parents spend an incredible amount of money to send their children to after-school academies and “cram schools” for test prep, in addition to paying highly for private tutors.

In Finland, standardized testing is very rare, as it is not considered an accurate measurement of achievement. In Korea, from elementary school through high school, students spend their lives preparing for the College Scholastic Ability Test, the single test that is thought to determine their future success. (The amount of stress students endure in preparation for this test is thought to have contributed to the high rate of suicide among students).

Finnish education is about equality, and is seen as an investment in the future of the country. Korean education is extremely competitive, and like the US, is considered a means of achieving personal success.

The list goes on, but the point is clear. In many respects, Finnish and Korean education could not be less alike. But there is one essential quality both cultures share. So what is this secret to each country’s apparent success? Well, both are small countries with homogeneous populations. Both have very scientific languages that make achieving literacy less of a chore. Both are somewhat nationalistic and view military service as a sort of rite of passage into manhood. But most of all, both have great pride in their school systems and have cultures that emphasize the value of education. And the fact is, we don’t.

As much as we as Americans would like to think that we value education, the evidence is lacking. Before education, American culture prioritizes individualism, competition, money and happiness. The Finnish and Korean cultures of education manifest themselves in different ways.

Finland sees schooling as a basic human right and expect its citizens to use their learning to better both themselves and their communities. Korea values meritocracy and views education as inextricably bound to future success. The US sees education as a means to an end: namely, money and a good career. Finland views education as an end in itself. Korea regards it as the means to an end, thus putting a huge emphasis on working hard, because it is believed that any lack of talent or skill can always be overcome with extra effort.

In contrast, Americans believe there are a variety of ways of achieving the American Dream, and education is just one of many possible paths. Our media reflects a culture that embraces fame, fortune and flashy lifestyles at the expense of education. We idolize our sports stars, musicians, actors and celebrities over our scientists, businessmen, academics and educators.

It is not difficult to view the effects of different values in a country as multicultural as the US. Examining the success of Asian immigrants in American society is particularly fascinating. Statistics show that Asian-American students graduate from high school and college at a significantly higher rate than their white, black and Hispanic peers. They also have the lowest rate of unemployment, earn a higher median income and hold a disproportionate amount of the highest-paying jobs.

Studies have shown that the children of immigrants who don’t speak English struggle to do as well in school as their classmates. Regardless, Asian-American students often outperform their white peers in reading and writing. Additionally, white and black children from low-income families tend to be less successful than white and black kids from middle-class families. Asian-American kids, however, perform at similar levels regardless of family income.

The fact is, Asian immigrants have demonstrated that it is far from impossible to overcome language barriers and poverty in order to achieve success in the US. There is nothing special about these students, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with the ones who are underachieving. The only difference is a family environment and culture that puts a strict emphasis on the importance of hard work and education.

That being said, there is very little our institutions can do to fix education for underachievers because the root of the problem lies in the family environment. The students who do best in school are the ones who have parents who are involved in their education and create cognitively stimulating home environments. These are factors that are unlikely affected by public policy. Offering teachers higher pay and giving them more autonomy in the classroom as the Finns do, or extending class hours and testing students more rigorously as the Koreans do, will not improve our schools until we fix our families and cultivate a culture of education.

The appeal of liberalism and left-wing politics

The appeal of liberalism to young, idealistic Americans is no surprise considering how liberal politics have shaped social progress in the U.S. over the last 70 years. In the midst of the Great Depression, FDR’s New Deal is credited with lifting the nation out of economic devastation and into a new prosperity. Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty during his presidency, and his Great Society programs greatly expanded social welfare with Social Security and Medicare. These were all created by liberal administrations that saw such policies as a moral obligation to the less fortunate. And it’s hard to argue against that.

One of the greatest appeals of liberalism is that it proactively seeks to address many of the great problems the world faces, such as poverty, education, and healthcare. While conservatives generally believe that the free market has the power to reduce the cost of education and healthcare while simultaneously improving the quality of each and creating jobs, liberals believe that the market requires extensive regulation to ensure the proper treatment of workers and prevent corruption. Liberals see conservatives as unsympathetic and even callous to the problems of minorities and the poor. This is another aspect of the divide that makes conservatism less appealing to young idealists.

It’s frustrating to be confronted with issues like poverty and racism and imagine that we as individuals can do anything about problems of such a scale. It’s much easier to advocate policies extolled by the left such as food stamps, social welfare, higher education spending, and universal health care. In theory, by raising taxes on those who can afford it to increase the money supply available to care for those less fortunate, liberals get to feel as though they are contributing to ameliorating these world problems. And that gives them a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

Liberals consider themselves forward thinkers. Conservatives, by definition, are more rooted in tradition and the past. Realizing the destructive effects of racism and sexism, liberals strongly support policies that encourage diversity and equal opportunity in schools and the workforce, such as affirmative action. They often fearfully anticipate the imminent threat of global warming, and strongly advocate investment in clean energy. They tend to believe that the lack of progress in the young black male community is rooted in a defective criminal justice system and institutional racism. To rectify this system, they propose more effective rehabilitation practices for prison inmates, and believe that the decriminalization of marijuana will result in fewer lives ruined by minor drug arrests that disproportionately target the black community.

These are the characteristics of social liberalism, and I feel that it is extremely difficult to argue against many of these policies in theory. Elements of racism and sexism still plague our society. Global warming is undoubtedly occurring, but regardless, due to a finite amount of fossil fuels and natural resources, the adoption of sustainable energy in the future is inevitable. Our criminal justice and education systems certainly have plenty of room for improvement. We don’t live in a nation of equal opportunity. Most people would not disagree that these problems exist, even if many have different opinions as to what degree these issues affect us as a society.

The point at which people begin to argue is when it comes to the issue of the necessity of government involvement in solving certain problems. The liberal approach is predictable: let the government create solutions through policies that address the problems of poverty, discrimination, education, health care, and overcrowded prisons. On the other hand, conservatives usually believe in the philosophy that “government is best which governs least, because its people discipline themselves.” as stated by Thomas Jefferson.

For a long time, I believed that liberals favored equality over liberty, and conservatives believed the opposite to be true. Clearly both are important, but I felt that equality should be prioritized, as freedom is somewhat meaningless when you are fighting against the crippling effects of a history of oppression. I considered myself “progressive,” and decided that we could worry about liberty once everyone had the chance to grow up in a society of completely equal opportunity.

I smugly thought to myself that I was amongst the few who were smart enough to have rationalized liberalism so concisely. I began to thoroughly research socialism, progressivism, FDR’s New Deal policies, and LBJ’s Great Society programs, in an attempt to learn where they failed and where they succeeded. By knowing what to advocate and what mistakes to avoid repeating, I would develop my own flawless ideology.

Of course, I began to realize that most policies and programs have their upsides and downsides, and everyone differs in their opinion of whether the good outweigh the bad. It’s also almost impossible to know how much certain issues were affected by government, versus how much they were influenced by outside forces. For example, many academics and economists with Ph. D’s from elite universities have argued that FDR’s New Deal may have played a much smaller role in lifting the country out of the Great Depression than previously assumed, and that LBJ’s “War on Poverty” may have contributed to the destruction of many black American families due to a newfound reliance on welfare. These ideas do not simply come from Tea Party crackpots; they are the claims of Harvard-educated economists.

The unfortunate yet inevitable reality is, both conservatives and liberals resort to derogatory name-calling and ridiculous generalizations directed at their counterparts, making constructive dialogue a rare occurrence. Sadly, the radical and farcical representatives of conservatism in the media prevent many young idealists from ever bothering to seriously consider many of legitimate arguments that exist in the conservative camp. Many of us liberals turn out to be just as uninformed as the conservatives we so smugly enjoy smearing for their ignorance.

Remember: be skeptical of any argument that attempts to oversimplify macroeconomics, whether it come from the left or the right. Don’t let the emotional appeal of liberalism close your mind to opposing ideas.

Why you should read

In high school, I was the type of person who felt no reason to read. For my history classes, the only parts of the textbooks I read were section heads, words in boldface type, and highlighted passages. Sparknotes got me through my English classes, and for everything else there was Wikipedia.

Sure, I read in the sense that words were transferred from a book or screen into my brain via my eyes, but I certainly did not enjoy the process nor did I believe in its utility.

It wasn’t until about halfway through college that I realized how much books had to offer me. It struck me hard while I was reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X. It struck me harder when I was reading about the Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. And it knocked me the hell out when I was mining the Confessions of St. Augustine for quotes for a history paper and realized how full of interesting insights it was. For me it was basically realizing how much I could potentially learn from a text in spite of it being hundreds of years old that converted me into an avid reader.

Just because you have graduated from school does not mean you get to toss all your books out the window. As hard as it has become for most of us to focus on anything more than 150 characters long that is devoid of memes or kittens or kitten memes, we must not forget that the ability to sit down for an extended period of time and immerse ourselves in a good book is an invaluable skill.

The cool thing about reading is that once you realize you ought to be reading and starting doing it more often, the more you begin to enjoy it. And it’s a wonderful habit to develop. For those who need more convincing, let’s review the incredible benefits of reading.

Improve your brain function

Reading will get your brain jacked like a Spartan. Not only does reading exercise your brain, it also creates more connections and strengthens synapses. This can contribute to the improvement of you memory, creativity, concentration, and focus — all essential skills for success.

Discover an untapped passion lurking in your soul

This mostly applies to reading nonfiction, but I’m sure realistic fiction could similarly inspire you to pursue a certain career path. By reading more and expanding your interests, you increase the possibility of stumbling across some information that may completely change how you view the world, or open your mind to a passion you never even knew existed.

Build your vocabulary

Reading forces you to confront words you are not familiar with. (Another great reason to get a Kindle is that it comes with a dictionary installed so you can easily look up any word you don’t know.) With more words in your vocabulary arsenal, you will be able to express yourself more clearly and with greater nuance. Plus, you get to sound smarter. And you will breeze through a good portion of any standardized test.

Relieve stress

Reading is a much more productive and healthy form of escapism. It can serve as a form of entertainment, or it can relax you, or it can do both. Reading will slow your mind down when it is racing and worrying. This is especially useful at night when you’re having trouble sleeping. A study at the University of Minnesota “recommends reading some form of literature for at least half an hour every day for optimum relaxation.”

Learn how to eloquently and articulately organize and express thoughts

Reading good literature familiarizes you with great writing. If you want to learn how to be articulate and eloquent in your speech and writing, you need to study the works of those who already know how. It’s like if you’re a beginner musician and you’re trying to learn a new piece. It’s often best to strive to imitate the greats before you attempt to develop your own style and interpretations.

Improve reading comprehension skills

The more you read, the more you improve your ability to absorb and retain what you read. You become a more efficient reader: you can read faster, understand faster, and remember more. Reading is an essential part of preparing for SAT/GRE/LSAT/GMAT etc. because you can’t really “study” reading comprehension. You improve by simply reading more.

Learn about the world

One way to learn about the world is by travelling, interacting with the locals, and immersing yourself in different cultures. Another way is by getting a library card, and checking out a few books. The world will suddenly seem much smaller, and you will be thrilled by what you learn. You will also get much more out of travelling if you have read about where you plan to go.

Learn about human nature

Any good story will offer amazing insights into elements of human psychology. Good character development and interpersonal dynamics are dependent on a deep understanding of human nature. So believe it or not, book do have the power to improve your people skills!

Learn from history

Human beings have been around for thousands of years, and history is the sum of the knowledge that has been accumulated over those millennia. Many people devoted their lives to writing, philosophy, science, and various other disciplines, and there is much to be learned from all of them. As Emerson wrote in his History essay: “What Plato has thought, you may think; what a saint has felt, you may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any man, you can understand.”


As a young man, Abraham Lincoln only had a few books in his possession. Yet he spent hours reading and rereading these books, over and over again. Each time he reread a text, he got more out of it, and began to internalize it. So remember: you can always get more out of a book the second, or even third time around.

Honestly, reading simply makes you more of an interesting person. “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.”

So make it a goal to read on a daily basis, or tackle a reading list by a certain date. If you’d like to start reading more but don’t know where to start, find a reading list or create one like I have. For example, read all of the Harvard Classics. Or the works of Shakespeare. Or the poetry of Pablo Neruda. Whatever titillates your little brain.

Happy reading!

About this website

I created this website because I believe in the utmost importance of educating yourself. And when I say “educate yourself,” I don’t mean it in the sense of some self-righteous PSA bullsh*t, like, “Hey man, don’t you know how many people die from third-hand smoke every decade? Almost a baker’s dozen! Educate yourself, bro.”

No. I mean the Leonardo da Vinci, Ben Franklin, Malcolm X approach to self-education. Way more badass.

For example, Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, botanist, and writer. Though he was trained in the arts, everything else came through independent study, the result of an “unquenchable curiosity.” He is widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time and perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Ben Franklin was an author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. To hone his debate skills as a boy, he practiced writing down his arguments, as a way of teaching himself to better organize his thoughts. Once he realized that by writing he was improving his verbal communication skills, he focused on improving his writing as well. In order to do this, he organized passages from great writers, wrote summaries of them, and then practiced rewriting them into verse or prose. He did this until he was able to naturally imitate the writers he so admired, even improving upon their prose in some cases (in his modest opinion). Through reading, writing, and debating, he learned how to research, organize, and articulate information clearly and eloquently. And this was all accomplished in his spare time.

Lastly, Malcolm X is one of the greatest examples of how transformative educating yourself can be. After being sent to prison and converting to Islam, he dedicated all his time to learning how to read, and then devouring any book he could get his hands on. In order to learn how to read, build his vocabulary, and practice writing, he read and copied down by hand every page in the dictionary. As history has shown, he was a different man when he came out of that jail cell.

Of course the list goes on, but you get the point.

Anyway, after reflecting on my experiences in high school and college, and having taught for a year myself, I’ve come to several realizations about teaching. A teacher’s job should be to teach students to love and value learning, and to think for themselves. A teacher ought to be there to guide students through that process, to answer questions only after a student has put some thought into it, and to help students become interested in their education and find some use for it.

A grade should be based on how much a student has learned, even if it is achieved by unconventional methods. Creative problem solving should be embraced, not discouraged. If a subject comes naturally to a student, don’t punish them for choosing not to do useless busywork. Conversely, if a student does poorly on a project, paper, or any big assignment, give them a chance to try again and prove they can do better.

This especially applies to grading a student’s writing. There is nothing more discouraging than putting all your effort into a creative writing assignment and being told it’s C+ quality. That’s a total slap in the face. A teacher’s job is to guide, not to judge. Show a student how to improve and then give him a chance to do so, or I will he will forever resent you. A student gets way more out of writing and rewriting and rewriting a paper until it’s A-quality material, than they do if they write three different papers that are all judged to be C-quality.

Now leaving the topic of most teachers being useless and returning to the subject of self-education. People always complain about how expensive education has become. They fail to realize that with the internet, a library card, and a little self-discipline, an education is virtually free. It’s the degree that’s expensive.  This all reminds me of a quote from Good Will Hunting, when Will is arguing with a pretentious Harvard student:

“You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f*ckin’ education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.”

So listen to Matt Damon. He’s never let me down.